Saturday, 15 March 2014

Fezokuhle Mthonti on 'Discourse on Colonialism'

My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth,
my voice the freedom of those who break down
in the prison holes of despair.”
-Aimè Cèsaire. A Return to My Native Land?

Above, is an excerpt from Aimè Cèsaire’s book entitled A Return to My Native Land? The reason why I have chosen to lead with this excerpt is because I feel that Cèsaire is able to grapple with all the themes and the ideas of a Discourse on Colonialism here in a prosaic and  uncomplicated way; which to me not only signals the kinds of politics that he is interested in within this pamphlet on colonialism, but also how freedoms can become visible and available when we inscribe art into forms of resistance.

In trying to frame what I believe is Aimee Cèsaire’s point of departure in a Discourse on Colonialism, I will use the analysis presented by Michael Neocosmos on how Cèsaire is effectively engaging in politics of emancipation through a form of resistance to his location, which effectively is the French colony, and in so doing, is then able to subvert that space. Neocosmos discusses this form of emancipatory politics in a paper entitled Are Those Who Do Not Count Capable of Reason? Thinking Political Subjectivity in the (Neo) Colonial World and the Limits of History. It will be my assertion that when Cèsaire “refuses and resists oppression, [he] places [himself] beyond the place of oppression both subjectively and politically and often even physically”(2012:531). This is why I imagine Cèsaire informs the reader, in the very beginning of the text, that to think clearly about what the nature of colonization fundamentally is, is to engage in dangerous work. 

In engaging in this politics of emancipation through what he calls a Discourse on Colonialism will contend that  Cèsaire is effectively unpacking what Cultural Theorist John Stuart Hall, refers to as ‘the work of representation.’ Through an extensive discussion on how meaning is made and how ideology operates in different spatial contexts, I will speak to how Cèsaire is effectively speaking truth to power by debunking some of the myths that operate in the colonial project. Thereafter I will briefly engage in a discussion on the role of art or artistic thinking in the sphere of the political. I will particularly be interested in how the Surrealist Movement was able to free up Cèsaire’s thinking about colonisation and in so doing able to foreground this text as an act of resistance to power.

Cèsaire is in my opinion interested in the language and the vocabulary of the colonial project. As indicated to us by the title of the book, Cèsaire is effectively interested in discourse. I would argue that he is interested in what Stuart-Hall refers to as, and what Michel Foucault effectively theorized as, “a group of statements which provide a language for talking about-a way of representing the knowledge about a particular topic at a particular historical moment” (1997:44).

Having said that, I would suggest that Cèsaire is interested in how words and phrases like ‘the rule of law’ ‘civilisation’ and ‘Christianity’ change meaning when they are used in the context of the colony and in the context of the colonial city. These words are assertions of power. They are claims to knowledge and  within that framework of knowledge, there a number of salient claims that assert control and domination that exist within them. Christianity and civilisation represent themselves in the colony through the logic of victimisation, “plunder, helmets, lances and cupidites” to the “Indians, the yellow peoples, and the Negroes”(1955:2). By categorically telling the reader what colonization is not i.e. a form of evangelization, philanthropy or a project of enlightenment or even the magnanimity of M. Caillois,  Cèsaire unravels the character of colonization which is at its base a sadistic and brutish form of domination. This is effectively a disruption of the master narrative that had been associated with the colonial project and all the ideas therein linked.  In revealing how the notion of ‘development’ can facilitate the destruction of the  South Sea islands, Nigeria, Nyasaland, Cèsaire troubles the ideological constructions that lodge themselves into European Colonialism.  Cèsaire illustrates this point best by saying that “between colonization and civilisation there is an infinite distance; that out of all the colonial expeditions that have been undertaken, out of all the colonial statutes that have been drawn up, out of all the memoranda that have been dispatched by all the ministries, there could come not a single human value”(1955:2).

In doing this, I would argue that Cèsaire is displacing this ‘language of contribution and philanthropy’ by showing it up through its inherently destructive and disingenuous character. Cèsaire maintains that “Europe is dishonest in trying to justify its colonising activity a posteriori by the obvious material progress that has been achieved in certain fields under the colonial regime”(1955:8). Colonial entry into African and Asian societies was based on the premise that they were inherently static and unable to develop themselves along a similar trajectory to that of Europe. However Cèsaire refutes this claim  by not only citing Japan’s development as a society as free of the paternalism of Europe but, and perhaps more importantly,  how European occupation further stagnated and distorted the progression of its respective colonies.

This stagnation and distortion not only happened when Europe occupied their colonies, but it also manifested itself in the logic of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and their imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs post-independence. The ‘respectable bourgeois’ that Cèsaire speaks of, articulates itself  in the supposedly reputable structures  of the IMF. Having already eroded the economies of African and Asian Societies, the IMF proposed  ‘charitable relief’ through the system of loans, rules and regulations with which they could continue to influence the development and inadvertent destruction of their respective colonies. This is why Cèsaire understands the proletarian problem to not only be the consequence of colonial entry but also the “situation to which its existence has given rise [to]” (1955:1).

It would be my assertion that the capitalistic neoliberal paradigm that we find ourselves lodged into, has also created the proletariat. Human  rights discourse reflects itself in this paradigm  and we are thus unable in this system to reconcile basic human rights with the poor or those that have been refuged by the state. One’s complicity in this paradigm is an inadvertent complicity in the systems of evil and repression.  Cèsaire echoes this through saying that “at the end of capitalism, which is eager to outlive its day, there is Hitler.” (1955:3) He further articulates this by quoting Hitler who  asserts that “it is not a question of eliminating the inequalities among men but of widening them and making them into law.” (1955:3)

Perhaps what is most important about Cèsaire’s text is how the idea of mythmaking and what can be referred to as the ‘politics of fear’, is effectively a debilitating process which not only signals a regression in society but also opens the door up to intra racial violence and hatred.  Cèsaire explores this idea through his discussion of Hitler and Nazism. He says that “ before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non- European peoples;  that they had cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it.” (1955:3) Cèsaire points to how the repression of other groups and one’s complicity therein, can effectively lead to one’s own oppression. This is why Cèsaire refers to these societies as being inherently diseased and maligned, because if it “chooses to closes its eyes to its most crucial problems [then]  it is a stricken civilisation.” (1955:1)

Moreover, in describing the European colonial project as a ‘pseudo-humanism’, Cèsaire points to the fact that human interactions have been abstracted and reified into “relations of domination and submission” (1955:6). The melancholic Nina Simone lyrics, ‘have we lost the human touch?’, seem to underpin, for Cèsaire, how both the colonised and coloniser can be transformed into objects when they displace their abilities to relate to one another through a lens of humanism. In this text, Cèsaire shows how a logic of power and control erode both the cognitive and emotional capabilities of the human spirit. “ A significant thing: it is not the head of  a civilisation that begins to rot first. It is the heart.” (1955:9)

As I have alluded to earlier, I think that Cèsaire’s text is not only a contestation of space but also a subversion of it. It is what Neocosmos calls ‘a politics of emancipation’ and what may be  an extension of humanism.  This emancipatory praxis is rooted in Cèsaire’s ability to imagine a new society.  It manifests itself through Cèsaire’s rejection of a ‘return’ to old ‘Negro civilisations’  and the equal rejection of his present colonial society. The claim to politics, which I think Cèsaire is making, is rooted in Cèsaire’s ability to think anew.  Michael Neocosmos argues that “the philosopher Jacques Rancière makes the same point when he notes that ‘politics begins exactly when those who “cannot” do something show that in fact they can’. Politics as the expression of human agency – politics proper – begins then when those who are allocated to a place wherein they are not supposed to think (‘beyond their station in life’ as the English expression goes) in fact do so. Thus politics begins at the point of displacement” (2012:531). In placing himself in the interregnum between the old and the present, Cèsaire is able to find a place where he can articulate “a new society that we must create, with the help of our brother (sic) slaves, a society rich with all the productive power of modern times, warm with all the fraternity of olden days.” (1955:11)

Although I imagine Neocosmos would argue that the politics of contestation should be understood as the conditions of critical thought (2012:531), I would argue that Cèsaire is able to think freely and think freedom through the sometimes chaotic and non-linear projections of surrealism. In fact, I personally think that artistic work, whether it be art, literature or song is able to conceive of spaces of freedom in the same way that politics or political philosophy is.  South African feminist scholar, Pumla Gqola has recently ‘granted me the permission to say this out loud’ in a paper that she has recently published entitled Crafting the Epicentres of Agency where she argues that “creative spaces offer an ability to theorise, and imagine spaces of freedom in ways unavailable to genres more preoccupied with linearity and exactness.(2008:50) Gqola goes on to say that this line of ‘creative theorisation’(2008:50) seems  not necessarily particular to, but popular in strands of African American Feminist writing.

In the interview between Rene Depestre and  Cèsaire, Cèsaire articulates how the movement of surrealism was a liberating factor for him in writing Return to My Native Land? (1955:26) That being said however, I also think that it contributed to how he imagined and made manifest the working of Discourse on Colonialism. In an attempt to reconcile the unconscious world, or the dream world with that which was real, surrealists created a movement of dual representations. I think that Cesaire was able to employ this surrealist strategy to summon up the “unconscious forces; a call to Africa”(1955:26). I believe that it was though unorthodox method of engaging with the political that Cèsaire was effectively able to ‘free up’ the political.

Works Cited:

Cèsaire. A.1955. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press: New York and London
Cèsaire.  A. 1969.Return to my native land. Harmondsworth: Penguin books,
Hall. S. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: SAGE Publications
Neocosmos. M. 2012. Are Those Who Do Not Count Capable of Reason? Thinking Political Subjectivity in the (Neo) Colonial World and the Limits of History: Journal of African and Asian Studies. Volume 47.  530-547. SAGE Publications

Gqola. P. 2008. Crafting Epicentres of Agency. Journal of African Feminism. Volume 45. 45-76