Monday April 22, 2024

A perpetual identity crisis: Part - I

By Abdul Sattar
July 11, 2023

Literary terms or concepts like ‘mimicry’ cannot be understood without some knowledge about colonialism and its impacts on developing countries, especially those in the Global South.

Prominent Arab intellectual and literary critic Edward Said believes that the modern world cannot be understood without delving into the topic of colonialism — which postcolonial intellectual Frantz Fanon, the author of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ describes as “inherently destructive”.

Fanon asserts that Western colonialism destroyed the identities of those who were colonized, dealing a severe blow to their prestige and self-respect. It also damaged their cultures, traditions and languages creating a sense of inferiority.

For instance, if we want to know why the elite in countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other British colonies prefer English over their languages, we will have to go back to the colonial history of those occupied colonies. Similarly, if one wants to know why almost all countries of South and Central America except Brazil speak Spanish then again, we will have to study Western expansionism in various parts of the world.

No effort to understand the dominance of Portuguese in Brazil and other parts of the world is possible without peeping into the gargantuan appetite of the Portuguese ruling elite determined to subjugate the world.

The ascendancy of Spanish, English and French in North America and some parts of Canada could also be linked to this phenomenon of colonialism. According to famous American historian Howard Zinn, the author of ‘A People’s History of America’, around 75 million indigenous people of South, Central and North America would speak 2000 languages before the arrival of Western people in 1492.

Many of these languages perished, so did the 90 per cent population of the indigenous people. It may be mentioned that some indigenous authors put the total population at 120 million while many independent historians believe it was 50-60 million. In the same way, the history of colonialism could serve as a key to understanding the presence of black Africans in these regions. Many historians assert that 12 million black Africans were brought to these regions, but Zinn contradicts it claiming 50 million of them were brought to these areas in shackles.

This long introduction is important because the impact of Western colonialism has been so profound that not only is it difficult to carry out an effective critique of postcolonial literature without this history but modern-day conflicts and socio-economic situations of the Global South are also linked to our insight into colonialism. Jared Diamond, the author of ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ asserts that before the Industrial Revolution 35 per cent of the world was already under the control of Western colonial powers. Such control extended to 85 per cent by 1945.

Not only did these colonial powers carry out ruthless genocides and plundering in the colonies, they also radically changed the identities of people, transforming their culture by annihilating national languages or relegating them to a lower status.

This created a sense of inferiority, forcing them to consider their masters superior and prompting them to make efforts that could elevate their status in society. One of the ways to attain this status was by copying their rulers. This is where mimicry comes in.

It seems that the definition of mimicry witnessed changes. Initially it was just to copy the habits and etiquettes of colonial masters. According to Masood Raja, the author of ‘ISIS: Ideology, Symbolics and Counter Narratives’, “Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so … Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.”

Fanon was extremely sarcastic about folks who forget their cultures and identities, adopting Western ways of life and feel shame in their culture and traditions. According to Masood, “Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has travelled to the West, and then returned “home,” seemingly completely transformed.”

Citing Fanon’s work, Masood says, “Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician “been-tos” in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’ is one of the central issues in that novel. Characters in ‘Nervous Conditions’ who have not had the same experience of travel in the West find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.”

This definition applies to feudal and aristocrats of India and other parts of the world who visited their colonial masters’ countries and adopted their culture and traditions. Successive generations of these aristocrats inherited this trend of copying their masters from their ancestors.

But Homi K Bhabha came up with a different definition of ‘mimicry’. For him it is not as bad as one would like to imagine. Bhabha explains that mimicry is an exaggerated copying of language, culture, manners, and ideas, thus mimicry is repetition with difference. Mimicry is also one response to the circulation of stereotypes. Bhabha’s analysis of mimicry in his essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man’ is largely based on the Lacanian vision of mimicry as camouflage resulting in colonial ambivalence.

He sees the colonizer as a snake in the grass who speaks in “a tongue that is forked”, and produces a mimetic representation that “... emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.”

According to a research paper of Yulis Setyowati of Wijaya Putra University, “In postcolonial studies ‘mimicry’ is considered as unsettling imitations that are characteristic of postcolonial cultures.” Setyowati says that Bhabha’s definition of colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable ‘Other’, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.”

Bhabha is considered the foremost contemporary critic who has tried to unveil the contradictions inherent in colonial discourse to highlight the colonizer’s ambivalence with respect to his attitude towards the colonized Other and vice versa. Bhabha believes that the menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

Analyzing Bhahba’s theory described in Japanese author Tanizaki’s novel ‘Naomi’, Setyowati says, “Naomi or Chijin no Ai (literally A Fool’s love) tells the heroine Naomi who looks like the Western actress Mary Pickford and is trained to behave like a Westerner … Naomi is described as “Western-looking.”

She believes that this paradigm involves a complex and varied cultural contact, interaction and counter-globalization movements. It may be said that some critics like Robert Young assert that when two different cultures meet at the beginning, one of them dominates another with their superiority and finally becomes a new culture and civilization.

For them it leads to the civilization of a ‘new modern culture’ but Bhabha describes those circumstances as ‘mimicry’ and ‘hybridity’.

To be continued

The writer is a freelance

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