ENGL 240 Final Paper
Dead DefinitionsThats the responsibility that went with being human, old Kuoosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love. (Silko, 32)
The pattern that emerges from both colonial and postcolonial literature that we have covered is a cyclical one. Alienation breeds a longing to find something. That is the first half of the cycle. To put that into question at first, alienation rises from a disidentification with the surrounding environment, which in the case of colonial literature, you are master of nature and your environment. There is always hopelessness in the tone of authors when discussing the insurmountable authority of the imperial project, which seems contradictory since the imperial project has as one of its central themes, the domination of man over his environment. Thus the individual feels alienated from a system because it lied to him, and told him he would have control, but he doesnt.
The second part of the cycle the focus of this discussion is where the two, colonial and postcolonial, take different roads only to end up back where they started, alienated. In short, and since the focus will lie primarily on postcolonial responses, colonial literature spoke of finding something new, while postcolonial (my two emphases will be on Najla Saids Looking for Palestine but more importantly Leslie Marmon Silkos Ceremony) literature defines finding something as looking for something that has been lost. Saids incessant struggle with identity, as she shuffles uncomfortably through her adolescence and early adulthood, is supported heavily by the idea that identity comes with strict guidelines of social conduct through dead definition. But what Said struggles with, Silko pushes to transcend. The word story pops up ceaselessly in the book, and he uses it to try to explain this notion of dead definition, and the grip it holds on social and private conduct.
Arab. Jew. Muslim. American. These words and many others like them bombard us throughout Looking for Palestine. They are categories, groups of people following a dead definition. So what is a dead definition? A dead definition is a definition of an object that is external to the human experience. It defines usually a man-made concept, such as the ones mentioned above, but also includes words such as communism, capitalism, empire, democracy, and such. The danger of a dead definition is that it is dead. What seems to be obvious holds the deeper truth of our understanding of definition. If a definition is not subject to change, if it is absolute and unchecked, and if it is contingent upon the active performance of an individual in it for it to sustain itself, then it is a dead definition. It is simply describing something that is not there, a construct of a single temporal and spatial perspective that the observer adopts as reality. Najlas consciousness of herself was highly influenced by these dead definitions. Her father is from a country that is not there anymore. Yet the house her father grew up in still stands. The scene of walking up to the house in the now-Israel, used-to-be Palestine location on the globe, disseminates this notion of nationalism into a dead definition. How is the country gone, but the house still there? This is the struggle that people have, which leads to the feeling of alienation and frustration at a merciless superstructure, towering over the heads of individuals, while they restlessly try to find a place under this constricting umbrella of appropriateness. Najla goes through many phases of identification, mostly national, regional, linguistic, and cultural. These phases bring with them a rubric of conduct: if I am X, then I should act like it. Act like a lady, or act like a man, or arent you American? You see the pattern here. With every turn in her journey, she finds herself, for a short time, comfortable in her milieu. But then, slowly, or by one incident or another, the feeling of inadequacy resurges within her, and she finds that this category of identification does not serve to ease her fear of alienation. What she ends up getting into is a web of concepts that must be followed around a minefield of faults in their argument, criticism by others and oneself, and the usually most clich slap-in-the-face realization that we are all human beings living on a planet that is relatively insignificant to its surrounding, so we should all get along and try to figure this out together.
To make one thing clear, I am not for anarchy, I am merely shedding light on one aspect of how what Silko calls the lie(177), is failing. We have dealt with a lot of literature that deals with the problem of the imperial project but have not found a suitable response in which we, as human beings, could coexist in what we can call a good society.
The first definition to go would be that of ownership. Silko expresses the rage that Tayo feels whenever Emo, or any other character for that matter, speak of the land that they now have is what the white people left for them, the scraps of the land. Look what is here for us. Look. Heres the Indians mother earth! Old dried-up thing! Silko goes on to explain the faulty reasoning behind this, because Emo, along with some Indians and Mexicans, believe that the land they were born in belongs to them, and was taken from them. This echoes the futile adherence to a nation state. An exterior, alien force invaded their environment. This alien force then proceeded to usurp any notion of humanity from these natives, and promised to civilize them. This is the clearest example of dead definitions that have shaped the world through imperial practice. Ownership. Native. Civilized. Silko, through Tayos psychological journey, illuminates the bedrock of human experience, interaction with the living, existing natural world. This is where we come from, see. This sand, this stone, these trees, the vines, all the wildflowers. This earth keeps us going. (Silko, 42)
Silko speaks of dead things when she discusses the notion of imperial and capitalist commodity. Dead things represent dead ideas; trying to capture the essence of living through the acquisition of dead things is the contradiction that Silko is pointing out in the lifestyle that is practiced by white people. But what is more destructive is the adoption of this lifestyle by the struggling Indians and Mexicans, trying desperately to coagulate within a culture that arrived to their shores dead. There is no difference in imperial expansion, as far as military and political injustice goes, between British and American imperialism. The colonial literature that hails the Americas as the new world where all is possible, ends up being an exploitation of natural resources, and tons of dead bodies.
So it is central that the true story be told, because the story is the only thing that remains alive without temporal constrictions. It is the story, told truthfully, with true use of language, which holds the answer to the riddles of societys mishaps. What Silko means by the story is human history. Guy Debord argues that through the construction of illusory priorities in life, what I have come to call the dead definitions of things, we have shifted from a stage of human history a story alive while being told to economic history, in which the aims of the human society exist to serve the function of the exterior capitalist doctrine within empire. Just as Silko highlights the dead things people follow, and Said inscribes her personal experience with the dissolution of these dead definitions, Debord discusses how society has entered a dead state of history, in which our true history, as human beings, has ceased to develop, and our existence as economic producers, churners of currency, is the only route that is appropriate for any man. Tayo is constantly teetering on the edge of social sanity, where people are waiting for him to snap at any moment. He is constantly being pestered about his roles, duties, and shortcomings. But it seems as though Tayo, Said, and even Conrads Marlowe choose to fight this alienation from a world gone awry by shedding the light on what truly fuels the human experience, the realization of dead definitions and the ability to discriminate between the two.