Archive for the ‘Critical Mixed Race Theory’ Category

At an event I recently attended I was told that my dissertation was not considered feminist enough. My response, as I held my drink standing within the din of clinking glasses, was: “you’re joking, right?” Interestingly, the remark was made by someone who did not read my work but based their conclusion on my topic. My research project is an analysis of Louis Riel’s 1885 trial and the representation of the Métis leader by the nineteenth-century media and its present day implications. Beyond my ostensibly glib reaction, the remark raised several questions for me, which I am compelled to bring forward to create a conversation.

Aside from the intriguing fact that someone would suggest that my work concerning a Métis leader and his representation in the media is not feminist enough, even more curious is how exactly this reasoning was deduced? This is particularly troubling when considering the long-standing issues endured by Métis peoples in Canada and the continued violence against all Aboriginal Nations specifically with the ever present crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls – a consequence my research connects to Riel’s execution and the negation of Aboriginal sovereignties. Perhaps a more astute question is how could this work not be feminist?

While I accept all criticism as valuable, even more so than praise, this remark left me stymied. Granted my methodology for this specific project does not outwardly use a “conventional” western feminist approach (explained in my Introduction). Instead, my discourse analysis of the historical event applies a critical race and postcolonial approach as I utilize the scholarship, storytelling, and writings of Métis and First Nations scholars, including Riel. I felt this method was necessary because a western analytic framework could once again colonize the sovereign objectives and paradigmatic and contextual shifts Riel was undertaking. As a feminist scholar, I felt this was the most feminist approach to take.

What then does it mean to be feminist enough? Who am I proving my feminism to? Must my feminism be proved at all? Who is in charge of judging this? Are there guidelines, a rule book, an obstacle course, a code of conduct, a hazing ritual, a membership mandate, proof in the pudding, or a complex set of algorithms which will magically spit out gold coins revealing: “Yes, this is feminist … enough?”

Am I, or is my feminism, not enough? Bound with the short sighted evaluation of my work (or more specifically, its title) is an intellectual and proprietary hierarchy, which privileges an assumed power to dictate what feminism is, and with it also arrives (ironically) a distinct gust of patriarchy, no?

Interesting.

To me, if I may be so bold (as a feminist), the remark in many ways says more about the institutionalization of feminisms (plural intended), rather than my work as not being feminist enough. My work was shut down instead of opened up to consider all the possibilities. I was silenced and with this silencing so too was, once again, the contextual histories of the critical work at hand: issues concerning Métis sovereignty.

For the record, my research illuminates new scholarship concerning Riel’s advocacy for the rights and recognition of Métis and First Nations women and girls; his public condemnation of the Canadian government’s gender-based violence during the period; and the connection between the criminalization of Métis sovereignty, which culminated in Riel’s execution, with present day issues concerning missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The criticism I received was indeed extremely valuable as I continue my everyday feminist methodology: to question and to listen in order to understand and create conversations. I also look forward to bring this anecdote forward into the classrooms where I teach students who come with their own complex histories, and varied stories, and who are grappling with what it means to be a feminist.

I will listen to them in order to understand and to remain open to all possibilities.

 

Advertisements

I have been asked the question many times over the course of my research and writing: “Why Riel?” The a/effect of answering the question provides me with the opportunity to consider my position within the work. One answer could be that as I happened upon the torrent of dehumanizing representations of Riel in the nineteenth century press, I also realized that a critical analysis addressing the relationship between the trial and the media was lacking in scholarship and thus necessary. Another answer could be that additional work needed to done within the context of Canada’s nineteenth century media and its representation of Aboriginal identities; moreover, how do these early representations inform the present day understandings of indigenous sovereignties, histories and stories? It could be that late one night at a library’s microfiche bay, I realized that something was not quite right when I read the Riel trial coverage in the 1885 newspapers. The answer could also be that I wanted to better understand how the mechanics of racism operate and figure out how the stereotyped matrix is configured and then dispensed into zones of intelligibility. All these responses would indeed be accurate; yet, these answers do not really resolve why I have not been able to let Riel go.

What I have come to learn over the years, and in fact what I am still learning, is that much of what draws me to the subject of Riel and Métis sovereignty has much to do with my own histories. Although I am not from Aboriginal descent, my corporeal and psychic being is a product of the colonial project. My father was Dutch; my mother was Indonesian. While not plunging the plumb line too deep into my own complex historical well (this work will be left for another time), what lies at the core of my affinity to Riel’s history is my mother. As a half-caste Indonesian-Dutch woman, she was born into the Dutch colonized archipelago where she survived a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia during WWII. Her histories similar to those histories of thousands of girls and women, who endured the violence of war and subsequent displacement, exile and lose of identity and geography, has remained largely undocumented. From the age of ten until she was fourteen my mother was a prisoner in the camp along with my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my tanta. One of my tantas was born in the camp. When the war ended they were further displaced into a refugee camp in Singapore before being forced to the Netherlands and into exile. My mother and her sisters were told never to speak of their origin, the camp, their histories, and their mixed race. Silenced was the history of my mother whose hair was cut and her name changed to “Jimmy” along with her gender at the age of ten. She lived in the camp as a boy (a common mother’s trick during war to save their daughters from being taken by soldiers as “comfort women”). The “comfort woman” euphemism of war facilitated the rape, exploitation, and the torture and murder of young girls. Silenced was my grandmother’s smuggling of cigarettes out of the camp at night for medicine to try to save the malnutritioned, sick and dying girls and women, one of which was her own mother, my great grandmother. Silenced was the sexual violence, my grandmother giving birth to a daughter in the camp, the racial hierarchies in all-women’s camps that relegated the hybridity of Indonesian-Dutch women to exclusion and violence. Silenced were these histories and countless others under the guise of assimilation and shame. “We are now Dutch,” my mother was told. But my mother knew she wasn’t really Dutch. She didn’t want to be Dutch. And in her bones she would never belong – anywhere; her hybridity, her half-breededness, her impurity would haunt her and, so it seems, would haunt her daughter. My mother always felt she lost her home, her land, her self.  When she eventually arrived in Canada, she was lost.

I am able to pass as white, yet beneath my skin, just under the surface I am an Indonesian-Dutch hybrid who is determined to keep categories, whatever they may be, complicated and unfixed, and always with unstable histories. Complicated histories. Sarah Stillman explains that it is the obligation of scholars to “pursue the unknown ghosts and recognize the need for proactive digging to recover stories about those deemed ‘disposable’; and valuing the structural integrity, details, and delicacy of each individual story you unearth” (500). Perhaps it was the words in Riel’s testimony: “But justice demands that we honor our mothers as well our fathers. Why should we care to what degree exactly of mixture we possess European blood and Indian blood?” Riel’s words struck a chord when defining his place, his identity, and his sovereignty; perhaps, what struck a deeper chord was the government’s negation of his rights and the denial of his belonging. If I do not identify as mixed raced I negate my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and tantas’ histories; I ignore the colonial violence they lived; I absolve the colonizer, and I devalue their daily acts of resistance. I erase their strength. I enable silence. Assimilation is amnesia’s handmaiden. I am privileged to be stained by my father’s whiteness; yet, I am also privileged to be haunted by the hybrid ghosts who never sleep, who speak to me, who toss and turn and at times beat their fists beneath the floorboards of my skin and demand that their histories are spoken. So, here I return to my initial question:  why Riel?  Truthfully, I am still not exactly certain. What I do know is that somewhere within the landscape of Riel’s and Métis histories I recognize specters that continue to haunt me; and their need to be resurrected, to speak, to be recognized, to refuse the refusal of their sovereignty and to do the work to set it right.  There is indeed work for the living to do.

Image

 


Image

50.    IPA.    Redcap.  Stubby brown glass. A bottle-mouth my lips blow a whistle across.
Every Friday the beer truck delivered; we didn’t have a car.
I never really thought about why she put it up there, up there on the mantle.

“A freak of nature,” a neighbour whispered holding it up to the window, then looking at her.

The cap’s metal teeth biting down, sunlight filling the glass,
warming the small dead body inside.

“An omen” my mother said.

I.

The stone fireplace has a mantle (as all should);
a carved wooden crow with one glass eye
watches the room entirely      convinced.
She’d walk her dog, Rocco,
a grey German Shepherd, along the riverbank.
Pant leg hems muddy.  She comes in through the backdoor
wiping his paws with a tea towel.
Her dog swam out, brought driftwood back held tight between his teeth
Growled when she took it away.
A piece of fallen oak, she liked its uprootedness.
A boat with holes to secure her square Kodachrome snapshots
sepia-toned-passengers
set careful
beginning to curl, teetering
children clutching her hands on either side
next to the convinced crow with the glass eye
watching

en neem er vooral een glas koel bier bij?

II.

a case of twenty-four
a well     a spring    a fixture
in the middle of her kitchen floor
Rocco at her feet
she divines from a chrome chair
elbows on her bare legs
smoking a cigarette the driver left
pulls the kerchief from her hair
thinks about cracking open
glass rubbing glass clinking glass
hooked in her crooked fingers
brown headless bodies
full of ale “good for breast feeding” she says
a consolation prize

in one bottle she sees a small vagrancy
caught by its tail
as it slipped through the air vent the crack, the cage
breathless fugitive
weightless body
heavy plans gone awry
bottled then capped
“think i’m dead?”

they muse

her floating eyelids up and down
did she just wink?
“cheeky”
mouse inside her glass house
winks back
she places her bottled stowaway next to her boat next to her snaps next
to her cocky one eyed crow next
lighting another cigarette, she admires her mantle (as all should)

they both wonder:

“how shall i be got out?”
cigarette ash drops to the floor
“how             shall i be got out?”

Kim Anderson, Métis writer and scholar, explains that “Native women [have] historically been equated with the land.  The Euro-constructed image of Native women therefore mirrors Western attitudes towards the earth.  Sadly, this relationship has typically developed within the context of control, conquest, possession, and exploitation” (100). Emma LaRocque borrows from Sarain Stump‘s poetry in There Is My People Sleeping when explaining the significance of hearing the voices that break the violent continuity of this ever present colonial misrepresentation:

I was mixing the stars and sand
In front of him
But he couldn’t understand
I was keeping the lightening of
The thunder in my purse
Just in front of him
But he couldn’t understand
And I have been killed a thousand times
Right at his feet

“Culture forms our beliefs” as Gloria Anzaldua argues, and “we perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture” (38). Stereotypes are not spontaneous phenomena; they require what John Durham Peters calls “the zone of intelligibility” (208) where a meeting of minds can take place – this takes time. But where does “the zone” or what Wilkie Collins used as his essay title, “The Unknown Public,” occur?  How does it happen? What are the power configurations at work and how are the images and their inscribed knowledge transmitted and what is their material and psychic impact?  When describing the representation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s nineteenth-century, historian, Lyle Dick explains “from the time of Confederation, the media has generated images of Canada, its constituent peoples and regions, exerting a wide-ranging impact on the country’s culture. To study these images, especially in the key period after 1867, is to witness the nation-state in the process of its ideological construction” (1).[1]

Image

Plate 1

The nineteenth-century newspapers in America, Britain, and Canada were the most ubiquitous agent of popular education (Anderson and Robertson 2011; Benjamin 1968; Brake 2009; Burke 2005) and as such constructed events using established stereotyped colonial ideologies to organize a meeting of minds or “imagined communities” among strangers (Anderson, “Imagined” 6). European whiteness mobilized the stereotype of the so-called “wild savage” and held within it the noble, the child, the feminine, and the enemy. Nancy Black argues that to determine a sovereign state there must be an enemy and it manifested in the Western illustrated press into the figure of “The Indian” (130). Understanding that the nation’s communication systems were saturated with the figure of  “The Indian,” in its multiple formations, begins to address Daniel Francis’ question:  “How did I begin to believe in the Imaginary Indian?” (18).  Francis’s query opens further questions concerning the shaping of a national consciousness that contributed to a unifying ideology that Eva Mackey calls Canadian-Canadians (3) or as Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson describe as “imagined Canadiana” (9).

How then is the mythical continuity of a unified “Canada” ruptured in the 2013 counter movement Idle No More; moreover, how does the present leadership of Chief Theresa Spence disrupt (in her demand to speak with the Prime Minister of Canada concerning land, governance, social and economic policies) the historical national framework that has endeavoured to make absent and silence Aboriginal women and girls: (in)actions that continue to wage an ignored colonial violence against them, and even in the real and statistical atrocities, that mark the evidence of their missingness and murders, their names are erased. What violence then, it must be asked, does the Prime Minister’s refusal to speak to Chief Theresa Spence continue to advocate and authorize?

It was not surprising to read the biased article reported by the CBC, a Canadian Crown corporation owned by the federal state: “Review of troubled Northern Ontario reserve’s finances says federal funds spent without records” If the audit report, that the CBC coverage presents inaccurately, is actually read it is clear that the audit conclusions criticize, in fact, the federal government’s department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s (AANDC) management, or rather mismanagement, of the Attawapiskat funding. The media and its “timely” slandering of Chief Theresa Spence’s leadership is a stark reminder (if indeed one needs to be reminded) of the colonial strategies and stereotypes that continue to be deployed by the government through the media when they are confronted with acts of resistance.

The line of attack is not new. The foundational media strategy is rooted as far back as the c1493 Basel woodcut, “Epistola de insulis nuper inventis” [“Concerning islands recently discovered”], from Columbus’ letters and the advent of print production; yet, its stronghold, within the material and psychic spaces of growing nationalism and printing press technology in Canada, is made by the mid-nineteenth century.

In the July 16, 1885 edition of The Regina Leader newspaper, for instance, under the headline Telegraphic News – Ottawa  – “Supplementary Estimates Brought Down,” paper editor and owner, Nicholas Flood Davin summarizes the federal budget report for the North West; the article proves insightful particularly when bearing in mind the ignored petitions and the grievances brought forward against the federal government by the Métis peoples, Aboriginal Nations, and white settlers concerning not only land, but also the social anxiety and violence by increased and aggressive policing along with an upswing in the government’s implementation of irresponsible and malignant policies that created the foundations of inadequate health, economic, educational, and social systems on Reserves – issues demanded to be constitutionally addressed and recognized in the Métis Bill of Rights (1869 and 1885).  Sound familiar? The report includes the 1885 federal budget forecasting $250,000 earmarked to the North West Mounted Police, $50,000 toward land surveys, $660,000 for the CPR, and $6,000 to the “Half-breeds” (1). The report on one level reflects the government’s exclusive priorities: security, ‘acquisition’ of land, military transportation and communication technologies through the North West specifically adhering to colonial objectives, while on another appeasing the apparent needs and sentiments of the Victorian settlers by disseminating propaganda that security is enforced, land is organized, mobility and communication services are accessible, and that the Métis, with Riel charged with high treason, were, according to their the under-funding, “disappearing,” and the Aboriginal Nations (not allotted a funding budget line) were not present at all. It was the era of the “Vanishing Indian” and similar to the 2013 CBC coverage, the numbers were presented to do colonial ideological legwork. Conventional to the Leader’s format, the article is followed by a travel narrative entitled “The North West as, a Home, for the Small Farmer” and on the following page, the headline “The End of the Rebellion.”

In the same issue, the article “The Mounted Police – The Report of the Commissioner” replicates the geographical specialization of race, the implementation of government policies in the Indian Act, as well as how the policies were not accepted by the Aboriginal communities but were instead forced upon them in the issuing of discipline and punishment through state policing.  In the report, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald condemns “the indiscriminate camping of Indians in the vicinity of towns and villages in the North West … Indians should not be allowed to leave their reserves without a permit from a local Indian agent.” The report

pointed out that the introduction of such a system [The Indian Act] would be  tantamount to a breach of confidence with the Indians generally, inasmuch as from the outset the Indians had been led to believe that compulsory residence on reservations would not be required of them, and that they would be at liberty to travel about for legitimate hunting and trading purposes … that discretionary power, according to circumstance should be vested in the officers of police, was wise and sound … The camping of Indians near towns is an unmitigated nuisance, and if they are to be allowed to wander off their reserves without even the small check of a permit from the local agent, what is the good of having reserves at all?

Davin’s extract taken from the House of Commons invites his readers into the sovereign zone of intelligibility as it reinforces the mapping of racialized spatial hierarchies and authorizes “community” surveillance as a “wise and sound” method to maintain security while it segregates boundary lines between the civilized “towns and villages,” and individuals from Native communities as “unmitigated nuisance.”  Within the loaded colonial tropology of “if they are to be allowed to wander” metaphorically transfers as it reduces the Aboriginal population as deviant and must be kept confined and more specifically aligned with the state protocols of incarceration. In 2012, with the prison population overwhelmed with individuals of Aboriginal descent, the nineteenth government policy as a racist template continues to have catastrophic implications: “Aboriginal people are four per cent of the Canadian population, but 20 per cent of the prison population … one in three women in federal prisons is Aboriginal and over the last 10 years representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system has increased by 90 per cent.”[2] Moreover, the imperial euphemism of discretionary power issued by the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) elides the colonial violence in the rhetoric of security; the police did not protect the rights and interests of the Indigenous population but, rather, collaborated closely with eastern business interests who paid their salaries.[3] By 1883, 70% of the Métis and more than 50% of the Native English (“Half-breeds”) had seen the lands they occupied in 1870 patented to others mostly Ontario Orangemen newcomers.[4]

The public slandering of Chief Theresa Spence in the national media, and the Prime Minister’s explicit disrespect in his refusal to meet with her as a leader of a community, within the nation of Canada, that has not only been mismanaged by its federal agents (as identified in the audit report) but has also been sanctioned into a state of crisis because of the AANDC’s delinquent and negligent methods, reflects how Harper continues in the colonial footsteps of his nineteenth century Conservative predecessor.

Macdonald_Nov20_1885

Plate 2

There was another figure who led, with others, two movements of resistance, whose leadership was also disparaged in the press, and who articulated his response to the nineteenth century Canadian federal government concerning parallel issues that remain to be addressed in 2013. To follow is one instance among many:

The only things I would like to call your attention to, before you retire to deliberate are:
1st. That the House of Commons, Senate, and ministers of the Dominion who makes laws for this land and govern it are no representation whatever of the people of the North-West.
2ndly. That the North-West Council generated by the federal Government has the great defect of its parent.
3rdly. The number of members elected for the Council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative Government at all. British civilization, which rules to day the world, and the British constitution has defined such Government as this which rules the North West Territory is an irresponsible Government, which plainly means that there is no responsibility, and by the science which as been shown here yesterday you[] are compelled to admit it, there is no responsibility, it is insane. (Louis Riel, Prisoner’s Address, 1885)

The Idle No More movement is also not a recent phenomena but a continuum of 500 years of resistance. Perhaps then, in the news media’s eagerness and the government’s colonial anxiety that attempt to misrepresent and undermine, once again, Aboriginal peoples issues, demands and leadership, make evident just how powerful Spence’s counter movement, and a growing solidarity, is.

List of Illustrations

Plate 1
“Canada West” (c. 1923-1925)
Immigration Poster
Issued under the direction of N. James Alexander Robb,
Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Ottawa, Canada

Plate 2
Glenbow Museum.  Edgar Dewdney Fond.
“J.A. Macdonald to Dewdney.” Correspondence with Sir John A. Macdonald – 1878-1888.
Series 8. M-320-p.587. On-line.

[1] Dick, Lyle. Manitoba History, 48. Autumn/Winter 2004/2005. Web. April 30 2012. http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/48/nationalism.shtml

[2] Carolyn Bennett. “Aboriginal People Need Solutions, Not More Jail Time.” The Huffington Post. December 11, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/hon-carolyn-bennett/aboriginal-crime_b_1923856.html

[3] Metis Culture 1875-1885.”1883.” Retrieved from http://www.telusplanet.net/public/dgarneau/metis50.htm

[4] Metis Culture 1875-1885. Retrieved from -http://www.telusplanet.net/public/dgarneau/metis50.htm

On August 9, 2011 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired an interview with West Indian writer, broadcaster, and  civil liberties campaigner Darcus Howe concerning the London riots. The “on the street” interview positioned Howe in the foreground with a burnt out building and fire truck in the background. Howe, when attempting to give context to the riots specifically about the treatment of West Indian youth, was continually interrupted and the BBC interviewer who, through her questioning, not only mispronounced his name but also represented Howe as being an active agent in the violence associated with the riots. To follow is an excerpt from the interview:

Interviewer: “Marcus Dowe (sic) are you shocked about what you seen there last night?”

Howe: “No, not at all … I have been living in London for 50 years … but what I am certain about is that something very serious was going to happen in this country … the political leaders had no idea, the police had no idea but if you look at young blacks and the whites with a discerning eye and the careful hearing they would tell us what is happening in this country…”

Interviewer: “If I can stop you Mr. Howe … You say you are not shocked so does this mean you condone what was happening in your community last night?”

Howe: “Of course not … what I am concerned about more than anything else … is a young man Mark Duggan … and a few yards away from where he lives a police officer blew his head off, blew his face off … [over talking by interviewer] … let me finish … “

Interviewer: “Mr. Howe we have to wait for the official inquiry before we can say things like that … we are going to wait for the police report on it …

Howe: (continuing) “They have been stopping and searching young blacks for no reason at all …”

Interviewer: Mr. Howe … that may well have happened but that is not an excuse to go out rioting …

Howe: “… I don’t call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people … “

Interviewer: “Mr. Howe, you are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand? You have taken part in them yourself … ?

Howe: “I have never taken part in a single riot. I have been in demonstrations that ended up in a conflict and have some respect for an old West Indian negro instead of accusing me of being a rioter … Have some respect … you sound like an idiot.

Interview cut off.

The BBC interview excerpt crystallizes what Michel Foucault describes as a “historical irruption,” (2002, 31) a discontinuity in the “fixed” continuity of a colonial narrative that classifies and demarcates the civilized and the savage. It also reveals the media as an agent of the law in its sanctioning the authority to the interviewer to reprimand Howe’s criminal accusations against the police as unauthorized without “official inquiry,” yet simultaneously privileges the interviewer to accuse Howe as a rioter. Norman Fairclough would describe the interviewer as a “gatekeeper” (45) and the framework within which the interview takes place presents how, as Stuart Hall explains, “meaning floats” and that it cannot be finally fixed. However, attempting to ‘fix’ it is the work of a representational practice, which intervenes in the many potential meanings of an image in an attempt to privilege one” (228). The “meaning” of images, in this interview, is mobilized by sovereign forces (government owned media) to create “the civilized.” Howe’s speaking against the master narrative by demanding respect, invalidating the law, undermining the sovereign authority of a British media force, and revealing state ignorance of West Indian youth resistance provides a catalyst from which to question, as Foucault suggests “those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (2002, 24). The BBC interview exemplifies Ericson, Baranek, and Chan’s argument that “the news media and law also share an affinity in claiming that their policing is in the public interest. The basis of this claim is the appearance of neutrality. The consequence of this claim is that the news media and law are able to accomplish a degree of legitimacy and authority for their own institutions, while also selectively underpinning or undercutting legitimacy and authority of other social institutions” (7). The dividing line is thus established, to maintain order, between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” and is reflected in the “Eurocentric binarism” (Hall 160) of the civilized and savage. What is particular about news is that it is “fundamentally a discourse of morality, procedure, and hierarchy, providing symbolic representations of order in these terms” (Ericson et al 5). From fifteenth-century European contact onward a wide spectrum of media continues to work in tandem with legal frameworks to disseminate the discourse of the savage-other in order to reinforce an apparatus of the civilized or as Robert A. Williams describes as the “will of Empire.”

Amber-Dawn Bear Robe reflects upon how this “will” is countered in the work of Rebecca Belmore:

Kaja Silverman used the term suturing in reference to cinematography. In films narratives are stitched together, but in a structure that hides the suturing process to give the illusion a clean, un-spliced story. These narratives have been sutured to naturalize and support myths that are ingrained in the North American psyche. Silverman argues that in order to expose the illusion of truths and power relations in western society, the sutures must be made visible” (Silverman 1983).

Bear Robe describes Belmore’s work as revealing “The spaces between the stitches, the blank moments that create the dominant moments (binary opposites) are also valuable signifiers. The moments in between are not usually witnessed by the audience. Exposing the suture marks results in exposing the construction of the story, the myth and lies behind the image.”

Howe’s explicit counter conduct against government propaganda runs parallel to Belmore’s desire to “release the figure from a suffocating ideology” (Bear Robe 1).

“Through powerful images that implicate the body, performances that address history and memory, and gestures that evoke a sense of place, Rebecca Belmore is known for creating multi-disciplinary works that reveal a long-standing commitment to the politics of identity and representation.”

Bear Robe, Amber-Dawn. “Rebecca Belmore’s Performance of Photography.” Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Web. 2012. http://www.aboriginalcuratorialcollective.org/features/bearrobe.html.

Ericson, Richard Victor, Patricia M. Baranek, Janet B. L. Chan.  Representing Order: Crime, Law, and Justice in the News Media.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. Second Edition. London: Longman, 2001.

Foucault, Michel Archeology of Knowledge. Oxon: Routledge, 2002.

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London:  Open University, 1997.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Williams, Robert A. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of  Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

My mother would tell me this story, a fable, a legend of sorts as I sat on her kitchen floor; the broken linoleum was cool under my crossed legs. I remember tracing the torn bits of the floor with my finger tips; slowly I’d follow the sharp lines, the broken lines like a map that led me to my mother’s stove.

As she cooked, I played with one of her wooden spoons and I’d pull all the pots and pans from out of the open cupboard door beside her bare legs.

As she stirred, I stirred

and I’d watch her saute the onions and garlic; the smoke would rise in an alchemic cloud to the ceiling and disappear;  I’d watch her as the steam made her face turn like a ghost as she lifted the lid from the jasmine rice.

And she would stir.

It was a crazy legend, this story that she would tell.  It made no sense to me at all but I do remember liking the word “volcano” … even as she told the story I would repeat the word – volcano – over and over sometimes without making a sound:  only my lips would move:  vol cane oh.

“The volcano,” she would begin as she tamped the spoon on the edge of her iron pot, “was made by a daughter, a meisje, who, to win the love of her mother, had to dig a sea around the sand upon which she stood — in one night. This would not be an easy task, for you see the sand stretched out for as far as the girl could see until it slipped out over the edge of the world.  And all she had, all this girl could use was half a coconut shell, a klein kop – like this.  And so the girl began to dig; she made a circle, a wide circle.  She dug deep for she knew the sea was running beneath, and as she dug she piled the sand in the centre of the circle to make the volcano; she dug, and she dug,

and she dug

so deep that she stood hip deep in a water of sea and the sand pile had grown into a mountain so great that when she would hold her breath for a moment … she could hear a fire growing in its belly, and its groan beneath her feet.  The girl, you see, was doing very well, but she was doing so well that the gods got angry.  So angry because you see, meisje, they wanted her to fail.

It is here, in the story, that my mother would always look at me; her green eyes so clear and sharp that I thought I could hear them speak, “Meisje, what you must remember is that the gods were only afraid.  They were afraid that this girl, the daughter would make what couldn’t be made by mortals.”

“So the gods began to pound and POUND … pound seed between mortar and pestle. The sound of stone grew so great, so fierce that the dark sky shook.”  And my mother would have her stone and pestle resting in her hands, its centre still with bits of cumin husks. “Like so … the stone against seed against stone.   It was this sound of pounding, the sound of girls in the morning preparing meals around a fire and water boiling hot for washing as the sun would cut the night horizon with light, softening the dark … but you see,  it was a trick.  It was still dark.  The girl still had time but she did not know the trick that was being played.

and the roosters, they too were fooled; they thought the sun, the morning, was rising, ready to come up — so they began to crow

So, the girl, the daughter stood up, climbed out of the sea,  her hand over brow.  She looked at her mountain and then to the east.  The empty cup in her hand. The sky was still dark and filled with the sounds of cocks crowing and gods pounding.  It was then the girl knew the gods were fucking with her.  The gods were always always fucking with her.  The shape of the sky told her that much.  But by then it was too late.

And so the girl never completes the task.  And the daughter dies … longing, a half cup in her hand.   A broken sea of sand and an unfinished mountain was all that remained.

And my mother would stir.  Silent.  And I would follow the lines on the floor like a map, a map that led to my mother’s stove.  And I would for a moment hold my breath, like the girl, the daughter in the story … and it seemed as if the floor moved from somewhere below me and I could hear a fire from somewhere as I looked up at her, the steam rising and then disappearing into nothing.

I never knew what that word meant; the name she always called me:  Meisje.  No clue. But the funny thing is my body knew.  My arms, my legs, my face, my mouth all knew the meaning better than anything else I have ever known.  It felt — warm.  Like the heat from her oven.  Steam from her rice.  Her skin in an August garden.  Even though I never knew what it meant – I always went to her – always went to her — no matter what.

And I remember the two of us standing across from each other, each facing one other; our hands on our hips wanting to know more than anything else in the world the answers to the questions that could only be found in legends, the truth that could only be found in fables of sea and sand that were told to us.

—  excerpt from my play “red bridge”


There may be solemn duty; and if it come we must not shrink from it…I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing – Mina Harker, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Diskursmaschinegewehr,” a word from Dracula’s Legacy (DraculasVermächtnis: Technische Schriften) by Friedrich Kittler, is Kittler’s 1993 wordplay to signal the late nineteenth-century social anxiety related to modernity, machines, and media – a triumvirate of consumption generated by the ink fabric carriage return of the typewriter or Kittler’s “discourseweaponmachine.”  Kittler’s critical appropriation is addressing Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel and Stoker’s object of choice, the typewriter, for his radical protagonist/stenographer, Mina Harker.  Embracing the vampiric technology and her role as the New Woman, Harker totally takes down (in not a few key strokes) not only the figure of Dracula but the epistolary framework of Stoker’s narrative.  Mina was, indeed, a post-Gutenberg proto-cyborg.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - featuring Mina Harker

Harker’s ontological hybridity of machine and organism is explained, in part, by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto“:

Cyborgs are  not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection — they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party.  The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and partriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.  But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their father, after all, are inessential. (151)

The Remington typewriter (1873), developed by the company that manufactured guns for the Civil War, is, in its very infrastructure, a discursive weapon of war, and was utilized as a frontline industrialized device in the proliferation of military communications and its handmaiden:  nineteenth-century media.  In April 2011, Godrej and Boyce, the last typewriter factory in the world announced that it would be closing its doors but the “discourseweaponmachine” does not falter:  during the nineteenth-century another data communication system, the telegraph, ran parallel to the typewriter and established the foundational apparatus for the twentieth-century world:  the internet. The inter-networking systems expanded in the 1950s with cyber gateways and bridges leading to mainframes held in the United States Department of Defense and its “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.

I feel not unconnected to Mina Harker, as a fellow cyborg, as I enter data into the machine and wonder if the twenty-first century’s pop cult fanaticism for Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries et. al. is perhaps a continuum of the anxieties/fears/desires that were prevalent in the nineteenth-century: social, ecological, and economic cannibalism, the virtual fangs of Ebay consumerism, and the ever firing neo-engine discourse of the Military Industrial Complex?  As McLuhan explains in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “That every generation poised on the edge of massive change should later seem oblivious of the issues and the imminent event would seem to be natural enough.  But it is necessary to understand the power and thrust of technologies to isolate the sense and thus to hypnotize society (272).

If you’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read it again.  If you have not:  Read it; the film versions unfortunately do not include Harker’s cyborg intervention and also exclude significant layers of cultural, social, and economic symbolism that remain ever-present in the contemporary discourseweaponmachine.  To follow:  Nosferatu (1922); Dracula with Bela Lugosi (1931).


It’s as simple as this: I found your letter in a bread box, a paper folded lengthwise three times. A missing page, Oma, with your voice pressed on tissue blue writing paper – the same colour as the sea it crossed over.  A paper folded in between love letters, divorce papers, and a pencil sketch of a ship’s graphite lines fading into fog. The letter is a story, a mother’s mother’s story.

I always see you standing right there: your back to me in your small kitchen on Havenstraat in Holland. Your waist is wrapped with your long white tea towel. Stained with the colour of meals. You lean into the counter, feet slippered. You’re chopping something (but I can’t quite see what) and a pan simmers smoky the smell of cooking onions and garlic and trassie memorized on my tongue. The back screen door is open and the hanging green blue copper batik fabric is tied back to let in a cool summer breeze and your five, no six dogs, in. Misha, your old black lab, pushes heavy into your leg, that’s all, just a push and walks nails across floor into another room.

You don’t know I’m here, do you? How could you know that I am here, now, with all these things on my lap, listening to something written, something that comes in from the outside and waits

for your back to turn, our mouths to speak.

“Memory is for me always fresh, in spite of the fact that the object being remembered is done and past” (Toni Morrison, 213).

In Dionne Brand’s novel At The Full and Change of the Moon food and memory are connected both figuratively and literally, rooted in to Marie Ursula’s acts of revolt and carried forward to her descendants.  As Erica Johnson points out, “as a source of psychological and transgenerational haunting, the horror of Marie Ursule’s story continues to have undeniably real effects on individual lives.  No longer is the question of accuracy the most important with regard to memory, for whether the event is recalled or not, it acts upon Marie Ursule and her descendants” (8).

Moon - Antares sequence of the medieval Castle of Sümeg in Hungary

Marie Ursule (“queen of malingerings and sabotages”) gathered the ingredients: methodically.  In an act of counter conduct, she plans and follows through in a mass suicide with her fellow slaves. Ursule, however, makes sure there is one survivor, her four-year-old daughter, Bola, who is taken away to another part of the island and then carries with her the weight of a memory she doesn’t remember.

Food is an oral element. The infusion of food develops multiple physical dimensions and celebrates “this is where I came from” and “this is where I am.”  Food enables the symbiosis between the two states:  accessing a traumatic past and the control of the present by articulating embedded memories of place and history.   As Susan Brison suggests in her essay “Trauma and Memory,” “the past is not simply there in memory, but it must be articulated to become memory” (42) and the process of articulation is shaped partly by the power dynamics that enter the discourse.

When considering the representation of “women who poison” it is important to recognize in Brand’s novel that the character of Marie Ursule shifts the balance of power in her act of poisoning and her representation differs from the colonial trope of women. The difference is in the articulation of motive, the counter-trope of food as medicine to heal her condition of slavery under her oppressors: “and in her goings about she discovered medicines that cure all sickness.  And life was a sickness itself” (297).  A striking image of women empowered by food in the course of subversion, resistance and social change occurs in Brand’s novel with Ursule countering the myth of victimization and resisting her oppressor, even in her death:  “meeting under curtains of heavy rains or unrelenting night, they had told Marie Ursule of the most secret way to ruin.  Woorara they called it, their secret to rigour and breathlessness” (2).  Consequently, Brand binds Marie Ursule to the land, a relationship of  respect and love that instills in her a power to wield it and send it forward into the future:

Wandering when she could wander, Marie Ursule husbanded the green twigs, the brown veins, the sticky bitterness, the most sanguine of plants.  She loved their stems, their surprise of leaves as veined as her palms, their desperate bundles of berries, their hang of small flowers, and most of all the vine itself, its sinewed grace.  She ground the roots to their arresting sweetness, scraped the bark for its abrupt knowledge.  She had though of other ways, bitter cassava, manchineel apples, but their agonies could last for days.  Woorara, the Caribs had told her, was simple and quick, though it had taken her years to collect.  And wait. (2)

“Starved with remembering” is a critical configuration since there is an inability for the protagonists to return to the primary location, a lament that simulates the inability to return to the location where memory is made.  A memory that boils, cooks, changes, cools, and comes from the same place but is no longer accessible.  Brand twists the metaphor of starved to articulate that the act of remembering is never completely fulfilling.   As well, the rock in the ocean that figures prominently in Brand’s novel, I found to double as a symbol of exile, as well as reclaimed territory:   “the rock out there seems another land, her own” (59); it is not connected, yet is wholly connected to the earth and the future.  A place of escape (60) “where she had succumbed to tastes and smells and the sharp graze and cool sting of the body” (62). From here, Bola loved to “put a warm stone in her mouth to comfort her hunger” (57).  Erica Johnson studies the corporeal and psychological impact of trauma that transcends the primal location of the event through the lives of subsequent generations and she refers to a phantom that circulates memory and knowledge or “a direct empathy with the unconscious … matter of a parental object … the phantom is alien to the subject who harbors it … the diverse manifestations of the phantom … we call haunting” (8).  Food narratives reveal how the edible is one of the diverse manifestations that arise in both metaphorical or practical applications.   Unforgetting the origin of the food-associated-rituals is essential to Sri Owen who retraced her roots in Northern Sumantra and imparts that Indonesian food is on the endangered species list:  “this is what made me want to contribute, in my own small way, to the work of saving ‘traditional’ food ways from oblivion,” keeping the ritual alive for subsequent generations (3).

Tamarind Tree

In Brand’s novel, Tamarindus Indica or the tamarind tree figures significantly and is a place where one of Bola’s children, Samuel, finds sanctuary: “he sat under this tree everyday.  A tree perhaps brought here from Africa in the seventeenth century.  Probably brought here by his great-great grandmother” (73).  Brand also shows how the seed of the tree passes through the body before sown into the ground (75). A core element in Brand’s narrative is the link between land/place to culture, memory, identity, survival and self and how this element is articulated.

As Diane McGee suggests, “in a complex of ways, food and the systems surrounding it make up an important text, one by which we – consciously or unconsciously – live our lives” (23).

Transgenerational memory and food are reflected in Brand’s work and represented with the plantation slaves detesting the estate food: “they didn’t want to see another estate and they didn’t want their children to see it either.  They hated cacao, they hated coffee, they hated cane.  If they could pass this hatred on in a chromosome they did, their hatred was so physical” (64). Interestingly, even though they wanted their children to “hate” these foods their descendants eat cacao throughout the novel.  Symbolically even “hated” history is consumed and constructs a parallel of how memories are chosen (and not chosen), and how food is ingested as an unconscious communion with the past.  Although the enslaved want their descendants to be detached from any food related to their violent history – their children are irrevocably linked to it.  They consume their history, their exile, whether realized or not – the past is present in food.

North Coast of Trinidad

“For her memory to thicken” is a metaphor Brand draws upon as an allusion to cooking and memory (23).  Something on the fire simmering, shifting, stirring.  Food is organic and individual relationships to it change, decay, renew, yet remain a memory to thicken.  For example, in Brand’s novel, when Bola licks the sand that came in an envelope she decides “maybe this was my mother’s way of taking me to the sea” to the place her great grandfather was born (284).  Food and place become a language, and as a discourse can illuminate, dominate or subvert collective memory.  As Mieke Bal imparts, redefining is also essential in the work of memorization.

Susan Brison suggests, “the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (49). Food makes accessible the silent gaps in history, creates a narrative path to otherwise inaccessible passages and makes memory tangible, offering those who are starved with remembering some nourishment.  “Life will continue,” as Bola imparts. ” No matter what it seems, and even after that someone will remember you.  And even after that it could be just the whiff or thoughts of things you loved'” (Brand 298).

 

Bal, Mieke, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer, eds. Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

Brand, Dionne. Full and Change of the Moon. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Brison, Susan J. “Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self.” Bal, Crewe and Spitzer. 39-53.

Johnson, Erica. “Unforgetting Trauma: Dionne Brand’s Haunted Histories.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. V2.11. (Spring 2004): 1+.

McGee, Diane. Writing the Meal:  Dinner in the Fiction of Early Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001

Morrison, Toni “Memory, Creation and Writing” as featured in The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Owen, Sri. Indonesian Regional Cooking. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Othello’s occupation will be gone; but he will remain Othello. The young airman up in the sky is driven not only by the voices of loudspeakers; he is driven by voices in himself—ancient instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition. Is he to be blamed for those instincts? (Woolf, The Death of the Moth)

Othello, (1623 First Folio)

Traces of Othello emerge in Virginia Woolf’s first chapter of Orlando (1928) as an artistic and literary strategy to make present the influence of education, tradition, and ancient voices enacted in the violence against women and the eradication of their voices.  Woolf does not merely resurrect the ‘dead,’ early modern characters of Othello and Desdemona, with whom the living could experience a temporal connection; she disrupts early twentieth century cultural and national literary hegemony to effect historical and literary change. Woolf’s intertextual methodology is not containable; it is not static nor is it isolated in a desire for meaning.  For Woolf, her writing provides the agency through which to explore the variant social, political, and cultural ideas available for interpretation; Woolf does not give answers; she leaves a space for critical inquiry into the violence recorded through loudspeakers and literary canons.

I continue to return to Erica L. Johnson’s essay, “Giving up the Ghost: National and Literary Haunting in Orlando” and her reference to Derrida’s hauntology theory. Johnson suggests “for Woolf … to be haunted is to hear silence and to perceive that which is invisible” (110). Woolf’s intertextual use of Shakespeare brings forward the absent/presence of women, and one represented “silence” is particularly deafening:  Desdemona, the suffocated woman in her bed (Woolf 43).

But why Othello? In the first chapter of Orlando Woolf directs her reader to the act of decoding, a semiotic to-do list for “those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them” (5). The deployment of an Othellian allusion is not simply Woolf’s literary cunning to cite another author in order to conjure meaning. Othello’s specter haunts Woolf’s text because of the ancient voices that reside within Woolf, and thereby, manifest as symbols to register the reader’s responsibility to decipher.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay, “Notes Toward a Tribute to Jacques Derrida,” addresses Derrida’s theory that “the public part of mourning is a not unimportant step in the releasing of the ghost, in us. We cannot know the gift, least of all a giftcoming from a named ghost. We know the gift, if there is any, as responsibility, accountability” (102).  Woolf’s gift is through her use of codes.  In her compilation of essays in The Death of the Moth, for instance, Woolf questions the voices over loudspeakers and those ancient instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition that cornerstone the pedagogical building of patriarchal hierarchies and their associative violence specifically in literary, historical, and biographical texts (par. 7).   Woolf expects the reader “to know” Orlando’s Shakespearean associations which were garnered through traditional education.    Woolf’s own education, fostered by the bookshelves in her father’s library, brings forward her personal catalogue of voices that manifest in the figure of Orlando, in an attic haunted by his violent association, and in his patriarchal and colonial African past (Orlando 11).

Woolf’s biography of a woman writer traced through four centuries of English literary history is based on the life of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.

The play Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy written in 1603 during the reign of King James.  Crossing a spectrum comprising racism, misogyny, betrayal and power the lead figure Othello is cast as “a Moor.”[1] His character’s lineage, in the play text, is not designated, and thereby, distinguishing Othello as “a Moor” could mean a Muslim, Arabic from sub-Saharan African descent.  Woolf’s reference to “a Moor” however is distinct and locates him in the violent history of Orlando’s colonizing forefathers in Africa (11). Benedict Anderson argues that in Woolf’s Orlando, in “the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has ‘a gender’ (Hovey 1).    The statement infers not only a merging of gender and nation but a construction that is tantamount in the first page of Woolf’s novel.  By intersecting nationality, gender and race, Woolf documents a retrospective subtext detailing the violence made present in Orlando’s attic, a slicing of a Moor’s head.  Woolf’s simultaneous posturing and declaration that Orlando is “HE – FOR THERE could be no doubt of his sex” (1), genders the colonizing brutality and signals the anxiety of identity while identifying how nations and identities are chronicled and, ironically, fall into the cultural violence of amnesia.  Why do the lips on the head, as it falls, reveal a smile? The violence against the figure of Othello is situated but not heard.  The history from the Moor’s voice is not recorded and a specific irony captured in the lips of the nameless history haunts Orlando’s attic.

Woolf’s narrative redistributes a textual and visual mourning, a memorial that lets go of literary ghosts and, through varying historical manifestations, are essentially “in us.”  The attic, therefore, is a metaphor, a space of unforgetting the violence of colonization not only of territory but also of individual bodies.

“It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a coconaut. (Woolf, Orlando 12)

Woolf’s metonymic link to sport in “football” and to “cocoanut” (sic) demonstrates the practice of exotification and signals a performance space where ancient voices manifest and inform the actions of Orlando:

Orlando’s father, and perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him. (1)

Here, the slain “Moor” is abject and Other and carries the codes of imperial violence.[2] Johnson in her essay suggests that because Woolf works out her “conflicted stance on national identity through haunting, cultural theories, and cultural applications of Marxist and psychoanalytic theory are of particular use.  For Woolf and these thinkers, to be haunted is to hear silence and to perceive that which is invisible” (1).  The encoding of “smiling lips on the head of the Moor” signifies the loss of agency to Orlando and presents a powerful irony because he will never know the history behind the smile of the Moor, and as postured, the figure of the Moor has the last laugh.   Simultaneously, the symbol establishes the unrecorded stories, a major theme in Woolf’s text.  In addition, Woolf also raises the figure of the Moor with intertextual associations in Ǽthelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts (13). The play could reference the historical writing of Aethelbert, King of East Anglia, who, during his reign was a subject of plots that led to his beheading (DiBattista 257).  The allusion physically conflates imperial, territorial, linguistic histories in the slicing of the head, a specific violence found in Woolf’s text when she describes that the “soldiers planned the conquest of the Moor” (26).  Maria DiBattista, who wrote the Introduction and Annotations to the Harcourt edition of Orlando, further explains Woolf’s symbolism of “fields of asphodel” (11): “Orlando’s ‘fathers’ roamed, it seems, in actual fields of asphodel, a lilylike plant that the ancients believed to be the favorite food of the dead and so planted them near graves.  The irony is deployed in the realization that the Greek myth made no connection to virtue or evil in the symbol, yet early English poetry used the symbol to represent chivalry (257).  Woolf also draws upon the allusion of Robert Green’s characterization of Orlando Furoso, the figure DiBattista suggests Woolf’s character’s name is based on (256).  Consider the following passage from Green’s edition:

The savage Moors and Anthropophagi,
Whose lands I pass’d, might well have kept me back;

But so the fame of fair Angelica
Stamp’d in my thoughts the figure of her love,
As neither country, king, or seas, or cannibals,
Could by despairing keep Orlando back.
I list not boast in acts of chivalry (par. 6)

From the opening of Orlando, Woolf uses the past to spin multiple translations and interpretations.  But how does one detect the invisible and the silence when the text is not supplemented with annotations?  How does one identify the undetectable, the lost stories, the women cut down as they ran through the African fields, the words Desdemona said the moment before she was strangled?  How does one know for certain that even though the Moor is constructed as male, as Orlando is, that the gender may not represent a woman, a gender-switch made concrete in a seventeenth century Desdemona played by a young boy.  The haunting, then, becomes like the Spur on the narrative forest floor, intertextual and organic traces of voice or what Derrida calls, trace. For Woolf, she brings forward the trace of Othello.

Othello (adaptation by Frantic Assembly), 2008

Spivak, in her article, asks the question: What, then, is a trace?

It is or is not, or, more important, is in the possibility of always not being, the material suggestion that something else was there before, something other than it, of course. Unlike a sign, which carries a systemic assurance of meaning, a trace carries no guarantees. Animal spoor on the forest floor (in German, trace is Spur) may mean the animal was there, that it’s a decoy, that I am mistaken or hallucinating, and so on. When I am around, you know I had a mother, but that is all … I am my mother’s trace. The Father’s name is written within the patronymic sign system. (104)

Derrida’s allusion to father and mother is iterated in Woolf’s opening passage with Orlando’s inner call to go to the field of Africa:

He would steal away from his mother … and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice. (1)

The trace in this passage is Orlando’s mother as unwritten; in contrast, as Spivak denotes, Orlando’s patriarchal history is written within the patronymic sign system as ‘father’ (11).  Woolf’s system leads to the specter of military, authority, patriarchy and descends into envy, murder, and death. Woolf’s subtext of the violence against women is not an abstract quote inserted into a text but rather that it is the text.

Scene from Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet (adaptation of Othello)

Derrida’s hauntology mobilizes “the specter haunting Europe (the specter of revolution) from the first sentence of [Friedrich Engels’ and Karl] Marx’s The Communist Manifesto together with a famous literary specter, the ghost of old King Hamlet from the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play, to give figuration to the hauntings of history, the traces of the past that persist to question the present. The specter appears to summon the living to undertake a rethinking of the past; it calls, in Fredric Jameson’s words, ‘for a revision of the past, for the setting in place of a new narrative’” (Derrida 43). The new narrative is where Woolf opens her text, a narrative form that belies the patriarchal narrative strategies, by throwing the inkpot, as it were, at the textual system by instead encoding potential interpretations and defying meaning:  “Like the deconstructive stress on instability,” explains Derrida, “the specter represents an impossible incorporation: as a revenant (returning) the ghost has no beginning, only repetitions. Present and not present at once and at the same time, it seems to be in a process of ‘becoming-body’, but never quite achieves the materialization toward which it gestures” (Derrida 6). Colin Davis imparts that “Derrida’s specter is a deconstructive figure hovering between life and death, presence and absence, and making established certainties vacillate” (McClallum 11).  Woolf takes the established patriarchal certainties and vacillate them in order to disrupt the ancient voices that reside there.  Woolf’s ancient voices include the colonial powers staking global territory and expanding empires, as well as representatives from the male dominated canon whom Orlando, as both male and female, meets.

Kristeva and Intertextuality

“Or to offer her his hand for the dance, or catch the spotted handkerchief which she had let drop” (“Orlando” 19) is Woolf’s allusion to Desdemona’s handkerchief, a trope that led to her death on the bed, a symbol, that Woolf offers intertextually to the reader. Julia Kristeva coined the post structuralist theory of intertextuality in 1974; however, intertextuality (intertextualité) is often a misused term.  It is not one writer’s, in this case Shakespeare’s, influence of upon Woolf but how the variant elements of the textual systems infuse the work before, during, and after production (Kristeva 15). The “spotted handkerchief,” thereby, is not merely an inserted Shakespearean allusion but it is infused within Woolf’s inner and ancient voices, voices informed through a complex polyphonic system of semiotics, education, and tradition.  As part of a system, the handkerchief that Woolf adapts could have permeated while she was in her father’s library.  Intertextuality is defined in La Révolution du langage as “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another, accompanied by a new articulation of the enunciatively and denotative position.  Any signifying practice is a field (in the sense of space traversed by lines of force) in which various signifying systems undergo such a transposition” (Kristeva 15).  Kristeva’s use of gramme, or that which is written, is used to designate the basic, material element of writing – the marking, the trace (14).  The notion of space in which systems undergo transpositioning is apt in Woolf’s work; for example she takes the literary and cultural systems and makes them travel through time to demonstrate powerful association with gender and nation and the subsequent amnesias that are constructed.

"The Othello Project marks Walking Shadow Theatre's most daring and powerful project to date

The Othello Project, by Rod Carley (1995)

In the same way, Woolf is also interested in the historical marking related to the absence of women’s voices.  The cultural marking is represented comparatively in the form of the intertextuality practiced by Woolf in her work.  It is here where the trace of the violence against women is found, a transmission rather than an insertion of text.  “Violence is all” (21) is coined by Orlando’s narrator explaining the multidirectional influence of literature, nation, and gender:  “Thus, if Orlando followed the leading of the climate, of the poets, of the age itself, and plucked his flower in the window-seat even with the snow on the ground and the Queen vigilant in the corridor, we can scarcely bring ourselves to blame him” (21).  Woolf’s work, similar to Kristeva’s theory, is a diffusion of literary residue, a process of how language operates with previous usages, the dissonances, and the collisions among them, as well as the engagement with a broader field, extended from or inverted within a specific word or quotation.  Who then is to blame?  Woolf pursues the question by using the very “classic” texts written to identify the patriarchal influence not only in her work but also in its relationship to violence against women.  There are also instances, moreover, when the narrator silences or denies voice to female characters, such as Sasha being untranslatable (34); as well, Sasha’s real name is given by Orlando to a fox he owned as a child, an animal that his father kills (33). Sasha, “who might drop all the handkerchiefs in her wardrobe” (31) is also the figure whom Orlando wishes was Desdemona (43).

Othello, Globe Theatre, London UK, 2007 (I was there)

Erica L. Johnson explains that “one way of responding to the novel’s pronounced gaps in representation is to piece together what material markers there are [and] that it is prefaced by her [Woolf’s] attention to that which is not apparent through the text” (116). Here, Johnson brings forward of Derrida’s hauntology theory in association with Orlando. Woolf’s meta-literary devices in Orlando make the invisible and silent forms present; or “to be haunted is to hear silence and to perceive that which is invisible” (110). What exactly does this mean and how are the silences perceived in Orlando?   I returned to the passage in Woolf’s work that seems to haunt me:  Orlando’s (re)memory of Shakespeare’s Othello (5.2.102):

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse

Of sun and moon, and that th’ affrighted globe

Should yawn. (Woolf 43)

This passage, that “rose in his [Orlando’s] memory?” (17) marks Derrida’s hauntology, as well as Kristeva’s intertextuality.  The scene presents Orlando seeing   Shakespeare as a ghost-like figure who haunts Orlando much like Hamlet’s ghost haunts his son.  Orlando rhetorically asks the specter, “Tell me … everything in the whole world” (17).  Woolf’s haunting, through the (re)memory of Shakespeare, brings forward, the presence of violence against women represented in the allusion to Desdemona, the suffocated woman in her bed, who is killed by Othello (an analysis of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, as well as Iago will be taken up in another entry). Present in its silence is Orlando’s amnesia or the bracketing off of the play’s next line by Emilia, “that I may speak with you” (5.2.106).  Woolf makes present the canonical history of Shakespeare and associates it with the violence in the silencing of Emilia’s voice.   As Johnson explains, “the dynamic of haunting not only enables those living in the present to become aware of histories that have been erased by the dominant historical narrative, but also potentially signifies the unrepresentational moment of trauma of an individual’s experience of terror or the collective trauma” (110).  In making Emilia’s “speaking” absent (“No, I will speak as liberal as the north”) (5.2.226) Woolf indeed makes it “present.”  Woolf brings forward the absent voices of women who were present yet undocumented, by keeping them undocumented.

The erasure of Emilia’s voice and her request “to speak” function on two levels:  Orlando, informed by his ancient voices, does not recall Emilia’s voice and therefore the silence in history signifies the “moment of trauma.” Woolf, however, shifts this articulation when Orlando is a woman and in that representation “she” remembers, through her ancient voices, Desdemona and Emilia’s trauma, especially when Orlando is asked to be married:  “was it impossible then to go for a walk without being half suffocated” (Woolf 94).  Orlando, in speaking that she is “half suffocated” shows a shift in the patriarchal patterning, the silence is remembered while Orlando, as a woman, and is present.

Woolf recognizes, not only the violence embedded in text and the absence of the woman’s voice to speak it, but the textual systems that perpetuate the violence of racism that Othello, as Other, is politically, socially and culturally subsumed by, a patriarchal and imperial structure that (re) constructs his representation.   The complexity of Woolf’s association, like Kristeva’s theoretical analysis, does not attempt to pin down “meaning” but rather to evoke additional associations and codes that nudge the reader to a certain amount of “accountability” in following the trace lines embedded through tradition, education, and text.   Spivak delineates the theory of trace:  “To follow this line would take us away from any recognizable task of feminisms in brief compass. As we have noticed, in the discourse on democracy, women are never forgotten, but invoked only as a trace of the many ‘outsides’ of democracy.” (106). Woolf does not attempt to contain the “outside-edness” of women’s space but alternatively reveals its very uncontain-edness, which in itself, as Derrida argues, is revolutionary.


[1] Maria DiBattista in her “Notes to Orlando: A Biography” the text indicates that Woolf’s use of the figure of the Moor is situated as a “North African Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent.” DiBattista also explains that the scene is the “first of the novel’s many historical and moral ironies” (256).

[2] Maria DiBattista notes that in the novel “Orlando’s ‘fathers’ are off subduing the Moors in the field of Africa or helping fight the war against France” (257).