Borrowing identities : a study of identity and ambivalence in four canonical English texts and the literary responses each invokes

Steenkamp, Elzette (2008-03)

Thesis (MA (English))--University of Stellenbosch, 2008.


The notion that the post-colonial text stands in direct opposition to the canonical European text, and thus acts as a kind of counter-discourse, is generally accepted within post-colonial theory. In fact, this concept is so fashionable that Salman Rushdie’s assertion that ‘the Empire writes back to the Centre’ has been adopted as a maxim within the field of post-colonial studies, simultaneously a mission statement and a summative description of the entire field. In its role as a ‘response’ to a dominant European literary tradition, the post-colonial text is often regarded as resorting to a strategy of subversion through inversion, in essence, telling the ‘other side of the story’. The post-colonial text, then, seeks to address the ways in which the western literary tradition has marginalised, misrepresented and silenced its others by providing a platform for these dissenting voices. While such a view rightly points to the post-colonial text’s concern with alterity and oppression, it also points to the agonistic nature of the genre. That is, within post-colonial theory, the literature of Empire does not emerge as autonomous and self-determining, but is restricted to the role of counter-discourse, forever placed in direct opposition (or in response) to a unified dominant social order. Post-colonial theory’s continued classification of the literature of Empire as a reaction to a normative, dominant discourse against which all others must be weighed and found wanting serves to strengthen the binary order which polarises centre and periphery. This study is concerned with ‘rewritten’ post-colonial texts, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Marina Warner’s Indigo, or, Mapping the Waters and Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest, and suggests that these revised texts exceed such narrow definition. Although often characterised by a concern with ‘political’ issues, the revised text surpasses the romantic notion of ‘speaking back’ by pointing to a more complex entanglement between post-colonial and canonical, self and other. These texts signal the collapse of binary order and the emergence of a new literary landscape in which there can be no dialogue between the clearly demarcated sites of Empire and Centre, but rather a global conversation that exceeds geographical location. It would seem as if the dependent texts in question resist offering mere pluralistic subversions of the logic of their pretexts. The desire to challenge the assumptions of a Eurocentric literary tradition is overshadowed by a distinct sense of disquiet or unease with the matrix text. This sense of unease is read as a response to an exaggerated iterability within the original text, which in turn stems from the matrix text’s inability to negotiate its own aporia. The aim of this study, then, is not to uncover the ways in which the post-colonial rewrite challenges the assumptions of its literary pretext, but rather to establish how certain elements of instability and subversion already present within the colonial pretext allows for such a return.

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