December 5, 2014 kb

(Ex)Portability and Recrudescence

This post continues a conversation I began with this post and continued with this, and this post on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things on the body, the nation, and postcolonial meta-narratives. In an attempt to parse the tensions I feel the in the book–and many others of its era–I continue my thoughts below. 

The God of Small Things obsesses over migration. In the first 20 pages alone, there are 5 instances of individuals migrating to and from Ayemenem; there are many more references to people travelling to and from places via highway, boat, motorbike, foot; they go to places like Australia, Canada, Great Britain. There is a sense that no one is ever where they want to be, where they’re supposed to be. No one is ever settled even when they are home. Why this agitation? Why this inability to stay still?

In the Donahue clip, the busker’s location—a subway station—cannot simply be understood as pure coincidence, the natural and obvious location for a busker. Rather, we have to understand that the camera captures a man who (no doubt at the direction of the show’s producers) is rendered immobile, inert, in a locus of movement. The dominant power controls and rations his body and therefore his agency. The passing trains signal the busker’s inability to move within the structure he has been placed within. Why doesn’t he simply get on any of the trains, then, and leave? Because even before the show’s producers found him, he had been primed to want to inhabit the world of the talk-show, to the point that the choice to be or not be on the show is no choice at all. His appearance on the show is inevitable. His movement, primed to enact a particular narrative. The only train he cares to take is the only that gets him to the Donahue show; the only train we’re told he cares to take is the one that gets him on the world stage.

 We think of our technology in terms of portability—can we make it smaller, lighter, more streamlined in design?—and programs in terms of ‘exportability’—can we export this document to Pages if we write it in Word? Can we export this song to iTunes? I use “exportable” and “portable” here precisely because they’re used so ubiquitously today and because of the inseparable core shared between the development of technology and the language you use to talk about it with histories of enslavement, indentured servitude, and colonization.  
The colonized state is prefaced upon movement—specifically, the portability and exportability of bodies. Portability describes the ease of movement of bodies across space: how many men, women and children can fit on a ship to the Americas? How many of them will survive the rough seas, the sickness, and the starvation? How many family units can we separate without one or two of the pieces malfunctioning? How easy is it for soldiers and governors to travel to the newly acquired land to keep order? Exportability, on the other hand, refers to the ease of integration of bodies into new systems. How easy is it to take these newly acquired bodies and mold them into new systems—systems of slavery, of indentured servitude, of inferiority? How easy is it for members of the imperial community to adjust to ruling “inferior” peoples?

Sophie Mol’s death in a “black river” speaks to another “black water.” During the period of migration of indentured workers from India to the Caribbean and Americas, the phrase kala pani was used to refer to the ocean that workers crossed in the ships. Kala pani roughly translates into “black waters.” 
 As a structure, exportability and portability were tantamount to ensure the longevity of colonial structures, which meant that no one could escape these limits. Roy herself exemplifies this with the death of Sophie Mol. British political theorist Thomas Macaulay, speaking of the relationship between India and Britain, once wrote that imperial pedagogy looks to form a “class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Mehta 10). Even with her Indian blood, Sophie Mol embodies everything British with her fair skin, light colored-eyes, yellow bell-bottom jeans, and perfectly British in her mannerisms and speech. Even so, she is the one who drowns in the “black river”—because, unlike the twins, her body resists exportability. Take, for example, the fact that Sophie Mol is fed boiled water unlike the rest of the family, who drinks regular water.

The fact that migration was the basis of the colonized state is precisely why it provides the space needed to think postcolonialism outside of postcolonialism. By going back to the core of colonial structures, we can disrupt and work through its legacies. Just as Freud spoke of remembering, repeating and working through trauma, migration is how the postcolonial body, scholar, and consciousness can work through the trauma of colonization and, simultaneously, work against the violence that the postcolonial metanarrative causes them.

There can be no such thing as a metanarrative of migration. Although we can read the busker scene as a moment in which the colonial power suppresses the voice of the colonized by controlling how and where he moves, the flipside is also very possible. Instead, the colonial power’s carefully staged and carefully framed metanarrative is disrupted with each and every passing train. Think of how many other people travel on those trains without their histories being represented and how their very act of moving affected the way the busker told his story—in fits and starts, with silences filled with the roar of the Other.

The migratory patterns within and without post-colonial spaces cannot be categorized or simplified. Within Roy’s novel, we see people leaving because of market forces, emotional forces, spiritual forces; for money, for family, for love; to go to Australia, to the United States, to Calcutta; to escape, to return, to stay still. Rahel and Esta’s own father travels to Australia because, “he, their father, had retired from his carbon-black job and was emigrating to Australia, where he had got a job as Chief of Security at a ceramics factory” (11). Rahel herself travels to the US, Esta to Calcutta, Velutha to some unknown place. Imagine what might have happened had the busker refused to sing? Or if, like Velutha, he disappeared without a word? What if the curtains rose on the stage, only to reveal empty space, the busker long lost among the plurality of bodies on some other train, going some other place?

One of the reasons why movements—why revolutions—are so dangerous to the colonial power is the distinct lack of migration: bodies are moving without going anywhere. There is a constant circling and obsessing over one thing, one idea, one area, and eventually, by these bodies refusing portability and exportability, the core creed of colonialism can no longer function. Inevitably, colonial structures begin to weaken.  


The above image was produced by Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital. It displays the migratory patterns from within and without major geographic areas in the world. The vast plethora and distribution of migration across the areas exemplifies just how nuanced migration has become.

 Even though the economic and scholarly markets control migration, there are far too many “Hong Kongs” to ignore that the very act of migrating—or not migrating—resists postcolonial metanarratives. We have to move away from thinking in such broad terms as postcolonialism and begin thinking in more specific terms. Migration resists singularity; it is markedly difficult to talk about migration without saying from here to there, this person, this reason. After all, migration is centered on the body. It is a narrative told by each individual body, a trauma unique to each body.

Rahel’s migration establishes a moment of resistance against both colonial power and postcolonial metanarrative. Rahel, who migrates to the US, marries a Larry MCaslin, a man who wholeheartedly loves Rahel as one loves something “given to him in love, something still and small” (20). However, the one thing Larry cannot tolerate is the look in Rahel eyes when they have sex: “[Her eyes] behaved as thought they belonged to someone…looking out of the window at the sea. At a boat in the river. Or a passerby in the mist in a hat” (20). The mirage of migration unsettles him; he thinks he knows exactly whom Rahel is (and, for that matter, people who come from “places like the country that Rahel came from”) except in those moments when her migrations—internal or imagined—enact Othering upon him and, by extension, the colonizer. She is the one who watches him from a distance, through the glass of a test tube.

If the migrations within Rahel’s eyes enact Othering, breaking the hierarchies of colonization, then Roy’s choice to place her novel in a “non-traditional” location (that is, outside the Indian city) enacts Othering upon postcolonial metanarratives. The God of Small Things can be considered a movement for the way it moves and circulates around one thing—Ayenemen—without ever going anywhere. The “absence” of migration in the novel (in terms of where the bulk of the action occurs) begins to touch upon questions of how to we talk about the anxieties borne out of postcoloniality while acknowledging the struggle between the dominant and subdominant within the “native” culture itself, and how to look at postcolonial culture as something beyond dichotomy. The novel didn’t concern itself with commonly explored spaces such as Calcutta or with something so large as the entire Indian nation. Instead, it pulls a Hong Kong: the novel works from within a space that has been self-reliant and thriving, and in possession of its own unique histories, but nonetheless commonly subsumed into other narratives.




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