One of my committee…

One of my committee members has kindly sent along some sample questions for me to practice thinking about. Some of these are more designed for the oral part of the exam, some for the written. I thought I'd post them here, off and on in the next week, so those of you interested could more effectively panic along with me. How's your knowledge of post-colonial lit. and lit. crit.?

1) James Clifford, in discussing "a problematic figure, the informant'," points out that these are usually "complex individuals routinely made to speak for cultural' knowledge" and yet who in actuality "have their own ethnographic' proclivities...and have seldom been homebodies" (from "Traveling Cultures").

A) Consider how several different critics and theorists have tried to complicate such figures of liminality and hybridity by negotiating versions of hybridity, fluidity, and multiple subjectivity within such "complex individuals" as alternatives to binarized essentialisms: for example, Bhabha's notions of hybridity, mimicry, and the "third space"; Judith Butler's "troubling" of essentialized categories; Anzaldua's "borderlands"; Rushdie's Bombay; Clifford's own arguments; and so on. Discuss some of these and their usefulness; negotiate, compare, and critique some of these in any way you wish. What happens to the notion of "identity" in such discussions?


B) How does your reading of Clifford, Pico Iyer, Said, Spivak, and others complicate the dynamics of "travel" and traveling? Apply some of these insights to two or three texts on your literature list that deal with cross-cultural "travel": e.g., the Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, The Last of the Mohicans, King Solomon's Mines, "The Man Who Would Be King", A Passage to India, Out of Africa, etc.

This would be a written question, obviously. I'll be flying out to Utah to take the oral, and then a few days later, they'll e-mail me my written question. I'll then have 72 hours to write a suitable response (usually about 40-50 typed pages) and e-mail it back to them. I'm so glad I get to do that part of the exam at home, with Kevin and tea and most importantly, all my books!

I need to review the Clifford today, but from what I remember of it, I think that I'd be okay with this question. I'd probably choose option B -- while I can do the more heavy-duty theory stuff if I have to, I'm more comfortable not, if given the option. It's also more fun, working with fiction than nonfiction. :-)

This is actually a pretty kind question from him, given that when I took his post-colonial theory class, my final paper was on hybridity (and my perception of my own role as a hybrid). My committee is pretty darn cool.

13 thoughts on “One of my committee…”

  1. You have to write a 40-50 page paper in 72 hours? Yikes. …I guess if by “typed pages” you’re talking about 250-words-per-page format, then that’s “only” 10K words. And I guess if you don’t have to do anything else during that time, that’s not so bad.

    Informant: I don’t know if this is what Clifford’s talking about, but it makes me think of science fiction stories in which the sole representative of the alien race who meets with the humans is understood to be entirely typical of that race. I always wanted to see a first-contact story in which the humans think the alien is typical but then they discover that it’s not. …But come to think of it, I guess that happens fairly regularly in sf: Nessus in Ringworld, bunches of alien-fugitive stories, generally the concept that the ambassador to the humans has to be a little weird to be able to put up with humans. Interesting.

    There’s plenty of old colonial sf; is there (literally) post-colonial sf? Set among the aliens, say, after the war for independence from the conquering humans?

  2. It’s not as bad as it sounds, honestly. If I’m prepared, with good notes, I can pretty easily write about a thousand academic words/hour. So even if I took a full day for thinking and reviewing notes and outlining my argument, I should be able to draft the paper on the second day and revise it on the third. Assuming all goes well. 🙂

    Regarding the informant thing, I think you’ve got what Clifford was getting at. He’s pointing out that not only is a sole representative not going to be able to effectively represent an entire species, but that in addition, the kind of person who would be willing to talk to the humans is likely to be an outsider in their own culture — much *less* representative than most, in fact. A weirdo, xenophilic, outcast, most likely. Possibly by choice, but still…

    The only two post-colonial sf texts I can think of offhand are Cherryh’s Foreigner series and Butler’s Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago trilogy.

  3. At least two of the stories in Le Guin’s _Four Ways to Forgiveness_ are post-colonial. And Charnas’s _The Conqueror’s Child_ to some extent, though it’s only just “post.” no human-alien colonial dynamics, though; just intra-human.

  4. Heather, can you remind me which stories of LeGuin’s? I loved that collection, but I read it a long time ago…

  5. There is some elements of post-colonialism in Philip K. Dick, especially in his “The Man in the High Tower”, which is essentially on one level “The US as a colonized land in the wake of losing WWII”. Interesting because it is written with many scenes from the perspective of “americans” living as colonized people.

    Not an entirely flawless book, but also not a long read.

  6. Four Ways to Forgiveness is a form Le Guin sometimes calls a “story suite” — a collection of related stories that doesn’t quite make a novel but is more than a collection of short stories. These four concern the planets Werel and Yeowe. Werel colonized Yeowe, and then Yeowe fought free and defeated Werel. “Betrayals” and “A Woman’s Liberation” are the two that are post-colonial, I think; the other two, “Forgiveness Day” and “A Man of the People,” are set during the processes of de-colonization, to use an awkward phrase.

    Here’s a short review from the Washington Post, linked from Le Guin’s website.

  7. Thanks for the clarification and reminder, Heather — they’re coming back to me now. If only I had time to sit down and re-read them…


  8. There’s another Werel/Yeowe story out there, “Old Music and the Slave Women,” which I’m pretty sure is in the post-colonial(*) time frame.

    (*) Is it considered ‘post-colonial’ if there was no indigenous population? Unless my mind is playing tricks on me, Yeowe was genuinely uninhabited before the Werelians started settling. The master/asset, black/dusty hierarchy on Werel does imply a history of conquest there, but it seems to be so far in the past that there isn’t an idea among the light-skinned people of land they were originally from. Instead, they adopt Yeowe as a home-to-be once the revolution there begins. (Of course, my memory could be playing tricks on me.)

  9. Maybe not post-colonial, but there’s still race relations stuff going on, yes? It’s connected then, at any rate.

  10. Before I forget, I should note that, having now reviewed Clifford, there’s a lot more going on in his essay. He *starts* with the point above, but goes on. Quick recap, for those still interested:

    – starts with problem of anthropologist/ethnographer whose “informant” turns out to actually be (necessarily?) a traveller, or outsider in the culture
    – 1920’s, ethnographers very excited to pitch tents next to the chief’s house, actually “dwelling” in the culture, supposedly privy to its inner secrets
    – but goes on to say that this informant/traveller is perhaps less of a problem that at first seemed
    – that travellers occupy a significant space in cultures
    – that today at least, it’s hard to find cultures that aren’t comprised mostly of travellers (and if they can’t travel physically, they’re glued to the radio, or the tv) — their culture is not existing in some pristine isolation, untouched by the outside world
    – that we need to think about tribes, barrios, immigrant neighborhoods — embattled histories with crucial community ‘insides’ and regulated travelling ‘outsides’ — what does it take to define a homeland?
    – we need to consider ‘the border’
    – we need to consider cultures like Haiti that can now be ethnographically studied both in the Caribbean and in Brooklyn
    – consider gender, and the restricted role of female travellers (what different areas do they have access to, despite restrictions?)
    – notion of travel expands and expands
    – in the end, also want to return to notion of dwelling — those who choose not to travel, those who are forced to remain still
    – a cross-cultural examination of travelling/dwelling — is there another way to think about this that doesn’t create binary oppositions?

  11. Very cool recap of stuff from Clifford. That sounds fascinating. Thanks for posting it!

    Possibly also related: stuff about rootlessness in Americans our age — people not expecting to be settled in one community for the rest of their lives. Also, Clifford mentions gender, but I think class (and, in many places, ethnicity) is also very relevant to the question of whether someone can become a traveler. (And what about the differences between tourist-as-traveler, diplomat-as-traveler, and hobo-as-traveler?)

  12. He does address class and ethnicity, actually, as well as all sorts of specifics of different types of travellers. You might actually enjoy the essay, Jed. 🙂

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