Explaining the Paradox and Some Theoretical Implications

Parts 8.1-3 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Thiru Kandiah, PhD, formerly of the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

8.1 Explaining the Paradox

The paradox of the Singapore theatre might then possibly be explained by the inability of the theatre to immediately tap the indigenous resources of blood, imagination and intellect available in principle to it from the othered constituencies. These might have equipped it to really turn the eye of power back on itself, by allowing the emergence of a convincing post-colonial creativity. But the relegation of those who have the most immediate experience of and access to them to constituencies that occupy suitably non-prominent places has deprived it of this possibility. When the paraphernalia of the indigenous traditions are sometimes accessed for various purposes, they often remain unconvincing, giving the impression of having been accessed from the outside, as it were.

8.2 Some Theoretical Implications

While our study of Emily tells us something about the actual responses to the task of post-colonial cultural reconstruction in these parts of the world, it also seems to raise a set of questions about current theorisations of the task. The 'shift' of 'the governing theoretical framework' from 'Third World nationalism to postmodernism' (Ahmad, 1995, p.1) invites such responses to be treated simply as another set of possible responses, contestable only on an essentialised or universalised basis. Attention should be paid to text as such, not to its historically constituted material context - 'discourses of representation... should not be confused with material realities' (Parry, 1995, p.37). The 'encounter with identity', then, no longer confronts us with 'an ontological problem of being but with the discursive strategy of the moment of interrogation' (Bhabha, 1994, p.49), and 'differences of culture can no longer be identified as objects of epistemological or moral contemplation' (Bhabha, 1994, p.114).

All of this inducts us into a perpetually indeterminate world of textual ambivalence and removes us from the determinate structures of the material realities. Within these realities the praxis which crucially attends upon all text and discourse might actually help keep large numbers of people within the state created by the colonial order and legitimise it. Consider Jacqueline Lo's characterisation of 'the hybridisation of the English language' in Emily. This is taken to be an act of mimicry which 'disrupts and challenges the authority of the Queen's English' (Lo, 1991, p.127). But it would also be an 'articulation of nonsense', which in its 'doubleness' is 'a mode of contradictory utterance that ambivalently re-inscribes, across differential power relations, both coloniser and colonised' (Bhabha, 1994, p.96).

However, in terms of the material world, this is not quite how it works. For post-colonials who have appropriated the language, the act is not a form of destabilisation of self, but an affirmative action whereby they take over the language and reconstruct it to make it serve their distinct symbiotic meaning-making purposes. To see destabilisation here, we need to look at the act through the eye of the colonisers, to whom it represents some violation of a valued cultural possession of theirs. This raises in them the need to denigrate the reconstructive linguistic achievement of the colonised as a half-formed variety that has resulted from 'interference' with the pristine object, which justifies its 'correction' through prescriptions from the Centre. It is not the so-called mimicry that destabilises the indigene but the eye of power itself, which in the world of practical action is only strengthened by all this. Were it not so, no resisting response has ever been needed to colonialism, for it always was in the continual process of being destabilised.

'Can you tell the post-colonial bourgeois and the western intellectual apart?', Bhabha asks (1994, p.54). The answer might well be 'No'. Unlike Bhabha, though, we would want to move from here to Ahmad's recognition that 'Post-coloniality is also, like most things, a matter of class' (Ahmad, 1995, p.16). Spivak fills in the picture further: 'Western intellectual production is in many ways complicit with Western international economic interests' (Spivak, 1988, p.271). But, anglicised metropolitan critics who make such claims often themselves do 'not allow... [the victims] any voice at all, since that voice is... always mediated' (General Introduction). True. For no such critic can cease to be a member of her/his class. But, if the act is carried out with self-reflexivity, however much the class position of the actor limits that act, why need that be a problem? To insist that it must be looks suspiciously like a silencing ploy, to shame those who are inclined to, and can, ask embarrassing questions into silence, ironically on the basis of what turns out to be in effect a set of totalising demands on them. Such silencing can only help post-coloniality to continue mainly for the benefit of its metropolitan practitioners and the restored Centre. In any arena, it is those who have the equipment to engage in the act of contestation who can most usefully do so. In the arena of post-colonial theorising, the equipment includes, among other things, a command of the discourse(s) of post-colonialism. Like all discourses, these are acquired through the processes of becoming a member of the community. At present, as it happens, membership is open to metropolitan Euro-American or Euro-Americanised middle class intellectuals, from wherever. This in itself is hardly a reason for those who sufficiently command the discourses to be able turn them against themselves and lay bare the subversive potential they often conceal to remain silent. This is not to claim that what they speak will be what the Subaltern will speak, if the Subaltern ever will be able to speak. In any event, if the Subaltern does speak, it is more likely to be in ways that show something of what is pointed towards by Fanon's third phase. And, perhaps, it is indigenous traditions of the kind mentioned above that seem most likely to move in those directions.

Part 9.1: Women to the Rescue

Chitra Sankaran, PhD, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Yet Emily could not have played such a decisive role in actually creating a national theatre if the play did not have some extraordinary power and resonance. When we look for a source of these qualities, we are led inescapably to its centring of the issue of the woman as agent. It is from this, described in Sections 2.1-2.3, that some of the best things in Emily as post-colonial text derive. For Emily's struggle to construct her identity as a woman appears in a real sense to re-enact the whole post-colonial struggle. While doing so, it opens out some of the closures that the class-based response discussed above effected and invests the play with the strength that has earned it its reputation.

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