Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of a Postcolonial Persuasion

[This post owes a great deal to the tremendously interesting discussion going on at The Valve about postcolonial criticism and to Aaron's and Rohan's comments over at Novel Readings. But I'm finding it a little cumbersome to try to join their discussion directly, so I'll just pretend to start ab novo.]

It's curious to read Persuasion in the light of the (in)famous Said reading of Mansfield Park in his Culture and Imperialism. Said pointed out the Bertram family's Antigua plantation was a sort of enabling fiction, sustaining the family's fortunes and thus making the action of the novel possible in a very real way. Said focused in particular on a casual exchange between Fanny Price and Sir Thomas about the plantation, drawing some fairly broad conclusions. A number of critics (and likely a number of readers) have taken issue with Said's rough handling of Austen and with the implication that Austen was just one more lackey of the slave trade and British imperial oppression more generally.

Persuasion, it seems to me, would have been a better choice for postcolonial critique: even the most inveterately romantic of readers would accept that foregrounding the novel's coziness to Empire would produce a valid reading. Austen effusively and earnestly sings the praises of the British navy in two prominent places, and the fortunes of a number of characters have been made by the imperial project (though not explicitly at the expense of enslaved peoples). Some may still object to Said's act of "implication" and not-so-veiled judgment, but I seriously doubt anyone's going to say that the issues of violent imperial expansion and Great-Power competition are of dubious importance to the novel.

Yet I think that Said's choice was the correct one, although I realize that it is often this question of choice that seems to be most grating to those who resist Poco's Empire: the idea that poco critics are picking books because they are intent on picking on them, and that the forgoing of other, more obviously valid choices is done primarily for political, polemical, or promotional reasons. Although this strategy (or the perception that it is used) has tended to discredit postcolonial criticism in some quarters or otherwise to give rise to the belief (sometimes founded in experience) that poco renders books through its blades and gears like so much meat (as Rohan alluded to). But I think it is generally the selection process, and not the grinding, that its critics find so distasteful: not the sausage, but the choice of whom to call a pig. It is the initial selection that makes the result feel, as Rohan says, like a "gotcha!"

Certainly, Said's choice of Mansfield Park (or of Austen more generally) does have tremendous strategic value. Lionel Trilling's essay on the book anointed it, more or less, as the most intellectually fulfilled (or most morally vexed) of Austen's novels and also limned a darker side to Austen: "She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation… She herself is an agent of the Terror." So engagement with Mansfield Park is certainly a way of striking to Austen's moral/intellectual core, of mounting an effort to draw her into decisive battle. (It might be pointed out that, as Mansfield Park is probably the least beloved of Austen's novels, its relative unpopularity might dampen the ire of Said's critics, but I think the idea of implying that Jane Austen was some kind of complaisant monster is outrageous enough to most people, regardless of the book.)

But Persuasion is also, perhaps, unsuited for the type of "space clearing gestures" (to use Aaron's term) that Said and postcolonialism needed to execute at the time in order to stake out a sufficiently large amount of intellectual working-room. Unlike the other novels, Persuasion is almost void of those firmly plotted junctures which knock the characters onto paths perpendicular to their prior direction. In fact, the idea of continuity or constancy runs through the book like a circulatory system, vivifying every scene and cell. The two protagonists do not, as most of Austen's lovers do, need to reorient their trajectories in order to meet happily; there are not the kinds of transformations, humblings, or self-surmountings which characterize the love-plots of all her other books, and the moral lessons that those books so strongly implied are, if not disavowed, at least a little abrogated. Pride and sensibility are not disciplined; prejudice and sense are not forced to moderate themselves.

Rather than transformation, the book is about its title: persuasion is a watchword for the author and her protagonists. It explains their actions comprehensively: they have been persuaded to do as they did, by social pressures, by familial pressures, by friends or confidants. But in all instances, one cannot say that either ever does something they are entirely opposed to; even Anne's initial rejection of Wentworth is recovered at the end of the novel when she tells him, "I was perfectly right in being guided… I was right in submitting to her [Lady Russell]." The minor characters (Benwick, the Musgrove sisters) may be transformed by events, but Anne and Wentworth are at most nudged closer together, but remain walking in the same direction the whole book through.

Yet this utter constancy is accomplished not in spite of the power of persuasion, but because of its prevalence and strength; Anne's susceptibility to persuasion is also a completely effective defense against the forces which threaten a transformation (her cousin). We can contrast this dynamic with the usual Austenian trope of the headstrong heroine, unwilling to accede to any force of mere persuasion, an obdurance necessitating the right angles of transformative events or revelations which has its apotheosis in Elizabeth Bennett. Fanny Price is almost more like Anne than she is like Elizabeth, but she is far more resistant to certain concessions (like participating in the Inchbald play) than Anne would ever be, and her timid obstinacy is the critical element that allows her to act abruptly on occasion and to act in abrupt occasions, as when the Bertram family is shaken up in such a way that marriage to Edmund becomes possible. The obstacles Austen drops into the plot force everything to go perpendicular; Fanny is able to turn with it.

It seems to me that the type of novel, then, that Persuasion is, is not very well structured for the type of ambitious critique Said wanted to accomplish when he set about analyzing Mansfield Park. How do you score the contrapuntal voice for a straight line?

Yet this does not mean that Persuasion would resist postcolonial criticism, or that the average reader's greater comfort with it being so glossed would be wrong; I think Persuasion actually has a great deal more to say about the different types of power active in the Empire and in the navy than Mansfield Park, but not because those concerns are front and center here and ostensibly tangential there.

The structure or shape of the book, I think, is of more consequence than the subject, and a comparison of Mansfield Park and Persuasion may demonstrate the different kinds of postcolonial criticism one can engage in. The Saidian form is (perhaps too) well-suited for a novel of transformations and right angles, seeming to choose them just to one-up their own voilàs; it is a dramatic criticism, and its postures are abrupt in their turns. But there is an equally valid form of postcolonial criticism which does not require right angles or precipitous revelations.

Or, at least, I think there could be.



Richard said...

I haven't read much "poco" but I have read Said, and I think people generally overlook the fact that the books he writes about in Culture and Imperialism are books he loves. He is not picking on them at all! He neither handles Austen roughly nor implies that she was just a "lackey of the slave trade and British imperial oppression".

M. said...

While I greatly enjoyed your postcolonial analysis of Persuasion, I feel that there is something that tends to get overlooked in these discussions of whether or not a given work contains pro-hegemonic sentiments. The bolded text in the following quote from your post is what prompted my reply:

Yet I think that Said's choice was the correct one, although I realize that it is often this question of choice that seems to be most grating to those who resist Poco's Empire: the idea that poco critics are picking books because they are intent on picking on them, and that the forgoing of other, more obviously valid choices is done primarily for political, polemical, or promotional reasons.

In my experience, this notion that pointing out postcolonial issues in a text necessarily constitutes an attack on the text itself is what tends to be the sticking point with most people, not the choice of a specific novel or author to which they ascribe their objections.

This reaction reminds me a great deal of the strong negative response that invariably follows an introduction of the concepts of white privilege and/or hegemony to a listener who happens to be white. When someone perceives themselves to be part of the implicated group -- even when the implication in question is a pervasive but largely unconsciously influential part of the socio-cultural environment instead of a problem that is perpetuated more directly through conscious action and consent -- then that individual is going to stop listening to the nuance of what is being said (i.e. that Austen's novels reflect the pro-imperial sentiments of the society in which she lived), instead opting to oversimplify and lash out at what is seen (albeit unconsciously) as an attack by proxy on on the individual him or her self.

So in a way, focusing on the validity of a postcolonial reading of a given text seems to miss the point a bit, as the real question at issue for many seems to be their unconscious rejection of a concept that shines a spotlight on a socio-cultural problem that includes them in its implications.

M. said...

Whoops -- "on them" should have been included in the bolded text above, but it appears that I misplaced my html tags.

Molly Boggs said...

Persuasion is admittedly the only Jane Austen novel I haven't read, but I think in Mansfield Park it's possible to read a very faint critique of the profits of colonialism -- I think there is at least one passage where Fanny reflects on the financial success of the family she stays with (from the slave trade) with a tone that is not completely admiring. And while the imperial Navy is definitely glorified, the military careers of Fanny's brothers are what keep her family out of complete poverty -- they don't seem to have many other options. Austen can be such a subtle writer that these things are hard to grasp concretely, though.

Andrew Seal said...

I think your comparison to the introduction of the concept of white privilege to white people is very apt, and I think it shows how maybe we're saying similar things.

My emphasis on the choice of what book to read/critique via postcolonial theory is precisely about that sense of identification that you speak of--many more readers identify with Austen than, say, Rudyard Kipling. Austen is part of us in a way that Kipling hasn't been for some years. I don't think anyone cares much whether "Gunga Din" gets read by a postcolonial theorist; people do care when Austen is associated with slavery and oppression, or even just white privilege. It's not the idea that there are, somewhere, texts which harbor colonialist assumptions, prejudices, or apologetics that irritates people, but that this category includes books which they feel close to.

For the record, I don't think Said handled Austen roughly; I should have separated myself from that opinion, but I didn't. I think though, that generally speaking, people (at second-hand, mostly) do feel that a quote like "Austen, and indeed, pre-imperialist novels generally, will appear to be more implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion than at first sight they have been" does constitute rough handling—note Rohan's objection to the word "implication"—it's the idea that you can tie someone to a nasty concept without having to prove an undeniably conscious, voluntary, and sustained connection that gets people's backs up. And not even explicit statements on Said's part of Austen's worth really diminish, for some, that initial irritation at the idea of "implication." That was what I was trying to say. I don't really have the same feelings about implication, though, and I feel Said's work is enormously valid.

It's really good to hear from you! And congrats on IU!
I definitely agree with you, in spite of what I just said above. I think Said's critique is absolutely sound, but not comprehensive, and not meant to be. Said ends the section on MP by complimenting Austen on her "irony and taste," and elsewhere he's certainly trying not to be reductive, just to point out a blindness in terms of what previous critics found in the novel.

Molly Boggs said...

Oh thanks! Vincent told me you were going to graduate school next year as well -- congratulations on getting through this lovely application process with your sanity hopefully intact. I should read Persuasion this summer, and now I will keep all this in mind. Isn't it weird that I am going to be a Hoosier after all?

Richard said...

I should have made it clear myself that I didn't think you thought that Said handled Austen roughly, etc.

I think the point about Austen being close to people, hence they object more strenuously, is excellent. Also, white people hardly ever want to hear this kind of thing.