Part 1 of the author's "My Dear Will You Allow Me to Discuss the Politics of Reading and Writing?: An Exploration of Language and Narrative Architecture in Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home in the Context of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism." © 2000 Kevin Cryderman.
With special thanks to Dr. Proma Tagore and Jesse Bundon, University of Victoria
Modernism, postmodernism, and post-colonialism are enormously vast, complex, and heterogeneous areas of discourse. The multiple connections between the three are outlined in Past the Last Post and are beyond the scope of the present discussion. However, one may analyze a text in relation to these fields by situating a text within certain debates inside those larger areas, especially at points of intersection between postmodernism and post-colonialism. For instance, the issues of language and narrative voice exist within the general framework of postmodernism in relation to concepts such as discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentering, indeterminacy, and antitotalization as they pertain to the issues of identity, history, and subjectivity.
Postmodernism, particularly poststructuralism, aims to decenter the subject and critique humanist assumptions that the human subject is a "coherent identity, endowed with purpose and initiative, whose designs and intentions effectuate the form and meaning of a literary or other written product" (Abrams 239). Ashcroft et al remark that in relation to the post-colonial condition, the "question of the subject and subjectivity directly affects colonized peoples' perceptions of their identities and their capacities to resist the conditions of their domination, their 'subjection'" (Ashcroft et al 219). The issue of subject and subjectivity also connects to language: the "concept of subjectivity problematizes the simple relationship between the individual and language, replacing human nature with the concept of production of the human subject through ideology, discourse or language" (220). Congruent with post-colonial discourse, one may see postmodernism as sharing the "positive value of the different, the 'Other,' in the face of ideological urges to totalize and homogenize (Hutcheon, Encyclopedia 612). Likewise, the "modernist concept of a single and alienated otherness is challenged by postmodern questioning of binaries that conceal hierarchies (self/other). . . .Differences suggests multiplicity, heterogeneity, plurality, rather than binary opposition and exclusion" (Hutcheon Poetics of Postmodernism 61).
Linda Hutcheon also alludes to Jean-François Lyotard's view of postmodern culture, its "contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture" (Hutcheon 6). More accurately, Lyotard, as Hutcheon remarks, posits postmodern culture as having a provisionality of response to 'master narratives' such as art or myth that would have been consolatory to modernists (6). Hutcheon situates Lyotard within the general attack of postmodernism on "master narratives of bourgeois liberalism" (6). According to Hutcheon, for "Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by. . . incredulity toward master or meta-narratives: those who lament the 'loss of meaning' in the world or in art are really mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer primarily narrative knowledge of this kind" (6). Lyotard, like Nietzsche, argues that all the grand narratives of Western civilization‹such as Christianity, the Enlightenment or Marxism -- have been demolished in the wake of postmodern skepticism towards great 'stories' or total explanations of human nature, freedom, 'progress', and history (Robinson 41-42). However, Lyotard's vision of a pluralist society of 'small narratives' is "very different from Nietzsche's hierarchical project of Overmen and slave workers" (44). Like Derrida and Nietzsche, though, Lyotard insists that the "essentialist foundations of all these 'grand narratives' can no longer be accepted" (42). Moreover, Nietzsche and Lyotard both view history as inevitably cyclical. For Lyotard, the "cycles consist of modernist total 'grand narratives' being continually repudiated by different form of postmodern skepticism"(44).
The postmodern attenuation of meta-narrative (grands récits) throws the individual human subject into flux and interrogates the notion of consensus: "whatever narratives or systems that once allowed us to think we could unproblematically and universally define public agreement have now been questioned by the acknowledgment of differences -- in theory and in artistic practice" (Hutcheon 7). The revelation of consensus as illusory problematizes the relationship between the individual and the society in which s/he exists. Moreover, the role of art in relation to individualism versus collectivism is likewise unclear: "the familiar humanist separation of art and life (or human imagination versus chaos and disorder) no longer holds. Postmodernist contradictory art still installs that order, but then uses it to demystify our everyday processes of structuring chaos, of imparting or assigning meaning" (7). Thus, the individual human subject, art, society, and theory are necessarily intertwined.
In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard discusses postmodernity in the context of a discussion of science and yet the ramifications of his investigation reach far beyond empirical study. Lyotard uses the term modern to "designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to metadiscourse . . . making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth" (xxiii). Lyotard views the "Enlightenment narrative" as assuming a "consensus between the sender and addressee of a statement with truth-value . . . if it is cast in terms of a possible unanimity between rational minds " (xxiii). Lyotard defines the term postmodern to denote "incredulity toward metanarratives" (xxiv). Moreover, Lyotard contends that the narrative function is currently being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements -- narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on (xxiv). Indeed, using a term like postmodern is problematic for the very reason that postmodernism distrusts grand narratives, overarching labels, and any inherent connection between language and the world, such as the Derridean critique of logocentrism: a center of meaning that provides a balance between the tension of polar opposites. In the context of a discussion of Jacque Derrida's deconstruction discourse, Raman Selden argues that people "desire a centre because it guarantees being as presence" (144). For example, most people think of their "mental and physical life as centred on an 'I'; this personality is the principle of unity which underlies the structure of all that goes on in this space" (144). Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault and Derrida confront this assumption of a centered and wholly rational subjectivity, though, in many ways, it is impossible to think outside centering principles such as "being, essence, substance, truth, form, beginning, end, purpose, consciousness, man, God, and so on" (Selden 144). All one can do, perhaps, is to avoid letting one pole in a set of binary opposites dominate or act as the center by which one gains identity by negating the other.
In Culture and Imperialism, Edward W. Said similarly confronts the issue of the illusory centering of identity and subjectivity, both individual and collective, as it relates to language, narrative, and Othering. Said addresses the issue of how the binary construction of orient/occident breaks down as the machinery of Colonialism and Imperialism is attenuated under the weight of cultural products, such as literature, that provide a counterpoint to the unquestioned authoritativeness of the colonizer's voice. Said, like Laming, Césaire and others, invokes Shakespeare's Caliban (The Tempest) as a mythic figure of postcoloniality that ties to language and history:
Caliban, according to George Lamming, is the 'excluded, that which is eternally below possibility . . . a state of existence which can be appropriated and exploited to the purposes of another's own development.' If that is so, then Caliban must be shown to have a history that can be perceived on its own, as the result of Caliban's own effort. One must, according to Lamming, 'explode Prospero's old myth' by christening 'language afresh'; but this cannot occur 'until we show language as the product of human endeavor; until we make available to all the result of certain enterprises undertaken by men who are still regarded as the unfortunate descendant so languageless and deformed slaves.' (Said 213)
The colonized speaks back and yet the struggle for identity and voice goes beyond merely polarizing nationalistic assertions of power and independence. While identity "is crucial, just to assert a different identity is never enough. The main this is to be able to see that Caliban has a history capable of development, as part of a process of work, growth, and maturity to which only Europeans had seems entitled" (Said 213). In the process of postcolonial identity formation, the motif of 'us' and 'them,' however, continually reasserts itself in new guises within the politics of difference, despite the deconstruction of rigid boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized:
Gone are the binary oppositions dear to the nationalist and imperialist enterprise. Instead we begin to sense that old authority cannot simply be replaced by new authority, but that new alignments made across borders, types, nations, and essences are rapidly coming into view, and it is those new alignments that now provoke and challenge the fundamentally static notion of identity that has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism. Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their "others" that began systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely varied is that there is an "us" and a "them," each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-evident. (Said xxiv-xxv)
Said discusses identity in the postcolonial condition within the context of how art and literature engage with the politics of postcolonialism. Said comments that postcolonial literature often subverts master-narratives of Western Imperialism in order to assert an agency of the postcolonial subject. In relation to identity and subjectivity, Said seems to perceive certain fundamental problems in oppositional stances. Said asks if there are ways that one "can reconceive the imperial experience in other than compartmentalized terms" (17). Yet, while Said tends to want to smudge boundaries in order not to simply replace orientalism with occidentalism, Arif Dirlik views the blurring of boundaries as problematic in political and economic terms.
In "Borderlands Radicalism," Dirlik is critical of the trends of postmodernism and postcolonialism in regard to borders, subjectivity, and history. Dirlik claims that postmodernism and postcolonialism tend to simply reinforce the reign of late capitalism:
Post-modernism, articulating the condition of the globe in the age of flexible production, has done great theoretical service by challenging the tyrannical unilinearity of inherited conceptions of history and society. The political price paid for this achievement, however, has been to abolish the subject in history, which destroys the possibility of political action, or to attach action to one of another diffuse subject positions, which ends up in narcissistic preoccupations with self of one kind of another. (89)
Dirlik claims that the 'happy pluralism' of postcolonialism -- such as its emphasis on flux, borderlands and liminal space -- does not so much oppose elite unified narratives of nations and cultures as it does reinforce them. Dirlik also links this trend of "fluid subject positions" (98) in postmodernism to postcolonialism and Global Capitalism: "in the age of flexible production, we all live in the borderlands. Capital, deterritorialized and decentered, establishes borderlands where it can move freely, away from the control of states and societies but in collusion with states against societies" (Dirlik 87). Moreover, the problem "presented by postcolonial discourse" is "a problem of liberating discourse that divorces itself from the material conditions of life, in this case Global Capitalism as the foundational principle of contemporary society globally" (99). Dirlik also links the intellectual class as a product of global capitalism which, according to Dirlik, "has jumbled up notions of space and time" (100). Indeed, both postmodernist and post-colonialist literature involve the fragmentation and rebellion against modernist ideologies that impose essentializing identity, linear time schemes, and totalizing narratives. Madan Sarup notes that:
The project of modernity formulated in the eighteenth century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment consisted in their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law and autonomous art. . . .They hoped that the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings. (143)
Both postmodernism and postcolonialism seem to set themselves as critiques of the Enlightenment project in favor of a stress on discontinuity, chance, and instabilities. Artificial unity of works is something that is self-reflexively treated with irony by writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, or Carlos Fuentes. This trend involves the fragmentation of narrative architecture, non-linear time schemes and the deconstruction and reconstruction of standard English. In other words, one point of intersection between postmodernism and post-colonialism is the extension of narrative and linguistic devices found in high modernism, such as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which formed a new language via portmanteau words and the scraps of many languages:
The book is written in English and also against the English language; it converts itself into English and perverts itself from English. . . . It forces the reader to pay attention to the various genealogies of words and their functions . . . how they are hear and how they are seen, what historical weight and valencies they bear, what psychological, political and social functions they perform, their proximity to and distance from grunts and noises, their liberating and their repressive effects, their dependence upon syntax and grammar and their capacity to generate meaning, wildly and anarchically, when freed from those systems of governance and communication. (Deane viii)
This trend of transmogrification of language takes on increasing political dimensions in such postmodern works such as Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and postcolonial works such as Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home by Erna Brodber. Erna Brodber is a Jamaican-born sociologist who worked at the Social and Economic Research in Mona, Jamaica, from 1975 to 1983. She is currently a free-lance writer and researcher (book jacket of Jane and Louisa).
In Erna Broder's book Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, the mixed-race protagonist Nellie exists within a non-linear and disjointed narrative architecture that deconstructs and reconstructs Standard English with an infusion of various genres along with oral Caribbean (West Indian) tradition, folklore, and the central mythical symbol of the kumbla. The book's emphasis on theatricality as well as play with language and narrative voice resists not only easy accessibility or supposed mastery of the text but creates an alternative space that rebels indirectly against colonial authority and its essentializing tendencies for Caribbean identity. Jane and Louisa therefore rejects the master-narrative of Western imperialism and provides a counter-narrative that utilizes the literary tools of postmodernism to blur the lines between politics and aesthetics.
The novel also brings up issues of audience in relation to the issues of language and narrative structure. In "Fiction in the Scientific Procedure," Brodber argues that her novel was intended as a case history for her students and that Jane and Louisa was "not meant to find a public audience" (166). Not only does the 'novel' (if one can call it that), according to Brodber, contribute to a "sociology of blacks of the diaspora," but it is also a "valid methodological device" (167). Brodber argues that her sociology involves not cold and objective outside analysis of "disinterested scholars" but analysis within the culture from an "I" perspective so that the social workers she was training "saw their own "I" in the work, making this culture-in-personality study a personal and possibly transforming work for the therapists and through them the clients with whom they would work" (166). Ultimately, Brodber admits that Jane and Louisa "has failed to inform sociology students" (166) and yet the novel finds a home on readings lists of Caribbean fiction. Jane and Louisa curiously finds itself at points of intersection between modernism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism. Erna Brodber's novel uses the tools of postmodernism, narrative experiments which have been borrowed from high modernism, in order to explore heterogeneous Caribbean identity via a fragmented and anti-linear narrative architecture along with a language that transforms standard English, forms linguistic communities, and subverts the essentializing tendency of colonial authority.
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