Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

The Spectacle of the Other

Laurel Bergmann

SPAN 33 featured two articles which take up issues raised by Michel de Certeau. The first, by Ian Buchanan, examines de Certeau's concept of historiography for its usefulness in postcolonialism's project of recuperating the past. 1 The second, by Phillip Roe, is an application of de Certeau's notion of "Spatial Stories" to explore the new spaces this opens up for both reading and writing. 2 It is my aim in this paper to extend the concerns they raise by concentrating on the issue of legitimation: an aspect of central concern to oppositional writing, and one that is insistent in its return in de Certeau's own work. My position at the intersection of feminism and postcolonialism leads me to conclude that oppositional groups need to regard de Certeau's formulations with caution, even with suspicion, since they may, in effect, operate in the service of that very discourse of domination they purport to subvert. I propose to examine the issue of legitimation as it is taken up in two works of fiction by contemporary (New Zealand) oppositional authors. The first is Janet Frame's most recent novel, The Carpathians, and the second, Fiona Kidman's The Book of Secrets.

The "tactics" de Certeau analyses in The Practice of Everyday Life3 have no legitimacy: that is their point. They represent a "poaching" on the space of the other. As such, they figure a certain freedom for the "little people," a survival mechanism through which "they escape without leaving. "4 This represents "a negatively articulated space,"5 one that is dependent on that which it subverts. "The relationship between the two is symbiotic rather than oppositional. "6 De Certeau's writing is an attempt to theorize this space: that is, to legitimate, not this "practice" itself, but the academic analysis of it, a process complicated by his own reflexivity, as Buchanan notes. 7

In Heterologies, de Certeau takes up the question of speaking the "other" in discourse. 8 In Buchanan's words, its project is:

To illustrate that writing's authority is by no means absolute, that always there is a space (a hole) through which the repressed can return, a gap in the blanket of power which enables the repressed to remain, to evade without exit. The return of the repressed means precisely this: shining lights on the fissures within the fabric of power in order to demonstrate that despite appearances to the contrary the exercise of power is never absolute. 9

Nevertheless, this "heterological tradition" of which de Certeau speaks is more a matter of "raiding" the "other" to legitimate its own text, a point of which de Certeau appear to be more aware than Buchanan: "the discourse about the other is a means of constructing a discourse authorized by the other. "10 Such writing is a "cannibalistic discourse," taking the place of the reality it feeds off:11

But the written discourse which cites the speech of the other is not, cannot be, the discourse of the other. On the contrary, this discourse, in writing the Fable that authorizes it, alters it . . . It is this death of speech that authorizes the writing that arises . . . 12

The danger in this is that, at the same time as it makes the other the object of its attention, it operates to disqualify it from speaking on its own behalf. The culture it examines must neccssarily be either a dead culture or one that is rendered incapable of speaking for itself. This goes some way to explain much of post-colonialism's and de Certeau's own preoccupation with "dead" texts, to the near-exclusion of those "living" texts through which the formerly-disqualified seek to name their own reality. Like the sciences of ethnology and archeology, heterology is a form of colonization, of mastering the unknown and defusing its power. It "oscillates between voyeurism and pedagogy,"13 and "arrive[s] at the moment a culture has lost its means of self-defense. "14

The result - and this is the most serious objection - is that the object that has been classified, resituated, and rendered reassuring in this way is disqualified. 15

Where in all this, as Gayatri Spivak asks, can the Subaltern speak? Are we forever to be condemned to be gaps in the fabric, limit texts for academics to read, translate, and cannibalize to authorize their own texts, and to render legitimate their projects of disengagement? Perhaps the question should be, who is the Subaltern, and who is authorized to speak [for] her? What is the process of legitimation on which such authority depends?

The textual process of self-legitimation is a complex one:

On the one hand, the text accomplishes a spatializing operation which results in the determination or displacement of the boundaries delimiting cultural fields (the familiar vs. the strange). In addition, it reworks the spatial divisions which underlie and organize a culture. For these socio- or ethno-cultural boundaries to be changed, reinforced, or disrupted, a space of interplay is needed, one that establishes the text's difference, makes possible its operations and gives it "credibility" in the eyes of its readers, by distinsuishing it both from the conditions within which it arose (the context) and from its object (the content). 16

In heterologies, "an image of the other and the place of the text are simultaneously produced. 17 This is achieved through the distancing of "a play on mediators," including witnesses, interpreters, legends, and documents. The traditional form is the travel account, a journey in search of the strange, an excursion among the other, followed necessarily by a return. De Certeau examines Montaigne's text, "Of Cannibals", as an exemplum of the genre. Montaigne "recounts a series of disappearances," where the cannibals "slip away from the words and discourses that fix their place. " He plays a similar game "in the terrain of the name," so that "the name comes undone. " Thus:

The narrative becomes the saying of the other, or it almost becomes it, because the mediation of an interpreter (and his "stupidity") the accidents of translation, and the tricks of memory maintain . . . a linguistic boundary line between savage speech and travel writing. 18

The trace of the Other is marked by "ruin" in the text, "triumphant loss. " Montaigne is conscious of a personified ideal reader for whom he writes. The text is thus marked by two absences, two Others, that authorize it, and "the author himself" becomes "a multiple, iconoclastic passer-by in his own fragmented work. "19

The texts I am examining are not "heterologies," in the sense of being about the Other; they represent a new development of the tradition in being by the Other. Their legitimation, their space of utterance, will necessarily be different. Nevertheless, the place of the author is always ambivalent. Writing is a matter of distancing and mediation, of translation. What de Certeau has to say of historiography is relevant here:

Perhaps in restoring the ambiguity that characterizes relationship between object and subject or past and present, historiography could return to its traditional task - which is both a philosophical and a technical one - of articulating time as the ambivalence that affects the place from which it speaks and thus, of reflecting upon the ambiguity of place as the work of time within the space of knowledge itself. 20

This would appear to be the very approach taken by many oppositional authors, an example of which is provided by Roe's analysis. The space of the narratorial voice is represented as shifting and elusive in many of these works, and contingent and time-bound in others.

If we graft what de Certeau demands of historiography to the technique of traditional heterology, we will find ourselves very close to Frame's method in The Carpathians. 21 Her central character, Mattina, could be called a "tourist" in search of the "primitive" New Zealand point of view. The boundary between same and other is thinly drawn, however. What she finds is everlasting sameness, with only the barest hints of difference, more obvious in absences than in presences. As with Montaigne's text, there is a series of disappearances - culminating in a grand disappearance. The novel, too, is a play on mediation, to the point of the absurd. It makes sport with the "terrain of the name," and signifier slips away from signified. The intratextual implied reader, ostensibly Mattina's husband, Jake, but finally her son, John Henry, is indeed absent. The ambiguities and undecidabilities leave the text a "ruin," a "triumphant loss," which marks the Other, not where Mattina came to find it, but in a monumental absence. The three (or four?) implied authors can well be described as "multiple passers-by. "

Frame's novel fits more easily into the heterological tradition than other oppositional texts because of her ambivalence about location. As a "famous" author, she may be seen as a member of the establishment rather than as an outsider. It is noteworthy that her approach, here, differs from the one she used in her earliest writing. Frame's project in this novel is not that of enabling the "little people" to speak. Her concern is to show, rather, that true communication is no longer a possibility, since postmodern "hype" has flattened language, rendering it empty and dead. Frame, as a "Housekeeper of Ancient Springtime" (from the title of Part IV, and implying "keeper of the treasure of language"), is doing what might be called "raiding" the other for the "truth" of language. Thus, as with de Certeau, this "other truth" is to be found in gaps and absences, and most especially in the total lack of language that is represented by the autistic child Decima (note the link between the latinate names, Mattina and Decima).

If Frame (like de Certeau) is ultimately not interested in opening a space for the other to speak, such a project is Kidman's central concern. In The Book of Secrets,22 she sets out to tell the other side of the story, the hidden one. Norman McLeod, "The Man," is an historical figure, Mosaic patriarch and hero of an archctypal colonial saga. Kidman tells the underside of his history through "the Witch of Waipu," another historical figure who spent her entire adult life incarcerated in her own home. Her story, however, has never been told; her absence/presence being its own silent statement and witness. Through the "dramatic space"23 this figure opens up, the other silenced voices that fill The Book of Secrets are able to be heard.

Yet, in a sense, Kidman is still speaking for these "little people" in a way analogous with, but different from, that by which "Man" has always traditionally spoken for them. Their voices are mediated, translated. De Certeau seems to argue that the question of translation (in the above sense) does not apply in the case of "immediate history," which "can no longer distance itself from its object. "24 Though this is doubtful at best, it is certainly arguable that it does not apply to the category of fiction, which is itself a mediation. These authors make no claim to immediacy, and the question of "translation" is insistent in their work. Like the historian and ethnologist, of whom de Certeau speaks, the translator aims beyond reflection:

. . . to structure a landscape that is nothing if it is not more than a simple reflection. But it would be wrong to think that these tools are neutral, or their gaze inert: nothing gives itself up, everything has to be seized, and the same interpretive violence can either create or destroy. 25

There have been a number of studies of the way in which oppositional narrative seeks legitimacy for its interpretation, for its status as translator. Unlike mainstream uniting, it cannot call upon tradition or institution for legitimation, but must negotiate its own place. Ross Chambers argues that it works by seduction;26 Homi Bhabha opts for mimicry. 27 De Certeau speaks of "tactics" and "poaching. "28

In the final analysis, the right to "translate" the hegemony to the opposition and vice versa is a matter of power, which must be won if it is not conveyed by location. Such power can be achieved by the ability to "translate" one's audience, to compel them out of themselves and transport them to one's own space. Such a power is both seductive and hypnotic, reasonable and magical. It is eclectic to the point of bricolage in turning everything to its own use. To misquote Lorde, it "uses the master's tools to demolish the master's house. "29 It pays acute attention to detail, to history, to documentation, to witnesses. It plays on fears, and hides behind camouflage.

Kidmann gives us an exemplary representation of such a power in Norman McLeod of The Book of Secrets. Oppositional himself, cast out from the established church and from bourgeois society, his personal magnetism wins him totalitarian control over his own colony of "Normanites," to whom he translates the Word of God. Finally, as "The Man," he replaces God. Hypnotic preacher with an outstanding sense of drama, rarely at a loss, and with the uncanny ability to turn everything to his advantage, he plays on others' fears and weaknesses. His strength of mind and force of spirit enable him to dominate weaker vessels. He is the Wizard. Yet his power presents itself as solidly-grounded: his intelligence, insight and attention to detail lead him to tower over ordinary men, so that it becomes accepted that "The Man knows best. " Nevertheless, even when he is right, as on the voyage when he "saves" them, his power is only apparently based on an appeal to reason. It is his use of what might be called "magic," his playing on their superstitions, that wins the day. This is the same force he uges on his follower, McKenzie in a game of cat and mouse, when he is, this time, very clearly in the wrong. In "translating" his folk to themselves and to one another, he is distorting the truth. Yet he understands that a translation, to achieve legitimacy, must be based on truth. As Louis Althusser has expressed it, interpellation depends on the subject's (mis)recognition of himself, so that he answers when hailed. He succeeds because he is an excellent reader of people, whatever use he may make of this skill. Even Isabella is not immune to either his seductive or his guilt-inducing power. Such is his monopoly of translation that his "law" survives beyond his death.

McLeod, however, represents phallic power, power for its own sake, an abuse of power. Isabella, his alter-ego, represents an alternative. Witch to his wizard, with complementary abilities she seeks only empowerment. Equally intelligent, with even more insight and understanding, she, too, has the ability to translate. Her translations, however, are rejected as madness or witchcraft; for she lacks the ability (and opportunity) to manipulate power - a Lacanian Lack. She lacks, at first, the ability to translate power. "The Man," to her, is just a man; she cannot see why her neighbours are blind to this. Only gradually does she come to understand that what marks him as different is Power. Isabella's mistake is that she believes in reason, directness, and fairness, and only learns too late that the world works differently. Basically, she believes in equality between herself and others, without understanding that she is over-estimating others' powers of reasoning, and under-estimating her own powerless position as a woman. This blindness leads her to tragic mis-translations of the social consequences of accepting Duncan's invitation, which results in her marriage; and of the repercussions of being a forceful, independent woman. Gradually, she learns the necessity for camouflage, and avoiding direct confrontation, since she cannot win. She translates McLeod's wizardry, and learns from it. She learns to use her power of seduction, dressed up as sweet reason, where reason alone failed. She learns to make full use of her "magic," and, in particular, the reputation of it. Most important of all, she uses her eyes. For the males, and McLeod in particular, their hair represents their power - as it did for Sampson. Her power is condensed in her eyes. She uses her (illegitimate, but tolerated) power as "the gaze," and seizes the Word. Her diary, her secret translation of McLeod and her world, gives her the final power, even though it is after her death. She has the last Word.

Isabella, like her female descendants, has no space of her own. These are "little people," so that they are reduced to tactics, rather than strategies, or poaching on someone else's space. Oppositional writers of the present have - for the moment, at least - a little more "room to maneuver," as Chambers expresses it. 30 Nevertheless, it is by a combination of McLeod's manipulation of power and Isabella's final wisdom that these contemporary writers attempt to legitimate their translations of their worlds. As Roe notes, this involves a constant movement back and forth between "places" and "spaces,"31 a continual dissolving of one into the other. Above all, it is a playing with distance, whether this distance be critical or historical. It is a reintroduction of time into space, "demanding the negotiation of [a new reader-text] relationship. "32

It might appear at first sight that The Book of Secrets offers an endorsement of de Certeau's project, since both Isabella and Maria "escape without leaving," in one sense, through the use of survival tactics. The relationship between Maria and her gaolers is a symbiotic one. The Carpathians, too, as I have indicated, has much in common with the heterological tradition. Yet such a reading would ignore both the irony of Frame's textual tourism and Kidman's passion. There is no room for complacency in their vision.

Despitc his interest in and sympathy for "little people," de Certeau remains very centrally a member of the academic establishment. As a "French theorist," he is already part of an elite so secure and so ascendant that it can carry its marginals (such as Julia Kristeva, HŽlne Cixous, and Luce Irigaray) to what would otherwise be seen as eminent positions. He himself is in danger of being canonized. His position is analogous to that of Michel Foucault, whom Nancy Hartsock describes in Albert Memmi's terms:

. . . the colonizer who refuses and thus exists in a painful ambiguity. He is, therefore, a figure who also fails to provide an epistemology which is usable for the task of revolutionalizing, creating, and constructing. 33

This is not to devalue his insights, which, like those of Foucault, make the invisible visible. Nor does it reflect on the usefulness of his spatial approach to the theorizing of power relations.

Nevertheless, there is a certain danger in his project, as in Foucault's: a contradictory conservatism. In thc first place, the "other" remains object, not subject, of his discourse. Second, there is a danger in too much visibility: it may lead to appropriation or foreclosure by reactionary forces. Third, as Hartsock says of Foucault,34 his formulations have a flattening and equalizing effect that minimize the effects of power and lead to the familiar "blaming the victim. " Not only is no distinction made between oppression and repression, but in addition, tactics of resistance are all equally validated. The central confusion in his formulations would appear to be one that is endemic in French theory: a basic inability to distinguish between "other" and "Other," or "Other" as the repressed of the psyche, and "other" as oppressed groups and individuals. From the point of view of the colonizer, there may in truth be no fundamental difference; from the point of view of the oppressed, however, this is to negate their entire lived experience. As Hartsock notes, the field of operations of this "archeology" is the site of the ruins of the Enlightenment. 35 Thus, it is not surprising that the "other" can be found there only through gaps and absences. There is a need to work other sites to find both a living presence and vital alternatives. Hartsock concludes:

The point is to develop an account of the world which treats our perspectives not as subjugated or disruptive knowledges, but as primary and constitutive of a different world . . . Other possibilities exist and must be (perhaps can only be) developed by hitherto marginalized voices. 36

It may be useful here to set de Certeau's project alongside that of Bhabha's. Both are concerned with the interstices of power, with mimicry, camouflage, and ostensible cooperation. Bhabha's vision goes beyond that of de Certeau, however, in that he is able to see the survival, at least in part, of a counter-tradition, and a hope for the future through hybridity. The Book of Secrets, too, represents the survival of a hidden, "secret" tradition; it, too, looks to hybridity as the possibility of transformation. The child, Ross, represents the future: a blending of races, cultures, nationalities, and even (in a sense) genders. His is the combined inheritance of the dispossessed. Maria realizes that the time has arrived for a new kind of being:

The generations were getting stronger. . . She sensed the vitality. He was his own person. A new kind of person, without allegiance to a particular group or race. He would make new choices. 37

In Kidman's novel, as in Frame's, the fissure opens out into "another scene. " The usefulness of de Certeau's project is that he does at least point to this fissure. Unlike Foucault, he is not incapacitated by pessimism. He is prepared to take that necessary next step in the field of inquiry Foucault opened up. It is not impossible that later archeologists in this field may make discoveries that can be of direct assistance to oppositional projects. The danger lies in the miasma of self-congratulatory populism that many practitioners in this field seem to exude, and which may in practice mask their suppression of "organic" resistance theory. Thc effect of this would be to reduce all resistance to a drama on a space which is, in the end, merely another theatrical presentation38 of the spectacle of the other.

University of Queensland


1 Ian Buchanan, "Writing the Wrongs of History: De Certeau and Post-Colonialism," SPAN, 33, 1992, 39-46.

2 Phillip Roe, "Textual Tourism: Negotiating the Spaces of Reading," SPAN 33, 1992, 91-103.

3 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

4 Buchanan, 40.

5 Roe, 98.

6 Buchanan, 41.

7 Buchanan, 40.

8 Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. B. Massumi (Manchester: Machester University Press, 1986).

9 Buchanan, 42.

10 de Certeau, (1986) 68.

11 de Certeau, (1986) 29.

12 de Certeau, (1986) 78.

13 de Certeau, (1986) 125.

14 de Certeau, (1986) 123.

15 de Certeau, (1986) 129.

16 de Certeau, (1986) 68.

17 de Certeau, (1986) 68.

18 de Certeau, (1986) 70-72.

19 de Certeau, (1986) 78-79.

20 de Certeau, (1986) 217.

21 Janet Frame, The Carpathians (Sydney: Pandora, 1988).

22 Fiona Kidman, The Book of Secrets (Auckland: Picador-Pan, 1987).

23 Roe, 93.

24 de Certeau, (1986), 217.

25 de Certeau, (1986), 135.

26 Ross Chambers, "Story and Situation," Story and Situation: Narrative Seducation and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis, MN.: Minnesota University Press, 1984) 3-15.

27 Homi Bhabha, "The Commitment to Theory," New Formations 5, 1988, 5-23.

28 De Certeau (1984).

29 Audre Lorde, "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference," Russel Ferguson et al., Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990) 287.

30 Ross Chambers, Room to Maneuver: Reading [the] Oppositional [in] Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

31 Roe, 97.

32 Roe, 94.

33 Nancy Hartsock, "Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?" Linda Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990) 164.

34 Hartsock, 168.

35 Hartsock, 164.

36 Hartsock, 171.

37 Kidman, 274.

38 Roe, 93.

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