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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The Road Less Travelled

Last night, I sat down, and decided to read my novel for next week; the novel in question being Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The novel focuses on a destroyed America; a world in which commercial values and commodities have been completely destroyed, and the only living people left are either ‘the good guys’ or ‘the bad guys’. The two groups are defined; society has been reduced, in the wake of this destruction, to being composed of binary opposites; good and bad, dead or alive, starving or not.

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The world of binary opposites is something proposed in Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. Binary opposites exist to define the world in relation to what it is not; something that is essential in McCarthy’s The Road. The child is a haunting reminder of the innocence of childhood, and the ways in which it can be affected by the nature vs. nurture environment, and is a striking example of how environment is paramount to the development of a person.

The way in which America, or the developed world is portrayed here takes us back to an almost prehistoric sense of existence. The scavenging and hiding that occurs is almost animalistic, and the country seems to reduce its inhabitants to little more than dogs, in the ways in which they try to survive. Hiding, and seeking refuge, is a part of human nature, or of the fight or flight response. This is not however limited to humans alone; animals often confront their attackers in the same way as the man in the novel, who shoots the person holding his little boy hostage.

The division between being a human and being an animal is made by way of the fact that the man remembers his wife, and the birth of his child; his ultimate role in the novel is to keep the boy safe, to protect him from harm. The harm that befalls him is primarily psychological, and represents how parents, with all the love in the world, cannot always protect their children from the world outside; this idea is not just limited to burned out pieces of America, or a world in which law has been removed; it is present throughout real life too, and the novel highlights rather acutely, how experiences befall people and how they cannot always be protected from these experiences.

The issue of paternal love then, is very prevalent throughout the novel; there is nothing the father won’t do for the child, and rather disturbingly, he has had to teach the child how to use the pistol, a symbol that runs through the novel, to commit suicide in an emergency. Self destruction is constantly debated through the novel, and the man himself often meditates on the benefits of suicide; his goal is to reach the coast, however the reasoning behind it isn’t made particularly clear; what lies ahead of them seems to be endless foraging, scavenging, seeking survival; however in such a desolate landscape, the reader simply wants to ask, “but why?”.

This term as far as novels go, has been far more rewarding than the last. I’m a huge fan of postmodern literature, and the development of modern literature often grabs my attention to a much greater extent than classical literature. The novel itself is terrifying and extremely sad; it makes a person question how they would survive under such a hostile environment. I recommend reading it, if you have an evening devoid of entertainment, especially because it’s thought-provoking, and asks questions that focus very much around the environmental crisis, and the nature of human survival in the wake of an apocalypse.

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(1) http://thewordofward.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/theroad.jpg

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The Beauty of Structuralism

I woke this morning with a bag of defrosted peas melting into my duvet, and a headache worthy of (possibly) some kind of record. So, minor injuries and a plethora of viral infections. But aside from that, I learnt some interesting things today, about structuralism.

I think the most appealing part of structuralism, at least to me, is the fact that unlike most things in literature, it makes sense. It’s completely logical. Essentially structuralism is they idea that a word has no absolute meaning; it relies on context for meaning to be applied. The example that my eccentric professor used was the word:

“Pain”

Now, in English, the word can be used in context of mental pain, or emotional pain. It can be in relation to physical pain as well. However, in a completely separate language, French, “pain” means “bread”. Which is almost as far removed as is humanly possible, from pain. Most of us enjoy toast. (:

The writings of Saussure and Simone De Beauvoir  are fascinating me at the moment. When I next get a spare hour or two (I’m hoping it’s soon, because the flu thing compels me to not want to move) I’m going to start wading through “The Second Sex”. I’m very excited about starting the philosophy reading group too. I’m hoping that soon my mind will begin to expand and accommodate the ideas of pretty much every French philosopher in existence. Although I’m only human and therefore that much genius can really only be absorbed by supercomputer. But I’m certainly going to try my best and hopefully, soon, I’ll be able to incorporate all these ideas into my writing and essays and make something that has a little more depth, and value of meaning.

It’s hard work, wanting to know everything about everything in the world.

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