Friday, December 21, 2007

Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad Lord JimSo about that Orientalism thing...

Well, seriously, Lord Jim exemplifies what is, I think, a bit misdirected about the postcolonialist discourse, at least as it's packaged for American undergraduate students.

Here is part of the introduction to the Postcolonial Studies section in the Rivkin-Ryan theory anthology (which I believe to be the most commonly assigned anthology—at any rate, it was the one I used):
Scholars began to take note of the fact that many great works of English literature promoted beliefs and assumptions regarding other geographic regions and other ethnic groups... that created the cultural preconditions for and no doubt enabled the work of empire. The promotion of such beliefs and assumptions in literature, Edward Said noted in his pathbreaking Orientalism (1978), was just one part of larger process of discursive construction in a variety of forms of writing, from novels to scholarly treatises on geography and philology, that represented other peoples... as less civilized or less capable and as needing western paternalist assistance. Any attention to processes of domination usually spurs an interest in counter-processes of resistance, and an interest in colonial and post-colonial literature increased in the 1980s, attention turned... to the complex interface between colonizer and colonized, an interface that Bhabha found characterized as much by a subversive work of parody and mimicry as by straightforward domination.
Later, in an essay by Ania Loomba also included in the anthology ("Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies"), we are told that,
If the term postcolonial is taken to signify an oppositional position or even desire... then it has the effect of collapsing various locations so that the specificities of all of them are blurred. Moreover, thought of as an oppositional stance, 'postcolonial' refers to specific groups of (oppressed or dissenting) people (or individuals within them) rather than to a location or a social order, which may include such people but is not limited to them. Postcolonial theory has been accused of precisely this: it shifts the focus from locations and institutions to individuals and their subjectivities. Postcoloniality becomes a vague condition of people anywhere and everywhere, and the specificities of locale do not matter. In part the dependence of postcolonial theory upon literary and cultural criticism, and upon poststructuralism is responsible for this shift.
First we have "any attention to processes of domination usually spurs an interest in counter-processes of resistance" (italics mine--note the inconsistent level of assertion)—a simple binary of domination and resistance—this is the way the field works on a macro-level. Simple cause, simple effect. It becomes, as Loomba points out, more about a stance—a personal or personalized stance. This stance is assumed to follow the imperialist/colonialist stance of domination as naturally (or "usually") as the new field shifted its focus from domination to resistance. Life imitates criticism, apparently, and art does too.

In a selection from Edward Saïd's Culture and Imperialism, also included in the Rivkin/Ryan reader, Saïd rebukes postcolonialists who take the critique of orientalism to mean the excision of orientalist texts from study:
It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave. Yet what I have called the rhetoric of blame, so often now employed by subaltern, minority, or disadvantaged voices, attacks her, and others like her, retrospectively, for being white, privileged, insensitive, complicit. Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue, if we take seriously our intellectual and interpretative vocation to make connections, to deal with as much evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or not there, above all, to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history.
I think there are fewer postcolonialists who clamor to "jettison" colonialist texts these days compared to 1993, when Culture and Imperialism was published, but Saïd's point, I think, is still somewhat descriptively valid. The rapid shift of emphasis from studies of domination to studies of resistance assumed the continuation of a critique of domination while avoiding the actual study of it (or so it seems to me). There is a sense in which academics seem to crave a consonance between the politics of the writers they study and the politics they hold; some critics of the academy suggest that this desired consonance is also an excuse for what is, in effect, a proxy form of activism. Terry Eagleton, in a 1999 review of Gayatri Spivak's A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, makes just this criticism:
[Post-colonialism's] birth... followed in the wake of the defeat, at least for the present, of both class struggle in Western societies and revolutionary nationalism in the previously colonialised world. American students who, through no fault of their own, would not recognise class struggle if it perched on the tip of their skateboards, or who might not be so keen on the Third World if some of its inhabitants were killing their fathers and brothers in large numbers, can vicariously fulfil their generously radical impulses by displacing oppression elsewhere. This move leaves them plunged into fashionably postmodern gloom about the 'monolithic' benightedness of their own social orders. It is as if the depleted, disorientated subject of the consumerist West comes by an extraordinary historical irony to find an image of itself in the wretched of the earth. If 'margins' are now much in vogue, it is partly because a generation bereft of political memory has cynically abandoned all hope for the 'centre'. Like most US feminism, post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without necessarily being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a 'post-political' world.
Targeting the rhetoric of "resistance" more particularly, Eagleton goes on to say, "in familiar post-colonial style, [Spivak's] emphasis is less on transformation than on resistance. Resistance suggests militant action, but it also implies that the political buck is always elsewhere. It is a convenient doctrine for those who dislike what the system does while doubting that they will ever be strong enough to bring it down."

Eagleton's criticism is keen, but his target may need to be emphasized: he objects not to the premise of a long-standing and thorough-going project of orientalizing the other (cf. this defense of Saïd against a recent attack by a British orientalist) nor does Eagleton reject the necessity of studying and unmasking this phenomenon as it persists today. What Eagleton objects to is the potential (and frequently actual) reversion of this critique to a more self-centered and frequently adolescent politics of authenticity. Noting the penchant of postcolonialists in particular to declare their bad faith before it can be declared for them, Eagleton grumbles,
Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point out the inevitable bad faith of one's position. It is the nearest a postmodernist can come to authenticity... The post-structuralist emphasis on 'subject position' is oddly akin to the existentialist obsession with authenticity: what matters is less what you say than the fact that you are saying it. Liberalism, rather similarly, tends to believe that what is chosen is less important than the fact that I choose it, and is thus an ethic peculiarly fit for adolescents.
In other words, the actual, on the ground "project" of resistance to hegemony (in this case, imperialist/colonialist hegemony) becomes less important than my understanding of its truth and my self-inclusion in its ranks, my adoption of the postcolonial "stance" of resistance, a stance that, as Loomba points out, is assumed to be universal among post-colonial peoples.

Moreover, if I follow the habit of carefully strewing caveats about my bad faith as a First World white man, I am really adopting a mode of re-centering the politics of resistance around my qualifications or disqualifications to analyze the "discourse" surrounding it. I am framing my analysis by its effect (or lack thereof) on me.

What does this have to do with Lord Jim? Quite simply this: the focus on authenticity and resistance in the transmission of postcolonial theory to undergraduates (at least) makes a text like Lord Jim virtually meaningless within the discourse of postcolonial theory. An attempt to read it in the context of a politics of authenticity and resistance will be foiled by its pointed inauthenticity and the fact that its lines of resistance emerge from, rather than converge upon, the white man. Jim is most certainly in the middle of a postcolonialist discourse—and not just a colonialist one—but his position frustrates even, I think, a Bhabha-like reading of "the instabilities and ambivalences inherent in any attempt to impose domination on another people." (Rivkin-Ryan's intro to Bhabha's essay, "Signs Taken for Wonders")

This is not because such an analysis of these instabilities and ambivalences wouldn't work—there are marvelously many of them in Jim—but because ultimately these instabilities and ambivalences close in on themselves. Rather than revealing a rhetoric of dialectical domination and resistance, Lord Jim suggests that both forces terminate in the same place—Jim himself. This is a solipsism of the romantic hero that supplants and precludes the solipsism of the postcolonialist reader, who is effectively trying to form his or her own solipsism by insisting on reading the book in the name of their own (in)authenticity and resistance.

The misdirection I spoke of earlier, then, lies in the fact that the terminus of postcolonial studies still seems to be the reader of the text rather than the text itself. I believe Lord Jim frustrates this reflex of self-centering, or at least lays it bare.

Additionally, while I chose to write this post about postcolonialism, I could just as easily have written it about gender politics and gender studies—the criticisms would mostly be the same, and this novel has, I think, the same effect. The book does not allow so easily the kind of self-first reading so common with gender studies; the pertinacity of its issues and Conrad's elegance in articulating them simply seem stronger than the reader's bad faith or her qualifications or disqualifications in examining the issues which the novel raises.

Later [12/29]: Interesting essay from the Guardian on Conrad in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth.

1 comment:

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