Promising "Post-Colonialism": Deleuze-Guattari's "Minor Literature" and the Poetry of Arthur Yap

Irving Goh (The National University of Singapore)

[This essay has subsequently appeared in issue 22 of Genre, the California State University Literary Journal.]

"Post-colonialism": Promise, Justice/ Just Is

If the name, the term, "post-colonialism," just ever implied at the heart of it a life, a condition, something, better than "colonialism," it is because it has as its structurality something promising, something of a promise. "Post-colonialism" was -- and if it still is -- the promise of releasing lines of desires of heterogeneous voices blocked by the violent law of physical and/ or symbolic "colonialism." In other words, the rupture of "post-colonialism" articulates, gives presence to, some sort of justice. In Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy, "Justice is desire": "everything, everyone, is part of justice . . . everyone is an auxiliary of justice . . . not because of the transcendence of the law but because of the immanence of desire" (Kafka, 49-40). The lines of immanent desire, justice, in "post-colonial" spaces, were therefore blocked by the law of "colonialism." "Post-colonialism" then is the (re)opening to a relation to the world the justice of the just is, which is the immanent freedom that insists, inheres, subtends, in the freedom of the fact of existence, of life, of immanence, of "post-colonial" spaces. And this immanence is the reserve that always remains -- remains free -- in spite of "colonialism," and in spite of "post-colonialism." It is that interval between what has gone on with existence and "colonialism," between "colonialism" and "post-colonialism," and between "post-colonialism" and existence hic et nunc. It is like the syncope between "post" and "colonialism" in "post-colonialism." The question of "post-colonialism" then, to give justice to the justness of this term, is to sustain that systole of the force of its promise, to ensure the continual genesis of the thinking, the articulation of such freedom. One might say, following Derrida, that it is a question of mainténant justice, in which the promise of the mainténant is the responsibility of the iterability of writing. The point I would like to make here, which is also the main thrust of my argument, is that the promise of "post-colonialism" in "post-colonial" spaces needs more than mere écriture. It needs a writing that writes that immanent interval and that resonates of that interval. In other words, the promise of "post-colonialism," and its attendant mainténant justice, needs a writing -- a writing Deleuze and Guattari might just call "minor literature."

In this paper I will speak of the "post-colonial" space of Singapore, a "post-colonial" space that is close to (my) heart. I will speak of Singapore because the voice or the language of precisely that immanent interval, which is something close to the heart of this space, which consequently also means the freedom of that interval, is in the face of repression if not the beginning of its erasure today. In this "post-colonial" space therefore, I suggest that there should be a greater intensity in the insistence of writing this immanent interval with the language of that interval, just so to prevent the blockage of the horizon of that mainténant justice by any force that threatens it.

Singapore: Blocked Assemblage

If we ever want to speak about a "strange creature" of Southeast Asian "postcoloniality" or "post-colonialism," we might as well be speaking of the "post-colonial" space of Singapore; and as Ismail S. Talib points out "To talk of postcoloniality or the postcolonial condition in Southeast Asia is to talk of a strange creature" (p. 59). This is because in this contemporaneous time when western philosophies are extending pity to the world, as the occidental culture of information technology envelopes every locality of the globe, the "city/state" of Singapore is embracing this telematic force. It welcomes it as if it is a "de jure" fact of contemporary existence. A space "not of a once-colonised country per se" (Phillips, p. 180), it has the architectonics of that force -- a force not difficult to deconstruct as an elliptical form of "colonialism" as we know it from the last millennium -- so grounded in place. In terms of living out that almost inextricable post-industrial and post-modern condition of information culture, what in essence is "progress" in occidental terms, we might say Singapore is doing almost absurdly well. One critic has even written Singapore as "virtually a First World country in a Third World region" (p. 64). All these amount to saying that the "post-colonial" space of Singapore has transplanted (back) the diastolic, the regulating, striating pulsation, of "colonialism" as the heart, the technological, economic, and political law of "post-colonial" Singapore.

What remains then of the articulation of the promise of "post-colonialism" of this locality in the practical reasoning of the "city/ state"? One cannot say with full certainty today, as we have said in the beginning, that it remains with that immanent interval we have talked about. This is because the force of power in this "post-colonial" space is slowly eradicating the language and hence the voice(s) of that interval. Consequently, this movement of the force of power threatens to close the possibility of the promise of "post-colonialism," the possibility of the articulation of its promise.

In this space of immigrant if not nomadic history and culture, a multiracial and multicultural space in other words, the language of this space i.e. Singapore English, has always been an assemblage. It is an assemblage where the linguistic forces of the diverse racial groups enter into a relation. In this assemblage, there is no pure absolute ("standard") English, Malay, Tamil, or Chinese language. It is always a between-ness, a différance so to speak, a free moving spacing not only between the vernacular Singapore Colloquial English and the more formal acrolectal use of English, but also between the multiracial linguistic lines in Singapore. This fact of freedom of différance, différance of freedom, just is the justice of the desire of giving voice to the fact of the freedom of plural existences in relation in this heterogeneous "post-colonial" space. And this constantly deterritorializing linguistic assemblage, this "exotic weed," which resists any monolithic arborescent structure, a rhizome in other words, can be said to be the creative expression or articulation of the freedom of the immanent interval. More justly, perhaps, we should say that the différance of Singapore English has the mappings of what Deleuze and Guattari call "minor language." For if according to Deleuze and Guattari, a "minor language" subtends within a "major language" like a standard language such as standard English, we could say that Singapore English is the "minor language" in relation to standard English. As assemblage and différance, Singapore English is a stammering of standard English, affecting it with "a high coefficient of deterritorialization" in terms of phonology, syntax, and lexicology, continuously "plac[ing] [standard English] in a state of continuous variation."

But this "just is"/ justice is coming up against a wall of an instituting "law." There is a gradual appropriation of this freedom to articulate this linguistic assemblage, a capture of this assemblage. Since late 1999, there has been a disciplining, a policing, and then a call for the transmutation of Singapore English by the authorities, by the forces of power. There is a denunciation, if not the attempt to obliterate the spectrum of Singapore English that so inheres at the heart of the lived experience in Singapore i.e. Singapore Colloquial English. The teleologic end of this transmutation is the endeavor to attain a more-than-standard "Standard English," "Good English," "Proper English." In place of what is natural i.e. Singapore English in its différance, it seeks something that is more than natural. It is also a paradoxical "telos" as it attempts at a somewhat regression to the language variety of the now-defunct colonial and imperial Great Britain, a "Queen's English" as one observer comments sardonically ("Double standards in language?" Straits Times 23.25.99). According to Alfian Sa'at, it bespeaks of a desire of the forces of power for a return to a more originary "colonialism" today: "The Singlish hoo-ha smacked of a colonial [my italics] mentality which would appropriate the American slang of Hollywood movies, but not homegrown expressions" (cited in "Hijacked by debate on Singlish." Straits Times 7.09.99). It desires a more originary "colonialism" because, and if we want to accept the claim that English "was 'a precious gift' from the British" (Pakir, p. 92), that English has been shown to be not a pure "Standard English," never a pure "Queen's English" (see Gupta). It is a "telos" that is anachronistic too, since there is not so much of a "standard" English today. In the field of linguistics, where language diversity and variety are celebrated today, there is in fact the deconstruction of terms like "standard," "good," "proper," in relation to English. (And hence why I say the goal of this desire is "more-than-standard.") And to add to this sense of anachronistic reversion, this disciplining of the linguistic assemblage comes at a time when Singapore English has gained international recognition. According to The South China Morning Post, HK, "The Oxford English Dictionary has finally given its blessing to some Singaporean slang. Rather embarrassingly, this comes days before Singapore launches a campaign aimed at wiping out 'Singlish.'" (14.04.00). On the contrary, it is the "campaign" that is the real embarrassment.

Institutionalized as a public campaign and proselytized as "PROSE" -- of Promotion of Standard English-- at the local tertiary institution, this desire for a more originary "colonialism" is but one of several steps in raising, in feeding the growth or re-birth of the specter of "colonialism." There is a blatantly strong economic motivation behind the campaign for "standard English." The force of authority believes that "standard English" is the key to "the Republic's aim to be a First World economy" ("Buck up," Straits Times. 30.04.00). It believes that with "standard English," it will gain access to that occidental, neo-colonial, "globalitarian" law of information-technology economics mentioned earlier: "Go global with proper English" ("Out: Phua Chu Kang." Straits Times. 23.08.99). From the perspective of the force of authority, Singapore English must ultimately and necessarily "serve [my emphasis] a worldwide or transnational technocracy" (Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, p. 24). It will therefore discipline the différance of Singapore English. With a "ruthless shrinking," it seeks to sublate Singapore English in its endless spectrum of différance into mere "standard English." In "Singapore Soil," John Phillips argues that such constant resorting to arguments of economics creates "A ruthless shrinking" that "reduces Singapore to the anxiety of a kind of perpetual adolescence, a permanent awareness of the future's danger, a permanent state of shock at the random finitude of existence" (179). And it will appropriate the opinions of the immanent interval: "They want to speak better English, not Singlish" ("Singlish 'a handicap we do not wish on S'poreans." Straits Times. 15.08.99.) It will hinge the risk of its economic enterprise and goal on that interval:

Poor English [i.e. non-standard English used in the interval of common everyday experience] will hurt the Republic's aim to be a First World Economy. [my emphasis]

This hinge is but another way of laying blame on the other. And "culpability is never anything but the superficial movement whereby [the force of authority] confines[s] you in order to prevent you from engaging in a real movement" (Kafka, p. 45). In any case, this is the new founding law of this "post-colonial" space: the use of "Standard English" as a "political correctness." It is the desire-justice of the force of authority, a "desire that imposes submission, propagates it; a desire that judges and condemns" (Kafka, p. 4).

To reinstate that justice of the immanent interval, to tear open the artificial suture that closes the thought of freedom of the interval, to reinvigorate the force of the promise of "post-colonialism," there is therefore the imperative to precisely just write that interval. Which amounts to say to inscribe the front-guard -- the avant-garde -- against any reactive force that threatens to delimit its horizon; a front-guard that will also write "a desedimentation of the superstructures of law that both hide and reflect the economic and political interests of the dominant forces of society" (Derrida, "Force of Law," p. 13.). Which also amounts to say to write, according to Deleuze and Guattari, the "minor literature" of this "post-colonial" space. And true to its own avant-gardist paradoxical fashion -- the avant-garde is always the "new" that is already there -- this avant-garde "minor literature" has in fact been written. It is inscribed in the poetry of Arthur Yap.

Arthur Yap, "Minor Literature," and the avant-garde

Let us take a recent poem by Arthur Yap to illustrate the notion of avant-garde, in the sense of a counter-force, a counter-aesthetics to that prescribed by the dominating cultural and/ or political force. In "The Correctness of Flavour," written at a time very likely to be contemporaneous to that when the voice of authority or power called for the more-than-standard "Standard English." There is no shying away from the use of Singapore Colloquial English. Instead, there is precisely the use of that spectrum of Singapore English to expose the "law" that denies Singapore Colloquial English as dubious. In that poem, that voice of "law" is introjected in or by the mother-figure:

waiting for the lime sherbert to arrive,
mother turned around to her vacuous child:
boy, you heard what i said earlier?
nowadays, they emphasise english.

boy rolled his squinty eyes to the ceiling.
waitress returned, flustered, and started
on her own emphases:
lime sherbert today don't have.
mango got. strawberry also don't have.

mother, upset and acutely strident:
today DOESN'T have.
today DOES NOT have. ["The Correctness of Flavour." Straits Times: Life! Books. 12 February 2001.]

Here, "mother," the voice of authority, is shown to have not quite a "proper" sense of the "law" she talks about. In other words, she advocates something she herself has no full knowledge of. This apparently parallels my earlier point about the force of authority not being well versed in the linguistic trend or sensibility of the present time. She repeats the linguistic status quo dictated by the force of power ("nowadays, they emphasis english") but what she says -- "today DOESN'T have./ today DOES NOT have" -- betrays her grasp of what she repeats. The child figure, the "boy," on the other hand, takes up the line of force that possesses no power, which is the opposite of the authority of voice. In response to his mother's dictation, he but "rolled his squinty eyes to the ceiling," a gesture not difficult to perceive as an act of silent defiance: "boy's squint refused to concede acceptance." Toward the desire, the taste for "english" ("standard English" that is), the "boy" is "beyond any mitigation of flavour," like his indifference for sherbert-flavour, uttered in non-standard English of course: "mango can. anything can./ any anything also can." To the "boy," the mere fact of Singapore English just is, just as "waitress" uses it, despite "nowadays, they emphasise english." It is his reality, his truth, which is also the truth and reality of how "waitress" and "mother" speak naturally. What "they" and/ or "mother" dictate makes no sense to him. To the "boy," such "immediate realia/ "hold[s] no truth." This "impasse in an icecream café," the impasse between "mother" and "waitress," between "mother" and the apathetic "boy," is also the impasse of such a literature in the face of the "political correctness," or the correctness of the linguistic flavor dictated by the force of authority. We shall return to this notion of impasse later. Let us get back for now instead to the sense of avant-garde, in the sense of a new already-there, which just might make more forcefully the critical point about writing the immanent interval, with its immanent language. This brings us to Yap's poems written before "The Correctness of Flavour."

In poems like "group dynamics II" and "2 mothers in a h d b playground," written in Singapore English like "The Correctness of Flavour," Yap uses the English language in a way that it becomes more like a "minor language." In both poems, Yap deterritorializes the "major language" of "standard English" by bringing into relation his own command of syntax and the vernacular of the milieu of the space. I cite some lines of "2 mothers":

ah beng is so smart,
already he can watch tv & know the whole story.
your kim cheong is also quite smart,
what boy is he in the exam?
this playground is not too bad, but i'm always
so worried, car here, car there.

. . .

sure, sure. cheong's father buys him
vitamins but he keeps it inside his mouth
& later gives it to the cat.
i scold like mad but what for?
if i don't see it, how can i scold? [the space of city trees, pp. 101-2]

One might say that the representation of Singapore English in its différance here is not exactly or totally true to reality. But the force of expression of the poem is not mere literary re-presentation in the sense of reproducing reality. What happens instead is a cataclysmic vitalization of that différance, sending "the vitality of [the] form of speech" of the milieu into a further genesis through a becoming (Yap, "Vernacular," p. 71)

The expressive and creative force of the poem somewhat arrange Singapore English into another assemblage, where there is the liberating "becoming-imperceptible" of both the voice of the enunciation i.e. the narrator, and the voice(s) of the milieu. It brings the narrator, the two mothers, or the milieu, into a relation, a relation without any sense of that equivocal Western "subject." In this assemblage of pure, mere, relation then,

The message doesn't refer back to an enunciating subject who would be its cause, no more than to a subject of the statement . . . who would be its effect. [Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, p. 18]

The point to make here then is that such a writing, in a way of "minor literature" with a "minor language," is that it (re)affirms the fact of the freedom of immanence and the sense of relation immanent to that immanence. This is what happens too in "group dynamics II" and in a poem like "still-life VI." Everything, everybody, is always in the process of a becoming, always deterritorializing, always entering into another assemblage of relation: Compare "still-life I": "if she sits out in the garden, she�s a pile of leaves/ with a face" (109). Here, there is the becoming-leaves of the woman ("she�s a pile of leaves") and the becoming-human of the leaves ("a pile of leaves/ with a face." Such a writing of "minor literature" therefore, is always "an arrangement/ with different settings" (city trees, p. 109): "there are only collective assemblages of enunciation" (Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, p. 19.)

But perhaps more than anything, a greater critical significance of the "minor literature" of assemblage(s) like Yap's, is that it is of pure sound. It is of a sound that evokes the sense of the "post-colonial" space. And if sense -- of space or anything -- is always a movement, a deterritorialization, any sense of space can be written with as great proximity only with a "pure sonorous material" (Kafka, p. 19) like "2 mothers." One might say then, of poems like "2 mothers," "group dynamics II," and "I think (a book of changes)," "nothing remains but intensities" (Kafka, p. 19) intensities of immanence and its relation, of the sound of heterogeneous voices of this immanence, of the sound or song of the territory. And in fact, one could go on to say, the aesthetic distinction of "2 mothers" is the sound of it; its "performativity" is its sound. (Was it not T. S. Eliot who once said, "The music of poetry . . . must be a music latent in the common speech of its time" (112), which is the cacophony of man and space reterritorialized as sound?) On this note of aesthetic distinction, one should also add here that the avant-garde poetry of this "post-colonial" space does not need any idiosyncratic radicalization of lexicons, syntax, or word-spacings. The aesthetic and literary creativity with the "minor language" of Singapore English, and its sound, just is the avant-garde of this space. It needs "no typographical cleverness, no lexical agility, no blending or creation of words, no syntactical boldness" (Thousand Plateaus, p. 22). Those are, in fact, projections of occidental culture's "anxiety of influence." "Minor literature" is free from such uneasiness. In "minor literature," there are "no possibilities for an individuated enunciation that would belong to this or that 'master'" (Kafka, p. 17).

Another critical point one can make about creating a sound immanent of the life, the experience, of the space, is that it gives that notion of freedom a vector of extension, of flight that continues its genesis. According to Deleuze and Guattari, there is a somewhat liberating sense of sound's deterritorializing quality: "sound doesn't act like a formal element; rather it leads to an active disorganization of expression and, by reaction, of content itself" (Kafka, p. 28). The "active disorganization" is nothing nihilistic except just "in order to liberate [my italics] pure contents that mix expressions in a single intense matter" (Kafka, p. 28). "Go always farther in the direction of deterritorialization" as Deleuze and Guattari say (Kafka, p. 19).

Sound, or the music of poetry, of "minor literature" in the language of the immanent interval -- this "disarticulation" of the false justice by the force of authority leads us back to the notion of the avant-garde impasse (Kafka, p. 86). A poetry of the sound of "minor language" is in some way "in-operative," to use Jean-Luc Nancy's term. It is "inoperative," to the force of authority or power, because such a poetry refuses, resists, signification. It just will not include itself in the dominating culture that calls for the writing of the "grand narrative" of this "post-colonial" space, of its history of "independence," of its "nationhood." The poetry of Arthur Yap does not concern itself with the labor of writing the (fiction of) history of Singapore. Beyond signification, Yap's poetry seems more likely "[t]o make the sequences vibrate, to open the word onto unexpected internal intensities -- in short, an asignifying intensive utilization of language" (Kafka, p. 22). It is therefore "in-operative" in the sense that it is a "work" only of art, operative only in the sense of an intense rupture of communicating a community that the force of authority seemingly denigrates. Yap does not need to work with the striating notion of language needing to be significant, to be of signification. As he writes:

words have sometimes a way of stilling themselves
& then, no, we have a way of stilling words
in a way to still ourselves:
a choice of being still
& quiet to be still. ["words," the space of city trees, p. 92.]

There is always "a way" to deterritorialize signification ("stilling"), just to write that mainténant justice ("still ourselves") of the "just is" of the interval of existence, of immanence ("being still"), in spite of "colonialism," in spite of "post-colonialism" ("quiet to be still"). In writing in the mode of "minor literature" ("we have a way of stilling words"), there is always the possibility, the potential, the promise, to move toward, to articulate, the freedom ("a choice") of immanence.

He will therefore not undermine the fact of freedom of existence, in the service of signification (of history). As Yap writes in the same poem, "words need people to fill their blanks." And, "& i should never whip the commonplace/ for the meaning of its opposite," as he writes in "commonplace" (space of city trees, p. 57). Yap's poetry is not a poetry of history, as the dominant cultural and/ or political force would like the literature of this "post-colonial" space to be, but a poetry of geography, of the geography of the people of this "post-colonial" space. A poetry that inscribes an assemblage of relation always in its becoming necessarily writes the rhizomatics of the community, the people of the space. Such a poetry is a "good" impasse then, if we take into account Deleuze-Guattari's words: "an impasse is good if it forms part of the rhizome" (Kafka, p. 4).

In a way, Yap's poetry does not need to be over-conscious or over-determinedly siginifying of a sense of national identity. As an "assemblage . . . of collective enunciation," as "minor literature," Yap's poetry is already in a sense a national consciousness, since "national consciousness, uncertain or oppressed, necessarily exists by means of [minor] literature," according to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of "minor literature" (Kafka, p. 18, 19) It is as such that "everything in [Yap's poetry] is political" -- "political" because it affirms community, articulating the sense of existence's immanent relation; "political" because it affirms the "political correctnesses" of all existents, and their voices, of the "post-colonial" space, which is in fact the promise of "post-colonialism" (Deleuze, Negotiations, p. 87).

Conclusion: Just Promise

Deleuze once said, "If you don't constitute a surface on which things can be inscribed, what's not hidden will remain invisible." "What's not hidden" in this "post-colonial" space is the fact of freedom of going on with life, that immanent interval, and freely speaking the linguistic assemblage that is close to if not at the heart of this space. The (eternal) return of "colonialism" today, both from without and within in the case of Singapore, threatens to make "what's not hidden" become "invisible." This paper therefore has been an attempt to open up "a surface" to give presence to a sense of justice to "what's not hidden," to keep alive the force of freedom, of a mainténant justice of immanence "post-colonialism" just so promises.

But that does not mean that writing in such a way, inscribing this "surface," will absolutely get to the heart of things, of the promise of "post-colonialism," of the (immanent) freedom of immanence in "post-colonial" Singapore. There is always in immanence something that remains, something of a reserve, even in its own presencing. And that is why it is the interval: immanent interval and the interval of immanence. This interval is always in the middle, going onwards, going elsewhere, pushing its own force of genesis at the same time. One does not fulfil the promise of "post-colonialism" therefore. One is not able to fulfil such a promise. One should in fact never fulfil that promise, just in order to keep open the thinking, and the act, of freedom always at a limitless horizon. To just keep writing that "minor literature": that itself is keeping the promise of "post-colonialism" without fulfilling it. It is the act of "just promise." In Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, it is also written, "justice is more like a sound . . . that never stops taking flight." And, "He will find justice only be moving . . . following his desire. He will take control of the machine of expression . . . he will write without stop" [50-51]. "He will take control of the machine of expression" only with a writing that subtends with the "minor language" of the immanent interval, just as Arthur Yap's poetry just is.

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Last Modified: 18 March, 2002