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Reading the Japanese car as a postcolonial novel.

My friend's parents, psychoanalysts, have given her a present of a Mazda Miata. My friend teaches postcolonial literature. When she walks from her classroom, where the text for discussion that day has been, let us imagine, the Philippine novelist Lynda Ty Casper's Awaiting Trespass, read together with an essay by, let's guess, Rey Cow, and leaves her teaching texts on the Miata dashboard, am I to imagine any connection, any congruence of aesthetic or political effects, between the slim novel in its rather colorless, dull cover and the gleaming red finish of the Miata? I pose this as a serious question that allows one to open a debate on how "postcolonial" art and artifacts actually affect the mode of living of their Western consumers and, even more, their Western teachers. Consider the contradiction my friend epitomizes. The plainly bound novel signifies her serious, well-intentioned aim to understand otherness, specifically in this case a "third world" culture that has been impoverished and victimized by an imperial tradition of which her own relative affluence is partly a result. The sportive lines of the Mazda Miata, on the other hand, happily declare this affluence that the Western tradition of "othering" less powerful peoples for its own exploitative ends has helped to bring about. Both novel and new car, the one bespeaking (to its Western reader) the pathos of postcolonial abjection, and the other (to its Western driver) the rewards of Western hegemony, appear as gifts to the West from archipelagoes off the continent of Asia, from countries that Western discourses of many persuasions have long imagined under the sign of Orientalism. Under what organizing principles or prejudices does it turn out that these two "gifts from the Orient" to the West will be enjoyed so differently? As teachers of postcolonial literature, unless we question the basis on which we form distinctions between different "postcolonial" cultural productions, we are doomed to a pedagogy of intense bad faith, or worse, naivete.

I have been made acutely aware of the problem posed by the Mazda Miata when it is juxtaposed with the Philippine novel because of an intense discussion with some students, outside class, on the cultural significance of the Japanese car in contemporary American society. As these students were mostly members of a class on postcolonial fiction that I was teaching at the time, some of the methodologies that we had used in the class to critique the texts permeated the discussion of the automobile, so that what in effect was taking place was a critique of the Japanese car as a postcolonial novel. At this point, the reader may well think of a series of objections to this particular critical slippage. The first is that Japan is the exception that proves the rule in that it is precisely not a postcolonial nation. Strictly speaking this is clearly the case; it remains true nevertheless that the phenomenon that Said and numerous writers since have described as "Orientalism" has, in the United States in recent years, been most intensely directed against the Japanese. In the second place, one may point out that a novel, as a literary work, must be accorded different treatment than a piece of machinery, however beautifully designed and built. In response I would assert that it is precisely this separation of the literary from the everyday in classes on "The Postcolonial Novel" and the like, especially as this seems to be occurring at the very moment when many classes on Western literatures are turning towards historical and cultural contexts, that we must regard as suspicious. The chief objection to the union of text and context in classes on postcolonial texts, the reasoning that it is almost impossible to give a good sense of the cultural contexts of, for example, a novel from Kenya one week and a novel from Senegal the next, is one with which I sympathize; all the more reason then for us to lead our students in a careful exploration of the choices we make as readers in our own cultural context, and how, in the process, our own taste in "postcolonial" literatures and cultures is formed.

This was the great value of the challenge posed by the Japanese car to the students whom I had been training to consider third world literary production (I came to realize) as a non-threatening attempt, often based on Western models, of postcolonial writers to give witness to the abjection of their peoples. The students had read Fredric Jameson's claim, in his essay "Third World Literature in the Era of Multi-National Capitalism," that the pleasures of the postcolonial text were different in kind from those of the great first-world fictions, and they understood the implication -- that the different pleasures to be gotten from reading Mariama Ba, Bessie Head, or Nuruddin Farah might not be quite as intense for them as those to be had from, presumably, Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, or Alan Hollinghurst. To such claims, which they accepted implicitly although with some unease, the brash artifactuality of the Japanese Toyota, Honda, or Isuzu stood as a symbolic challenge. For here were artifacts that, like a lesser postcolonial novel to which the Western critic might covertly condescend, were ready to admit that they were indeed copies of Western machines, but copies that were so much better made than the originals that they have come to stand at once, and paradoxically, as both the finest symbols of Western affluence-in-ownership, and, simultaneously, as symbols of the very threat to that affluence also. The cars stood as products of the "Orient" that Westerners could consider with extreme seriousness, because they existed not only as objects of intense Western desire, but also as threat. The products of "the Orient" as well as of all postcolonial "other" cultural spaces have long been considered in the West as the fetish objects of extreme intensities of desire. When they come also to signify a real threat to the power that allows that desire to be indulged, then the desire itself seems all the more intense; but in fact the product might, in the best possible outcome, cease to be taken as a fetish and instead be considered respectfully as a signifier of the "Other's" power. Some postcolonial fictions, in the same way, have become, as it were, fetishes of Western liberal guilt about the ever-more hegemonic neo-imperialism of postmodern global economic networks. To these, the Japanese car stands as a rebuke, asking us members of the Western consumer economy to consider this particular "gift of the Orient" within a system of value suggested by a global economy.

This discussion of the challenge of the Japanese car to the assumptions that had guided our class readings of Asian and other postcolonial novels pointed up very clearly a series of strategies of "othering" that had been implicit, but to that point unspoken, in our class from the start. The best example of these was the way in which the car, as an evident example of advanced technology, countered and contradicted the assumption that had been growing in our class that "postcolonial" works are more likely than not to deal with the countryside, peasants, and rural underdevelopment. As it turned out, agriculture featured in many of the novels we read, from the works of Achebe to those of Bessie Head. Clearly, there is no point in denying that the world's peasants now by and large live in what used to be called the "Third World," and that the disenfranchisement of these peasants -- witness the Sudanese famines, the despoliation of the rain forests and the proliferation of slums in cities as close as Los Angeles -- has made for some of the greatest crimes of the world order of multi-national capital. Still, criticism that fails to bridge the peasant-urban, nature-technology divides -- which doesn't stop to question, for example, why there seems to be so little postcolonial science fiction -- risks accentuating the split between the Western economy of consumption and the postcolonial one of production that the focus on literatures of the peasantry might in the first place have appeared to condemn. Further, discussion of the car's attraction and threat brought out into the open the way in which the imputation that imitation is somehow less worthy than "original" work is based mostly on the desire of those in power to keep sole hold on the discourses and the practices that maintain that power. This in turn helped explode the notion that there might be any essential or inherently fitting "expression" of a particular cultural formation or constituency.

As the discussion became more vehement, "constituency" appeared to become the keyword, replacing "community" and also replacing "culture" if culture was to mean a static, tradition-bound entity. Interest-groups -- in the sense of groups who shared particular interests, and who could very well see themselves belonging to a number of different communities based on a diverse set of interests -- seemed the way to begin to theorize cultural communities in the global economy. This began simply: somebody talked about which Japanese cars are actually manufactured in Detroit; somebody else reported that Linda Ty Casper lives in the United States. Just as the Mazda and the BMW and the Ford have more in common than their cultural "origin" might imply, so too works published by Kitchen Table Press in the United States have more in common with the work of, say, Buchi Emecheta than they do with many of the novels published by Knopf. I hope that our discussion of the Japanese car didn't lead too immediately to the usual postmodern refusal of all distinctions, given the multiple interests and interpellations affecting any particular subject that can be considered. But it did lead the students to read the remainder of the novels in the course more thoroughly in the framework of some notion of a global economy, in which they were, even as they read "postcolonial" novels with full-dress liberal angst, once again the consumers. I hope they learned to resist reading as commodity fetishists. As the older Orientalists might have put it, the temptation was intense. Mazda's advertisement reiterates this: "It just feels right."
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Title Annotation:Practicum on Teaching Postcolonial Literatures
Author:Duffy, Enda
Publication:College Literature
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1684
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