What is culture to you?—Essentially, Who are you?

I pose these questions in the wake of reading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a book about the psychological effects on black (and white) people imposed by culture and therefore by society.  This seemed a large point of Fanon’s argument, that culture makes us all; the black man cannot truly be himself—whatever that is—but because he has been colonized by whites who are now the dominant culture and society, the black man must try to become white if he wants to have a chance to be accepted, yet whites will always view him as black (as Fanon says a black man will truly now he is black once he goes to France, subject to the gaze of all the whites there) and he will be subjugated as such.  But Fanon turns this on the whites as well, who, he says, are themselves caught in a struggle by subjugating the blacks to their stereotypes.  Of course, the blacks are terribly forced into positions of inferiority by being treated a certain way (being talked to in pidgin, condescended to, etc.) but the whites are also destroying themselves, stopping themselves from being able to interface with blacks ‘normally’, with this imposition of stereotypes throughout their (popular) culture, the image of the grinning, as Fanon brings up, Y Bon Banania, or through comic books, where, says Fanon, black children learn the equate blacks with evil.  Thus again, culture rules us all and who makes culture?  Why, people!  Fanon saw this creation of a racist culture as destroying any means of his goal of blacks and whites ‘getting along’ and therefore he saw the need to say “It’s no longer a question of knowing the world, but of transforming it.”  Society and therefore culture must be changed for this goal to be met.  Which made me question myself a bit.

I’m Chinese-Canadian, parents from Hong Kong; I was born in Vancouver.  I consider myself more ‘Canadian’—whatever that means—than Chinese—and really, what does that mean too?  That I have Chinese ancestry and I’m Canadian because I was born in Canada; is that all that means?  Or do people attach more value to that, really vague characteristics as presented by such things as Canada’s televised ‘Heritage Moments’ or through stereotypes; Canadians are nice and always say ‘eh’; Chinese people are super smart and strict or whatever.  I don’t see myself being attached to any particular ‘culture’ though as Fanon points out, how culture affects us in how we act (like how Butler said culture affects how we treat the different genders), I’m may be just working on some cultural mode, and I’m guessing it’s close to ‘western culture’, whatever that encompasses.  I guess this was why we talked about Lacan’s three divisions of the world.  Fanon may be trying to throw out all cultural/social (my relation to ‘the others’) and legal statuses (also what ‘defines’ one in society) and therefore go to Lacan’s ‘real’, this seemingly transcendental state where we may go beyond these conventional identities, go beyond putting on mask after mask after mask.  So I guess I’m asking, is culture important, why/why not?  Is it important to you?  Does it need to be important?  Is it important to be part of something?  Can we exist outside of it?  Can our identity ever be set, or is it always shifting because we constantly interface with others?  In the end I do think it is also a question of human existence and personal identity than just purely racial and cultural.  There are probably more questions on similar lines, so I’ll leave it up to you to make more, in essence what I’m doing here.

Please, Question yourself, that great existential activity.

Oh, that novel!—Northanger Abbey!

Time to oil and spin the gears, a new year—and a new set of blog posts—has come ’round.  Today’s topic is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; I guess I’ve got two things I like to mention about this book, its use of meta-fiction (as was wondrously brought up in lecture) and its use of gothic novels.

I discovered this novel a couple of years back actually and when I first read it was a novel about a young woman who was obsessed with gothic novels and then began to think she was in one, well, that seemed pretty meta-fictional to me (and what early metafiction too, written just before the 19th century!), a character thinking they are experiencing a gothic novel, because they are in a novel after all.  But Austen does do more than just this.  The first line, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine,” announces the meta-fiction in the book; the book tells the reader their reading a book by saying this Catherine Morland you’re reading about is a heroine, a character in this book; Austen even refers to Henry Tilney, the main male character, as the hero.  She also uses this smartly by constantly referring to Catherine as the heroine and how she should be up to more exciting antics, but always just falls back onto 18th century England, its banalities and social trappings.  Her famous “Yes, novels” passage on page 23 is also a telling statement of meta-fiction, the novel aware of the existence of novels, and therefore its own existence as one; the whole paragraph it appears in is really reminding the reader they are reading a novel, possibly in the same conditions; the description of Catherine and Isabella doing things together is really for the culmination to them shutting themselves up and reading followed by the passage; it really provides not too important exposition and is therefore fodder to the real point of the whole paragraph, again reminding the reader they are reading a novel, possibly even while being shut up in some room.  And Austen’s “tell-tale compression of the pages” line serves to remind the reader of the structure of the novel itself; as she has been parodying structures of gothic novels, she even lampoons herself: ‘what do you expect from my novels now,’ she seems to say, ‘they always end in marriage, “perfect felicity”‘.

Northanger Abbey is always said to be a parody of gothic novels, but as said in our edition’s introduction, she doesn’t just parody them but uses their structure.  The most telling way I saw was through Catherine’s ‘maturation’ through the last parts of the novel.  She suspects evil and murder to have happened at the Abbey by the hands of the General and is proven most wrong by Henry, who says how could something like that happen since it doesn’t go by their upbringing and circumstances.  But what Catherine finds then is the horrors of the everyday.  Soon after being corrected by Henry, Catherine receives James’ sad letter about his break-up with Isabella and later Isabella’s own letter, where Catherine finally realizes Isabella’s superficial nature and how horrifically it has affected her brother and therefore herself.  Then comes a quite similar character, General Tilney who after seeming so nice and friendly to Catherine, even allowing her to be invited to Northanger, shuns her crassly and immediately from it.  Both Isabella and the General had thought Catherine and her family rich, therefore their superficial amiability, but Catherine finds out their real want, money  and the cruelty they—and therefore any human—can inflict onto another if they do not get what they want; they both shun Catherine’s family and separate themselves from them, causing Catherine true horror, tears and all.  Thus the real lesson here is the cruelty of ordinary people; reality may not be cruel and horrific on the ridiculous scale of gothic novels as Austen parodies, but reality may be horrific and terrible in its own terms, people who don’t truly care for others unless they have something to gain from it, the true evil of real people.  Austen cleverly doesn’t just write a silly satire of gothic novels and their overblown-ness, but moulds their structure into a lesson and view on humanity, for true, things are not what they (you) seem if you become brainwashed by gothic novels, but in real life, some people are most definitely not what they seem sometimes; in reality the gothic is just not readily apparent, but festering beneath the surface.  As Catherine readily notes, though still a bit ridiculously as she still thinks on gothic novels, “that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

Now with the tell-tale compression of paragraphs, words, letter, my typing, I will say this is where I end.