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Textual Attitudes: A Tool for the Colonialists

Updated: Oct 8, 2022

Guest Article

Caliban, the “savage” slave of the “great, benevolent” magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is an embodiment of the lens through which the Renaissance Europe viewed non-western societies and its members. The play, earlier thought to be just a romantic comedy, is now understood to be an allegory of the European project of Colonization. The education imparted by Prospero to civilize Caliban, the wordplay of Caliban/Cannibal, are a few amongst the various instances of colonial stereotypes that run through the play. The question arises: How did Shakespeare develop the character of Caliban? The character-building was anchored in the plethora of traveller accounts narrating the encounters of Europeans and the ‘savages’. These fantastical narratives, having doubtful authenticity, occupied the collective imagination of that era. Therefore, The Tempest, one of the many demonstrations of textual attitudes, was itself a product of textual attitude.

This example of a seemingly- innocent play written by one of the greatest literary figures ever is just one small piece of what is a fully developed knowledge apparatus devised by the western world which acts as a lens to view the colonial subjects. Various sections of the society played their role in the growth and sustenance of this colonial enterprise. The invention and spread of these apocryphal stereotypical notions find its roots in the earliest accounts of the travelers who ventured out to engage with the unknown lands beyond Europe. The bits and pieces of accurate information of the lands was tinged with their personal interpretation of the events they encountered there. This concoction of knowledge was processed back home by people who had never even visited those far away lands. The void was filled in by the potent force of popular imagination which ran wild due to the excitement towards the ‘Other’. The justification for the massive colonization project was ready: Enlightenment of the barbaric colonised.

Orientalism was the name given to this intellectual endeavor. It was a colossal attempt at defining and putting into understanding this fuzzily demarcated geographical realm ‘The Orient’, comprising the regions of the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, China, etc. This project employed the potent forces of knowledge creation processes, scholarships, vocabularies and thereafter emerged a body of literary work which gained authority and generated textual attitudes amongst its western readers. The Orient came to be manipulated, controlled and understood as it was described in the discourse. The “fierce lion” itself was stripped of the authority to explain its traits, and behavioural characteristics. It was the academic field of Orientalism that ‘produced’ the Orient and explained it to the western world, as the antithesis of everything the ‘Occident’ stood for.

The ‘image’ of the subjugated place that is ultimately manufactured may involve a mixture of half-truths, exaggerations and even outright lies. But what ultimately matters is the relevance of that knowledge as a symbol of strength of the West. In the words of Arthur James Balfour, former Prime Minister of the UK, the most significant achievement for the British was that they “knew” Egypt and its History. The veracity of the knowledge was an inconsequential question. Instead of portraying Egypt in its real form, they converted it into a subject of their scholarly and literary domain. The best examples of this appropriation can be traced to the denigrated and sensual depictions of Egyptians in plays like Anthony &Cleopatra, Jew of Malta, etc. The logical corollary to this is the fact that Egypt is stripped of the right to speak for itself. The superiority of the Occident is taken for granted in the sphere of textual attitude. With time, the body of knowledge becomes institutionalized and is considered as the most accurate representation of the non-west world. Interestingly, this task of stereotyping and creation of rigid identities was even unleashed on the people of Africa by the European colonial forces. It was not merely limited to the Orientals.

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Napoleon Bonaparte, before embarking on his ambitious plan of capturing Egypt, had constructed a whole epistemological narrative around the land in his mind. His fascination with the nation went back to his youthful days when he had read Marigny’s Histoire des Arabes and became enamoured with the scene, as described in it and various other texts. This is one of the befitting examples of textual attitudes in history. Napoleon’s confidence in the likely success of this military expedition stemmed from his personal conviction that he knew Egypt very well. The truth is that he only knew the Orient as it was crafted by the scholars in their texts. One of the lesser known books which Napoleon relied on was Comte de Volney’s Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie. It was this textual knowledge that would accompany him on his journey and shape his actions in Egypt. What emerged out of this campaign was Description de l'Égypte , a series of publications containing the huge corpus of knowledge collated by the group of around 160 scholars who had accompanied Bonaparte.Textual attitude, therefore, is a continuous phenomenon which goes on in a chain. Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt was motivated by his textual knowledge of the country and it resulted in the next stage of literary apparatus through which Egypt was “created” and presented for the forthcoming generations of western readers.

There is a need to understand how literature and knowledge systems acted as tools to construct the identity of the colonised people and their milieu in very stereotypical and static terms. The western world, which had developed an intellectual bent of mind and greater interest in literature after the Renaissance, came to prefer the schematic authority of these texts over real-life encounters and experiences. These textual attitudes were utilized in order to justify and assist in the western domination and subjugation of the people of the Orient and the countries of Africa. It is tragic that stereotypes still persist as the paradigmatic lens through which people make sense of other cultures and demographic sections in the current milieu. This eschewing of the nuanced realities and aberrations eventually culminates to give rise to several pressing issues in the modern era, one of them being Islamophobia.

Constructing the Identities:

During the period of colonial rule over the territories in the Orient and the African continent, the production of stereotypical literature for the audience back home was furthered by the aggressive collection of data and observations by the officers, ethnographers, and scholars which was then mixed with falsifications and exaggerations to churn out notions. There could have been phases of disappointment when these textual attitudes were shattered by the real-life encounters with the colonial subjects. All the exoticization and demonization felt illusory and disenchanting to them. But seeing the success of the Colonial endeavor, disappointment and the failure of textual attitude does not seem to be the probable outcome. In reality , what the colonialists observed amongst the natives was not entirely objective. It was colored by their pre-existing biases and the repository of textual knowledge provided by their predecessors. Secondly, they were totally alien to the language and other nuances of the society. The perception of local customs and habits was, consequently, distorted. It may have been the case that anything they found contrary to their textual knowledge was discarded as an aberration and they caught on to instances that vindicated the literary texts and their authority. Their ability to assimilate lessons from direct encounters with people is greatly reduced. Even the missionaries which travelled to spread the faith of Christianity were taken aback on seeing the strange customs and habits of the non-Europeans. Their pre-existing knowledge reservoir and entrenched biases led them to ascribe value-based judgment on the lifestyles of those peoples: they were not just “different”, they were abominable and wicked. They wrote back letters to their home countries, etching a very detailed, albeit inaccurate and myopic, picture of the non-European lands. This is the second situation in textual attitude where there is an appearance of success. All of this leads to the continuation of the cycle of production and reinforcement of colonial, stereotypical identities. Even the long-term experiences of the colonial administrators in their colonies is unable to alter the colonial discourse, because firstly the reality they encounter is partly the reality as described in the texts. Secondly, textual attitude as a phenomenon is an important weapon in their armoury which has to be kept alive at all costs. It made sense: most of the European people would never have a chance to visit those lands themselves. As described by Edward Said, the Orient became a theatrical stage which was meticulously designed and animated by Europe. The representation of Islam in the west is also a perfect case in point. Islam was what it was intended to be shown to the medieval Christian, not how it existed in reality.

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Another important factor in the sustenance of the colonial textual attitudes which deserves to be studied is the pseudo-scientific laboratory of racism. French scholars like Alfred Fouillee and Count Arthur de Gobineau legitimized racism by presenting so-called scientific theories and empirical proofs. Gobineau had a major role in devising a hierarchy of races and declared the differences between whites and blacks to be irreconcilable. He brought together and organized the existing racial notions and stereotypes ascribed to the Africans into a properly structured discourse and imparted a sense of scientific legitimacy to them. In a similar vein, Fouillee analysed the “objective” data collected by the explorers from Africa and averred that the ‘Negro’ race had always been stagnant in terms of intellectual and artistic endeavours and their systems of knowledge were worthless and rudimentary. It is very important to understand the mechanics of the production of this discourse. The steam which powered the engine of textual attitude was the façade of science. There had been the development of scientific and rational attitude amongst the Europeans since the advent of Renaissance. This gave them a self-acquired sense of position and power. As per the teleological view of racism, they were the civilized and ‘enlightened’ beings and had a responsibility to guide the labour of the weak-minded Africans. From this position, they could use scientific lexicon to turn absurd and abhorrent racist ideas into a systematic body of knowledge. Therefore, scientific racism became the mould which gave a proper shape to the earlier disordered process of construction of identities. The absurd words had now got the backing of ‘science’.