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

Where are the Bodies? Postcolonial Theory and Theoretical Resistance in Malaysia

Jacqueline Lo

As a participant of "First World" production of critical discourse, I am constantly faced with the problem of negotiating between a Eurocentric epistemology that dominates much of my intellectual environment, and socio-cultural realities such as those articulated in the theatrical text 1984 Here and Now. This article attempts to highlight some of the problematics of writing about the Other.

The article is divided into two sections. Part one is a mapping-out of current debates focussing on the problems of representation and literary resistance in postcolonial literature. This excursion is necessary in order to create a space within a theoretical paradigm which will be amenable to my political agenda, which is to document resistance theatre in Malaysia. The second part of the article will concentrate on the play, 1984 Here and Now, as a site of political contestation within a specific socio-historical milieu.

Playwright Kee Thuan Chye says in his introduction to the play:

I feel so sad when our right to express ourselves is not given free reign . . . I have something to say and I need the freedom to say it. For too long, we have only dared to say what we think is safe to say. We have languished in the hope that someday, things will be different and we will finally be allowed to speak up. That day may never come without our working towards it. Which is why if anything needs to be said, it has to be said here and now. Otherwise, tomorrow may be lost.1

As the quotation expresses so urgently, naming is a vital part of the empowerment process. In a society where overt and self censorship is prevalent, the act of articulating opposition to the ruling ethos is a highly dangerous act. How then can I begin to talk about material conditions, about resistance to political dominance and acknowledge the real suffering and risks involved in cultural production without falling into the trap of either appropriating the Other's voice or conflating the complexities of racial, gender and class oppositions under generic categories such as the Other, Malaysian and/or subaltern. In short, how can I theorize without losing sight of the bodies that live what I can only name in abstraction?

Recent articles by Jenny Sharpe and Anne Maxwell have focussed on the debate concerning the representation of the Other.2 Gayatri Spivak and Benita Parry have been held up as representatives of opposing camps in the debate. Spivak comes from the post-Althusserian and post-Lacanian traditions which foreground the constructedness of subjectivity as an ideological effect. She contends that it is impossible for Eurocentric intellectuals to really "know" the non-European Other in any way other than through the prisms of their own desires. Spivak argues that the subaltern cannot speak unmediated. The subaltern voice can only be constructed out of the critic's archive of the self and can therefore only ever be represented as the critic's Other.3 Consequently any reading of resistance is never "pure" and inherent in the literary or theatrical text but is the product of the negotiation and prioritization of differences within the epistemology of the critiquing Subject. Rather than run the risk of assuming the transparency of the critiquing Subject who in effect speaks for the Other, Spivak concentrates on deconstructing colonial discourse. The aim is to reveal a "disclosure of complicities where a will to knowledge would create opposition."4 Hence resistance to the dominant discourse is not a transparent process and can only be read symptomatically in the slippages, contradictions and tropes of ambivalence in critical discourse.

The problem, however, with this strategy of deconstructing the imperial signifier is that it runs the risk of re-privileging the master-discourse even as it seeks to oppose it. As Jenny Sharpe says, "the colonial subject who can answer the colonizers back is the product of the same vast ideological machinery that silences the subaltern."5 An associated charge made against the deconstruction strategy is that it is elitist and self-reproducing. There is a need seriously to consider the notion of decolonizing postcolonial theory, for as Ketu Katrak says, "a new hegemony is being established in contemporary theory that can with impunity ignore or exclude postcolonial writers' essays, interviews, and other cultural productions while endlessly discussing concepts of the "Other," of "difference," and so on."6 The result of this privileging is that the postcolonial figure is fetishized, its voice silenced, the material realities ignored and its cultural productions are disempowered.

Benita Parry accuses the deconstruction project, and Spivak in particular, of this flaw. She queries the political efficacy of deconstruction which she sees as achieving nothing more than the erasure of the subaltern voice or, at best, limiting resistance to devices that circumvent and question colonial authority.7 Parry believes that the deconstruction project focuses too narrowly on textuality to the extent that the endless deferral of "meaning" and the problematizing of subjectivity reinscribes the dominance of Eurocentric epistemology. She subscribes to a more oppositional strategy which argues for an affirmative retrieval of subaltern voices and knowledges. On the issue of identifying subaltern women's voice she says that "it should be possible to locate traces and testimony of women's voice on those sites where women inscribed themselves as healers, ascetics, singers of sacred songs, artists, and by this to modify Spivak's model of the silent subaltern."8 It is obvious from this response that Parry has ignored Spivak's problematizing of the retrieval of a "pure" opposing voice and has instead essentialized and reified the signifier of Otherness from a non-critical First World position.

Whilst I have a lot of sympathy for Parry's argument for a need to empower and acknowledge the historical materiality that is articulated in textual representations, her strategy for the recuperation of the subaltern subject is defective. Like her mis-reading of Spivak, Parry tends to essentialize power discourse in order to validate her position. Power, as she sees it, operates in binary and hierarchical oppositions. Self is opposed to Other, subject to object, colonial to native and so forth. This essentialization appears to go even further when she uses terms like native, subaltern and Other interchangeably with no recourse given to the complexities of cultural, racial, gender and class differences.

Parry believes that the advantage of a deliberate oppositional model of reading discourses of resistance recuperates the humanist concept of a unified subject. As Maxwell points out, the weakness in Parry's argument lies in her anti-theoretical bias which encourages the perception of an undifferentiated "authentic" native voice. According to Maxwell, Parry's has not only misread the deconstruction project, she has also chosen to disregard the advantage of theory as a subversive force which prevents a relationship of mimetic and reductive identification between the political objective and its means of representation.9 Rather than be caught complicitly in what Said terms the "politics of blame"10 which can be both reductive and moralistic, theory acts as an alienation strategy which prevents a simplistic and non-critical privileging of the "underdog" which can be just as politically ineffective as Parry's fear of the valorization of theory at the expense of materiality.

It seems that in trying to recuperate the presence of the colonized Other, Parry has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Both her refusal to acknowledge the significance of theory as a mechanism which prevents a transparent identification of the Other and her insistence on an essentialist oppositional discourse of power finally disempower the object of her own desire. The Other in this scheme is forced into the role of a homogeneous, monolithic, and dominated faction with no recourse to action except to oppose an equally homogeneous, monolithic and dominating centre of power. There is no middle ground for compromise or negotiation.

In contrast, the Malaysian condition cannot be described in any pure or essential way. Culturally, racially and politically hybridized with dominant elements from Malay, Chinese, Indian, European and Aboriginal traditions, the material reality is as complex as it is varied. Nonetheless, the discourse of racial purity has been used to perpetuate Malay hegemony and it is against this discourse that 1984 Here and Now was produced. The rhetoric employed by the strategies outlined earlier tends to be couched in terms of the colonial discourse with the dominant force being the West, Euro-America or the First World. The context that I am concentrating on comes from a postcolonial and specifically British experience, and the structures of communalism that organize racial politics in Malaysia are a legacy of that past which have been appropriated by the present administocrats. The point is that the "Other" that I am talking about is not the "native" nor the subaltern in the strictest sense of the word. The playwright speaks from the position of a middle-class Chinese minority in a predominantly Malay state. In postcolonial jargon we can perhaps position this as being the "Othering of the Other." Consequently, the levels of mediation involved in constructing an embodied voice of resistance is more complex and the need to be materially specific all the more vital.

There appear to be at least two opposing views in current postcolonial theorizing about the construction of subjectivity and agency. On the one hand there is the postmodernist/deconstructionist notion of the fragmented subject-in-process which makes it impossible to articulate the Other in any simplistic manner. On the other hand, there is the positivist or expressionist school exemplified by critics like Parry, which insists on the unity of the Other as a necessary premise to revolutionary action. Neither methodology appears to employ a critique of ideological production in social relations to clarify the issue of subject formation.

In response to this, Spivak looks towards Marxist theory for a critique of the subject as individual agent as well collective agency. She believes that the problem of agency lies in a failure to distinguish between two categories of representation. The first being representation as "speaking for" and the second being representation as "re-presentation" as in art. The two uses of representation - within state formation and the law on the one hand, and in subject predication, on the other - are related but not discontinuous. The conflation of the two concepts inevitably "leads to an essentialist, utopian politics."11

Spivak locates individual and collective agency on the second level of consciousness. Class consciousness and representation in the first instance remains with the feeling of community that belongs to national links, political and commercial organizations. This is in contrast to the second application of re-presentation which is a ground-level consciousness of individuality which Marx associates with the feeling of belonging to a familial or "natural" order. Full class agency is not an ideological transformation at the ground-level and a desiring identity of the agents and their interest in power. Rather it is a contestory abrogation and appropriation of consciousness of the economic conditions of existence.12 Spivak believes that a radical practice should keep the "double session of representation" in mind rather than introduce the individual subject through totalizing concepts of power and desire. To keep the area of class practice on the second level of abstraction is to maintain the Kantian-Hegelian critique of the individual subject as agent without falling into the trap of subjective essentialism.13

Stephen Slemon's categorization of the various postcolonial agendas is also pertinent at this point. He distinguishes, for example, between two fields. One employs the term "postcolonial" to identify the different aspects of subjectivity and cultural appropriation specifically within Third and Fourth World cultures, and within other marginalized groups in the First World. A second field is characterized by specific analysis of discourses of past and present power relations and to a specifically postcolonial critique of the relations between cultural production and the struggle for power.14 The most significant implication of the conflation of the two fields is that all postcolonial cultural productions will be seen as voicing some form of resistance which overlooks the vital fact that some literatures are more revolutionary and others more reactionary within the political and social specificities of the countries concerned.15 Consequently, the representation of material specificities which concern actual bodies consciously articulating instances of political resistance are subsumed under the more textual preoccupation with locating cultural differences and individual subjective-transformations within (Eurocentric) networks of power, desire and knowledge.

This ties in with Spivak's problematizing of the conflation of the two separate categories of representation. The result is that concrete expressions of resistance are subsumed under the category of re-presentation which focuses on the divided subject as a site of conflicting desires and knowledges. The conflation of terms, the lack of distinctions between the different agendas and the absence of an ideological critique in the general field of postcolonial studies have resulted in what I perceive as the present state of political paralysis that denies political agency on the part of both critic and subject. The challenge then is to maintain a double perspective; that is, to bear in mind the necessary displacement of an "original" voice of resistance and the levels of mediation that occur between my reading position and that of the subject. The best I can do in this regard is to practises a self-conscious critique which attempts to position this critiquing body into a specific historical-socio-cultural and materialist discourse in relation to the subject.

I am therefore forced to recognize my own complicit political agenda in documenting theatrical political resistance in Malaysia. As a Malaysian-born Chinese who has renounced her Malaysian citizenship and is writing from the relative security of Australian academe, I am in the position to be both insider and outsider to the Malaysian situation. As such I write from a culturally hybridized position which resembles what Bhabha calls, "a space of 'translation'; a place of hybridity, figuratively speaking, where the construction of the political object that is new, neither the one nor the Other."16 Whilst I identify with the situation of the non-Malays, I am conscious that oppositional politics (the conflict of Malay and non-Malay interests) as it is practised in Malaysia, is based on the essentialization of racial identity. Postcolonial theory in this regard alienates my political expectations and changes the very forms of the construction and recognition of the "moment" of politics.17

1984 Here and Now was planned for performance in the same year. However, delays with the censorship board in obtaining the compulsory police permit as well as the fact that participants were withdrawing for fear of political repercussions, illness and so forth, meant that the play was not realized until July 1985.18 It ran for five nights to packed houses, a feat unheard of in Malaysian theatre in english. Performed in the relatively elite and safe confines of the University Experimental Theatre in Kuala Lumpur, the production was an urban and middle-class phenomenon and drew audiences from all of the four main racial groups (i.e. Malay, Chinese, Indian and European/Eurasian).

It is interesting that a politicized play written by a Chinese Malaysian should command so much support, even if much of it can be attributed to curiosity.19 However, the most significant aspect of the play was that it demonstrated an overt political frame of reference. The play identified directly, instead of merely alluding to, the actualities of police presence and racial hegemony in the society. In a state where the Special Branch Police are believed to be surveying every corner for subversive activity, the fact that so many people would want to be associated with the play in various capacities as performer, crew and audience, is indicative of the depth of emotions which the play taps into.

The Malaysian constitution outlaws any discussion or criticism of Malay hegemony including the institutionalization of the Malay language as the national language, Islam as the national religion and the instatement of the Malay monarchy. Theatre therefore provides one of the few areas in an authoritarian state where political subversion can take place by virtue of its "live" and dynamic nature. Once on stage and presented as spectacle, the written text that was submitted to the censorship board no longer takes precedence. Rumours, gossip, the disembodied and Othered voices can finally make their presence felt concretely through the performative codes of language and movement. Theatre becomes in this way a forum for the articulation of resistance, as well as a site for the empowerment and "conscientization" of the individual and the collective.20

According to Pierre Macherey, it is the silences and gaps in a text that are significant to an understanding of the ideological milieu of the writing subject.21 1984 Here and Now conflates George Orwell's motif of class hegemony in 1984 with that of racial hegemony. Kee uses the terms Party members and Proles to suggest the Malay and non-Malay racial dichotomy. Although the maintenance of the class signifiers are a constant reminder of the excess inscription, the issue of class dominance is not pursued in the play. What can we make of this omission?

Two related possibilities come to mind. Firstly, because racial politics is the overt ruling principle in Malaysia, we can accept that the playwright has chosen consciously to focus on it to the exclusion of other considerations. On the other hand, one could view this silence as a site of ideological contestation. As mentioned earlier, communalism is actively perpetuated as a means of social control. As with the British method of "divide and rule," the rhetoric of racial inequality often serves to obscure and marginalize other issues such as class and religious inequalities which have the potential to cut across racial lines. The fact that Kee has chosen to voice resistance to the obvious issue of racial politics is perhaps indicative of his middle-class urban milieu where poverty and class-struggles are not as overt or as immediate. This is not a criticism of his politics, but rather a confirmation of the thesis that resistance is always part of and contained by the larger mechanism of power and the dissemination of knowledge. The subaltern voice in this context is not that of an economically underprivileged class, but the articulation of opposition from a specifically middle-class, urban professional and non-Malay context.

Resistance is therefore always mediated and implicated in the larger structures of power domination. This recognition of complicity does not, however, deny the existence of individual and collective agency, nor does it undermine the convictions of those involved. What it does substantiate is that resistance is always an effect of the contradictory representation of power in political ideology. More importantly, an understanding of the paradoxical nature of resistance within a materialist context is vital to the study of subaltern literature, particularly for those of us engaged in the academic industry. There is an urgent need for us to acknowledge our own ambiguous relationship to dominant discourses of knowledge and power, and to allow this awareness to inform our reading of the Other in all its/her/his/their socio-cultural and historical complexities.

University of Western Australia

1 KeeThuan Chye, 1984 Here and Now (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: K. Das Ink, 1987) i-ii.

2 Jenny Sharpe, "Figures of Colonial Resistance," Modern Fiction Studies 35:1 (1989) 37-155 and Anne Maxwell, "The Debate on Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Kunapipi 13.3 (1991): 70-84.

3 Gayatri Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana and Chicage: University of Illinois Press, 1988) 271-313.

4 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (NY and London: Methuen, 1987) 179.

5 Sharpe, "Figures of Colonial Resistance," 143.

6 Ketu H. Katrak, "Decolonizing Culture: Toward A Theory for Postcolonial Women's Texts," Modern Fiction Studies 35.1 (1989): 158.

7 "Positions against the nostalgia for lost origins as a basis for counterhegemonic ideological production (Spivak), or the self-righteous rhetoric of resistance (Bhabha), have been extended to a down-grading of the anti-imperialist texts written by national liberation movements; while the notion of epistemic violence and the occluding of reverse discourses have obliterated the role of the native as historical subject and combatant, possesor of an other knowledge and producer of alternative traditions." Benita Parry, "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Oxford Literary Review Vol. 9 (1987): 34.

8 Parry, "Problems in Current Theories," 35.

9 Maxwell, The Debate on Current Theories, 73.

10 Edward Said, "Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World," Salmagundi 70-71 (1986): 45.

11 Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 275-276.

12 Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 277-278.

13 Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 279.

14 Stephen Slemon, "Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World," World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 32.

15 Slemon, "Unsettling the Empire," 33.

16 Homi Bhabha, "The Commitment to Theory," New Formations 5 (1988) 10-11.

17 Bhabha, "The Commitment to Theory," 11.

18 There has been a great deal of speculation as to how the play was approved by the censorship board. Kee, in an interview with the writer said that the most likely reason was that the script was never read by the relevant authorities!

19 According to the National Cultural Policy, Malay literature is officially deemed the "National literature" whilst literatures in the other languages such as English, Indian and Chinese are relegated to the status of "Sectional Literatures."

20 The most well-known proponent of this type of revolutionary theatre is Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, trans. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (London: Pluto, 1979).

21 Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) 85-95.

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 16 April, 2015