Editor's Introduction:
Colonial Posts


Deborah Wyrick

North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC

Copyright (c) 2003 by Deborah Wyrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    Post: n. an upright stake that serves as a marker or structural support.

  1. Let me begin with some very literal colonial posts. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as Marlow approaches Kurtz's compound, he sees "through [his] glasses" the vestiges of a fence: "near the house half a dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly trimmed, with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls" (Conrad 67-68). The posts apparently testify to the fragility of the barriers Kurtz had erected to keep the jungle from his 'outpost'; they also testify to the aesthetic consciousness -- additionally represented through Kurtz's painting and collecting -- that accompanied the civilizing alibi for European colonial conquest. Later, Marlow finds that the decorative posts were not quite what they had seemed to be:
    You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing -- food for thought and also for vultures[. . . .] They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. (Conrad 73)
    Marlow then qualifies his reaction ("I was not so shocked as you might think. The start back I had given was nothing but a movement of surprise.") and explains that afterwards, the company manager said that there "was nothing exactly profitable" about the heads, which showed instead that Kurtz "lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts" (Conrad 73). Kurtz's Russian companion comments that the heads were those of rebels. Marlow laughs at this absurd definition, laconically noting that "[t]hose rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks" (Conrad 74).

  2. In a text fraught with narrative oscillations, this episode is particularly unstable. The rapid succession of prolepses and analepses, the mordant humor, the irruption of alternate interpretive voices, suggest Marlow's radical unease in the presence of these colonial posts. His disquiet, I suspect, arises not only from the grisly confrontation with the colonial Other but also from the confrontation with Kurtz that the posts call into being -- egologically if not ontologically. That only one post was turned outward implies that Kurtz was less interested in the traditional purpose of 'posting heads' (to deter would-be criminals or 'rebels') than in staging a face-to-face ritual spectacle, one in which the European is complete master of the gaze, one in which only unidirectional communication is possible. But just as the Other puts into question the Same, Marlow's uncomfortable identification with Kurtz is shaken by this display, thus causing the self-doubts and self-interrogations signified by his verbal backpedalings.

  3. My language here deliberately evokes Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), the French-Lithuanian philosopher, theorist and theologian (for a brief biography and useful links, see Atterton). It seems to me that Levinas, whose writing urges justice, responsibility, and generosity in the face of selfishness and violence, might provide a productive way to conceptualize colonial encounters of historical and literary kinds. According to Levinas, the authentically recognized Other can never be reduced to the Same, thereby becoming a source of enjoyment or power (see TI 32-34, 113). Those moments of recognition of the Other (a recognition that is neither an epistemological relation, nor a sighting) constitute instead an ethics that can shatter egolology (Levinas's term for the narcissism of ontology, perhaps of Western philosophy in general) by awakening one both to transcendence and to responsibility. The face-to-face encounter "cuts across the vision of forms" (TI 193), objectification, self-satisfaction. [1] As Levinas asks, "Is not the face of one's fellow man the original locus in which transcendence calls an authority with a silent voice in which God comes to the mind?" (AT5).

  4. To what extent, then, might 'colonial discourse' encode desire for transcendence through the Other, a desire for the beyond, for an hors-de-soi (TI 33), for a truth that passes understanding? Or, conversely, a desire that fears itself, that hides from the summons of infinity, that deforms the liberation of the face-to-face into ratification of mastery and accumulation of phenomenological proofs of power? That Kurtz tried to freeze his desire into a static visual structure, arrogating to himself the strength of the 'silent voice' that speaks the divine, may explain why, throughout the novella, Kurtz is a voice, an eminence, a dark parody of a god (see Conrad 62-63, 76, 84); Marlow's unsettled reaction to Kurtz's colonial posts underscores the delicate dependence of identity on this desire. Further, the novel's treatment of light and darkness, reconsidered through Levinas's metaphysics of power- and ego-blinding light (the infinite, transcendence, human ethics), hints at the eschatological perversion shaping projects of Empire, even -- or especially -- those concerned with religious redemption.

  5. In what follows, I adopt a Levinasian perspective to introduce the articles in "Colonial Posts." One reason I do so is that, in various ways and from various theoretical and methodological vantage points, this issue's authors are concerned with the ethics promoting and emerging from the face-to-face colonial encounters they discuss. And certainly the travelogues, colonial discourses, and (post)colonial fictions addressed by their essays and reconfigured in their creative work do so as well. Thus, although this special issue is not entitled 'Levinas and Post/Colonial Studies" -- and indeed, Levinas appears in no Works Cited list but my own -- I wanted to experiment with foregrounding the ethical, unlatching it from its common conflation with political conviction, on the one hand, or a suspicious connection with moral judgmentalism, on the other. This is what this issue's contents do, on their own terms, with passion and perspicacity. My job here is to suggest a way to bring these strong, diverse voices into conversation with each other; the choice of Levinas is mine, but the choice of the ethical is the contributors'. It is a choice for which I am grateful.

    Post: n. a military base; an assigned station or position; a trading post.
    tr. v. to assign to a post.

  6. Kurtz's colonial posts decorated the outer station, an outpost of empire that supposedly supplied quasi-military order as well as the material of trade. The (fantastic) intersection of order and economics is seen in much colonial discourse. Kevin Perromat Augustín's "Adventures in Imperial Anthopography" illustrates such intersections via metonymical irony, in the process re-posting such classic imperial writers as Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson (and Joseph Conrad) into the decidedly disordered company of General Chinese Gordon and Alexander the Great, Camel cigarettes, Ariel and Caliban, Masonic Lodges, and the Opium Trade. All are linked by desire for the Map, which always "leads to Nirvana," even via forked paths, and by Perromat's inventive orchestrations of face-to-face encounters. For instance, we see not only the face of the Queen on the waters of an East African lake but also the face of James Joyce, and Lévi-Strauss, and Kurtz; we need but to surrender to the Map's legend. Another marriage of order and economics is Mary Kingsley's late-Victorian Travels in West Africa, discussed by Edward O. Ako and Blossom N. Fondo. Kingsley's energetic collecting of fauna from Cameroon and Gabon served taxonomic and mercantile masters. It also appears to have served her own ambiguous religious agenda, which paradoxically sought the 'truth' of African belief systems (formerly her father's project) while allowing her to objectify the Others she encountered in a most un-Levinasian manner.

  7. All these travelers and explorers had to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar, to journey outward -- they had to be posted elsewhere (see Levinas, TI 33) by a sponsoring or employing institution or by their own cartophiliac desire. The consequences of such physical postings can extend to subsequent generations, as attested to by Lamia Tayeb's study of Doris Lessing's The Children of Violence and by Hechmi Trabelsi's analysis of Ahdaf Soueif's Aisha. Both articles emphasize the autobiographical component of these authors' works: Lessing, the child of British settlers in Rhodesia, creates for her heroine a reverse journey to England, whereas Soueif, the child of Egyptian emigrés to England, situates her heroine in a transcultural space, suspended between two worlds but intervening in (and being intervened in by) both. The face most highly sought after by Lessing's protagonist seems to be her own; her non-recognition of the Other (be it African or European) may account for what Tayeb sees as her ultimate failure. Aisha also seeks her own identity, but her encounters with servant women and Coptic fiancées and London schoolgirls open possibility for the freedom that Levinas connects to responsibility for the Other. This freedom of a self-fashioning through communal responsibility may undergird both Soueif's feminist goals and her transcultural stylistics.

  8. Another genealogy of colonial posting takes shape in Alicia Jenkins's poems, "Voices from Under the Cliff." Jenkins offers a family history of colonial immigration, allowing the silent voices of ancestors and island topography to speak of triangular journeys (Ireland, Barbados, the United States) that reciprocally haunt present and past. The initial nature of the posting remains unspoken; its effects, particularly on the family's women, whisper through hallowed ground of churches, graveyards, and memories. In contrast, Klaus de Albuquerque's short story, "Goliath," is posted firmly in a Caribbean neocolonial near-past where male plantocratic privilege still reigns supreme. The delight of the comic piece is how this privilege is challenged by a burlesque hypermasculinity and its attendant unleashing of bawdy and rebellious energy, then recuperated (perhaps) by the preposterously powerful social rituals left over from colonial rule.

    Post: tr. v. to announce publicly, as if by posters; to denounce publicly.

  9. Helen Gilbert's "Great Adventures in Nursing" also is concerned with relocation -- here, with moving from metropolitan or agricultural Canada to the Canadian north in order to deliver health care to indigenous peoples. Her analysis of 'outpost nursing' centers on its public announcements, that is, on its advertising. Looking at the visual and verbal rhetoric of recent advertisements from The Canadian Nurse, she shows how these texts fashion a colonial adventure narrative that, in turn, invites women to assume a pre-packaged (neo-)colonialist identity, one also rooted in the imperial romance of Florence Nightingale and her progeny. In these narratives, the Other is indeed reduced to the Same, and self-gratification (in the guise of helping helpless people who are waiting for our help) appears to be the reward. As Gilbert brings us face-to-face with models of 'heroic nursing,' we are prodded into interrogating the ethics of such promotional strategies; the end is less 'public denouncement' than accepting responsibility for social and institutional change.

  10. Nursing and identity-formation are also subjects of Emilian Kavalski's article about Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Seacole's constitution of what Kavalski calls 'voluntary identity' depends on negotiating encounters with ex-slaves (she was a Jamaican Creole) in the New Granada Republic and elsewhere, on recognizing their struggles for freedom and authority so that a fluid 'post-subject' position is conceivable; her constitution of herself as exemplary female British citizen parodixically requires a movement beyond Britain -- in her case, a posting as a health-care worker to the Crimea. It is there that she becomes "a copy better than the original," perhaps surrendering part of the freedom achieved through voluntary identity. Her autobiography announces her considerable successes and denounces many of the forces that worked against them; yet Kavalski points out that her emblematic Britishness involved denouncing various others . . . a reversal of what opened her to voluntary identity in the first place.

  11. Public announcement, or denunciation, can also be seen through the lens of publication per se. This is one of the thrusts of Kareva Mateata-Allain's essay, "Ma'ohi Women Writers of Colonial French Polynesia." For Mateata-Allain, the struggle of Ma'ohi women writers to have their voices heard, to have their fiction and poetry published, to have their work reach an international audience through translation, forms an important way to contest marginalization and assimilation under (the still extant) French Colonial rule. One might say that Ma'ohi artists needed to recognize the Other in themselves. Such recognition is communal and historical; it works itself out in linguistic hybridity, formal experimentation, and generic flexibility. That Mateata-Allain translates these often heteroglossic French Polynesian texts -- introducing contemporary writers Michou Chaze, Flora Devantine, Louise Peltzer, Chantal Spitz, and Vaitiare to an Anglophone audience -- indicates her own involvement in this ethical, political, and cultural fight for an authentic post(-)colonial consciousness.

    Post: intr. v. to travel in stages; to travel quickly.

  12. Traveling in stages is exactly what the eponymous hero of M. N. Sastry's Barrister Parvatheesam does. As K. Suneetha Rani maintains, this satiric travelogue -- which tracks Parvatheesam's tripartite journey from Andhra Pradesh to Great Britain and back -- performs a series of face-to-face confrontations at home and abroad. Ironically, it is the would-be barrister's encounters with the Western Other that allow him to develop social responsibility. Whereas stage one of his journey provides comic critiques of misrecognitions occurring in India, stage two shows Parvatheesam being buffeted and insulted by Britons yet learning about 1920s Indian nationalism through his experience abroad. Thus stage three enables a contingently triumphant return of a ludicrous naïf who has been at least partially transformed into a wisely committed adult. But only partially: the newly minted barrister is still a figure of satire, manipulated by Sastry for the socially corrective goals that differentiate satire from both comedy and tragedy. These goals are missing in Gerald Durrell's The Bafut Beagles, the second travel narrative discussed by Ako and Fondo. Although Durrell's account of his scientific hunting expedition in Cameroon during the 1950s uses irony, exaggeration, 'comic' stereotypes, and other satiric devices, his utter disregard for the Bafutians and, perhaps, for the waning British imperial project drain ethics and moral purpose from his work.

  13. Following a trajectory similar to the fictional Parvatheesam's, the young Malaysian writer Lee Kok Liang traveled to London for his law degree in the 1950s. During that time, as Bernard Wilson explains, Lee wrote a journal entitled Sketches, Vignettes, and Brushstrokes, a travelogue of sorts that tried to capture the places and people he encountered as well as his own meditations on writing and identity. His exilic sensibility allows him to construct a counter-Conradian Malaysian subjectivity formed in the uncharted territory between colonialism and independence; such subjectivity nurtures an artistic voice positioned between the chez soi and the hors-de-soi (see Levinas, TI 33) that speaks for, in Wilson's words, "the polarities that exist within himself and others." Lee's meetings with luminaries like Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol transcend East/West distrust or antagonism, achieving instead a cultural validation that leads to the 'accountability' characteristic of his works. Further, his musings on religion -- more specifically, his musings on European writers' Christianity -- cause him to re-think Buddhism, religious pluralism, plurality in all its constitutive Malaysian forms, and the need to speak the 'silent voices' of his new nation.

  14. But travel writing does not always reach such admirable destinations. Jorge J. Barrueto's analysis of Mario Vargas Lhosa's Historia de Mayta explores how travel writing conventions can maintain colonial versions of alterity and thus the colonial relations of power supporting the "postcolonial" nation-state, like Peru. One of Barrueto's emphases is temporality: the assignment of the Other (for Vargas Lhosa, the Peruvian Indian) to ahistory, thereby barring recognition and agency; the distancing of the Other, thereby precluding the face-to-face; the use of estranging humor, thereby deferring the violence of "knowing" the Other. Vargas Lhosa's narrator may post himself to Peru, but if he travels quickly, it is quickly backward. His search for Mayta is a search for Mayta's defacement, for his relegation to a past-ness that is cultural and political death. How divergent from Levinas's proclamation in Time and the Other:
    Relationship with the future, the presence of the future in the present, seems [. . .] accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other. The situation of the face-to-face would be the very accomplishment of time[. . . . ] The condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history. ("TO" 45)

    Post-: pref. after; later; behind.

  15. As a prefix, "post-" (with or without its hyphen) is the vexed signature of our field. Looking at it via Levinas, "post-" is an ambiguous temporal marker: if "the condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history," from which direction do we approach it? Does the "post-" appear after the colonial (as Ania Loomba suggests, supplanting it [7]), or follow behind it, 'backing it up' (a possibility hinted at by Ashcroft et al.'s making the postcolonial congruent with everything following colonial contact [2])? There may be a supplementarity at work as well: "post-" as adequation and excess, wavering through the "condition of time." Jacques Derrida glosses Levinasian desire -- the ethico-metaphysical moment that recognizes the Other as unassimilatibly other -- in words that could describe the supplementarity of "post-"; "Desire permits itself to be appealed to by the absolutely irreducible exteriority of the other to which it must remain infinitely inadequate. Desire is equal only to excess" (93).

  16. The question of what the "post-" desires reverberates through postcolonial theory. To negate the colonial, to supplement it, to follow behind it, to exceed it, to recognize it as absolutely Other, to recognize alterity in the 'play of the Same' (the deconstructive move Derrida makes on Levinas later in "Violence and Metaphysics" [126-127])? All the contributors to "Colonial Posts" grapple with this question, as I've indicated to some extent and as reading their works will reveal in fuller detail. In two articles, however, postcolonial theory or, to use Ato Quayson's temporally/historically conscientious formulation, "postcolonializing (8), " is a central focus. Reiland Rabaka addresses the signifying dynamics of "post-" at the outset of his essay, opening space for W.E.B. Dubois's concept of "semi-colonialism." According to Rabaka, Dubois mediates among the fundamental features of colonialism, its historical/geographical specificities, and its imbrications with capitalism, racial oppression, and gender discrimination; he therefore offers (from the past) productive means of activist critique to contemporary colonial and postcolonial theorists. In addition, Rabaka's range of theoretical reference promotes dialogue between postcolonial and Africana/Pan-African studies, with Dubois's textual voice as hinge. This is indeed, as Levinas asserted, "the condition of time [, which] lies in the relationship between humans, or in history"; the purpose of such a condition, as Dubois wrote in The Seventh Son, Vol. II, is "spiritual emancipation." The "post-" is prologue.

  17. Patrick McGee's theoretical concerns are somewhat different, but no less grounded in the agonistic historical relationship between the colonial and its "post-s." Specifically, McGee interrogates Stephen Howe's recent Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture for what McGee considers to be a dismissal not only of postcolonial theory as a legitimate mode of inquiry but also of modern concepts of colonialism (prefixed or otherwise) to Irish cultural studies. In so doing he moves beyond critical review of a single major text to nuanced survey of the entire field, including the work of influential theorists like Luke Gibbons, Declan Kiberd, Francis Mulhern, and David Lloyd. McGee also engages with the issue of violence, a component of both the colonial and the postcolonial that often risks being dissolved into discursive ether, when he looks at Howe's discussions of Northern Ireland. I am reminded again of Derrida on Levinas, in conjunction with McGee's first title, "Humpty Dumpty and the Despotism of Fact":
    To return [. . .] to the intentional phenomenon in which the other appears as other, and lends itself to language [. . .] is perhaps to give oneself over to violence, [. . .] and to acquiesce -- in the critical sense -- to the violence of the fact. [. . .] Thus discourse chooses itself violently in opposition to nothingness or pure non-sense, and, in philosophy, nihilism. [. . .] This infinite passage through violence is called history. (125, 130)
    Seen this way, the "post-" can never be the culmination of the colonial (after all, it precedes it in lexical structure). "Post(-)colonial" and "colonial" may be the (violent) truths of each other, but McGee's study, and other articles in "Colonial Posts," suggest that they are not the Other of each other.

    Post: tr. v. to put or send forward; to inform of the latest news.

  18. A forward posting concerns the next issue of Jouvert: Stephen Howe will respond to Patrick McGee's article. We are happy to support spirited scholarly debate, and we thank Prof. Howe in advance for his essay. We would also like to thank our reviewers for this issue -- Harry Garuba, Chun-yen Jo Chen, Suzie Suriam, John Hickman, Susan Muaddi Darraj, and Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem -- for their thoughtful contributions. Book reviews are news: by informing us about the latest additions to our field, they spur us not only to keep abreast of pertinent scholarship but also to add our voices to the conversation, thereby producing more news.

  19. The articles in "Colonial Posts" post themselves in various temporal, topical, and topographical directions. In so doing, many of them introduce readers to new writers -- new in the sense that they are practicing their craft now and have not yet established a critical reputation, or that they are relatively unknown due to lack of international attention or translation, or that they are relatively 'forgotten.' One of Jouvert's aims is to expand transcultural literacy and/or to broaden horizons of textual possibilities for research and teaching. We hope that the cross-postings in this issue (of nationalities, time periods, occupations, critical methodologies, cultural practices, theoretical orientations) help achieve this aim.

  20. As I noted earlier, my experiment with posting Levinas into this mix was not just a crotchety dalliance with rather minor hazards (to name three: invoking the specter of Eurotheory; seeming to privilege speech over writing or 'discourse'; forcing a religious philosopher to 'speak' to a field alien to him). It was inspired by the articles in "Colonial Posts" -- and also by a comment I read (not, as Levinas evidently would have preferred, heard) defending criticism and its relationship with art. "Criticism as a distinct function of art," Levinas claims, "has its source in the mind of the listener, spectator, or reader; criticism exists as a public's mode of comportment. Not content with being absorbed in aesthetic enjoyment, the public feels an irresistible need to speak. The fact that there might be something for the public to say, when the artist refuses to say about artwork anything in addition to the artwork itself, justifies the critic" ("RS" 130). That social responsibility and reciprocity may, or should, propel critics, theorists, and interpreters to their work is a lovely thought for editors as well.

  21. Levinas's statement also suggests an interpersonal way to conceive of the relationship between "colonial" and "post-." The "post-" is not parasitic, and can speak neither for the silenced heads in Kurtz's compound, nor for Kurtz, nor for Conrad. As a mode of public comportment, however, it 'reads' the colonial aloud, creating a supplement that critiques colonial lack and calls for ethical responsibility toward the colonial past(a past that is never absolutely expunged from the present) and toward the emerging postcolonial future.


  1. Levinas's concept of the face-to-face belongs, at least metaphorically, to the realm of presence. It is antithetical to visual representations of the Other's face, such as the illustrations characteristic of Victorian anthopography or colonial travel photographs. In general, see Young and Jahoda. Back

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffeths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Atterton, Peter. "Emmanuel Levinas Web Page." 2002.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness [1902] (A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism). Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York: St. Martins, 1989. 17-94.

Derrida, Jacques. "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the thought of Emmanuel Levinas." Writing and Difference (L'Écriture et la différence, 1967). Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980. 79-153.

Jahoda, Gustav. Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture. London: Routledge, 1999.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Alterity & Transcendence (Altérité et transcendance, 1967, 1995). Trans. Michael B. Smith. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

---. "Reality and Its Shadow" (first published in Les Temps Moderns, 1948, and translated by Alphonso Lingis). The Levinas Reader. Ed. Séan Hand. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 129-43.

---. "Time and the Other" (selections from Time & the Other [Le temps et l'autre, 1947, 1983] trans. Richard A. Cohen [Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1987]. The Levinas Reader. Ed. Séan Hand. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 37-58.

--. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Totalité et Infini: Essai sur l'extériorité, 1961). Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Quayson, Ato. Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process? Cambridge: Polity Press/Blackwell, 2000.

Young, Robert J. C. Colonail Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.

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