Where Post-Colonialism Takes A Nineteenth Century Stroll

A Short Introduction (1)

Post-colonialist criticism has won my favour today, because I’ve been revising all the theories that I haven’t written about in my essays. This presents a problem, because I didn’t realise at the beginning of the year that I couldn’t write about the same topic twice. This means I’m in the slightly tricky position of having to write about all the theories that quite frankly, well, I’m mediocre (at best) at. This means that a frantic revision of all the compulsory reading ensued, and now I’m feeling marginally calmer, I’ve  had an epiphany: I will not have to write about Jacques Derrida under exam conditions. Anyone familiar with Derrida’s work will realise what a completely beautiful blessing this is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading extensively around the subject of post-colonialist criticism today, which essentially considers the nature of literature in terms of its understanding of ‘the subaltern’, and how Britain perceives the world, whilst it perches on something of a pedestal due to its great imperial past. It was certainly a great past, if slightly ethically questionable. Some would argue that because our empire has disintegrated, that we are no longer great, and instead ride on the coat-tails of the reasonably new superpower, the United States of America. But that’s a whole other conversation.

Title page from the first edition of Jane Aust...

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I like the idea of the subaltern; the idea that we cannot communicate with the subaltern, as proposed by Edward Said is interesting, because it suggests we have no way of creating a common language with which to communicate. Structuralist theory, as dictated by Ferdinand Saussure, suggests that in order to communicate, we must have a culturally agreed code to fall back on, to determine the meaning of the sign. (In this case, words). Without this shared culture, it is seemingly impossible to communicate quite literally, across the world.

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is one of the best examples of literature that is concerned with empire. She discusses the role of Sir Thomas Bertram in Antigua, running a slave plantation. She personally was opposed to slavery, however in the novel, it is implicitly accepted as a commodity that is fundamental to the wealth of the Bertrams. Interestingly, when the financial difficulties of the plantation become apparent, no lifestyle changes occur, almost as if to suggest there is an innate wealth underpinning the lifestyles of the family.

Post-colonial critics have suggested any number of things about Jane Austen in relation to this novel, such as the idea that she supports slavery because of the nature of the Bertrams wealth. An interesting counter to this argument however is that Fanny Price, the novel’s protagonist, asks her uncle, Sir Thomas about the plantation, and he neglects to give a reply. This could be interpreted as showing an awareness of immorality, and therefore an unwillingness to discuss the situation with his niece.

Returning to the ideology itself however, I find it extremely compelling because of its entanglement with history, perhaps more so than other forms of literary criticism. The key critics behind post-colonialism, including Spivak and Said, present repeatedly reputable arguments that discuss the British attitudes towards empire, and towards this culture that we are unable to communicate with, due to our extreme cultural differences, and historic hegemony towards them.

For anyone with a particular interest in the British Empire, I’d suggest reading Orientalism by Edward Said; it presents some very interesting forward thinking on the subject of empire and dominance, and for anyone unfamiliar with the concept of hegemony, I’d suggest looking that up too. Antonio’s Gramsci’s marxist thoughts on hegemony provide a very interesting inside into the ways of imperialism in the modern world, a world that has long moved on from naval conquests, into a more political kind of empiricism.

Happy reading!

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(1) http://cultural.emulty.com/wp-content/uploads/wpid-41ecV3AnOOLSL500.jpg

(2) Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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On Knowledge, Books, and Post-modernity

We all have something that we collect, something that we cherish; some people collect stamps, others collect antiques; some collect photographs, and some people just collect friends. I collect books; I have a couple of hundred of them, in all shapes and sizes. I love the “new book smell” and I love how they all sit together on my bookshelves, looking out over my room. I like the order, and the consistency; I love that they all, in one way or another, relate together, and are essentially the same. I like the continuity there.

Post-modernity however (I’ve been reading introductions to it all day), would disagree with my “unified” bookshelf; it would create “the other”. It would differentiate between genre, and the time in which it was published. Post-modernity essentially subverts the essence of an object in order to form a critique of itself, making post-modernity a paradox that cannot be unraveled, because the definition of something is the playground of its subversion. “There is nothing outside the text.”- Jacques Derrida.

Trust somebody to make a mess. It's a beautiful example of postmodern art however, by Marcus A. Jansen. This is however not quite the same as post-modernity, which has a broader focus in society and politics.

You see, I like to play with paradoxes, but the challenge I have is that I’m not logically minded; I end up having to make spider maps so I know what I mean, and what I think. The same thing applies for when I’ve read a complex essay. It seems that my brain resembles a computer; sometimes you have to use the disk defragmenter to clean up all those little nuggets of knowledge, otherwise the computer might slow down, heat up, or just outright explode. I often suspect the latter.

I spend an awful lot of time pondering how my lecturers have spent as much time as they have in the research lab; how they’ve understood all these magical things, how they’ve written groundbreaking papers about the forefront of literary criticism. I can barely understand my introductory postmodern research, and I’ve already made six diagrams about Derrida. It is humbling when you realise that you know absolutely nothing at all, in comparison with what they already know. Even they don’t know everything; nobody does, but they know more than most of us ever will do. This is mainly however because it’s their career choice; it’s what they wanted to do. I like that they can inspire you to enjoy a text purely because they’re so passionate about it that they can present you with facets of it that you couldn’t hope to find on your own.

So, back to my beautiful bookshelf. I love the order, and the tidiness of it. I like it’s superficially orderly ways. But what I like the most, and the reason that I will continue to collect them, is that behind that smoke and mirrors facade of order, and logic, is a world that can’t ever be fully dissected. It can be examined and explored hundreds of times, but no one will ever know every secret of every book. And I like that behind this simple exterior, is a rich, decadent world. But what I like the most is that by looking at this world, I will obtain a degree, alongside invaluable skills in analysis, close reading, and research. And I really do enjoy it, too.

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(1) http://www.contemporary-art-dialogue.com/image-files/postmodern-art-surreal.jpg

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Thoughts on Post Structuralism

Today, I was typing out my post structuralism notes into my laptop; remembering how bemused I was, in comparison to today, made me realise that university does inspire a degree of progress in a person; even though most of the time, you feel as though you are swimming against a tide, attempting to conquer the ever-growing reading list (an impossible task). The vague understanding of week three, in comparison to today’s more developed understanding made me think about how much I adore my course; despite the quagmire of definitions, reading and concepts, it does work. The ideas must be percolating in my head; spinning around in a subconscious, dream-like kind of way, ethereal and inexplicable, but they are there. And so then I began to think.

The most appealing idea of post structuralism is the idea of the “ghosts of meaning” proposed by Jacques Derrida. Nothing in linguistics can be absolute; it is in flux, continuously evolving and each linguistic interpretation is different to each person. This means that when you are in “discussion” with your parents about for instance, the wing mirror that may or may not have detached itself from the car door, you can simply argue that this is just their interpretation of events based on their background which then allows you to argue that your background (and therefore your linguistic experience) is different to theirs. This opens a whole new range of ways to try to prove your parents wrong. This is of course to be done at your own risk.

Another brilliant facet of post structuralism is the idea of the de-centred universe. This means, simply put, that you cannot even be sure of where, or even what, you are because there is no external way to measure yourself against something else. Nothing has a central, solid meaning, because like language, everything is in flux. Being completely unaware of your position in the universe is fascinating, and to a certain extent, also liberating. You are in some ways therefore completely free to consider yourself as being absolutely anywhere in the universe. Again, this can be used as a mechanism to argue with authorities, e.g. parents, and teachers. Unfortunately, even the most open-minded teacher is unlikely to accept the argument that because of the theory of post structuralism, you are not entirely certain that you are at a true school at all, and even less sure that your supposed exam board is real, and therefore why should you have to write five thousand word pieces of coursework? If you were feeling particularly inventive, you could even drop in a word or two about string theory physics, and the meaning of the universe. If anyone really succeeds, then please let me know.

Of my critical theory repertoire, post structuralism is the one I identify with most clearly, despite the immense complexity of it when applied to any given text. It’s also fascinating when applied to real life. I think a thesis on Derrida would be extraordinarily complex and yet extremely rewarding. I’m sure several brain cells would die attempting to process such a seething mass of information. Nonetheless, I’m looking forwards to being able to revisit the theory next term; I like understanding difficult ideas. It’s a good thing too really, since I’m at university.

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