The Unnatural nature of Naturalised arguments in Wallace

Maybe I owe it to my class in Psychoanalysis but when I was reading the Alfred Russel Wallace reading, I could not help but be quite disturbed about how Wallace, with much ease, naturalised his arguments for the “primitivity” of the Dyaks. Naturalisation here means that he is attributing many reasons for the condition of the people to their biology and seeing how you cannot debunk biological evidence, the arguments he has set up for himself are therefore infallible.

To me, this naturalisation of argument goes beyond the simple positing of the White man as the “higher” race (70) and the Dyaks as the other-ed, categorisable object of anthromorphological observation. More insidiously, it’s the way Wallace suggests, that the reason why the Dyaks are not procreating fast enough is because the women are subjected to “hard labour” and “heavy weights [that] they constantly carry”, that such work “limits her progeny” (70). He attributes the reason of the Dyaks’ lack of “prosperity” (because of the lack of offspring) to the fact that dyak women are not confined to the domestic space. This is not only ethnocentric in my point of view – considering that Wallace is definitely comparing the Dyak culture to the late Victorian English code of femininity here, but also highly problematic because more than anything else, I think this observed evidence of the Dyak women will help the English justify the way they have restricted the female to the domestic space at home.

Also, if we take note of the fact that he is asserting, without justification, that “an increase in population” is indicative of “increased happiness” (75), we can then observe the problems with this assumption: because it not only destabilises all of Wallace’s arguments about why the womenfolk should stay at home, but  what is more disturbing to me is the fact that Wallace manages to get away with simply reducing the reasons for needing to put a woman “in the household”, where she would have “duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field”, to the naturalised and unverified conclusion that her hard work is inhibiting her fertility.

Hence, on these two levels – i.e. the unverified conclusions that increased population = increased happiness (I’m thinking about the post-war baby boom here); and that working in the field = inhibited fertility, I found the Wallace reading highly disturbing and unconvincing. Granted, I probably should consider the fact that this was written in 1890, but still.

General thoughts on Modernism

Upon reading through the suggested literature for this week, Gikandi’s essay on the role of Africa in Picasso’s oeuvre seems to best embody the relationship between Modernism and Empire the module seems to call into question. In tracing the birth of Modernism back to a localized incident in the African context, Gikandi highlights the fact that in the legitimate and recognized realm of contemporary culture, the non-European, non-white elements are relegated to the peripheries by default.

The ‘other’ is given a voice through the vehicle of Modernism, but only momentarily, and that too, for the purpose of defining the ‘self’ by what it is not. The ‘other’ is stripped off any individual identity independent of one that has no correlation to the mainstream European ‘self’, hence any power delegated to African culture is one contained within the parameters of the white gaze as objects defining and supporting the pre-established principles and identity of European aesthetics.

An image congruent to this would be that of postive and negative space in aesthetics, wherby white and black can stand for either/or, despite the fact they are chromatically binary opposites.


Fig 1: Spaces between Moth (donald mackay,

The use of equal amounts of positive and negative space in a composition is what classically defines visual art as ‘good’, and with Modernism being a reactionary movement celebrating the upheaval of the classical, this formulaic nature of aesthetics is re-evaluated in literal terms in the aesthetic works themselves, yet with respect to the influences and foundations of the form itself, it ironically reverts back to the concept of defining what it is by what it is not–and what it can never admit to being influenced by.