In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Nixon references Edward Said’s “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” while discussing the role writers take in slow violence. Said’s view of writers is more broad and centered on the general sense of violence rather than slow violence associated with the environment. He describes two sides of writers: the select individuals that have control and power, and those “independent intellectuals who actually form an incipient community, physically separated from each other but connected variously to a great number of activist communities shunned by the main media but who have at their disposal other kinds of what Swift sarcastically called oratorical machines” (28). These two sides can be seen as the sides that Nixon represents of the oil companies and Ken Saro-Wiwa. The writer that Said focuses on is the second category that wishes to create awareness and movement. In the diverse range of violence, Said suggests that writers have three main roles to open up the eyes of those who are unaware; I will summarize his points briefly: 1.) presenting true (rather than distorted) perspectives on history 2.) building up areas of peace and coexistence 3.) stressing the need for human rights and redistribution of power and resources (34-5). In these goals Nixon seems to use Saro-Wiwa to indirectly provide a face to Said’s basic structure for writers. However, the two authors seem to emphasize different areas in the value of speed in today’s world. For Nixon, the negative aspects of speed include the audience’s desire of the spectacle that slow violence does not contain and therefore is harder to justify. Furthermore, technology has shortened stories to get them out faster, which also has a negative effect on producing stories on slow violence rather than something that is more exciting and eventful. The negative elements that Said points out are, not knowing one’s audience because the internet creates a wider range of readers, and the inability to control what is recirculated. However, the acceleration of communication enables freedom for writers to be heard all over the world, and this expansion of viewers is what Nixon also stresses that writers of slow violence need to take advantage of. For both general forms of violence and slow violence, “The intellectual can be perhaps a kind of countermemory, putting forth its own counter discourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep” (Said 35).
In Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day, the diary-like entries give a more real and personal face to the points that Nixon makes on writing about this type of violence. At one point, Saro-Wiwa explains why he continued to write a weekly column in the Sunday Times, he says, “The newspaper column widened my reading audience and spread my ideas to a considerable extent. Week after week, I made sure that the name Ogoni appeared before the eyes of readers. It was a television technique, designed to leave the name indelibly in their minds” (45). The specific moments that this writer explains his techniques, shows his moves and call for others to move with him in seeing slow violence as a major threat. The book leaves us on a rather negative note in his son’s letter to his father ten years after Saro-Wiwa’s death. His son writes, “Ten years have passed and, despite all the public outrage and grief, it appears that the world hasn’t learned anything from your death: we still live in a world where corporations rank profits well above their value to people and the planet” (215). Yet, even with this negativity, his son is still hopeful that more people will write and the world will one day see slow violence as it truly is.
While reading the Fabian piece, I was struck by his bold claim that there is an inherent distancing in the conceptualization of communication, which requires a sender, a message, and a receiver – “even in communication-centered approaches that seem to recognize shared Time we can expect to find devices of temporal distancing” (31). Since the novel is a powerful method of communication, as both Said and the class defend, the novel itself must also suffer from this distancing of communication between the author and audience. Does this distancing of communication, both temporal (i.e. the time that passes between when the message is sent and received) and spatial (i.e. the distance between the author’s experience and location and those of the reader) contribute to the distancing of the Imperial discourse? Or does this distancing inherent in communication/literature weaken the strength of the Imperial discourse because, as Said argues, “the structure connecting novels to one another has no existence outside the novels themselves, which means that one gets the particular, concrete experience of [the distanced] ‘abroad’ only in individual novels” (76). I think that this communicative distancing has strengthened Britain and France’s Imperial identity, since this distancing further excludes the “Other” from the discourse. Non-Western novelists and readings of these great European novelists have thus had to overcome an even greater distance than argued by Said in order to reach the ideal contrapuntal readings of literature that developed during Imperialism – in addition to justifying an alternative colonial narrative, critics of Imperialism have had to overcome the temporal distance protecting the novels themselves as a form of communication and their canonized status in the halls of British/French culture. Given this hurdle, the time it has taken to reach an acknowledgement of the need for a contrapuntal analysis in comparative literature is not surprising.
In the introduction to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism he writes, “stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history” (xii). In this way, literature is how people understand and make sense of colonialism and imperialism. Narratives are what connect people to nations. However, if we look back to Heart of Darkness, it seems that this narrative confuses identity and picks away at the cohesive element that establishes nations to people. Said explains later, “Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz’s great looting adventure, Marlow’s journey up the river, and the narrative itself all share a common theme: Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa” (23). All three aspects of the novel also contain different time, which distances us to these stories. While we get parts of Kurtz’s story, parts of Marlow’s story, and step back once more to the narrator, who is listening to this inner story, we end up not getting a complete story with a definite understanding of the author’s views, the narrator’s views or any of the characters’ own views. Moreover, none of the outside world of the novel– the ‘natives’– don’t have a voice, so their thoughts are never captured. Said makes an interesting point to this, saying, “Conrad’s realization is that if, like narrative, imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation – which in the case of Heart of Darkness allowed it to speak for Africans as well as for Kurtz and the other adventurers, including Marlow and his audience – your self-consciousness as an outsider can allow you actively to comprehend how the machine works, given that you and it are fundamentally not in perfect synchrony or correspondence” (25). So we as readers understand the workings of imperialism through the imperialism of the novel. The point is no longer to understand the identity or thoughts of the characters, author or narrator, but to instead focus on how imperialism works. Then my question is, does the ending of Heart of Darkness with the sudden mixture of time [Marlow saying, “ ‘I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her sorrow’” (69)] change anything for our understanding of Conrad’s narrative? Does a “world being made and unmade more or less all the time” influence our understanding of imperialism in the novel?