Post-colonial Racism

Today in my “Post-colonial” literature paper we had a whole-class debate on “Is Joseph Conrad, in the words of Chinua Achebe, a ‘bloody racist’?”

It was quite a helpful format, because he divided the class into two, told us to find three main points as a collective and then break into essentially six groups to refine and state the main points. It meant there was focus for discussion, and the necessity of being able to state a conclusion.

But it was while discussing this that I had a kind of realisation. I don’t like the word “racist”. For one thing, I have almost no idea what it means. Chinua Achebe’s view is clearly stated when he dissects Conrad, and from what I can tell, you’re either with the oppressed masses or against them. Pardon the expression, but he seems to have a pretty black and white perspective on it. Conrad wrote in opposition to the tyranny and excesses of the colonial masters, but because he didn’t go the next step and demand their freedom he is condemned forever in quite strong terms as not worthy of study or remembrance. Well, I disagree: at the very least, he’s to be valued as a cultural artefact.

Part of the difficulty I have with approaching literature from the point of view of evaluating the qualities of the author’s character is that.. well.. literature is a construction built within a kind of purely intellectual framework. However much we might like to read into a work some correspondance with reality, it must be always kept in mind that the work is an artistic creation first. This isn’t a hard line: some of the journalism I’ve seen in National Geographic magazine has been as dream like and disconnected as any purely fictional narrative, and some ultimately fictitous narratives can easily compell you to believe that reality could be no other way. Frederick Forsyth, for example, specializes in presenting such a meticulously detailed world that despite yourself you are convinced it’s all true by the novel’s end. That conviction doesn’t make it so.

At best, you can look at the type of fiction and say “this kind of fiction interests the author who wrote it”. Just as it obviously interests you, because you’re reading it. Ultimately then, my take is that the author isn’t a figure you should try to interrogate based on his fiction. Their part in producing meaning is done, and it is in the hands of the reader to determine what value the work has. The reader must construct the framework with which they interpret the novel and gain insight or pleasure as best they can. To that extent, I do not begrudge Achebe his reading, antithetical to my own. In fact, through the prose he produced I can go with him.

But, I can’t go there on my own. His concept of “racism” is clearly well developed, and has been evolving over a long period of time. Just like that other great black intellectual Chris Rock: “I love black people, but I hate niggers.” Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been too long steeped in the Scifi subculture, but I thought he expressed one of the key methodologies of Scifi: change something’s exterior, and see if you still care about the consequences. Transform, as Circe did, the dying workers Marlow encounters in the shady grove into pigs, and there is still a moving scene: the pathos comes from their suffering, their colour or even their species matters not one bit.

At its heart this kind of approach is to isolate what’s really important or at stake, and to describe it in those terms. Thus they have AI or Robots instead of people in their inquest into the rights of the individual. The apotheosis of this idea was arguably Data in Star Trek Enterprise: is he a machine, or a person? What are the essential qualities which he has or lacks that makes him in some spiritual sense, human?

Conversely, just as 1960s SciFi used this foil to slice away the inhereted baggage of race, it allows the exposure of any story element as it’s naked plot function. This is the baggage that Achebe is unable to leave behind as he lambasts Conrad’s depiction of the almost mindless and certainly misanthropic natives who live on the banks of the Congo. For Achebe, they are supremely and unalterably fully realized human beings. Conrad’s story is essentially one of a man who abandons the trappings and modes of civilization to embrace power absolutely, and finds himself consequently absolutely corrupted.

Using the tool of translation, and considering instead a man surrounded by and embracing the modes of computers, do we feel that antipathy to an alien psychology so vividly evoked by Conrad? We do; but in recognizing the essential difference between us and the computers, we are not thinking as unrepentant technophobes. We are thinking as human beings lamenting the loss of the essential quality which binds rather than divides. Is it racist for Conrad to ascribe savagery to the savages?

Conrad, writing in the modern world, would need to reach further afield than Africa for the part of his savages. There are no untamed wilds left, and I wonder whether he would, as HG Wells did, turn to an entirely fictitious future? Would Conrad now be forced to send his protagonist into the far future, into a world of Morlocks and Eloi? Must we follow Achebe and perfectly humanize these fictitious creatures with a full spectrum of human experience, and at last sympathize rather with the Morlocks than Eloi because of the burdens that history has forced them to assume? Alas, for simple reasons of clarity and brevity, we must necessarily relegate some portion of each story, each character, to the waste-bin of unwritten dreams, mere ghosts in the literary machine.

Of course, we cannot arbitarily and absolutely divide a work from the chosen setting, but perhaps we can start to see that there is an implicit -ism hiding behind any recognition of difference, especially where that difference is demonstrably in the direction of inferiority. I notice that the winner of most foot-races are black, and hence judge the white man outmatched: am I racist? Or am I, like Chris Rock, merely acknowledging that any entity should be judged on its apparent merits?

The ugly truth about me is that while I can take the step whose omission damned Conrad, namely to say that Colonial powers should never have existed as such, I cannot free myself from the stigma of recognizing the inferiority of savagery over civilization. Nor can I wholly free myself from some primal urge to dance in the moonlight, free from the shackles of reason and dignity. Conrad’s frenzied black masses seem to me little different from the drugged raving masses at dance parties, and I think that was ultimately his point: the heart is the vital life giving organ in every creature, and man’s is a Heart of Darkness, be he savage or civil.

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17 Responses to Post-colonial Racism

  1. xullrae says:

    I am curious – how do you think growing up in South Africa has affected your attitude to racism?

    I am always wary of over-analysing artists. Sure, it’s possible it might give you more insight into their creations. But it’s too easy to dismiss someone’s work because they weren’t ‘nice’ people, or even to read too much into their faults, whatever they were. There was an interesting article on that in the Guardian last week actually.

    Hmm…I should try reading Conrad – I’ve been reading far too much dross lately…

    • mashugenah says:

      how do you think growing up in South Africa has affected your attitude to racism?

      Wow, that’s a can of worms I’m afraid. :/ In general, I’d say that I’m pretty callous about it. My general line is that racism has a solid basis in life-as-lived, so you should just get over it. There seems to be a strangely dichotomous perception of race in NZ, where you can ascribe positive attributes on the basis of race, but not negative ones. I think there is also a tendancy to pussy-foot around race issues.

      The classic argument I had with someone a few months ago was in discussing the search for terrorists. I argued that you’ve got to look at the cultural/ethnic background of the mass of terrorists and focus your attention there. In Spain that’s the Basques, in the UK that’s traditionally been the Irish, and in the USA that’s white supremists. Am I being racist? Probably, but it seems patently obvious to at least try and profile criminals and keep an eye on that segment. For the same reason I’d have no problem having a larger police presence at lower decile schools, where there is a greater tendancy for substance abuse and petty crime. Then too, I’d be more inclined to implement safeguards on the accounting practices of older civil servants in the mid bracket, as studies show they’re the most likely to turn to white collar crime as they approach retirement.

      So… I guess I’m ultimately pragmatic, and perfectly willing to target any identifiable group for any purpose. Of course, the other argument I frequently make is that racial targetting may be less efficient than a “more general” socio-economic and geographic focus. If 80% of the needy are a particular race, but 100% are a particular wealth level…

      It’s a long way of saying: I’m quite happy to put on a “racist” stance when I think there will be benefits, but am not inclined to search for racial answers. I suspect I read too much Marx at too impressionable an age.

    • mashugenah says:

      I am always wary of over-analysing artists.

      Do you have your wormcan openner in a holster? (or is it in a clear plastic bag? πŸ˜‰ )

      I don’t think there is a limit to how far you should investigate an artist’s work, as long as you’re still getting something out of the process. What I’m wary of is where people are continuing to analyse, but aren’t really finding anything out. The most recent example I’ve encountered was some careful examination of Gertrude Stein’s poetry; once the academic had gotten beyond her obsession with repetition, the analysis he did on one poem couldn’t really tell you much about any other poem, or about how to get meaning out generally. A great counter-example is in the introduction of Laura Riding’s A Survey of Modernist Poetry where she looks in enormous detail at a poetry fragment, and is able from her conclusions to not only make it seem meaningful, but to show the use of similar techniques in a couple of other poems which transform them from verging on the non-sensical to being quite elegant.

      I think a lot of this is about managing your expectations. One of Riding’s main points is that there is a certain type of “easy” poetry which encourages laziness on the part of the reader, but concommitant with that is a restriction on the kinds of ideas you can explore. She sees the main advance of modernist poetry in the early twentieth century as freeing it from both stylistic and topical shackles. Kinda like the difference between listenning to Classical music and jazz.

    • mashugenah says:

      I am always wary of over-analysing artists.

      Or I could actually answer what you said. πŸ™‚

      I generally don’t get much out of biographical information. I guess I tend to think that they shouldn’t escape any real-world consequences for their actions on the basis of their art, but that once created, an artistic work should be left to fend for itself. So, I’d happily punch Wagner in the face if we meet in some afterlife, but I’m not going to get rid of my CDs on the basis that he was a very bad man. πŸ™‚

      I’m never quite sure what I’m supposed to do with an artist’s life history when reading their books either. :/

  2. nishatalitha says:

    I was going to just skim over this post and ignore it, but something about it caught me and here I am commenting. πŸ™‚

    I couldn’t follow all of it (from about two thirds through) without having more background knowledge and thinking time, since I’m not really a literature analyst, nor indeed an analyst of any type, but very much liked this sentence: “Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been too long steeped in the Scifi subculture, but I thought he expressed one of the key methodologies of Scifi: change something’s exterior, and see if you still care about the consequences.” I think that’s a good point, and one of the reasons I like the genre so much.

    You may (or not) be pleased to hear that I’m making my way through The Reality Dysfunction.

    • mashugenah says:

      I couldn’t follow all of it (from about two thirds through)

      😦 I have failed as a communicator.

      Essentially, I offer a sci-fi object to replace Conrad’s “niggers” and make some comment about it. I conclude by saying that if Conrad’s racist, so is pretty much everyone else.

      You may (or not) be pleased to hear that I’m making my way through The Reality Dysfunction.

      I bounced off it the first time, but the second time I enjoyed pretty much everything up until the last 50 pages, then threw my book away in frustration. I relent, and have the whole series if you want to borrow the other parts.

      The short fiction anthology nominally set in that universe is much better, and has a lot of real “gee whiz” moments, as well as one story that genuinely freaked me out.

      I think summed up Hamilton right when saying he was really a horror author transplanting stuff into a SF setting.

      • nishatalitha says:

        It wasn’t so much your lack of communicating as my lack of desire to put the work in to get something out of what you were saying. My loss, not yours. (note: I’m still not going back focus on comprehension).

        …at first, when you said Hamilton, I thought you meant the city, and my mind went back to the recent post about young roleplayers in Hamilton on NZRAG, and the comment didn’t seem quite right, before I realised.

        I hope he’s not too much of a horror author in a SF setting; I’ll be much less keen on it then. Although there have been some really icky bits so far anyway.

  3. This is kinda off the wall, wrt your actual post, but have you read much (or anything) by Lem?

  4. This is kinda off the wall, wrt your actual post, but have you read much (or anything) by Lem?

  5. mundens says:

    There’s some nice language in there!

    I always take issue with those who see “colonial powers” as inherently bad.

    Just because the Europeans for a short while did better than everyone else at what everyone was doing to themselves in their own way, doesn’t make them any worse than the people they may have oppressed.

    “Right of conquest” has always been a valid way to expand one’s sphere of influence and always will be, regardless of how “enlightened” one’s civilisation may consider itself. The only difference is the means of conquest. Is it a conquest of bodies and weapons, or is it a conquest of hearts and minds, or is it a memetic invasion? I think a good exploration of this is the Iain Banks “Culture” series.

    I reckon it is basically not possible for a technologically and militarily superior culture (note, no mention of moral superiority, or anything soft and silly there) to interact with another without “colonizing” it. The inferior culture will often request such colonization, by mimickry if nothing else, if the superior one doesn’t actively pursue it.

    Anyway, back to the subject, I think your last paragraph needs work and is wishy washy, it is not clearly conveying your opinion, unless you don’t really have one, in which case it is. Neither does it (to me) adequately sum up the content of the actual essay.

    Should you really use the term “SciFi” ? Would you use the contraction EngLit in such an essay? If so, no problem, just a thought that a more complete term might be better. Also, you might consider using the other meanings of “SF” which are more accurate, descritpions of the genre, such as “Speculative Fiction” or “Social Fiction”, very little actual “Science Fiction”, in other words, fiction in which the prime driver is the exploration of some scientific idea or gadget, has been written since the fifties.

    I think you should mention some of Achebe’s many detractors, and point out that his opinion was presented in 1975 in the US, a time and place of strong black-white tensions, and thus more correctly represents the time and place the criticism was written than it does Conrad’s work.

    • mashugenah says:

      There’s some nice language in there!

      Thanks. πŸ™‚

      I reckon it is basically not possible for a technologically and militarily superior culture (note, no mention of moral superiority, or anything soft and silly there) to interact with another without “colonizing” it.

      That’s a very good point, and has been picked up in terms of trying to understand modern Japanese culture (as well as a few other places). In a lot of ways they were colonized after WWII, abandonning huge swathes of their culture to adopt Western norms.

      This is really the basic premise behind Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”.

      Anyway, back to the subject, I think your last paragraph needs work and is wishy washy, it is not clearly conveying your opinion, unless you don’t really have one, in which case it is.

      Really? I quite liked the formulation, but then, that’s kinda obvious. I agree though that it’s not really a neat summary of my points or the coup de grace to any kind of opposing argument. I’ll have a think about a firmer conclusion; as with many of these tirades though, I find it hard to specify the real argumentative and/or emotional centre. I wrote it as a reaction against Achebe’s simplistic dismissal of Conrad and his literary devices, so that seems like an obvious place to look.

      Should you really use the term “SciFi” ?

      The difficulty is that, like any informal tradition, there isn’t an organizational centre or a firmly observed canon in the sub-culture. I thought about trying to be a bit more specific and decided it was too verbose. While I use the various different terms you propose, there is such a lot of crossover and intercourse between the strands that I am not confident to say where they start and stop and nor do I think I can specify which was the single most influential aspect in the argument that follows.

      Once I’d decided that some kind of non-specific reference was going to be deployed, I thought I’d really embrace the pop-culture nature of the beast. If I were to prepare something like this for formal presentation, I would be a bit stymied. :/ At this level, I’d probably use the contraction and then footnote a digression on the term.

      The fiction I was actually thinking of was in two parts: TOS had two episodes that were very influential on my racially related thinking. The first was The Cloudminders, in which there is an oppressed worker caste not measurably inferior to their masters; and another whose name I can’t recall, but where two races are at war. One race is half black and half white, the other half white and half black. Both of these showed me in fairly bald terms that success or failure was largely a matter of circumstance rather than genetic destiny.

      But the other major source I was pondering was HG Wells’ The Time Machine; the relation between the Morlocks and Eloi being the classic one of rapacious dehumanization so rife since the industrial revolution. It struck me as perfectly showing the relationship between Colonial powers and their new territories as the colonizers might idealize it. Of course they eat one or two: but look at the benefits for the rest!

      Finding a monicker to encapsulate both of those was too much for my meagre talents if it wasn’t to be “scifi”.

      I think you should mention some of Achebe’s many detractors,

      Except that would undermine the minor line in my argument which is to accept a written work without context. To challenge Achebe on the basis of his politics is no better than Achebe challenging Conrad on the basis of his.

      Thanks for the feedback; I find it very useful (and will doubtless find any rebuttal or expansion to this response). I’ll ponder a different conclusion and see what occurs. πŸ™‚

      • mundens says:

        RE: clarity of the conclusion:
        you say in a response to

        I conclude by saying that if Conrad’s racist, so is pretty much everyone else.

        See, I didn’t get that from your conclusion at all!

        All I got was that man as a whole has a dark heart, and you thought “civilization” superior to “savagery” even though you understood the lure of that side.

        Maybe just stating it somewhere is simpler? πŸ™‚

        Hmm, and accepting a written work without context… dangerous!
        Here sign this for me. No, you don’t need to see the text under the fold. πŸ™‚

        Though I agree that fiction, poetry, etc, should be enjoyed without respect to the views or background of the author (except perhaps where that discolours the work and makes it unreadable for you), I’d disagree that non-fiction which contains “real world” opinions should be read without understanding the context it was written in. At the very least one needs to know whether the person was paid to write what they wrote by some interested party.

        Y’know, like all those “reports” commissioned by Microsoft to tell everyone that Linux and open source software is dangerous!

      • mashugenah says:

        Hmm, and accepting a written work without context… dangerous!
        Here sign this for me. No, you don’t need to see the text under the fold. πŸ™‚

        As I say in the main text: I don’t want to see it as a binary alternative, but as a kind of fade-in-slider. Achebe’s got a lot of vald points about how black people are not portrayed positively in the novel… but when I read it for the first time, the horror and negativity came almost exclusively from the white characters. The black masses he describes were no more than a plot device and seemed like they could easily have been any kind of creature. In other words: the plot necessitated something filling that function of wild abandon, and here it happenned to be blacks.

        In my reading of the novel as essentially a psychological investigation I don’t want to rule out the other main reading: the novel as a critique on colonization. That does play a major role, and particularly in the early phases of the book you see individual suffering, and would be lacking rigour to disregard those characters in the same blaise way as I’m prepared to disregard the undifferentiated mass later on. To that extent, there are two distinct differen groups of blacks which feature in different functions in the story.

        I want, therefore, to have access to both readings; Achebe’s principle fault in my mind, is ruling out one based on the primacy of factors totally outside the text itself.

    • mashugenah says:

      πŸ™‚ And in response to your icon… I didn’t like that speech of his. I also don’t think he does write strong female characters. Sure, Buffy has super powers, but she’s got problems to match them. From my POV the characters who emerged with the most vitality in the Buffy verse were Spike, Giles when spotlighted, and Mal. The only female character of his I’d describe as being especially strong is probably Inara. (Zoe is tough, but I feel she manages this by sacrificing much of her femininity, while Inara has her moments of strength by controlling and exploiting hers.)

      • mundens says:

        Now you’ve done it! πŸ™‚

        See, I don’t see super powers as being Buffy’s strength.

        I also see Anya, Willow, and Faith, among others, as having strong characters.

        Interesting you didn’t mention Xander though, as to me he was the strongest of the lot of them. The only one to consistently go up against the enemy without any power or training, and always shown rebuilding after the fights. Also the only core Buffy character to actually “succeed” in the classic sense of getting a haircut and a real job, something he managed even with all the crap going down around him.

        (Spike is cool, I just feel he is a bit of a follower)

        I’d agree about Inarra though, she’s probably the strongest female character in Firefly. I’d say she was stronger than Mal in many ways. Mal’s strength is his stubborness, but that can be a suicidal strength, it was Inarra’s action that saved him from the operative when they first met, and a quirk of fate the second time.

      • mashugenah says:

        See, I don’t see super powers as being Buffy’s strength.

        I think that Riley summed up Buffy for me in A New Man. He said she was very much “assess, make the plan, execute the plan.” Her strength of wil is untempered by much judgement much of the time. She is totally self absorbed and even allowing that this is a natural and necessary emphasis for the eponymous character, it’s not good. So yes, in that sense she is strong, but not admirable.

        Interesting you didn’t mention Xander though, as to me he was the strongest of the lot of them.

        He flitted through my mind. πŸ™‚ His strength was a very passive one. I feel though, that he wasted his potential. The Xander in season 2 was an academic wreck, but he was a risk-taker and he set the agenda of his own life. When he disagreed with Buffy or someone else, he wasn’t afraid to state his opinion, and when called on to fight or sneak, he did his best. But, by the middle of season 4 he had been reduced to a slapstick stickman fit only to hang increasingly demeaning jokes on. I often compare him with Wesley, who fumbled round and made mistakes, but eventually came out as the real leader in Angel’s band of miscreants, relinquishing that role deliberately to save Angel. Near the end, Xander started to get it together again, but again, in Season 6/7 I found him to be very passive.

        (Spike is cool, I just feel he is a bit of a follower)

        Spike had to make a lot of difficult moral choices and totally restructure his life a couple of times over the show. He went down a few times, but he always came back swinging. He was another character though, whose mana was eroded over the course of the show. Strength to me doesn’t imply leadership. Giles, for example, is never a leader.

        I’d say she was stronger than Mal in many ways.

        Yep, no problem with that. πŸ™‚

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