In (Sub) Ordinate Speech: Mimicry as Bourdieuian Heterodoxy in Walcott's Pantomime

By Ahern, Megan K. | ARIEL, October 2007 | Go to article overview
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In (Sub) Ordinate Speech: Mimicry as Bourdieuian Heterodoxy in Walcott's Pantomime


Ahern, Megan K., ARIEL


The use of language can be a potent site of postcolonial resistance, despite--and, perhaps, because of--how often it has been used as a tool of imperialist stratification. The way a person speaks, including characteristics such as accent and diction, is generally held to express identity and to mark a certain social position; yet, language itself is fluid, trans-mittable, transmutable. Language is often the first of the trappings of imperialism that the colonized are forced to adopt; nevertheless, they are intended never fully to appropriate it, but rather to speak in a way that is, in the terms of Homi Bhabha, "almost the same but not quite" (126 emphasis original). By speaking the colonial language while retaining an accent and a diction that differentiate them from the colonizers, post-colonial subjects are supposed to reflect the colonial presence without appropriating it. Thus, postcolonial subjects represent the power of the colonizer while signaling that they themselves are outside of it, subordinated to it.

The subordination described here is a product of a colonial system that invests in national and ethnic identity categories designed to reinforce a social hierarchy even as those categories are presented as natural or essential. This system must hide its arbitrary nature, including the fixed categories and the hierarchical social order that it constructs; its power relies upon its uncritical and tacit acceptance. An opportunity for resistance, however, appears in a certain dynamic where variation can call attention to the silent hegemony and thereby robs it of its uncontested status. This dynamic has been described by Bhabha in his theory of mimicry, but it has also been explicated more thoroughly by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his extensive study of doxa, the set of beliefs and customs that enjoy implicit hegemony, and doxa's disruption by heterodoxy. The relationship between the work of the two theorists will be examined in this article with particular attention paid to the ways Bourdieu can illuminate Bhabha's work and prove very useful to this analysis and to postcolonaial studies more broadly. The argument I take up here is that through parodic performances, which call into question both the neatness of putative ethnic identity categories and their easy signification through linguistic markers, postcolonial subjects can problematize the assumptions of the hegemonic system, expose its arbitrary construction, and thereby weaken it. This article examines the ways Jackson Phillip, a character in Derek Walcott's 1978 play Pantomime, subverts dominant axioms regarding ethnic identity.

Walcott himself is widely considered to be masterful both in the elegance of his verbal expression and in its political critique. Seamus Heaney observes, "Walcott possesses English more deeply and sonorously than most of the English themselves. ... And in spite of the sheen off those lines, I suspect he is not so much interested in the 'finish' of his work as in its drive" (307). For the purposes of this argument, then, I read Walcott's virtuosity as mindful, mainly concerned with the action of his work, with its exposure and disruption of the reader's assumptions, particularly those regarding ethnicity. Biodun Jeyifo introduces us to some of Pantomimes main engagements to this end:

  What powers [Jackson's iconoclastic] impulse is the thinking that
  'white' omination is not only political and socio-economic; it is
  also, or aspires to, total effectivity in the naming of things, in
  signifying and explanatory systems. In other words, it seeks to be an
  epistemic order of control and manipulation. ... Jackson Philip [sic]
  in particular deploy[s] a surfeit of brilliant, witty conceits and
  tropes to debunk this epistemic, no-menclatural hegemony. (378)

Concerns about language come to the fore in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, whose analyses of power dynamics within societies, and of their perpetuation through through hegemonic worldviews, are of urgent relevance--especially as they suggest how these dynamics can be resisted and even disabled.

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In (Sub) Ordinate Speech: Mimicry as Bourdieuian Heterodoxy in Walcott's Pantomime
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