“Comforting Myths”: writing and reading beyond insidious race stereotypes

25 Jan

“When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity.”

– Chinua Achebe.

I’m not going to lie to you guys: it’s a new experience reading Conrad the way we are reading him, and I appreciate it. It’s been fantastic looking at his use of dichotomies (not ground-breaking nowadays– reading Conrad in 2013 feels similar to watching Aronofsky’s treatment of done-to-death virgin/whore, jekyll/hyde dichotomies in ‘Black Swan‘ but THAT’S a different conversation) as well as his choice of point of view.

Every other time I’ve read this book it’s been in Post Colonial Studies classes where Achebe’s perspective was what led the discussion– Wasn’t hard to vilify Conrad, considering his cartoonish description of The Black Barbaric Natives hit home pretty close: descriptions of Brown Babbling Hindoos filled every non-brown piece of writing on India that we looked at in High School and later, college.

Achebe brings up a sobering, valid point at the end of his 1977 essay; once stereotypes enter a language, they begin to stand for qualitative measures of concepts and tastes that insidiously affect how we discuss our world today, even if said stereotypes were first introduced in a creative work that by modern standards might be considered dated. One example that comes to mind is what certain folk in the development community (full disclosure: was and am one of them, though I no longer formally work in the field) called “the myth of conscious or cultural consumerism”, with regards to well-intentioned approaches to not-for-profit charity programs aimed at “improving the living conditions and future prospects” of low income families and individuals all over the Global South. [Aside: “Global South” was accepted terminology in 2010-2011. Not completely sure that it’s still PC now.]

Salvoj Zizek said it best, aided by the talented work of artists at the RSA in this fantastic live-animated video that criticizes the conscious/cultural consumerism advocated by Starbucks, TOMS and corporations of their ilk (here’s the transcript, if you’d prefer to skim). Granted, Zizek comes with his own politics and soap box. Also, Conrad did touch (lightly) on the economic outcomes of the scramble for Africa, and did in fact em-pathetically describe the piteous fate of the slaves/laborers who were required to dig till they keeled over and died. Of course, he didn’t go so far as to truly analyze the material and socio-cultural long term impacts of Imperialism—that wasn’t his responsibility, nor his field of expertise. He was writing an adventure! Through the eyes of a narrator who in turn repeated a rambling tale told by a ramshackle fellow named Marlow! Who may or may not have been an Imperialist sympathizer! Whew.

I feel Achebe is right about the danger of letting ideas and words linger without actively challenging them and what they stand for in this our shared language, today. In his video, Zizek  criticizes advocates of conscious consumerism in a such a way that you would think he puts these corporations in the same box as Brantlinger’s abolitionists and the greedy colonists that Conrad left-handedly decries.

The fact is, we are encouraged to believe that by buying a product or donating to Save the Children, we actively improve the life of a less privileged, non-white person living somewhere in “Africa” or “Asia” or “Latin America”—the language of this encouragement, the precarious act of “doing good”, the monolithic use of generalizations, the formation and deployment of modern mega-nonprofits and development agencies all smacks of the sort of missionary style imperialism that took place in the Africa Conrad wrote about ever so long ago. How do we write beyond these references that whirl about our pop consciousness (almost) daily?

I’m all for studying Conrad. But only if it’s an active point of beginning to re-learn how we discuss multiple identities and communities, not just in the “Global South” but in all our Souths, personal and public.

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