Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier

THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN

From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “..it is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Post-Colonial Theory: Albert Memmi

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Albert Memmi, The Colonized and the Colonized

Just as Race is essentially an American phenomenon, Post-Colonial Theory is essentially a European phenomenon. While it is necessary to make a distinction between the very different experiences of people of color under European and American rule, it is also possible to make a more general theoretical point. Colonialism and racism are both outcomes of the concept of “the Other.” The idea of the One and the Other stems from European philosophical thinking that both pre-dated the system of European model of imperialism, which included conquest, slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of non-Europeans, and justified a set of practices based on difference. For hundreds of years, colonialism, a manifestation of imperialism, was the means whereby Europeans controlled peoples of other continents, until two World Wars gradually eroded a rule that included over ninety percent of the globe. The “post” of Colonialism is both the after-time of a historical period and the critique of the episteme or mind set that led one small part of the world to dominate the Other.

Descartes posited a separation between mind and matter, Emmanuel Kant placed a gap between the subject and the object, Georg Hegel distinguished between the master and the slave. Saussure noted that language is structured in pairs of opposites. Jacques Derrida insisted that polarities are interdependent upon each other. Whether through language or philosophical models, the point is that the subject, the thinking human being, can understand what s/he is only in terms of what s/he is not. Human consciousness comes into being through this recognition of difference and, as Hegel demonstrated, the need to be acknowledged by the Other. The germ of the problem is clear in Hegel who understood that the difference between the One and the Other constitutes inequality. Rather than a neutral “difference” that merely designates or distinguishes, “difference” is loaded with judgments: the Master is superior to the Slave, and, although they recognizes themselves through each other, this recognition favors the Master and works to the detriment of the Slave. It does not matter that the Master cannot exist without the existence of the Slave, without the presence of a “master” the “slave” would be free.

Later philosophers point out that, while language might be structured out of opposites, socially and politically the One and the Other are not “natural” events but are constructed out of the need, not just to determine differences, but to dominate. The mode of constructing the Other is a form of representation or of the One re-presenting the Other in terms that craft domination. Taken to extremes Othering others moves very quickly to dehumanization. According to Theodor Adorno, the “Identity thinking” or the concept of universality, of the Enlightenment is based upon exclusion. If certain selected elements are included within an existing structure, then certain “other” elements have to be excluded to make the initial inclusion meaningful. Post-Colonial theory is about that exclusion. However, Post-Colonial theory is about existentialism or the conditions under which one comes into existence or consciousness through the deliberate extinction of the humanity of the Other.

Exclusion and dominance began long before the philosophy of post-coloniality. Just as colonialism antedated and generated racism, sexism antedates all prejudices and establishes the primary division or the primal Othering between the genders. In isolated communities, in small tribes, the people saw only themselves and there was no other. Long before there was a need for tribes to confront each other over control of territory, the Other had already been created and that Other was Woman. When he attempted to theorize the universal dominance of women by men, Friedrich Engels reasoned that the creation of the idea of “property” or “ownership” allowed men to reduce women and cattle and land to objects to be owned. However, even if Engels was right (and we have no way of knowing that he was), the idea of the One and the Other must have already existed if only because the concept of “equality” needs “inequality” to be meaningful.

In his linking of property and inequality, Engels, along with Karl Marx, would lay the groundwork for a theory of the economy in which capitalism determines society and human relations. Marxism, therefore, was the foundation or stepping stone for Post-Colonial theory, which began to emerge in the 1970s out of traditional Marxism. Post-Colonialism was the intellectual creation of post-war immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come to the Mother Country of England or France to be educated at elite institutions. Marxism’s critique of capitalism provided a useful frame through which the capitalist thrust of imperialism and the class relations of colonialism could be analyzed. In these early years, Post-Colonial theory showed up on the theory radar as “Subaltern Studies” at the University of Sussex with the colonial subjects, the subordinated and the marginalized as active speakers. However, the position of Post-Colonial theory within Marxism was an uneasy one and there is an earlier approach that provided yet another avenue for critique, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized published in 1957.

memmi_book(2)

Albert Memmi (1920-) is the ultimate Other, a Jew in a Muslim country, Tunisia, colonized by the French. Born in 1925 of a Berber mother and an Italian father, who passed on his Jewish identity, Memmi was able to observe the turbulent process of de-colonizaiton when Algeria and Tunisia became independence from the French in in 1956. Memmi’s contribution to the Post-Colonial conversation was that he lived within colonialism, unsure of his place: as a native of Tunisia he was colonized, as a Jew he identified with his fellow Europeans, the French. Although he certainly recognized the economic “fascism” of imperialism, Memmi placed colonialism in it more precise structure: racism. While it is correct that imperialism and colonialism were the result of the needs of capitalism to continually expand, the point is that only in territories of color did the Europeans take over and exploit (Asia and India) and exterminate the inhabitants (the Americas) and establish colonists to control their economic interests. In his remarkable book, Remarkable Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Stephen Greenblat remarked upon the unprecedented nature of this post-Columbian imperialism.

As Memmi pointed out in the beginning of his book, the imperialist adventure was a layered one: on one hand it was a purely economic quest which was authorized as a good-hearted desire to “help” and “civilize” the poor unfortunate native through benevolent colonization. The argument for civilizing of the dark-skinned native is linked to just that—the dark skin, which is racism, which in turn is simple Othering another human being out of viable existence. Thus Post-Colonial theory became part of existentialism long before it was funneled through Marxism. It is no accident that it was Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction when The Colonizer and the Colonized was published in 1957. In his opening sentence Sartre, whose companion Simone de Beauvoir was friends with American writer Richard Wright, links colonization to racism, the kind of racism flourishing in America.

Only the Southerner is competent to discuss slavery, because he alone knows the Negro; the puritanical and abstract Northerners know man only as an entity. This fine line of reasoning still has its uses: in Houston, in the newspapers of New Orleans, and in “French” Algeria—since we too are someone’s Northerners. The newspaper there tell us that the colonizer alone is qualified to speak of the colony. The rest of us, who live in the mother country do not have his experience, so we are to view the burning land of Africa through this eyes, which will just show us the smoke.

Memmi’s writing is a doubling: he is both the colonizer by dint of being a European and he is also the colonized by dint of being Tunisian. His approach is hybrid for he lives with a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.” As a Jew and a Tunisian he suffered from a double anti-Semitism, both in in Tunisia and in France, where Jews had been deported to death camps. After being educated in post-war Paris, Memmi’s place in society that he has no place for he is part of the diaspora, pulled back and forth between Paris and Tunis, at home nowhere but finally settling in Paris. In 1982 he published Racism which begins with a sentence that could be written today: “There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.” Memmi’s most recent book and sadly probably his last is the 2006 book, The Decolonization and the Decolonialized, which subverts the “civilizing” argument of the imperialists by asking why these former colonies have not flourished.

The answer can be found by returning to the groundbreaking The Colonizer and the Colonized where Memmi outlined the psychological effects of racism upon the One who is the colonizer and becomes morally corrupted and upon the Other who incorporated the role of the (non)Other as inferior and incapable and without consequence. The One systematically eradicated the native culture and the native language as the price for merely entering into the company of the Colonizer. The Colonized is forced to give up indigenous identification but in the process loses any meaningful identity. The process is one of psychological slavery that dehumanizes the Other and turns her into an object. The Other begins to identify with the (impossible) One but evolves into what Caribbean poet and politician, Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) called “thingification” in the 1955 book, Discours sur le colonialism. Memmi described the path of the Colonized into the exile of religion, the only remaining refuge and his discussion of the trajectory of the Colonized into religion and rebellion sheds light on the events unfolding today in the Middle East and North Africa.

Memmi’s seminal book outlined the social costs and the psychological damage a racist system of inequality does to the colonizer who enjoys unearned privilege. His portrait of the colonizer is scathing. The colonizer is pictured as a glamorous figure who is nevertheless an individual who is mediocre and who would have little future in the Mother Country. In the “colonies,” the colonizer can succeed but not in open and honest competition but at the expense of people who have been dis-empowered. Once the colonizer becomes aware of–becomes conscious of–the Other or the colonized, then the truth of the situation becomes clear. The colonizer is in charge and can write the rules and can make the laws, all of which benefit one element of the binary: the colonizer. The colonized are dehumanized, like a Slave, and exist to be exploited for the benefit of the Master. True, on the surface this exploitation is economic, the outcome of the punitive capitalistic practices of imperialism but at another level, suppressed by the colonizer, lies a narrative of oppression based solely on skin color. As Memmi wrote,

Colonialism denies human rights to human beings whom it has subdued by violence, and keeps them by force in a state of misery and ignorance that Marx would rightly call a subhuman condition. Racism is ingrained in actions, institutions, and in the nature of the colonialist methods of production and exchange. Political and social regulations reinforce one another.

The colonizer is doubly illegitimate: not only is he an interloper in a land that is not their but she is also taking away opportunities from the colonized. Making unjust laws that reinforce an unjust system only make the system doubly unjust. Both parties are entrapped in a society that harms them both but one party, the colonizer receives too many benefits to be willing to relinquish her unjust privileges and the colonized have no power to change his conditions. Aime Casaire presciently perceived that a price would have to be paid when he observed in 1955,

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization – as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Like Memmi, Cesaire laid out the charges against the colonial system during a time when the system was breaking down, bent and bowed under the weight of its own injustice. It is interesting to note that the years in which Memmi and Cesaire were writing, the mid to late fifties, were the same years that initiated the Civil Rights Movement in America. Like Memmi, Cesaire compared the rule of the French over their colonies to the rule of the Nazis over their conquered territories. In effect, in attempting to retain what is not legitimately theirs, the French have become their own worst nightmare. As he wrote,

..colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism..

Although the early critiques of colonialism predate all “posts,” Memmi and Cesaire clearly understood the interdependence of the two poles: the colonizer and the colonized, and this interdependence is the very agent that will deconstruct the binary. Memmi was aware that the colonized would demand self-determination and that war and rebellion would continue until the ties were severed.The ties between the colonizer and colonized are not just political they are psychological. The interiorization of inferiority on the part of the native would have grave consequences. Later post-colonial theorists, writing after the end of Empires would take a Post-Structuralist approach inherited from linguistic and literary theory and re-evaluate the dialectical dance between the colonizer and the colonized. Cesaire used his poetry as a political weapon, twisting Shakespeare’s Brave New World to reproach the usurper:

Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.

Aime Cesaire’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1968)

Both authors lived long enough to engage in scholarly debates about colonialism and would see the end of the “civilizing” mission of European imperialism. Both would live in the Mother Country of France and speak and write in the mother tongue and both would live to see France changing as the colonized, the oppressed Muslim population, “come home.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]