from the editor's desk

Westerly and the Indian Ocean: In Bandung’s Wake (Part 4)

From the Archive: Sinai C. Hamada, ‘Five Men and the Carcass of a Dog‘ (December 1976)

A productive reading of Westerly’s Indian Ocean issues as a project engaging with non-Eurocentric literatures and cultures might be found through Fredric Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping.

In his critical work on postmodernity – the name Jameson gives to a period beginning roughly in the 1970s, and corresponding to the beginning of economic globalisation – Jameson describes a culture transitioning from modernity in terms of “an increasing predominance of space over time” (105). A symptom of this change, Jameson posits, is most recognisable in the waning of a popular historicity, that is, the disappearance of a felt history, of a sense of continuity with the past and a destination for the future; it is a sense most closely associated with Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement following the triumph of the capitalist world-system over the socialist camp in 1991 of “the end of history” itself.

The experience of time in this context, while not disappearing altogether, is noticeably of its “shrinkage to the present” (105). Jameson provides the example of action films “reduced to a series of explosive presents of time” (105), but it is just as easy to find the traces of this transformation in the present fad for adult colouring books promoting “mindfulness”, themselves the logical outcome of a popular Westernised spirituality that privileges the “present”, “being in the moment”, etc. Thus, “for political groups which seek actively to intervene in history and to modify its otherwise passive momentum”, Jameson argues that there is “much that is deplorable” in a culture that privileges the ‘event’ and the spectacle, over historical memory and collective praxis (46).

Where all of this leads Jameson as a response is towards what he calls “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping – a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system” (54). It is a concept that seeks to work in and through postmodern space, while attempting to reclaim or reboot historicity by situating the subject within a global spatial context (precisely the space of globalisation) that cannot but express the totality of class relations on a global scale, and thus the history of development and underdevelopment, and of the relationship, persisting today, of colony and empire.

Westerly’s December 1976 Southeast Asian Issue provides a number of opportunities to evaluate cognitive mapping as a critical methodology. Taken together the stories and poems in this issue can be read as a kind of topography of globalisation from the perspective of one imperialised part of the globe: poems by Thai Luan and To Huu narrate opposing sides of the Vietnam War; Usman Awang’s ‘Greetings to the Continent’ evokes the Utopian image of a borderless continent and world; in ‘The plea of the Asian woman’ Baha Zain writes “All frangipanis wilt in the fire of the blasts”, lamenting the fate of the women exploited during war; and in the excoriating ‘Mr Proudfoot’, Shahnon Ahmad savages Western Orientalism with his portrayal of the outrageous hippy lecturer from Buffalo, New York on a ‘civilising’ mission in Malaysia who ends up dangling from a tree in a sack, strung up by his students.

‘Five Men and the Carcass of a Dog’ by Sinai C. Hamada of the Philippines is a similarly piercing representation of the often obscured other-side of globalised space, of the darker side of Janus-faced postmodernity. The story begins with five men from the town of Mainit who encounter, on their way home, the fortuitous carcass of a recently killed dog. Meat being a luxury, the men make a feast of the dog with their neighbours and families. The next day, and with the dog a happy omen, the men travel to “a former U.S. naval reservation in the city” where they plan to dig up an abandoned sewer pipe to be sold to a “Chinese dealer of second-hand goods” for twenty pesos (42). Before they can accomplish their task however, the men are arrested, charged with theft of public property, and thrown in jail. A lawyer in-law, petitioned by the villagers to take up the defence, speaks to the judge who remarks, “But there is rampant thieving nowadays. The public should be taught a lesson. Pretty soon, these fellows will be stealing private property, finding no junk around” (42). In the end, the lawyer in-law gets the men off the hook, with only a twenty-peso fine, and his fee: “One sack of silver money” (43). Thus, and with no small dose of irony, the Mainit villagers praise their “hero-counsel” (43), and while “rejoicing over the vindication of Mainit honor” leave the lawyer in-law to make plans with the judge for drinks “at the officers’ club in John Hay Air Base” (44).

In Hamada’s story in particular, but also in the poems and stories mentioned earlier, the entire predicament of the post-colony sinking deeper into debt and insolvency, the persistence of neo-colonial class rule, and the issue of property itself all find expression, in a way that situates the Australian reader within a global social totality in which international class relations are brought into clearer relief. This, I think, is one of the enduring values of Westerly’s engagement with the literatures of our neighbours to the North, to enable a radical re-imagining of the context within which literature is produced, and to begin to grasp the historical processes that produce that context.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Aesthetics of Singularity.” New Left Review 92 (2015):101-132. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1992. Print.

Henry Ward is a writer and researcher from Perth. In 2016, he will be undertaking a study of Westerly’s archive, focusing on its engagement with the Indian Ocean region, before moving to the USA to undertake a Phd candidature at the University of California, Irvine. 

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