Caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Irish possessed an interesting position within the British empire. On one hand, they had been annexed by the British and had functioned as part of the empire for some time. On the other, they themselves were colonized by the British. Jackson argues that Ireland represented the problems and struggles of the colonial empire. This crisis of identity is evident in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as Stephen Dedalus constantly thinks about the Irish, the Irish identity and their relation to the world. The colours green and maroon are associated with Dante and the Irish resistance leaders, reinforcing Dedalus’ need to reclaim his Irish identity.

While Jackson posits that the complexities of the relationship between the Irish and the British are most evident in the economy, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this complexity is manifested by through the language that Stephen Dedalus chooses to use. Here, we see language as a symbol and by extension, an agent for colonization. Stephen Dedalus wants to “forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”- he uses his art (language) in order to subvert the hegemony of the British and thus reclaim his Irish identity.

However, I am quite certain that the Irish would not consider their colonial counterparts in the other colonies (India, Africa, South East Asia etc) their equals. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen during the California Gold Rush in the USA, where despite being immigrants themselves, the Irish began resenting the other influx of immigrants (the Chinese, Latin Americans, Africans).

Performance of Britishness.

The colonialists had their own struggles with identity. While in the colonies, they bonded together by pretending “to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings” (47). In actual fact, the colonialists were much better off in the colonies than at home as Leonard says,”we were all grand, a good deal grander than we could have been at home in London, Edinburgh, Brighton or Oban. We were grand because we were in the ruling class in a strange Asiatic country” (24).

Here, we see the British colonialists themselves trapped within this concept of ‘Britishness’. They are caught within their loyalty to their home country, and their enjoyment of their grander lifestyle. They feel as if they are constantly forced to perform the part of the colonizer. Woolf calls it acting upon a stage and constantly uses the words ‘facade’, ‘masks’ and ‘perform’, in addition to other words that allude to acting. We see this in Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’  as well, where the protagonist feels pressurized by the natives into killing the elephant even though he does not want to. He is compelled to perform his role as a colonizer, and feels like a great pretender. Similarly, Woolf echoes this when he says “I had put the finishing touches to a facade behind which I could conceal or camouflage my intellect and also hide from most people, both in Ceylon and for the remainder of my life, the fact that I am mentally, morally, and physically a coward” (37).

Perhaps the colonizers felt this need to act the part of a colonizer over the natives in order to maintain and reinforce their power over them. This also reveals that these differences are constructed and exacerbated. Once this wall between the colonizer and the colonized is broken, the colonial social order may crumble.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class


To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.

1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.


Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.

The politics of prostitution

Orwell does not seem to like women very much. In Burmese Days he inadvertantly makes the claim that all women, both colonial and colonizer class, are the same, and that women have to prostitute themselves in order to attain some worth in the eyes of the male colonizer, where prostitution involves the act of selling oneself to the male colonizer, physically or otherwise.

The white woman constantly needs to assert herself in looking for a white colonizer class husband, especially while overseas. Elizabeth embodies this in her quest to marry a man who can to make her a burra memasahib. While she seems flighty and rather shallow for jumping from white man to white man, she is merely doing what women of her race are expected to do in order to keep their self worth.

For the native woman, she is told from birth that to be a concubine of a white man is far better off than anything else she could become. The male colonizers are even encouraged to keep  or even marry native women, as they are less expensive to maintain than a female member of the colonizing country. Ma Hla May can hardly be blamed for trying to win back Flory from Elizabeth, as it has been impressed upon her all her life that to service a white colonizer accords her a status that makes her life worth living.

This implies that the one of the only forms of power that women have over men has to do with sexuality and sex. It also means that a woman’s worth is measured by whether or not she has managed to attract a male from the colonizer class. As a result, women have to prostitute themselves if they wish to attain some sort of power in a world ruled by white males.

Nationalism and its flaws

Stoler brings to mind something very interesting that I read for another module- Eric Hayot’s review of Arthur Vinton’s “Looking Further Backward”. “Looking Further Backward” was published in the 1890s as a response to Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward, 2000-1887”. Vinton envisions a future in the year 2023, when the Chinese immigrants that the United States had allowed into the country eventually took over and annexed the United States as a Chinese colony. The novel was written during the height of anti-chinese sentiment, just after the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. the essay opens with a quote from Professor Won Lung Li:

“Owing to the short-sightedness of your remote ancestors, you have permitted your country to be overrun by the emigrants of the slums from other nations; they had been given equal rights, socially and politically, and they had intermarried with your native stock until it had become so debased that, one hundred years ago, your ancestors were as ready as the Frenchmen of the 18th century to abandon everything for the sake of an idea.”  (Hayot 1)

The idea that Li refers to is that of Nationalism. The annexed United States represents the worst possible fear of the colonial masters. Similarly, Stoler’s essay illustrates the paranoia that the French had towards the Metis, and how they acted on this paranoia in order to protect the concept of their “nation”. Stoler, like Li, puts forth the idea that intermarriage is one of Nationalism’s fatal flaws. The idea that one is defined by their nationality is undermined when you have a child born to parents of different nationalities.

Peer Pressure.

The narrator refers to the shooting of the elephant as “enlightening: it was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act”. He admitted that he had shot the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool”. What struck me when I read Shooting an Elephant was how brutally honest the text was. Here was a member of the imperialists who did not believe in the imperialist ideals that he was fed, but was yet propelled to carry out the actions of the imperialist masters because of pressure from not only the imperial masters, but from the colonized natives as well. I had never thought that there were imperialist masters who would feel the pressure from their subjects, and actually try to fulfill their expectations. I had always imagined them to be like Lord Jim, who would protect their self interests above all else. To be fair though, I am lumping all the imperial masters into a faceless mass, and shooting an elephant to appease the natives is not the same as abandoning a ship full of natives as the narrator’s life is not endangered.

When the imperialist masters gradually lose faith in their ideals, I suppose the only things keeping them to the land are pride, as can been seen from Shooting an Elephant, and economic resources.

Bloody Racists.

I have to admit that when I read the introduction to Wallace’s essay on the Dyaks, I was thoroughly disgusted by the sheer presumptuousness of the man. Wallace systematically and unabashedly relegates the natives to savages in his chapter on Borneo, comparing the Dyaks with Malays and Chinese, and trying to rank them in order of superiority. He enters Borneo and Java with the intention of searching for a potential new commodity that he could exploit, and repeatedly quantifies nature.

I don’t know why I’m so indignant, this is not something we haven’t seen before. Wallace is the quintessential colonist with a typical imperialist mindset.

Wallace has absolutely no idea that he is being derogatory, and here I am reminded of Edward Said and his statement that all western texts are inherently racist. Certainly, to the Victorian civilian in England, Wallace may seem to be providing an impartial account of his experiences in Borneo and Java. I can see that Wallace did not write this text with the intent of belittling the natives,  but I do feel that no matter how hard the colonizers strive to appear objective (as Wallace is so nobly trying to achieve in “The Malay Archipelago”), by the mere virtue of their race and the time period in which these writers lived, the zeitgeist inadvertently trickles down to their writing and reveals their latent imperial mindsets.

In all fairness, I may also be guilty of occidentalism, where we automatically single out the western in the text and vilify them. By pointing my finger at them, there are also three more fingers pointing back at myself. Perhaps, as a former colony, we are particularly sensitive to the portrayal our own, and have become trained to read colonialism into all the texts that we study, be it overtly racist or not.

Oh Humanity!

“This is the difference between H.G. Wells and me. Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable” -Joseph Conrad to William Lyon Phelps, 1923

This sentiment is evident in all of Conrad’s works so far, first in Heart of Darkness and now in Lord Jim. Both narratives have a protagonist who is a member of the colonizing class, and both protagonists are incredibly flawed human beings who have committed “inhuman” crimes. The fact that these narratives were largely accepted to be based on real events shows us how far away the gap between “inhuman” and “human” are, and how the “human” can easily slip into the ranks of “inhuman”. Here lies a major issue that modernists were preoccupied with- the issue of humanity. What is humanity? Is there a universal recipe for humanity? What differentiates humans from each other and everybody else?

On another note, I have a huge problem with both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim– they are both so intrinsically biased towards the colonializer that when I read them I do not know whether Conrad is trying to comment on colonialism or is he just trying to tell a story. It disturbs me that Conrad places colonizers in colonialized settings, then has him commit heinous crimes and expect us to feel sympathy for him. Most of all, I hate the monstrous silence that is attributed to the subaltern.

In my opinion, Conrad was right. What was considered humanity then was indeed unimprovable because of the “humans” inability to look beyond themselves and the idea that humanity is universal. Only until people began subscribing to the idea that humanity could be told from an individuals personal perspective, regardless of race, language or religion, could humans then move beyond themselves and not strive to improve, but to understand.

Thank God for revolution and progress.

The Eternal Flame

As I was reading Heart of Darkness I noticed that the motif of the flame, light and darkness appeared several times. To Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (48). The figure of the harlequin seems conspicuously out of place in the dark narrative of Heart of Darkness. Marlow talks about envying his possession of “this modest and clear flame” (119), the harlequin’s single-minded devotion to Kurtz and to what he knew as right or wrong.

I would like to put forward the notion that this glow represents our attempt to explain, interpret and share all that we know. When you light a candle, the flame can only illuminate a small portion of darkness.  It is the glow of the flame that casts light on the things around us. The flame is the medium through which the Truth is represented and conveyed to the masses. In the case of Heart of Darkness, this would be Marlow’s storytelling. In the center of the flame, there exists a black dot that we cannot access without getting scathed by the flame itself. This black dot represents the Truth, which is eternally inaccessible and unknown to us. Therefore the quest for Truth in Heart of Darkness can be represented by the motif of the candle and the flame- the eternal flame.

Suttee as Modernism

Levine gives a brief history of the British in India, but makes little mention of the locals and their exertions. Therefore when Levine mentions the local Indian reformers Ram Mohan Roy, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (72), I am inclined to pay special attention to them, particularly Roy and his mission to outlaw suttee.

I would like to think of these Indian reformers as some form of modernists. Roy’s reform organization, the Brahmo Samaj, noticed that the traditional practice of suttee was outdated, if not redundant. They published a tract condemning suttee in both Bengali and English in 1818 that included “journalistic and literary accounts of women’s hideous screams of agony”, which, in my opinion, was a rather guerilla-like tactic to get the British’s attention. By publishing something that would generally be taboo to talk about at that point in time, it would serve to shock its audience, and therefore provoke new thoughts regarding the practice. This is similar to the way that advocates of modernism worked. This certainly proved to be a success, as suttee was eventually made illegal.

The repeal of suttee represents the dilemma of modernism. By outlawing suttee, one is effectively rejecting custom and creating a new alternative for the wives of the deceased. On the other hand, it also has the effect of reinforcing tradition, as Levine writes that the law “advertised the practice more widely, and also made it seem an act subversive of British rule”.