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Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture

The Fractal Gaze


Françoise Král


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Hardcover. xi + 230 p. ISBN 978-1137401380. £55


Reviewed by Fernando Galván

Universidad de Alcalá (Madrid)


We wake up almost every day with some terrible news about migrants escaping from poverty, war or other calamities, drowning in the sea, or being persecuted and killed for a variety of reasons in their own places or even in their new adoptive countries. Racism, islamophobia, marginalisation, life in the slums in our big cities, and human exploitation in general are closely linked to this phenomenon, even though the over-exposure to these daily events is paradoxically provoking some sort of invisibility in our societies. No wonder then that academic reflection and discourse, as well as specialised studies on migration and diaspora, are so needed and have widely developed in recent times, and particularly (but not exclusively) in connection with literatures and cultures in English. This book by Françoise Král is highly relevant in this context because the author looks at diaspora(s) precisely from the perspective of invisibility and tries to throw light on the reasons and circumstances surrounding it, drawing a picture of the various angles and disciplines from which invisibility can be tackled.

The reader, as the author emphasises from the very beginning, cannot help recalling Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952). In fact, she opens her first chapter by quoting from the novel, in an initial attempt to illustrate what invisibility really means and how it emerges, and then map the ground of a new discipline she calls “Invisibility Studies”:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodyless heads you see sometimes in circus side shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me. [19]

These words contain glimpses that the author analyses and discusses in the six chapters of her book. In the second chapter, for instance, where she tries to sketch a phenomenology of invisibility, she uses Guillaume Le Blanc’s three reasons in Dedans, Dehors : La Condition de l’Étranger (2010) of why and how invisibility is performed, i.e. violence, reification and lack of perception. In Le Blanc’s words, “the colonial system engineers the lack of perception of the other race […]” which, according to Král, should lead to a reinterpretation of Spivak’s famous question of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It is not so much then an issue of being able to speak but rather of the viability of being heard, almost an act of willing, so that the question would better be put in terms like “can he be heard?” [57].

The first chapter consists of a general discussion of how invisibility works in different areas of the humanities and social sciences, particularly sociology, geography and philosophy and the impact this phenomenon has upon politics  and economics, dealing with topics such as social suffering (Král follows here Emmanuel Renault’s book Souffrances Sociales : Philosophie, Psychologie et Politique [2008]) and the political agenda involved (the already mentioned Le Blanc in his L’Invisibilité Sociale [2008]). Special attention is paid as well to the still prevalent orientalism in European historiography, exemplified through Dipesh Chakrabarty’s discussion in his Provincializing Europe : Political Thought and Historical Difference (2000) of the invisibilisation of some social practices of Bengali culture, like the tradition of the adda [37-38], characteristically seen as “idleness”. Although unfortunately only by means of passing references, a sample of literary examples are at least quoted in this respect, coming from Caryl Phillips, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bharati Mukherjee, Hari Kunzru and Kiran Desai. These varied insights lead Král to the conclusion that it is necessary to find “the critical angle best suited to an approach to invisibility”, and she advocates for a phenomenology of what Le Blanc calls homme agissant (‘the man in action’), i.e. a mechanism which “fits the purpose of our agenda in the sense that it can be used to account for various forms of human development, as opposed to being only suitable in the case of fully-fledged citizens who are already socially visible” [41]. This would give space to those who live on the margins of society. That is the subject of her second chapter.

Space and spatiality are then studied as a physical or material phenomenon, as they constitute the precise location of social invisibility. V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is an interesting case in point, discussed in some detail by Král through the role played by the narrator “who spots Wordsworthian figures in the landscape, or in a more realistic mode when the protagonist returns some fifteen years later to a place radically changed by industrial farming” [47]. When reading these pages I thought a closer reference to James Procter’s book Dwelling Places : Postwar Black British Writing (2003) would have been helpful and perhaps even more clarifying (although the title is included in the final Bibliography), as the particular locations occupied by migrants in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s—as presented by Procter in that book—might have provided additional arguments to the transformation of space through the emergence of diasporians.

There is however another side to this, which is the dematerialisation or metaphorisation of space, insofar as it connects with the construction of the social invisibility of the diasporic subject, or the process of invisibilisation itself, where the viewer is also involved. Král addresses the concept of terra nullius in Australia, for instance, a space that apparently belongs to nobody (because of the situations produced by oral cultures as opposed to cultures of literacy), so that it could be taken freely by the colonisers, thus legitimising their appropriation. Another interesting feature the author discusses is the variety of forms invisibility and invisibilisations take in the case of illegal immigrants: deliberate sometimes, as a way to avoid social or political marginalisation, but which inevitably leads to the condition of second-class citizenship, “doomed to exist on the outskirts of society, without a right to health care or any form of social welfare” [53]. Literary examples such as Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1991), Hari Kunzru’s Transmission (2004), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2004), or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) are used by the author to illustrate this case. Ultimately, and this is certainly an important contribution, Král insists on the ethical issue posed by Ricœur and Levinas in the sense of “the responsibility of other humans to guarantee the human nature of people” [66]. This implies—she says—“a sort of ‘ethical duty of care’, which is the responsibility of the viewer […] [as] a co-producer or revealer of the visibility depicted, represented or simply hinted at in the work of art” [66].

After theorising invisibility studies in the first two chapters, the author deals with issues of artistic visibility and agency in chapters 3 and 4. In chapter 3 she starts by coining the term “dys-gazing”, following Bhabha’s concept of mimicry [75], and develops it further as “mis-gazing” the figures of the ethnic ‘other’ in painting and art generally [79-80] and as “re-gazing” the bodyscape of otherness through the exhibitions in museums and films of all sorts of otherness, which are ‘appropriated’ by institutions (museums) and viewers. She uses Mona Hatoum’s works about the body, like her “performance featuring a bleeding body on display or in those suggesting the absence of the body through the traces it has left” [92], so as to discuss how we understand the way art articulates visibility and subjectivity. For Král, following the same line of thinking developed in the previous chapter about the responsibility of the viewer, this proves how visual arts can constitute “one element of a larger pragmatics of ethical thinking which engages the viewer and trains him to see beyond the visible, into co-producing the missing bodies, that is the invisible human beings implicitly present in the work of art” [91]. This is extremely interesting as it poses the question of the acceptance by the exposed subject, as well as all the consequences implied, both in the case of Hatoum’s exposure of her Arab mother naked in the shower, for instance, or of the thousands of Afro-Caribbean and South-Asian subjects who were photographed in Birmingham by Ernest Dyche with the purpose of using those pictures—where diasporians acted as willing sitters—to make them visible in their countries of origin as successful immigrants to Britain in the early 1950s.

Although things have obviously changed during the last half-century, Král argues that the hypervisibility of some black artists and of the racialised body in the last few decades do not solve the question of the invisibility of the diasporians. As she claims, a new aesthetics of the diasporic self is needed, not so much in what concerns the end result, but rather in the sense followed by recent “developments of Western art (in particular the newly redefined role of the viewer as co-producer of meaning)” [99]. For her, this pragmatics must be linked to the ethics of the trace, so that instead of “limiting himself to what he sees, the viewer is invited to imagine the figures that precisely he cannot see” [99]. This moves Král to explore Marianne Hirsch’s ideas on the haunting presence and memories of the dead in the living and Deleuze’s and Guattari’s ‘visagéité’.

Chapter 4 is indeed a further development of these concepts, with a particular focus on the representation of the ethnic ‘other’ in films. Král discusses issues of filmmaking and other visual arts, like photographs, paintings and museum installations, dealing with a variety of financial aspects in the process of production and negotiations between artists and businessmen, but probably the most revealing feature is that concerned with the question of authenticity and the representations in film of some other works of art, like Sarah Gavron’s controversial film Brick Lane. But other artists and works are included as well in this discussion, where Král uses Deleuze’s and Guattari’s notions of the ‘paysage’ and ‘visagéité’, drawing our attention again not only to the “dark spaces” where meaning is endangered and potentially lost, but to the need of recreation by the viewer. Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha and other British Asian authors and films (like Bhaji on the Beach, East is East, Salaam Bombay, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, etc.) are included in the discussion, which also leads to the Bollywood industry and the relations between the local and the global from the perspective of the diasporic subjects in their double capacity as resident and non-resident Indians, with deep implications about the control exerted by males over the female body. The conclusion reached after the analysis of these films is very stimulating and marks the development of the final two chapters in the book:

films on diasporas, but I would be tempted to add on ethnic minorities, tend to span a whole spectrum of characters who all represent set types. These characters unfold the ethnic potentialities according to principles of blending or not blending, fitting in or accepting. By doing so they define them as zones of hypervisibility. I propose to take this reasoning a step further and hypothesize that by doing so these cultural productions condition a more long-term process which reconfigures the gaze as intermittent and fractal, able to only focus on what is already signposted and ignore what is less visible. Indeed as a mass medium, films have an even bigger responsibility than other art forms in the way they impact on cultural productions and influence people on a large scale. [130]

The final two chapters delve into two central concerns of diaspora: the home (chapter 5) and the city and post-modern nationhood (chapter 6). Home is obviously a key factor for the diasporic subject, and not only as a private space but more and more so also as a public site. As Král writes, in recent years “what had sometimes been mistaken for a private domain and an apolitical locus started to appear as a displaced and hidden site of political intervention, a confrontational site where State pressure met individual strategies of self-assertion and where the line between private and public did not stop at the door but was the object of an ongoing process of negotiation” [133]. Numerous literary examples of allegories of the home as nation, or nostalgic constructions of home, come immediately to the reader’s mind, and the author discusses some of them, like V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mister Biswas (1961), Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines (2005), Rushdie’s notion of “imaginary homelands” (1991), Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), M.G. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack (1989), Marina Lewycka’s We’re All Made of Glue (2009), as well as classical examples of postcolonial writing (Sam Selvon, George Lamming, or Jean Rhys), contextualizing them within the explanatory frames developed by well-known critics such as Rosemary Marangoly George (The Politics of Home : Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction [1996]), Susheila Nasta (Home Truths : Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain [2002]) or Vijay Mishra’s concept of ‘refossilisation’ (1992). Král makes illuminating remarks in this chapter about the association of home with luggage and how the traditional concept of home as something permanent and frozen in the migrant’s memory has changed, to the extent that the diasporic subject behaves as “an eternal toddler struggling to adjust his bodily coordinates to an ever-moving surrounding” [152].

Chapter 6 focuses on the city as another locus of visibility, which constitutes a representation of post-modern nationhood, where, as Král puts synthetically in her introduction, “minorities merge into the melting pot or retain their identities, where they decide to stand out or blend into the mass as quietly as possible and where the balance of power between the different ethnic groups responds to a logic of centrifugal absorption of the margins into the core identity which redefines the line between self and other” [15]. Here she gets back to some of the novels discussed in previous chapters (by Kiran Desai, Sam Selvon or Hari Kunzru) as well as to some films (Salaam Bombay or Monsoon Wedding) in order to insist on the concept of the “fractal gaze”. Not only the urban planning of modern and post-modern cities is “fractal” and fragmented, she claims, but also the gaze with which we look at them, and that clearly influences the processes of re-segmenting and re-synthesizing the diasporic subject. A very good example Král uses to illustrate some of the implications of that “fractal gaze” is Caryl Phillips’s In the Falling Snow (2009), where the relations between a middle-age Caribbean boss, Keith, and younger female Eastern-European immigrants show “how the notions of periphery and subalterneity are not set in stone but subject to change” [175]. This means that this novel “invites the reader to de-align the long-standing conflation between race and subalterneity as the lines have moved as a result of an influx of new waves immigration” [175].

Some final remarks on these issues of fragmentation and the “fractal gaze” refocus and insist on the invisibility of diasporians in a global context. Král’s conclusion summarises very well the interest of this book and the challenges it poses, which are connected with the gradual processes of misunderstanding provoked by the complexity of globalisation and the prevailing existence of poverty and exploitation. In spite of all our efforts to achieve transparency and visibility, Král concludes rather gloomily (but also admittedly in a coherent manner) that transparency would only be possible

in a world where the cultures of the global village would have been reduced to their bare bones and made artificially similar rather than different. If we intersect this prognosis for the future with our chart, we get a sense of the way the fractal visibility of the twenty-first century is likely to develop: increasingly fractal, never opaque and based on a pragmatics of misunderstanding which allows the whole situation to operate with the illusion that people understand one another, even when some things are carried across and the vast majority remains lost in translation. [186]


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