07 April 2010

Back to basics

It's good to look back at the simple (simplistic, really) explanation for schoolchildren that Michael Ryan gives in his Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction (2nd ed., 2007):

"Important concepts in post-colonial study are diaspora, hybridity, ambiguity, mimicry, mestizaje, and creolization. Most former imperial countries are now disaporic in the sense the people from former colonies have moved to imperial metropoles such as England and become English. Ideas regarding national or even ethnic cultural identity become more difficult to apply in situations where traditional and metropolitan cultural norms and identities meet and mix. ... Colonialists sought to impose their own culture on a quite different culture so that it would mime or imitate that of the imperial center. The desire for a homogeneous identity of ruler and ruled was confounded by the unequal relation of power which meant that such imposition was disturbed implicitly by tendencies toward non-compliance and willed dissonance. What resulted often was mimicry with irony rather than imitation. Some natives sought refuge in indigenous, often oral cultures or in ideals of a national culture based in their own experience and language. The assumption was that language bears worldviews within it, so that to adopt the imperial language was in effect to adopt the point of view of imperialism, with all of the arrogant assumptons that ran counter to one’s own interests as a subject of colonialism. But other writers and intellectuals embraced the opportunity for creative mixing that the colonial and post-colonial situation afforded. From this way of thinking resulted such terms as ‘mestizaje’ and ‘creolization,’ the idea that identities and languages from both sides of the imperial equation can combine to generate new subjective and linguistic possiblities. A mestizo is a mixed-race person, and a creole is a mixed language that combines elements of a language like English or French with local indigenous dialects." (196-97)

Ironically, Ryan reveals exactly the kind of imperialistic arrogance that he valiantly tries so hard to avoid - by calling local indigenous languages "dialects" rather than "languages" (which is what linguists call them), thus implying that English or French have a higher status than the "local" and "indigenous." Sometimes (as in movies such as Avatar and District 9), those oppressors that try to help the oppressed actually do not, in a deeper sense. I remember what the feminist Toril Moi said in answer to a question in a lecture at Oxford in 1988; asked if men should be feminists, she said, "They could, but they shouldn't, because they will occupy the only space that we have" (or words to that effect).

Nevertheless, Ryan's explanation for students more or less clarifies why we have to do what we do: none of the current literary theories can adequately account for the intricate relationship between mother (or "native") language and the colonial language in the writing of literature.

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