Notes and such for 12th November

In today’s class, the first presentation regarding Ireland and nationalism framed the subsequent presentations and discussions adequately. Michelle suggested in her presentation that Joyce’s work contrasted with the notion that nationalism is part of a natural progression following colonialism and decolonialisation. Joyce’s work instead presents nationalism as an assertion of individuality which is a culmination of various factors. The final slide of the 2nd presentation suggested a reading of Joyce as anti-modernist, if the term modernist is grounded in the philosophies of John Locke and David Hume (that took up some time). One of the points raised was how the history of modernity is longer than the time frame occupied by modernism, and it is necessary not to conflate modernism with modernity. Conflation came up again in the later discussions, this time concerning the figure of Daedalus and Stephen.


I proposed an explanation of the problematic quote based on the understanding that Hume and Locke are empiricists, a field of philosophy that suggests observations as the primary source of knowledge and hence the self, developed through knowledge, is constituted of observations.In Joyce however the observable cannot constitute the individual due to the indeterminacy of language that is used to record such observations. The example of the tundish was cited by Kin Yan(?). In that sense then, Joyce would be anti-modernist IF we defined the term according to the philosophies of the two philosophers.

I think conflation as a problem arose because of the nature of modernism and the text discussed today. One example used in class today was regarding the epiphany as used in Joyce’s work, part of Praseeda’s presentation. Stephen’s epiphanies contrast with Woolfian (Virginia) epiphanies, for example, in that instead of a unity of the self with the world around him, Stephen in fact becomes more distant. While observing the girl wading in the sea, he feels that she represents all women and acknowledges the sexual feelings that accompany his observation. At the same time he distances himself from the people who experience those feelings, privileging instead her association to Ireland. The distinction Stephen makes expresses a desire to move away from conflating perspectives, choosing instead to set himself apart as an artist exiled from the larger framework of society.

In another example, it was suggested that Stephen perhaps conflates the figure of Icarus and Daedalus, and tries to straddle the position of inventor – or the “brains”, and the user, – the “blonde”.

Links to other weeks and texts:

Conflation arises as a prominent issue in discussing modernism in other texts like Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”. In this text, it has been suggested in previous classes that there is a conflation of identities in the reluctant colonialist: on one hand he is required to perform his role as colonizer, but it conflicts with his individual beliefs and identity. The conflation of the two areas produces responses to colonialism that emphasise its complexities, rather than a valorization and exoticization of the colonial enterprise, or an outright disparaging of the process. To link this to modernist concerns, the problems with identity and nationalism point to the crisis of knowledge and representation.

Inscrutability of the colony

Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account in Growing reminded me of Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in that they both highlight the white man’s increasing sense of alienation and unease in the colony. Woolf’s recounts his life in Ceylon as a civil servant stating that there “always retained for [him] a tinge of theatrical unreality”. This reminds me of the idea of performativity that we have discussed in Orwell’s narratives where colonial masters are required to act according to the code of the sahib. For Orwell, the expectation to act accordingly resulted in the loss of individual freedom for both the white man and the native. He then saw this as the oppression of the machinations of imperialism that he desired to extricate himself from. However in Growing, the “theatrical unreality” that Woolf describes seems to hint at his own sense of unfamiliarity with Ceylon (which is after all, geographically and culturally far removed from England), and the uncanny feeling that the colony produces in Woolf. In addition, Woolf also states that “the whole of [his] past life in London and Cambridge seemed suddenly to have vanished, to have faded away into unreality”. This alludes to his own displaced identity onto a foreign land, detached from his own history. His new environment was vastly different from what he was familiar with (even the pace of life and ease of accessibility in London and Ceylon are seen in contrast to each other), and this unfamiliarity made him uncomfortable within the colony, despite his privileged ruling position.

Woolf’s description of Jaffna country also reminds me of the inability to understand the essence of the colony due to the inscrutability of India in A Passage to India. The “long distances and difficulties of transport” and the immensity and vastness of Jaffna allude to the difficulty of accessing the place both literally and metaphorically:

Here again is one of those featureless plains the beauty of which is only revealed fully to you after you have lived with it long enough to become absorbed into its melancholy solitude and immensity.

Plainly speaking, the colony was inaccessible to the imperialist because it seems to be limitless (the sands “stretch far away” under the “enormous sky”) and existing outside the scales of comprehension. Thereby creating the sense of “theatrical unreality” that Woolf feels in his participation in the colonial enterprise.

Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.

Inclusion, History and Identity

When I started reading the Stoler reading, I kept finding my mind wandering back to Orwell as the isolated intellectual, especially when Stoler began talking about national identity, education and inclusion. I guess I’m curious as to whether Orwell would have been quite so isolated in “Shooting an Elephant” if these educational measures had been in place. (Perhaps the same question could be extended to Flory in Burmese Days…although I’m not sure he falls in the same category as Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”.)

In terms of national identity, I guess this reading answers some of the questions I’d had about where history came in to the creation of a national identity. I took a class a few semesters ago that dealt with  Nationalism and the Arts: we had a guest student sitting in from Harvard who happened to make the comment that Singapore hasn’t had enough time to build a clear identity because we were less than half a century old. The professor was quick to point out that Singapore has been around for more than 50 years, it was just Independence that came much more recently.

Using Stoler’s tie-together of history and national identity, I suppose one root of having a national identity comes of having a shared history. I can see how colonialism problematizes national identity, considering the “shared history” suddenly becomes “shared histories”–one of which is placed in a more dominant position than perhaps an indigenous concept of identity tied to place.

I’m fairly curious as to the origin of “nationhood.” Is it a colonial/postcolonial construct?

Writing Orwell: Falling into Modern English

I read an essay by Orwell in high school that had a profound impact on the way I view the English language. Written about a decade after “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language” is Orwell’s tirade of sorts against “modern english”: a new stage of the language that, to him, was ruining it. He argues that “the tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Citing overused metaphor, pretentious diction and meaningless words and phrases as things that have redirected modern prose, it’s interesting to note that he uses all of them in “Shooting an Elephant.”

Although he does slip in some Latin – in saecula saeculorum, in terrorem – and utilize extremely common descriptions of the Burmese, especially in the opening paragraphs, Orwell’s writing and his later critique on modern prose seem to highlight the crisis of knowledge that stems from Orwell’s situation in Burma. He is on the side of the Burmese in as much as he hates the colonial oppression, and yet he is very firmly one of these oppressors in how the Burmese react to him and his consequent dislike of them. In other words, having concrete prose would detract from this feeling of internal conflict: how clear can one’s conscience be as an ambivalent colonial authority?

In characterizing, Orwell’s “modern English” goes great lengths to highlight the Modernist problem of knowledge, foregoing clarity of prose to emphasize the lack of clarity in the mind.

Note-taking for 1st-half of class on 8/10/09

1. The first part of the presentation focuses on memory and history. Wenting began by framing for us the link between imperialism and Modernism, which was that the modernists’ attention to history was what enabled them to explore the British Empire and the political and social events of that period. Examples: Changing conditions of history such as WWI, The Great Depression.

Thus it was with this awareness of historicity that art sought to grapple with the crises of modernity (I won’t go into them here) by experimenting with time. Thus modernist literature was very concerned with memory and history. Next, Wenting suggested that the narrator of Shooting An Elephant can largely be considered synonymous with Orwell himself. The presentation proceeded upon that premise.

2. Wenting talked about memory and history in modernist literature by drawing our attention to the fragmentation of narrative in SAE and the works of Proust. The championing of fragments as being more accurate ‘truths’ or ‘true memory’ is how official grand narratives of empire were challenged – Orwell taps into his own memory for fragments which he places into his work; Wenting (citing Quinones, Mapping Literary Modernism) suggests that like Proust, Orwell is not merely liberating the individual memory/truth, he is justifying the role of literature in contributing to a more complete, ‘truer’ history because singular (unique) fragments of the individual now has a place in the grand narratives.

Wenting went on to talk about self-reflexivity in modernism and SAE, as well as the silencing/repressing of anti-colonial sentiments in the latter, and suggested that these allow us go beyond seeing the short story as an apologist text that in fact highlights the culpability of the natives, as one might get from a preliminary reading. Through the mentioned, and the irony, rhetoric and laughter they permit, the autobiographical relevance of SAE becomes unimportant, because what we have is a very authentic representation of ‘the schizophrenic self at odds with the colonial system’.

3. The second part of the presentation focused on identity and performativity, and the symbolism of the two. Charmaine’s presentation hinges a lot the narrator of SAE as a ‘representative of British institution and legislation in the colony’. She explores the idea of Orwell as the reluctant colonizer who resigns himself to ambiguity of identity when he participates in the maintenance of empire despite his own belief that imperialism was unacceptable.

Quoting “I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited beasts who tried to make my job impossible” SAE, Charmaine talked about how identity is shown to be not only ambiguous – caught between opposing forces, identity becomes ‘an arbitrary and quite narrow holding action’ which is only about pretending to be in control of itself. It is interesting that here we have ‘fragments’ that do not permit coalescing into clearer ‘truths’.

4. This led into performativity, where Charmaine talked about the parallels between colonizer and colonized with that of actor and audience – the former plays a role the latter expects him to. As a colonizer, Orwell/narrator is compelled to behave as a colonizer would – identity influences the act(ion). But at the same time because he is compelled do act a certain way, the issue of whether he chose to act is thrown up.

The epiphany (it is fitting, I think, to use Joyce’s term here) the narrator/Orwell has at the end of SAE thus reveals his own acute awareness of his need to perform – and of course, also his real ambivalence to his assigned/occupied part under imperialism. The act of self-reflexive modernist writing, where theatrical language is used is what permits is intro/retrospection.

5. The class had quite a few questions, which I feel can be summed up as a consideration as to how much culpability colonials ought to assume for their role serving the ends of empire. Yuxin started by asking why it was that Charmaine saw that identity produced performance (see point 4), instead of the other way round. Daniel then suggested that it was a chicken-or-egg conundrum. When someone brought up that identity is by no means fixed, since it is continually being reconstructed and examined when it is written/represented, it was suggested that Orwell/the narrator’s reluctance to be a colonizer was itself an act, for self-exculpation.

The issue of blame and responsibility continued, when Ritchell and Peiyi brought up the sympathy they felt for the colonialist, who (even if they do not have Orwell’s self-awareness) were also oppressed, by imperialist ideology and the pressures of their circumstances. The issue became paradoxically simpler and more complex, when we talked about whether one could be anti-imperialist if one was racist, for we came down to the impossibility of being ‘at one’ with the (racial) Other. Given that the Other is by definition not the self, does it suggest that we are all already racist? And by extension, does it mean that imperialism can be explored separately as an issue simply about power, thereby implying that racism both preceded and was incidental to imperialism?

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.

Laughter as the Best Anti-Colonial Medicine

Orwell is very aware of the ambivalence of colonial discourse and the contradiction of Whiteness, especially with regard to aggression.  He expresses his own ambivalence as a unit in the colonial machine, reaffirming the imperial ideology, while thinking that “imperialism was an evil thing”.  When Orwell implies Whiteness, he speaks of it as a technicality, a system or ideology in ordering the world, similar to the systems inherent in pre-colonial states (India).

“A white man musn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives'”, and the worst that he fears is being mocked and laughed at.  Laughter here becomes the only weapon at the natives’ disposal, yet it is so subversive that the entire machine of colonialism can be threatened by this act of derisiveness.   After all, “every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at”(153).  Power that propagates and fuels the system is not servility or obedience if it is understood and prefigured to be temporary.  The power of the imperial mission seems to be predetermined as one that is inherently unstable by any ethical and rational code, unless explained away by the dismissal of the Asian subject as intrinsically flawed and incapable of self-rule [the mark of civility].  Laughter from derision and pity becomes something that is couched with subversive power to destabilitize and overthrow an established rationale behind a sketchy justification.

This reminded me of Cixous and her theory of laughter being something that inhabits a liminal space between the transgressive and subversive. In this context, it serves to stabilize the hierarchy between different social groups, but it is also transgressive since it discloses aggressive desires (anti-colonialism). I feel that the honesty of Orwell’s narrator-persona here allows for us to see how laughter ties to male pride, colonizer pride and even concepts of national pride. Laughter’s subversive quality and its role in the text highlights the modernist’s concern with the power of the mute and marked bodies of the colonized non-white masses that has the potential to far surpass the function of language (that is inherently empty and desperate for signification and meaning-making).

Rule of colonial difference backfires!

In Chatterjee’s article, we are introduced to the concept of the “rule of colonial difference-of representing the “other” as inferior and radically different, and hence incorrigibly inferior” (33). In the article, we understand this concept via its application by the colonizer to the colonized. In other words, the Englishman employs the rhetoric of colonial difference to benefit himself.

However, in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, we see how the rhetoric of the rule of colonial difference has backfired on the colonizer. In “Shooting”, we see how the narrator is pressured to act against his own will only because he tries to avoid looking the fool in front of natives. He sees himself as different from the natives because he possesses arms and perhaps superior rationalizing skills, therefore able to take control of the situation. However, his possession of the rifle and supposedly higher intellect are the very things that pressure him into acting against his will. The narrator sees how the natives were all expecting him to shoot the elephant because he called for the rifle. The possession of rationality, higher morality and legal knowledge pressures the narrator to resolve the issue ‘properly’. Therefore, he was relieved that the Indian coolie had died, justifying his killing of the elephant – be it in moral or legal terms.

Thus, claiming the rule of colonial difference may not often be beneficial, even if you are differentiated to be the ‘superior’ race!

Shooting An Elephant: Chaos, Order & Violence

I think Shooting An Elephant very nicely illustrates the theme of Chaos, Order and Violence. Chaos wreaked by the “mad elephant” requires the police officer to “do something about it”, so as to restore order and prevent the elephant from causing anymore havoc to property and man.  However, it is ironic that the only way to subdue the chaos and instill order requires the employment of violence, which is then another kind of chaos or dis-order.

Colonialism therefore functions to tame, civilize and order the natives with institutions that function precisely on this basis of violence, whether it is the threat (causing mental chaos to instill order) or its actual implementation; a perfect example as the police force. This compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with great violence.” (23) Violence thus appears to be ultimately inevitable.

The somewhat disturbing thing about Shooting An Elephant however, is the way in which it illustrates how everyone, both colonist and colonized, are complicit in this violence. The Burman crowd is described as “watch[ing] a conjurer about to perform a trick”, giving a “deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last… They were going to have their bit of fun after all”. After the elephant is dead, their opportunistic reaction is to “strip [the elephant’s] body almost to the bones”, embodying a kind of violence too. As for the narrator, despite his assertion that “imperialism was an evil thing” and his rationalizations for killing the elephant, it does not lessen the fact that he still committed a violent act after all, what more for the sake of his (white) reputation/identity. It seems to suggest that without the chaos caused by the elephant, it would not have warranted a reason for its death either. This, we can draw a parallel to the West’s justification of the use of violence to quell chaos and instill order in the native land.

Perhaps what Shooting An Elephant is trying to underscore then, is that although it does not deny the use of violence nor the complicity of both colonist and colonized in the cycle of violence, it highlights instead how neither colonist nor colonized are spared in the oppressive cycle of guilt that accompanies colonialism and violence.

The Reluctant Imperialist?

What struck me in my reading of short story was the reluctance of the narrator in carrying out his role as the white imperialist. He waffles between being “theoretically […] for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” and being a stoic white imperialist, one that the natives will never laugh at. In fact, the narrator even pokes fun at what he calls the “real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act”, revealing the artificiality and hypocrisy of imperialism. However, the issue I have is that ultimately, the narrator is still shown to carry out his duties as an imperialist. For all his comments about the pretence of imperialism, he still aligns himself with white imperialism, one that is entrenched in capitalism—the dilemma of whether to capture the elephant alive, so that it would be worth “at least a hundred pounds”, or to just kill it and get five pounds for its tusks—and self-justified by Christian principles—the reference to the “crucified” Indian. Furthermore, the narrator invokes the law and the military—institutions that function to maintain imperial rule—in justifying his actions. The fact that the coolie was killed placed him “legally in the right” to kill the elephant while the possession of the rifle clearly indicated his military might. Hence, for all his reluctance, the narrator still performs the role of the white imperialist, and if we consider how this notion of performance and the theatrical is played out via references to being the “lead actor”, “an absurd puppet”, etc, then perhaps we wonder: Is the reluctance of the narrator ultimately also a performance?

“But at that moment…”

I was pretty glad to be reading “Shooting an Elephant” this week, perhaps due to the fact that the Orwell is easier to read without the frequent oscillation between narrative perspectives that is present in the other texts. However, while the text may seem relatively straight-forward and presented through a singular viewpoint, I found myself reading and re-reading most sentences, because of the rich layering of meanings in the text and the oscillation between the exterior world and the inner consciousness of the narrator (the establishment of the context of the memory frames the investigation of the inner consciousness of the narrator). I would like to posit that the representation of interiority – itself a modernist technique – in the essay highlights the complexities of the narrator’s consciousness and his dilemma in shooting the elephant.

The narrator reaches a moment of realization and exterior time gives way to interior time. The moment before he commits to the act of shooting the elephant is fleshed out and his dilemma between morality and duty is highlighted:

“And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of white man’s dominion in the East.” (Orwell)

At this point, the narrator realizes that the white man’s struggle with the native underlies the struggle between the sahib and the elephant. The power hierarchy between the white man and the native is sharply overturned: the narrator feels pressured by the native to perform what is expected of the white man and in doing so, sacrifices his individual autonomy. It is at this moment that he realizes that imperialism oppresses both the colonized and the colonizer. Therefore, the representation of the narrator’s inner state of mind reveals the ambivalence felt towards imperialism. However while the investigation of the inner psyche of the narrator highlights his own awareness of the irony of his situation, perhaps his realization is as futile as the empire: although he stands on the crossroad between autonomy and role-playing, he chooses the latter when he decides to shoot the elephant.

race, image and power

What really intrigued me when i read Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, is the depiction of an inversed power struggle. So often we come across texts in the module that emphasize on the oppressive nature of colonization and the silenced position of the natives, but Orwell is able to present a different aspect of this power struggle by enabling a glimpse into the white man’s own dilemma. As the character in the story laments, “For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him…every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
Colonial enterprise and the civilising mission had been established on the grounds that the natives belonged to an inferior race and were in need of the laws, grace and values of the white men. Race was therefore associated with power and ability and this essential difference separating the colonizer and the colonized provided a justification for the imperialist ideology and colonial rule over the ‘weaker’ race. Therefore, in order to facilitate the colonial enterprise, the colonizer would naturally have to constantly project and assert control and power over the colonized subjects. Orwell’s character highlights this obsession with control and power that links the idea of race with power. Even the white man whose very own heart is against the cruelty and hypocripsy of the empire finds his own face growing to ‘fit’ the ‘mask’, his will subject to maintaining the image of superiority associated with his race, and he feels compelled to do so not just for the sake of asserting his position among the “natives”, but also among his own people.

Power relations in Shooting an Elephant

Reading “Shooting an Elephant”, I think my responses to it were quite..’schizophrenic’ might be a good word. I was rather conflicted about how I felt, especially regarding the way power was portrayed. On one hand, it was quite a breath of fresh air to be reading a piece of writing where we see the coloniser from an entirely different point of view. The narrator himself admits that “every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”—he is basically ‘powerless’ to the people’s demands, in that he must shoot the elephant or be humiliated. The subversion of the typical coloniser-colonised relationship is very interesting, because while other texts have shown us the ‘human’ side of colonialism, they’re still always untouchaby dignified and in control (think Passage to India). It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier that prevents that last ‘façade’ from being removed. Here, we’re shown this nervous policeman who hates his job because he knows just how tenuous the colonial control over the people is, which is really quite a different perspective from the way colonial power is shown in Passage to India.

Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but be suspicious of the way colonial power was portrayed. It struck me as, well, too sympathetic to the colonisers. At this point, I’m probably veering into angry, chest-beating anti/post-colonial area, but still, I think it bears thinking about. I’m sure the narrator’s perspective is a valid one, and colonialism most likely didn’t have the all-powerful, absolute control it portrays in many colonial texts, but nonetheless, the fact is that the natives were evidently unhappy about colonial rule, a fact the colonisers were aware of. Furthermore, they were unable to manifest their anti-colonial feelings in any way other than passive aggressive jeering, tripping or betel juice-spitting. This to me reflected the utter  power that the coloniser wielded—and if the point is only alluded to at the beginning of the story, it is made quite unmistakable by the end. The narrator kills the elephant to avoid looking a fool, but British law makes it legal for him to do so, because a coolie had been killed, and the owner is helpless to do anything because “he was only an Indian”.

The coloniser-colonised power relations is quite completely complicated in this story—where does real power lie? In the hands of the colonised or the coloniser? I really have no idea.

Shooting to be White!

This week’s reading, “Shooting an Elephant”, suggests an interesting relationship between the colonist and their subjects. There is this sense of racialization, but in this story, the racialization of White man and its subversion. This does raise a lot of questions on what white man see themselves to be – rational, civilized, knowledgeable etc. In the story, there presents this situation where white men have to constantly prove themselves worthy to be white man, marking themselves as the superiors – “A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”. As seen from the quote, there is this constant need to reassure their status and avoid diminishing their image. This preoccupation, I feel, becomes a driving force to irrationality for the white police officer. I suggest this as the elephant is understood to be harmless already. However, the need to ‘please’ the natives created only “one alternative” – to shoot! The revelation of the police officer’s thoughts provides us with the contrast in what people expected and what exactly happened. All the other white men – young or old, were debating whether it was worth killing the elephant over an Indian man. They naturally assumed that the police officer, being one of them would react rationally – in this case, the debate over legitimacy versus the financial valuation of the elephant and the Indian man. Many questions arise from the act of the white police officer. Is the white man essentially that different from the natives? If there is no difference, wouldn’t the colonist be ruling irrationally? Their belief in their superiority would then be a fallacy after all. Personally, the only difference between the white police officer and the natives would be the “beautiful German [rifle]” that the white man is holding.

On The Flip-Side: Colonist the Subaltern in “Shooting An Elephant”

I found reading “Shooting An Elephant” particularly refreshing in contrast with the rather intense, in-your-face kind of texts we’ve been dealing with in the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the darkness of Conrad’s fiction or the heavy-handedness of A Passage to India, but Orwell’s short story managed to encapsulate and tie together some key ideas about colonialism that have been bouncing around in my head over the last half of the sem.

One thing that struck me was the unspoken power of passive aggression against colonialism, embodied in the “petty” way in which the Burmese responded to the Europeans. The narrator makes it clear that these efforts are mere pinpricks, at least initially, but they do have an extraordinary effect of making him feel “imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner [he] chucked up [his] job and got out of it the better”. Often we preoccupy ourselves with a patronising sense of pity for the subaltern, the one whose voice is perpetually silenced. But the subaltern is not silent, he is active in his own way.

In fact, what was most fascinating about the story was the narrator’s epiphany of an alternative side of reality nearing the end of the story: the white man is in his own way, trapped, and perhaps, one might venture to suggest, silenced too. I could not help chuckling to myself reading about how he realises he was “only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind… when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…”

Perhaps this is the most disconcerting truth about colonialism is not what it does to the “natives”, but the unperceived, certainly unexpected effect it has on the colonist. Something worth musing over, certainly.

The demands of carrying a gun

Whilst I was reading the article by Chatterjee,  what struck me most was that Smith said that the natives “crave for a government by a person to whom they can render royal homage”.  Reflecting upon it, it seems almost as though the Indians, with their rigid caste system and rules which were thought to be not based on any “common code of morality” or “rational system of law”, would have been used to being ruled in a fashion much akin to colonial rule which greatly privileged the ruling classes to the disadvantage of others. There are some striking resemblances between the rule of colonial difference, in which race is a marker of superiority whilst in the caste system where one is simply born into a social class as one is born white or black.

Linking this to Shooting the elephant, it made me think of how when one wields power, just as the speaker wields a gun, often one would feel as though he is expected to use it simply because he has it.  Just as the Indians might expect the white Raj to behave a certain way due to their own experiences with their native Raj, the Burmese also compel the white officer to shoot the elephant. If the elephant is to be read as a symbol for the native, then perhaps the natives have a part to play in their oppression due to their expectations of one who wields the gun. Perhaps if the Indians were not so used to the injustices of the caste system, things would have been different?

Orwell: ‘to make political writing into an art’

 ‘What I most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art’, as Orwell declares, and it is not hard to see why it is the case even in Shooting an Elephant. I was initially taken by Orwell’s plain prose style and the way he strives to render an objective account of what he sees, but in the midst of researching, pondering and trying to deconstruct his essay, what I discovered instead is the sheer richness and density of his words, as with how a simple sentence in itself might convey a multiplicity of meanings.

This is essentially the challenge that modernist writers pose towards the readers, by unsettling us with their richness of experience and taking us out of the comfort zones of which we are accustomed to. While Orwell points to the performative role of the colonizer who is trapped by the expectations of the natives and the rigors of the colonial system, he is nonetheless writing from the detached role of the modernist artist who is constantly self-checking the figurative first person through the use of rhetoric, irony and sarcasm.  

It is thus useful to comment briefly on the title of the essay itself, the verb ‘shooting’ conveys a sense of action, and it is around this bourgeois colonial action demanded of Orwell that his dilemma is centred, and modernism’s commitment to the totality of depicting reality thus allows the interiority of Orwell’s dilemma to come to light, as well as to signal the possibility of alternatives in our choice between freedom and unfreedom.

Colonialism and perspectives

I would like to discuss the notion of perspectives in Shooting an Elephant because that seems to jump out when I was reading the short story and by extension, I would like to posit that colonialism was all about perspectives and that the reason why it could sustain itself was due to manipulation of perspectives. In the short story, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to the native’s perspective of the white colonizer, in that while the natives hated the colonizers, they feared them so much so they did not have the “guts to raise a riot”. Similarly, because of the native’s views on the colonizer, the narrator felt that he should uphold the stereotype of the white tyrant for fear of being laughed at. Thus, here the perspective that one has of the other shapes the colonial relationship between colonized and the colonizer.

In Chatterjee’s article, she puts forth the notion that colonialism prevailed because it focused on the differences between the Western and Indian modes of thinking. It seems that if the colonizers had a different perspective of India, not as having a totally different and therefore inferior system, but instead as an alternative system with similar characteristics, the colonial enterprise would have been very different. Instead, by focusing on differences, it provided for justification of colonialism’s hard hand on India and the Indians. Moreover, she mentions that by establishing the fact that they were bringing modernity to India, the colonizers were able to manipulate the perspectives of the natives to view them as “saviors” to make India modern and thereby maintaining their rule over the natives.

Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 


In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.


Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.

ramblings on “shooting an elephant”

“Shooting an Elephant” was an interesting read for me personally because I saw for the first time, an explicit recognition if not confession, of the white man’s fear and insecurities. For once we are exposed to the “normal by-products of imperialism” from the colonizer’s perspective. We see his unwillingness to partake in this endeavor; we see how the native crowd forces him into conformity and we see his disempowerment (as represented by the figure of the puppet, dummy, conventionalized figure of the sahib). I feel that our protagonist is a figure that is trapped in this liminal space. The Europeans define his identity as a police officer and fellow colonizer and the native people define him as this stereotypical oppressor, hurling insults and jeers at him. Thus he is pressured on both sides, leaving him with no space to go. He can’t be like Fielding because the natives will never befriend him nor can he be like Ronny because he doesn’t believe wholeheartedly in the cause.
So what is a man under so much pressure supposed to do? Be a hypocrite; shoot an elephant to prove his loyalty to the cause and to show the natives his power. But underlying his show of bravado is guilt and fear. Its like the act of shooting the elephant is a way to assuage his fears and insecurities, kind of like Jim and how he hopes that his quest for greatness will erase his past. So does this mean that Jim is “the way” that the white man has to follow? Such that the white man is trapped under this framework of western heroism (that really is a front for hiding one’s guilt and anxiety about the colonial enterprise) and has no choice but to continually perpetuate and reaffirm the system instead of dealing with the guilt head on. I think that sweeping this under the carpet definitely inflicts violence on the white man as he has to disavow this sense of guilt, sweeping it under the carpet.
Perhaps we should sympathize with the white man because in his disavowal of guilt, he becomes more unfeeling and dehumanized. Perhaps we could view the protagonist of “Shooting an Elephant” as a pitiful figure, a little cog in the machine whose sole importance to the colonial enterprise is precisely based on his ability to conceal emotions and to carry out assigned tasks (shoot the elephant and retain the peace) to ensure the smooth operations of the colonial system.

The Elephant as the Burmese Moby-Dick

I really liked reading “Shooting an Elephant” (not because it’s short) but because I thought that for once, there is a story that is not completely swept over and obsessed with the colonist-colonised dichotomy. While I agree that it is still a trope to be considered in the story, I think what I really enjoyed about reading this is the way it portrayed fears of embarrassment, personal dilemmas as something more human than anything else. The biggest thing that was staring back at me, especially in the beginning, is the way the elephant reminded me of Moby-Dick, because it isn’t until the end that we finally get to meet the creature and up to the point when we do meet it, all that we understand of it is constructed by the stories heard about it or told about it. In the same sense, the way that the Narrator is chasing after the elephant, hunting it down and being haunted by the ways that the elephant eludes him, made me think that on some level the narrator is a fusion of both Ahab and Ishmael.

This parallel is useful to me because I feel that the elephant is more important in bringing out the character’s individual failures and flaws, than being a creature itself; the same way Moby dick is more important as a canvas for Ahab and Ishmael’s personal nightmares to be played out than as a deadly whale itself. The reason I say this is because we never do see the elephant thrashing about or destroying anything the way that we have been told it does. Instead, we see it grazing in the distance. So there is a sense that when the narrator convinces himself that he should kill the elephant because the elephant could potentially be dangerous, we find it a difficult argument to accept because his reasons are purely hypothetical and possibly even imagined at worst.

Yes, one may argue that the villagers have witnessed and have told stories of the elephant’s horrific doings but the way the story is framed – i.e. the elephant we see is harmless instead of thrashing about, and that even the narrator suspects the villagers’ accounts (“Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have hear of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies.”) suggests that perhaps the reason for shooting the elephant is not really because the elephant is posing a very plausible danger, rather it is because of the character’s own inner inability to own up to his own uncertainty and to admit to his mistaken decisions.

Also, on a side note I think it’s interesting how after the narrator kills the elephant, the natives actually “stripped thehis body almost to the bones”. In a sense, I think what this reveals is that perhaps it is the colonist’s self-aggrandizing acts (and of course, the introduction of capitalist desires/pursuits) that actually brings out the savagery and the worst in the natives, because the way that the colonist ritualises his actions and “justifies” any wrong act by virtue of his racial superiority ultimately only permits the natives to be even more savage and hungry for loot.

General thoughts on ‘Shooting an Elephant’

Somehow, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ reminds me of Kuo Pao Kun’s ‘The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole’. Other than the fact that both texts circle around the notion of power, another reason could be the use of a first-person narrative written in a sparse yet personal (almost confessional) tone. While the first-person narrative allows us to delve deep into the psychology of the narrator/ protagonist, it could also obscure and be unreliable. It’s interesting, but also rather hilarious, that Orwell presents us with a neurotic narrator. Granted, the ‘natives’ might have hated him but we (as readers) will never know if they had, indeed, treated the dangerous event as ‘their bit of fun’ or if they were actually frightened. Silencing the subjugated is often seen as disempowering but here, the unnamed narrator endows their silence with a menacing quality. He keeps reminding us that he was being watched: ‘they were watching me as much as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick’. But one easily forgets that he watches them (watching him) as well!

The short story quite obviously points out that power relations in a colony are tenuous and meanings arbitrary, with the colonizer having to act out his role and his difference. Ultimately, no matter how guilty he is for being apart of this imperial project, the narrator reinscribes himself back into the system. I’m not quite sure, however, what the elephant symbolizes. We could easily read it as a symbol of the colonized natives (white elephants were prized by ancient burmese monarchies) but could we also see it as a manifestation of colonial anxiety? Just some thoughts!