November 29, 2008
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Re-reading Ghosh’s novel thrusts me into a cognitive circuit running all the way back to the first week of class when, if you recall, we discussed the defining characteristics of the contemporary period. Do you remember what they were?
If modernity is a particular experience of space and time– Marx called it the annihilation of space by time– then our own moment can be construed as an amplification of that historical relationship between subject (the individual) and object (the world, though we need a mediating term– let’s call it society or culture– to bridge the gap between these concepts).
All of the texts we have read this semester– to varying degrees to be sure– approach the problem of what it means to be modern, to be a contemporary of this world right here and now. In Waiting for the Barbarians Coetzee’s Magistrate suggests that the Empire itself is responsible for big-H History, that the entry into that history is an irreversible fact, a fall, an existential life-sentence to post-lapsarian conflict. By positing a telos, a narrative of progress and its own burgeoning power, Empire forecasts its demise.
Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions prompts the question of whether modernity, particularly in its colonialist incarnations (and maybe this is the wrong way to phrase it– if there’s one thing we take from this course it ought to be that modernity and colonialism are inseparable and may in fact be as the saying goes “mutually constitutive”) re-wires the human psyche, in this case the “Native” who is caught up in titanic historical forces. Think of a big wave, the kind that knocks you over and tumbles you toward shore. What you do as the wave buffets you is called agency. Strike for the surface? Dive down to escape its force? Go limp and let it carry you? There are a range of choices within a determinate situation. We see that with Nyasha, Tambu, Jeremiah, et al.
And there are other questions for Dangaremga as well, which we can discuss in class: if the Native knows s/he’s a native is s/he really a native? Is his/her impossible situation it really a matter of being caught between Tradition and Modernity?
As the most reactionary of all the texts we’ve read Frank Miller’s 300 stands apart from the effort to criticize history and instead succumbs to the narcosis of myth. Even Coetzee, as delightfully allegorical as his novel seems to be, resists the temptation to counterfeit the truth mythographically. If communism politicizes art, Fascism seeks to aestheticize the political, Walter Benjamin famously wrote. What would he make of 300?