Monday, April 14, 2008

Of Mimicry and Men: A Chat by a Surviving Colonizee

This analysis originally took place in the class taught by Professor T-----, and I have posted it here:

“The discourse of post-Enlightenment English colonialism often speaks in a tongue that is forked, not false,” begins Homi K. Bhaba, in a chapter entitled, “Of Mimicry and Man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse,” taken from his The Location of Culture (1994).

If colonialism, albeit an initial attempt to look after the Imperial powers’ goods, relies on the desire to see itself in [an]Other, then Bhaba’s comment on such authority may be in fact more than mere observation and analysis. He asserts, “If colonialism takes power in the name of history, it repeatedly exercises its authority through the figures of farce” (85). Bhaba utilizing quotes from Lacan, Sir Edward Cust, Freud et al. positions his thesis alongside mimicry and repetition and suggests:

I want to turn this process [of man’s extended gaze] by which the look of surveillance returns as the displacing gaze of the disciplined, where the observer becomes the observed and ‘partial’ representation [re]articulates the whole notion of identity and alienates it from essence. (89)

This position of “essence” intrigues us here as readers and interpreters of text and culture, because it reemphasizes Lacan’s ideology of mimicry as distinction. Recall, mimicry as an itself, or subject of inquiry, is both distinct and camouflage. This is the “fork” of Bhaba’s discourse.

In this short analysis then, I wish to look at several interesting points that Bhaba raises in his chapter, and then provide some minor examples of critical allocation toward our present reading of Nelly Rosario’s Song of the Water Saints (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).

To begin, in utilizing the term, “mottled” in the quote taken from Jacques Lacan’s Of the Gaze, Bhaba subscribes, in my estimation, to what Deleuze and Guattari register, in terms of “history,” as that body of organs, wherein a rhizomatic impetus of alternating smooth and striated space[s] emerge. The position of the established O/order and its extended creation are at once part and parcel of the whole, and yet separate from its C/creator.

In other words, it exists to reflect, but its existence is altogether “itself.” Recall, at the onset of this class Professor T----- suggested that our discourse proper throughout these texts (novels, memoirs, and vignettes) would be construed as non-static; i.e. the voices of the story and its teller, in terms of race, geo-politics and body are constructed, [de]constructed and[re]constructed, but I digress—slightly. Let us return to the terms of mimicry, repetition, farce and so on.

Bhaba defines mimicry in terms of: “an ironic compromise,” “constructed around an ambivalence,” “coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers” (86).

Taking the earlier quote by Sir Edward Cust on p. 85 then, we argue that the Creator (the Imperial power) created the creature (the colonized space[s]), and that the latter is not at fault for its unmistakable cultural resemblance[s] in whatever capacity this can be noted. To be English and to be Anglicized then is, as Bhaba posits, “[to] desire to emerge as ‘authentic’ through mimicry—through a process of writing and repetition—is the final irony of partial representation,” and furthermore it [mimicry] “repeats rather than re-presents” (88).

Bhaba offers several examples of such mimicry and farce when observing Locke’s and Foucault’s panoptic gaze and self-policing mechanism, the “slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite),” Charles Grant’s partiality studies on “the Asiatic subjects of Great Britain,” James Mills’ History of India regarding religion and reform of the colonial subject, and Macaulay’s ‘Minute,’ which “makes a mockery of Oriental learning until faced with the challenge of conceiving of a ‘reformed’ colonial subject” (86-87).

Of further interest is the chapter’s usage of the phrase, “almost the same, but not quite.” In terms of science, I suggest this can be construed as an existence within the interstitial walls of an already—present and its established present O/order, within the greater integument system proper. In other words, those of the Anglicized exist as an “itself,” and yet resemble that which is English and Englishness.

In terms of authority the position of mimicry is one of intrigue and of repulsion, and the inter dicta, is what privileges the earlier assumption of Lacanian camouflage. Bhaba states it best as he turns to a Freudian reading of “colonial textuality,”as:

that form of difference that is mimicry—almost the same but not quite […] Writing of the partial nature of fantasy […] the very notions of ‘origins’ […] The desire of colonial mimicry—an interdictory desire—may not have an object, but it has strategic objectives which I shall call the metonymy of presence. (89)

The examples listed of this metonymy of presence, suggested by Bhaba are reflected on p. 90 at the top of the verso side. What is at stake here exactly? In one word—confusion, or perhaps a more cultural critical term, [dis]allocation—wherein, incertitude is more often than not—certain—and most certainly and often risked. Again, we turn to Bhaba as he suggests that this part for the whole (metonymy and synecdoche), “cross the boundaries of the culture of enunciation through a strategic confusion of the metaphoric and metonymic axes of the cultural production of meaning” (90).

In other words, where distinction is no longer factored how can one tell the colonizer from the colonized? What is more, who holds true authority when these lines of difference are threatened? Such violence is what “the work of Edward Said will not let us forget,” namely that “the ethnocentric and erratic will to power from which texts can spring is itself a theatre of war” (90).

With such a rhetoric of violence, in terms of disruption, it is no wonder then that the theatre goes unnamed; i.e. is this theatre one of private or public space; are its actors reflectors of a given whole; are its participants casual observers or otherwise than; lastly, who holds a higher affinity toward culpabilis within such drama. Mimicry may adhere to men, in following this chapter by Bhaba, but what of the position of a woman? I believe Nelly Rosario raises similar moments in her novel Song of the Water Saints, wherein the subject of authenticity rings true to Bhaba’s thesis of surveillance and re-appropriated gazing.

In the chapter titled, “Casimiro • 1920,” Rosario opens the novel with a simple construction of “boy—meets—girl, which of course turns into more than a mere meeting. Graciela, the protagonist of sorts opens herself up to this new man in hopes that he will not be like Silvio.

Of interest is the name of Casimiro as well as the novel’s scene of mirrors and reflection found on p. 54. A loose translation of the name Casimiro can be construed as: “almost—glanced,” or as the infinitive command: “to gaze in the not-quite.” This attempt to destabilize the name of Graciela’s new beau arrives full circle when the text alerts us to, “Casimiro was an innovator,” and that “part of his appeal was in the casual way he gave meaning to the trivial and stripped importance from the respectable” (54).

This analysis of his name and disposition, though occurring in some four short lines, speaks volumes in terms of the part of the whole for the position of the male [gaze] and the [fe]male’s attempt at such resolution. We note that Graciela herself is concerned with her identity, her image and the [mis]use of the mirrors.

The position of the mirror here reflects the earlier, part of/for the whole, observance of Bhaba’s mimicry turn to farce. Again, in terms of legitimacy, authenticity of the self Graciela is left to have “guessed at her appearance” (54).

At an earlier point in the novel one can also make the argument that the voyeurism episode, though initialized by Peter West, is sustained by both Silvio and Graciela. It is they who problematize his gaze. This problematization is suggestive of incertitude, or an ambivalence that at once reflects and refracts the onlooker, a form of authority behind the lens, but at once reliant on his [Mr. West's] two models, for such validation. Is this not then a viable example of Bhaba’s switch from mimicry to menace, or farce? You decide.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

God Is Dead--really?

I was given the opportunity by Sycamore Review (Purdue U) to review Ron Currie Jr.'s God Is Dead. I was further elated when the author contacted me, and thanked me for such a review of his book. He sent me a signed name plate, and I, sent a copy of my review. The exchange was a wonderful one, and showcased the amicability between reviewer and author. I was truly honored.

Ron Currie Jr.’s first novel, God is Dead, is a contribution to the larger “what if” dialogue regarding the death of God and what happens to life, humanity, and hope without the presence of a divine figure. Currie has received critical acclaim for his short stories, which have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Sun, and Night Train; but this new project probes deeper, examining what happens to the human self when God, or the “head” of a concentrated belief system, is removed. Suggestively, God and hope are held in tandem, and it is not until the former is demised and the latter, essentially departs, that the fractured self take precedence. Instead of reliance on God to fix our distinctions, the onus is re-appropriated back into the hands of humankind. Thus in the novel, when God, “disguised as a young Dinka woman,” dies, word of the Creator’s demise immediately spreads as wide and far as the Sudan desert itself. But in Currie’s imagination, God’s death leaves the world unchanged; no cataclysmic earth shatter or Zeus-like thunder bolts emerge. Instead, wars and violence continue, and people continue to complain and act selfishly.

From the opening chapter of God Is Dead, Currie creates a fragmented world that is uncannily familiar. Tethered by the common filament of progressive human failure, his chapter selections present this world in a collection of narrative vignettes. “God Is Dead,” “Indian Summer,” “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on the God’s Corpse,” and the closing chapter titled “Retreat,” all remind us what it means to be human in a frightening age. For the most part, each narrative focuses on a single character, and it is not until the end of the text that we notice characters overlap, a technique that serves to emphasize human despondency. While each chapter selection can stand on its own as a didactic interval, a morsel of instructional warning for better living, overall they help to further disrupt the traditions of the Divine character.

Inhabited by desire, conflict, and the sadism it uncovers, God Is Dead illustrates the death of a concentrated belief system, but not necessarily, belief itself—offering in tasty bite-size morsels a meal of reflection as well as a feast of our fissured selves and our carnal shortcomings. Currie not only kills God, but decides to “take out” religion altogether, replacing it with subjects such as teenage suicide, and the well-placed humor of Aramaic-speaking desert dogs who reluctantly feast on God’s flesh. Currie ends his threaded tale with “Retreat,” an Armageddon of sorts. In a world already on the brink of self destruction, the absence of God does not staunch the progress of our own divisive methods. Currie presents the reader with plagued human beings that though forgettable in name, are not so when they present a reflection of our present real-world indifference.

Currie openly experiments with the flaws of humanity by first suggesting there is perhaps a flaw in the Creator. Though “God came at dusk to a refugee camp in the North Darfur region of Sudan,” and is clothed in “a flimsy green cotton dress, battered leather sandals, hoop earrings, and a length of black-and white beads around his neck,” death does not respect such a transfiguration. Further, when first introduced to God’s less than perfect physique we are told that “He’d manifested a wound in the meat of his right calf, a jagged, festering gash upon which fed wriggling clumps of maggots.” With an early and disturbing image of God, Currie further problematizes God’s demise by raising a somewhat philosophical question: If humankind prays to God on their death bed, then who can God pray to exactly? Better still, who could accept the burden of carrying such a confession? These are the intriguing inquiries that Currie hoists upon the reader and are the true brilliance of the book. At the same time, these questions demonstrate the humor, criticism, and measured irreverence of Currie regarding God, death, and hope. For example, at one point the author shows a pensive Colin Powell confessing to a “sympathizing” and dying God. The character Powell asks:

how does a man become the first black assistant to the president for national security affairs? How does a man become the first black chairman of the Joint
Chiefs? How does a man become the first black secretary of state? And then I
answer myself: by behaving, in every possible manner, like a white man.

Again, the reader comes face-to-face with Currie’s wit, denigration, and careful impertinence as a powerful man questions his own failures. In God Is Dead, no one is exempt from direct scrutiny and the pressure to re-examine and re-evaluate the self—not God, not Powell, and not the engaged reader. Indifference must be eradicated and responsibility privileged.

One could argue that Currie’s personal philosophy is at stake in God Is Dead, but his command of language and the situating of current events alongside religious upheaval contain lasting implications about the fractured self, which is constant and not necessarily dependent on God being alive. We as readers are all implicated, as the novel is a mirror of our own frail, finite and fantastic selves. Currie shows that people do not necessarily need God to behave as civil, rational, and responsible human beings. Filled with equal parts seriousness and hilarity, Currie’s master tale is at once a fiction and a truth-telling of our current status, namely that we are all too human. By taking the title from a phrase long associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, Currie has developed a thoughtful, yet disturbing text that, like Nietzsche, claims to disrupt the status quo. In his world, God is truly dead, but unlike the German philosopher, Currie does not overtly claim, “and we have killed him!” Although there are moments of hilarity, this is ultimately a serious book, and readers should approach this novel with the measured tension of both reverence and irreverence.

Ron Currie, Jr.
God Is Dead
Viking Penguin Group, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-670-03867-1.
182 pages

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Notes on Obama: Change I Can and STILL Believe In

In a rather cold and long line I waited for free tickets that would grant me entry into Jefferson High School (JHS) to hear the speaker from Chicago. For what you might ask? I was there longer than I thought I had patience for, and yet as the cold winds swept across the crowds and cut through my polo sweater--I waited.

When I finally did pick up my two tickets--an overwhelming feeling of cynicism and doubt crept over me. I actually stood in line for a time, waited for tickets to hear the famed speaker from Chicago and through it all--I now had my doubts about the next day's importance and hype.

O ye of little faith, no.

On 10 April 2008, A----- and I headed toward Jefferson High School, located in Lafayette, Indiana. Why? Because Senator Barack Obama, that famed speaker from Chicago, was holding a "Town Hall" meeting with those "lucky" few who were able to procure tickets for the event. These faithful ramblings are from that moment, an event in the space of JHS.

Obama opened thanking ALL who had staged the event, and was received with raucous applause. After quieting down the crowd with both hands raised, he announced the reason he entered the campaign: "The fierce urgency of now!"

Quickly moving into the war in Iraq, the senator reminded the people that such a war is costing us $400 million/day, and that even the higher--ups are feeling the pinch. Why? According to Obama, "Pain trickles up."

Amidst clapping and cheering the senator was able to give a good, sound speech highlighting some of his larger points on the campaign. Immediately, he charged into the crowd with--"We can't wait!" Then, he cleverly weaved his message of responsibility, wherein the government had failed the American people. His solution, to rise from the "bottom--up!"

Periodically, folks stood up! Clapping and "war-whooping" throughout. Even under brief technical failure with mic problems and sound system feedback, Obama held his own, and kept his stride.

At one point Obama reminded ALL that he had not taken any money from special interest lobbyists, and that all funds raised to run his campaign came from the American people. Why? The former suggests a reciprocation to the special party interest groups; the latter, well, it suggests that the future president hopeful is indebted to the American people--period. Sound foreign? Yeah--believe it or not--that is how government is to work--you know "by the people, for the people."

In his own words--Obama declared, "I don't owe them, I owe YOU!"

Lastly, Obama closed with questions from the crowd, as he is apt to do at these "events." Someone commented on the war on Iraq--to which the famed senator suggested, rather asserted--"The war on Iraq was unwise," and again, "We need to bring our troops home--it's time."

For the most part the crowds were very supportive of Obama, and his plan to remove the troops from Iraq in 2009. In closing, when asked about how such change could and would come about, the senator invoked the spirit of MLK, in the words of JFK, and posited:

We should not negotiate out of fear, and we should never fear to negotiate.

Obama is a formidable candidate, as much as Clinton and McCain happen to be; however, what is missing from the round and round and round discussion re: how do we run this country, Obama offers both head and heart; mind and conviction; competence and pulse.

I was encouraged by what he said, and as a very smart person once told me--initials PR--look at the WAY he says it. I did just that this evening, and was rewarded with "Real Time with Obama."