Monday, April 29, 2013

Post- what colony?: Response to Lois Tyson's Postcolonial reading of "Gatsby"

Lois Tyson's look at The Great Gatsby through Postcolonial criticism didn't seem to cover much new ground. That was my main problem with it; in many ways, I think that the relevance of the theory to this text is redundant to other interpretations. The term "Postcolonial" is also important, and I think this area of thought is, in some ways, misapplied. Finally, I think that the overlap between this lens and Psychoanalytic is interesting and was well applied in this essay.
In terms of redundancy, the most striking instance I saw was in how Tyson addressed African Americans in the novel. While certainly the experience of Africans and their descendants through their treatment by Europeans is very important to Postcolonial theory, it seems to me that it is not really necessary to address that aspect of the book in detail here. While a separate essay focusing entirely on Postcolonial theory within The Great Gatsby could certainly point to the African American experience, when there is an entire separate essay within the same book and written by the same author talking specifically about those issues, I think it becomes redundant for this essay. In fact, in the paragraphs talking about the few black characters and the non-appearance of Harlem, I thought for a moment that I had accidentally been reading the wrong essay and was actually in the African American section. Tyson writes that, "[I]t wouldn't be unreasonable to argue that the text falls short of the demands of its setting by not having one of the main characters visit a Harlem nightclub, or at least refer to a visit there, for that is surely what fashionable young white people such as the Buchanans, Nick, and Jordan would have done" (437). I hope that this passage was intentionally self-referential; otherwise, I question how much attention Tyson has been paying to her own writing. Similarly, it seemed to me that much of the time spent on the othering of lower social and economic classes was already covered in Marxist theory; I found it interesting and agreed with what she was saying, but in both of these cases I think that shorter sections, possibly directly referencing her earlier essays, would have sufficed to make her point.
As much of her essay draws on these other theories for analysis and support, I think that it is valid to question how the idea of colonialism itself is applied. Since the forms of oppression exercised over ethnic minorities and the poor are the focus of other theories, I think that they should really be applied here at most as a parallel example of belief systems like those that make up colonialism. Really, my main problem with both this essay and Postcolonial theory at large is how "colonialism" is interpreted; it seems to be used as a catch-all term for oppressive ideologies or the dehumanization, conscious or unconscious, of other groups. Although I do think that is a valid thing to look at, it does not seem to me to be specific enough to really qualify as "colonialist;" instead, I think that terms focused more on oppressive ideologies and societies are more descriptive and accurate, based on Tyson's essay. In a specific sense, I think that referring to economic oppression as "colonialist" is misleading and confusing. Oppression of ethnic minorities because of their race seems much more in line with Postcolonial theory's scope, and although I do think that African American theory is better suited for looking at most African American issues, I see the connection to colonialism much more clearly there than in economic issues. Of such issues, Morrison writes that, "Tom is also the character who most overtly exhibits the attitudes and behaviors associated with colonialist psychology ... Tom is a classist, and the belief in the inherent superiority of the upper class is one way in which colonialism justifies the domination of colonized peoples" (441). Clearly, the methods of oppressing economic inferiors and social inferiors are very similar to those used in the oppression of other races and colonized peoples and areas, but I think that the distinction is important; as far as I can see, these are separate oppressive ideologies which simply use similar tools of psychological abuse to oppress their victims.
The analysis of those methods is done well in this essay, and I think that is its strongest point. The discussing of othering and dehumanizing people based on the superficial groups they belong to is vital to understanding how colonialism historically operated and how it has continued to have a role in the modern world. Again, I think that the aspects of her essay focusing on Marxist issues belong more in a separate essay, like the one she happens to have written focused entirely and specifically on the economic oppression she talks about. I think that having specific connections to historical examples of what she points to in the book being used in actual colonialism and imperialism would have been especially interesting. I found the ways she applied facets of Psychoanalytic criticism here to be strong, but still don't entirely see their connections to Postcolonialism or the operation of real colonization and the large-scale, institutional abuse of ethnic groups and geographic areas. Although similar to how minorities are oppressed in America or European nations now and how the poor are abused, I think the differences are important. That she focused on these is understandable because of the lack of direct connections within the text (in the same way as African American criticism didn't have much of a foothold in The Great Gatsby), but I think that not connecting to the substantive history of colonialism was a missed opportunity.

For further thinking: Am I right or wrong about the overlap of other theories with Postcolonialism? Do they have more application here and is using them as the substance of a Postcolonial essay valid?

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