Culture as Disfiguration – Against Rousseau

Grebo Mask
Côte d’Ivoire

Pablo Picasso
Guitar (1914)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

It is possible, that there are literary qualities in the fiction of high modernist Joseph Conrad, in particular the very famous novella “Heart of Darkness”, which even though he can see and name them, which post-colonialist critic Chinua Achebe fails to appreciate. This may well be the case because Achebe, with respect to Conrad, is still concerned, unlike the historian/philosopher Michel Foucault, to identify precisely “who is speaking.” Consider though that it’s precisely because Achabe’s view is so painfully, remorselessly narrow – “if it’s politically wrong then it’s aesthetically bad” – that he allows us to see Conrad in a way we hadn’t seen him before. The surest sign that Achebe has shown us something genuinely new is the moment of shock and sudden recognition Western readers experience while reading Achebe, one in which it appears, if only for a second, that Conrad might actually need to go. Indeed, it’s precisely this kind of narrow, “intensive” reading, no longer the result of result of pre-critical political observations but rather deliberately and self-consciously elevated to the level of an agonizingly rigorous reading technique, which lies at the heart of Jacques Derrida‘s infamous project of philosophical deconstruction, which involves the ambivalently violent passing of the ‘great books’ through the critical “eye of a needle”. Small wonder so many people (including myself, at times) recoil from it, calling it myopic, pettifogging, dishonest, mean-spirited, contemptuous, futile. Most all of what follows can be related to Derrida.


It’s at this moment that readers feel themselves to have become members of the “public”, precisely because they is unwilling to make sacrifices demanded of them by the “artist,” who in this case happens to bear the title of critic. This “plight” may be of longer or shorter duration for different readers, while of course other readers will never feel much at all and continue to maintain an attitude of relative indifference – “little of this, little of that; win some, lose some; there’s both good and bad; sure, to each his own, but let’s not take things to far”. The general desire to work out a compromise position, one inevitably produced by “experts” (i.e., someone, anyone other than ourselves), as opposed to a will determined to work through a problematic completely; this is the surest indication our reading skills consist of little more than a variety of defense mechanisms, all of which function ever to prevent the ego from being perturbed by an encounter with the kind of radical alterity offered by art.

Jasper Johns
2 (1960)
Cleveland Museum of Art

When we read like this, we show we haven’t learned really to read at all yet, but still continue only to skim words and subvocalize our agreement with our own selves – “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, . . .” – or our disagreement with others – “nuh uh, nuh uh, nuh uh, . . .”. As Leo Steinberg, to whom of course I’ve been alluding all along here, would say, to skim this way is to indicate we are quite simply beyond aesthetic experience. On the other hand, the very fact that you’ve experienced genuine plight in the face of Achebe – and it seems clear to me you have – is the surest indication that you’ve actually seen that Achebe has a genuine point. And now you can begin the slow process of working through the post-colonial critique of Western Liberalism. It may take a few years, or your case may be interminable and you will spend the rest of your life reading and writing through these issues. It doesn’t really matter. You’ve entered the problematic and your reading of Conrad has been changed forever. You can never again go back to the good old Conrad. Just as you can never, having looked through Galileo’s telescope, you can never go back to the good old Ptolemaic cosmos.


To read Achebe well entails having to give up at least some part of Conrad which is not merely an incidental detail (the equivalent of a favorite hat or a few inches of beard), but rather to sacrifice some fundamental facial feature (such as an eye or an ear) whereby we have identified Conrad as Conrad, at all. This kind of disfiguration, the violent negation of the object in order to reconstitute its very nature, is precisely what Hegel theorizes in terms of the labor of the Slave.


This is a process whereby subjectivity brings its cloudy consciousness into focus by imposing its own will and capacities onto the objective world. In a word, mutilation creates a new Conrad. Further, such insights, if analyzed sufficiently, allow us to see that the figure of the old Conrad was itself “always already” a product of mutilation, “always already” caught up in a general economy of mirroring, self-differing, violence and repetition – différence. For what it’s worth, this precise issue is raised in a highly provocative manner by art historian Rosalind Krauss (whom we’ll soon meet). Krauss’s classic essay “The Motivation of The Sign” treats Picasso’s troubled encounter with (African) body alteration – a concern which will lead directly into our readings for next time, in particular Homi K. Bhabha’s “The Commitment to Theory,” taken from his collection of essays The Location of Culture.

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