An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016
Colonialism, postcolonialism, neocolonialism: three isms that depend upon the figure of the colony. In the preface to this book we remark that theory — particularly when it takes the form of isms — can seem intimidating or simply boring. Deeply desiring to be neither, we also have good theoretical reasons for feeling wary of isms. As Martin Heidegger put it: ’Every mere ism is a misunderstanding and the death of history’ (Heidegger 1967, 60—1). This assertion draws attention to the ways in which isms inevitably encourage generalization, abstractness, a lack of critical clarity and of historical awareness. But saying this of course does not make isms go away. Isms are convenient, as well as deadly. Here are three convenient, if deadly, definitions: ’colonialism’ is ’the policy or practice of obtaining, or maintaining hold over, colonies, esp with the purpose of exploiting them’ (Chambers Dictionary); ’postcolonialism’ is concerned with what ’occur[s] or exist[s] after the end of colonial rule’ (Shorter OED); ’neocolonialism’ is concerned with the continuing effects of colonialism after the end of colonial rule, and thus with a questioning of the break implied by the post- of ’postcolonial’. Much ism-izing energy has been spent on the distinctions or lack of distinctions between these various terms. For example, the authors of The Empire Writes Back (1989) argue that the term ’postcolonial’ should be seen as covering ’all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’ (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 1989, 2). This definition mingles colonialism and ’postcoloniality’, and also mixes itself up with the arguably more rigorous and precise conception of ’neocolonialism’ as involving ’the half-hidden narratives of colonialism’s success in its continuing operations’ (Young 1991b, 3). Rather than engage directly with these various isms, we propose in this chapter to try to reflect on them indirectly, by focusing on what is common to them all (the colony) and by considering a series of related topics: language, time, point of view, writing, law, justice and drama.
The word ’colony’ itself is suggestive: in etymological terms a patriarchal and agricultural metaphor (Latin colonia a colony, from colonus a husbandsman, from colere to till), ’colony’ is, according to Chambers, ’a name vaguely applied to a state’s dependencies overseas or abroad … ; a body of persons settled in a foreign country, or forming a separate ethnic, cultural or occupational group; the settlement so formed; the place they inhabit’. One thing is already clear from this definition: the colony, and all the isms it colonizes, has to do with the colonizing power and effects of language itself, with language as colonization. There is no concept of the colony in the English language that does not depend on the colonization of English by Latin — which is also to say, the colonization of Latin by English. Correspondingly, we might ask, is US English colonized by British English or is it the other way round? Colonization here, as always, works in two directions: to colonize is, however imperceptibly or insidiously, to be colonized. If, as William Burroughs claimed, language is a virus, this is because it is a colonizer. In particular as ’dependency overseas or abroad’ or ’settlement in a foreign country’, a colony always involves the imposition of a foreign language; and all the colonialist wars in history (there are perhaps no other) are also wars in and over language. Finally, however, we may suppose that there is no way of thinking about any of these matters in one’s own language without being already colonized by language. Colonization is at the origin: we are always already dependants of language, colonized by one or more languages.
To be ’always already’ is to be unsure, among other things, about one’s sense of time. In this and other respects, the notion of colony has a strange relation to time. As its etymology indicates, ’colony’ is fundamentally a spatial term: originally it has to do with tilling the land. When we think about colonies we think, first perhaps, of space, of the appropriation and exploitation of land. But questions of time are just as important in a (post- or neo-) colonialist context. Indeed, as we indicated a few moments ago, the very terms ’post-’ and ’neo-’ are temporal, concerned with what comes after or continues to haunt the colony. Literary texts offer especially good illustrations of how the colony deranges and disorders the sense not only of place but also of time. We could consider this, for example, in relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). On the one hand, there is a clear and irrefutable historical context for the narrative: it is a novel about the European (especially Belgian and British) colonial exploitation of Africa (especially the Congo) in the late nineteenth century. On the other hand, however, and at the same time, the novel conveys a particularly strong sense of this journey to the colonial heart of darkness as a journey into another time. As Marlow recounts:
Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world … The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had once known — somewhere — far away — in another existence perhaps. (48)
Conrad’s novel is both historically specific (it illuminates the barbarity of European colonialism in Africa) and pervasively dreamlike (at once timeless and primordial). Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) also characterizes the colony as unsettling any ’homely’ sense of time, in particular by evoking the strange timelessness of dreaming and trance. For the unnamed Mr Rochester (the colonizer who is also colonized by his time in the West Indies) the unnamed Windward Island, where he and Antoinette spend their honeymoon, is ’quite unreal and like a dream’ (49). Indeed his colonial experience as a whole may be described as ’all … a nightmare’ (76). But the strangeness works in two directions. Thus England in turn is repeatedly evoked in terms of the timelessness of a dream for Antoinette (49, 70). Just as Heart of Darkness traces a disturbing, circular structure which returns the narrative, finally, to London as the ’heart of darkness’, so Rhys’s novel complicates our sense of time in more general narrative terms. Its disordering of temporality has to do, above all, with its status as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Post- but also pre-Jane Eyre, it exposes the colonialist dimensions of the earlier novel before the event.
Finally, we could consider the example of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). Achebe’s novel recounts the rise and fall of a man called Okonkwo, and tells how Christian white men come to colonize and largely destroy the culture and identity of the Igbo tribe to which he belongs. Like Heart of Darkness and Wide Sargasso Sea, Things Fall Apart is temporally deranged and deranging: it is impelled by Achebe’s own ’decolonizing’ mission of seeking to write an alternative version of Conrad’s novel, specifically from the perspective of the colonized. Yet Achebe’s narrator is obliged to occupy a sort of double-time — at once from the late nineteenth-century time of the novel’s action (narrating as if from within the Igbo tribe) and from the mid-twentieth-century time of its telling (narrating from a position outside the tribe and from a considerable distance in time). Achebe’s novel is an extraordinary meditation on the difficulty of saying when ’things fall apart’, of determining when, for example, colonization happens, or when the colonial becomes postcolonial. This difficulty is marked, above all, in the title of the novel, with its haunting suspension in the present tense, and in the fact that it is a quotation. The phrase ’things fall apart’ is taken from W.B. Yeats’s ’The Second Coming’ (1919), a poem that is inseparable from Christian mythology and inseparable in turn from the colonialist context of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Irish Troubles. Achebe’s novel, from its title onwards, is written (however critically or ironically) in the language of the Christian colonizer.
If from a literary perspective the twentieth century is ’the age of Kafka’, as Harold Bloom asserts (Bloom 1994, 448), Kafka’s work is perhaps not the most obvious to turn to for thinking about issues of the colony. Let us, however, consider a short story that may help to dislodge this assumption. ’In the Penal Colony’ (In der Strafkolonie) was written in October 1914 and first published shortly after the First World War, in 1919. It is one of Kafka’s grimmest and least funny stories. Set in an unnamed penal colony, on an unnamed island, it focuses on a number of unnamed characters and is told — primarily from the perspective of an unnamed ’explorer’ — by an uncannily knowledgeable or telepathic third-person narrator. The explorer has been invited by the commandant of the colony to witness the execution of a soldier who has been ’condemned to death for disobedience and insulting behaviour to a superior’ (140). The story focuses on the gruesome and terrifying machine that is to bring this execution about, and on the ’officer’ whose proud, even sacred, responsibility it is to explain the machine to the explorer and ensure that it does its work. By a characteristically eerie Kafkaesque twist, the officer ends up freeing the prisoner and putting himself to death in his place; the story concludes with the explorer leaving the island on a boat with an unnamed ferryman.
The interest of Kafka’s narrative in terms of issues of (post- or neo-) colonialism has to do with four related ideas: point of view, writing, law and justice. First, it dramatizes the problem and importance of ’point of view’, both in a narratological and also in a more broadly cultural and political sense. It offers a basis for thinking about questions such as: From what perspective or point of view can or should one think about, say, Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) or indeed any other literary work that engages with colonial differences? And more broadly, from what point of view does one make ethical and other judgements about other people, other societies and cultures? Kafka’s story does this by exploring (a word in our critical vocabulary that suddenly takes on a new ’colonizing’ dimension) the explorer’s dilemma from his own point of view: ’The explorer thought to himself: It’s always a ticklish matter to intervene decisively in other people’s affairs. He was neither a member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged’ (151). The explorer is a foreigner, a stranger, but he is also described as being ’conditioned by European ways of thought’ (155). How should the man respond to the seemingly undeniable ’injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution’ (151)? Kafka’s text does not offer any simple answer to this question, focusing instead on the increasingly intolerable suspense of withholding judgement. At the same time, the story generates an overwhelming sense of the explorer’s unique position and responsibility: he is seen as ’an illustrious foreigner’ (155) in a privileged position to pass comment and influence events. Indeed, Kafka’s story gives a further, more incisive inflection to the dilemma. For while there is judgement and decision within the story (the explorer makes clear his strong disapproval of the machine and the punishment; the officer in turn makes a firm decision to free the condemned man and take his place), the reader is left finally with what is in some respects the most ’ticklish matter’ of all, namely: who is the narrator of this story, what point of view does he or she have on everything that goes on in the text, and what, in the light of this, is our own point of view? As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have observed, ’It is by the power of his non-critique that Kafka is so dangerous’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 60). ’In the Penal Colony’ dramatizes an extraordinary experience of solitude, by posing the question of point of view as a necessary but radically uncertain experience of responsibility for each and any reader. To read the story is to be colonized by this dangerous power.
Second, Kafka’s text foregrounds the importance of writing itself, of textuality. One of the continuing controversies within the general area of postcolonialist thinking concerns the theoretical complexity of some of its best-known practitioners. Thus postcolonialist theory is perceived as being ’depressingly difficult’ (Williams and Chrisman 1993, ix), above all on account of its seemingly abstract, unworldly focus on ’discourse’ and ’textuality’. Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha in particular have come to be seen as what Dennis Walder calls ’the three police officers of the postcolonial’ (Walder 1998, 4). In his engaging book Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Walder seeks to evade the long arm of the law while trying to keep his sights trained on postcolonial literary works themselves. This is a bold but also risky strategy. As Ania Loomba puts it: ’Many writings on colonial or postcolonial discourse may not expressly privilege the textual, but they implicitly do so by interpreting colonial relations through literary texts alone’ (Loomba 1998, 95). As Kafka’s story suggests, when it comes to thinking about the colony, there is no getting away from the founding complexity of questions of textuality, from the uncanny character of writing, from the limits of the readable. For law itself is inseparable from textuality, writing, inscription. Moreover, Kafka’s story is also a disturbing account of law in terms of different, even mutually unintelligible, incommensurable languages or discourses: different characters speak, read and fail to understand different languages. The punishment for the condemned man in Kafka’s story involves a harrow which inserts innumerable needles into the prisoner’s body and gradually inscribes in his flesh ’whatever commandment [he] has disobeyed’ (144). The officer patiently explains:
[T]here are two kinds of needles arranged in multiple patterns. Each long needle has a short one beside it. The long needle does the writing, and the short needle sprays a jet of water to wash away the blood and keep the inscription clear. (147)
The words being inscribed in this case are ’HONOUR THY SUPERIORS!’ (144). For the condemned man the sentence is unreadable, unknown, until it is literally written on his body, by which time he will be at the point of death, beyond all sense of honour, beyond any sense at all.
Finally, Kafka’s story provokes the thought that every colony is a penal colony. Every colony entails the imposition of codes of law, justice and punishment from elsewhere, from back ’home’ or from a foreign country. This is indeed a central issue in many colonial or postcolonial novels. Forster’s A Passage to India, for example, turns on the question of justice and the law, culminating in the drama of the trial scene and the attempt to have Dr Aziz found guilty of attempted rape. Likewise in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, everything depends on the colonizing power of ’English law’ (see 5, 11, 69) and what Christophine calls the ’damn cold lie’ of that English word, ’“justice”’ (94). Similarly, we may recall that Heart of Darkness concludes with Marlow’s meditation on the idea that Kurtz had ’wanted only justice’ (111), while Things Fall Apart ends with the self-justificatory cogitations of the District Commissioner who is to write a mere paragraph about what we as readers have spent a book experiencing and who has decided, ’after much thought’, to entitle his work The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (148). ’Be just’: these are the key words of Kafka’s brief and terrifying text ’In the Penal Colony’. The dictum appears, according to the officer, among the papers of the former commandant of the colony. But the explorer cannot read it:
Now the officer began to spell it, letter by letter, and then read out the words. ’“BE JUST!” is what is written there,’ he said, ’surely you can read it now.’ … [T]he explorer made no remark, yet it was clear that he still could not decipher it. (161)
Issues of law and justice are at the heart of all (post- or neo-) colonial literature. On the one hand, as ’In the Penal Colony’ suggests, these issues are always context-specific; they can, and perhaps must, call for a dangerous experience of solitude in any and every reader. The reader is judge: Be just! The reader is put in the impossible position of trying to see from the perspective of both the explorer and the narrator at the same time and, alone, to judge accordingly. On the other hand, such texts also remind us of the extent to which ethical and juridical decisions are determined within a context of specific national and state identities. Thus Kafka’s text might lead us to think about the need for a revolution in the very concept of international law, beyond the boundaries of any state or colony. As Jacques Derrida has proposed in Spectres of Marx: ’[I]nternational law should extend and diversify its field to include, if at least it is to be consistent with the idea of democracy and of human rights it proclaims, the worldwide economic and social field, beyond the sovereignty of States’ (Derrida 1994, 84).
In Plato’s philosophical colony, his imagined Republic, mimetic art, including poetry and drama, is to be excluded. Such art is dangerous because it ’waters and fosters’ false feelings (Plato 1961, 832): it embodies the uncomfortable truth that imitation is formative. This recalls the idea, proposed at the outset of this chapter, that language and colonization are inextricable. To imitate is to be uncertainly colonized and colonizing. We could consider this further in relation to the important essay called ’Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, by Homi Bhabha, one of the ’police officers’ mentioned earlier. Bhabha demonstrates how post-Enlightenment English colonialism is dependent on a logic of imitation or mimicry: the colonized other is obliged to mimic the language, and to varying degrees to imitate the customs, gestures and even dress of the colonizers. This mimicry, however, is never pure: mimicry, Bhabha argues, ’is at once resemblance and menace’ (Bhabha 1996, 362). There is a fundamental ambivalence in the act of colonial appropriation: the colonizer at once desires and fears that the colonized be like him (or, less frequently, her). Colonial mimicry, in other words, is governed by a logic of what Bhabha describes as ’almost the same, but not quite’ (361). In order to succeed, colonial appropriation must fail. As Angela Smith describes it, in the context of V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men and Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea: ’The presence of the colonial other imitating the white male colonizer disrupts the authority of the colonizer’s language, and [reveals] an inherent absurdity in the colonial enterprise’ (Smith 1997, xviii). The appeal and effectiveness of Homi Bhabha’s argument is that it undermines the ’authoritative discourse’ (362) of colonialism from within: by imitating this discourse, the colonized subject shows it to be different from itself, never at home with its own innermost desires.
One of the understated effects of Bhabha’s essay is to suggest how important the notions of theatre, acting and drama are for thinking about (post- or neo-) colonialism. Indeed, it encourages us to reflect more broadly on the extent to which personal identity is based on imitation, is inherently theatrical. These are hardly new concerns in the context of literature. Work by critics such as Francis Barker and Peter Hulme (1985) and Paul Brown (1994), for example, has emphasized how deeply Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) is a play about these issues. A play about strange derangements in the experience of time as well as place, and pervasively concerned with questions of legitimacy, authority and justice, The Tempest is also profoundly engaged with the ’colonial’ paradoxes of language, acting and identity. It is a play not least about teaching and mimicry. Just as Prospero is Miranda’s ’schoolmaster’ (1.2.173), so she in turn becomes the teacher of Caliban, the ’slave’ whom they find when first coming to the island. In a celebrated exchange near the beginning of the play, she reminds Caliban: ’I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour / One thing or other’ (1.2.355—7). Caliban retorts: ’You taught me language; and my profit on ’t / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!’ (1.2.365—7). There are a number of paradoxes in play here. This exchange suggests how thoroughly language determines who or what we are or might become: there is no escape from the colonizing and mimicking power of language as it annexes one subject (Caliban) after another (Miranda). As the quibble on ’red’ and ’rid’ intimates, one cannot be rid of what is read, what is read cannot readily be unread: language in The Tempest is itself a sort of plague. Caliban’s capacity to curse, indeed his very capacity to embody any meaning at all, is an effect of linguistic colonization. Yet his cursing at the same time can only ever be based on a reflection or mimicking of the colonizers and, no doubt, of their own ’innermost desires’. Caliban presents Miranda and Prospero with a disturbing and uncertain mirroring of themselves which nothing in the play can finally efface. This is evident in the very syntax and versification of Prospero’s final declaration of recognition regarding Caliban: ’this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (5.1.278—9). The inverted syntax and the hesitancy of the enjambment underscore this ambivalent sense of Prospero as not merely owning but also, and paradoxically, being ’this thing of darkness’.
As Barker and Hulme have emphasized, The Tempest is, in various paradoxical and intractable respects, ’a play imbricated within the discourse of colonialism’ (204). It is also, as we have tried to suggest, a play about acting, imitation and mimicry. Finally, we would like to propose that The Tempest is also a kind of colony in itself. Indeed in a sense this is just what every dramatic work is. It establishes itself in a strange time and place of its own, linked to but distinct from the rest of the world: the dramatic work is a site of derangement, mimicry, power and transformation. As Captain Phillip, the Governor of New South Wales, observes, in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988): ’A play is a world in itself, a tiny colony we could almost say’ (Act 2, Scene 2). Engaged in casting a different and complex theatrical light on that penal colony the British called Australia, Our Country’s Good is also, like any other dramatic work, strangely resistant to being seen merely as a representation or part of the world in which it is set. In its very title, like Shakespeare’s The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it establishes a peculiar colony, it ’gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.16—17).
For a good introductory book on the literary in particular, see Justin Edwards’s Postcolonial Literature (2008). On the critical side, Nicholas Harrison’s Postcolonial Criticism (2003) is original, thought-provoking and extremely good in its expositions. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin’s Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd edn, 2013) is a useful reference work for critical and theoretical terms. Much valuable critical material is available in anthologies such as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, eds, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (2nd edn, 2006) and Williams and Chrisman, eds, Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory (1993). For two excellent introductory works, see Ania Loomba’s Colonialism/Postcolonialism (1998) and Robert J. C. Young’s Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (2003). Loomba is particularly stimulating for the emphasis she gives to how far issues of gender and sexuality are implicated in (post- or neo-) colonialism. Young has written several influential books that are especially valuable for the detailed ways in which they explore the interrelations between literature and culture, on the one hand, and history and the social and economic, on the other: see, in particular, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (1995), Postcolonialism: A History (2001) and Empire, Colony, Post-Colony (2015). Related to issues of gender and sexuality (and indeed apposite in the context of the tacitly homoerotic dimensions of Kafka’s ’In the Penal Colony’), there are now a number of books focusing on the links between the colony and queerness: see, for example, Christopher Lane’s The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire (1995), John C. Hawley, ed., Postcolonial Queer (2001), and Donna McCormack’s Queer Postcolonial Narratives and the Ethics of Witnessing (2014). Also on the topic of witnessing, see Stef Craps’s compelling recent study Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (2013). For a couple of significant but ’advanced’ works in the general field, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999) and The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, eds Afzal-Khan and Seshadri-Crooks (2001). For an important collection of essays on ’terror and the postcolonial’, see Boehme and Morton, eds (2010). For an excellent general study of deconstructive thinking in relation to ’the colony’, see Michael Syrotinski’s Deconstruction and the Postcolonial (2007). Finally, Edward Said’s work on (post- and neo-) colonial issues is both very accessible and highly influential: his best-known books in this context are Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993).