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POSTMODERNISM AND THE POSTCOLONIAL PROJECT
In order to explain my personal motivations to write this essay I will allow myself to be overtly subjective and make some daring generalizations, whilst being aware of the fact that my initial judgments might be over-simplistic and unjust. These first impulses are nevertheless important, since they constitute the driving force of the discussion I am going to develop later on. I chose the topic of this essay out of a personal uneasiness with certain issues that I perceived when I moved from Colombia to Sweden. The first issue has to do with the way in which –as I perceived it- people enjoyed playing different roles in everyday life. I saw this being manifested in, for example, the popularity of the role-play and in the cloth collections of the H&M mega stores where you could find, in the same building and for accessible prices, anything you needed in order to look hippie, punk, executive, sexy, ethnic, etc. The second issue, which is closely connected to the first, was the value that people seemed to put into ‘variety’ as the secret which best led to ‘the fun’ and ‘the exciting’; two things that seemed to me to be very important for Swedish society. As I saw it, these issues permeated the arts, the education, the entertainment, the intellectuality and even people’s sense of humour. Looking at the Swedish society as a new place and from my particular cultural background, these attitudes seemed to me a little too easy and unserious. At the same time, I found myself being painfully unable to relax and play; and I admired the way in which young well educated people could talk about almost anything, using their broad general culture to juggle with their pieces of knowledge; jumping from foreign politics to technology and to pop stars in a witty, exciting and uncommitted way. I decided that boredom and sadness were taboos in Sweden. Apart from becoming aware of my own narrow-mindedness and lack of humour, I strongly felt the vacuum produced by ‘a lack of deep meanings’ in things. There was some kind of injustice in the way in which this light game of forms and items acquired its ‘fun tone’ to the cost of emptying all things from their meanings, 1
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regardless of how dramatic or transcendental these meanings could be for people that were out of the game. From these thoughts, I came across with issues like ‘essence’ and ‘identity’; and from these, to issues like ‘exoticism’ and ‘globalization’. Not surprisingly, when I was introduced to postcolonial theory I felt identified with its concerns, at the same time as I became even more suspicious about what I already understood by postmodernism.
1.2. Purpose and Argumentation
I will start by clarifying that I will not try to question postcolonialism or, better said, the postcolonial agenda itself. The reason is that I believe in the great importance of its existence for the construction of a more ethical and just world. My intention is, instead, to discuss different strategies and perspectives which can help or prevent the postcolonial project. I will do this in the light of postmodernism, considering the powerful influence that postmodernism, in its philosophical and material manifestations, has in our contemporary societies. Postmodernism can be seen both as a condition of our age and as a conscious way of assuming life. In this sense, it should be possible to become aware and even resist postmodern aspects which reverse the postcolonial agendas, as well as it should be possible to make use of postmodern strategies in order to advance the postcolonial project. My hope is that the discussion developed in this paper will allow me, and the readers, to unveil prejudices, visualize nuances and open spaces for more postcolonial agency.
I will start the main text of this essay by introducing the terms ‘postcolonialism’, ‘postmodernism’ and ‘deconstructionism’, in ways which seem to be convenient for the development of the discussion. From the existing definitions of postcolonialism I will emphasize the aspects concerned with resistance and political intervention. From the writings on postmodernism and deconstruction I will primarily use notions developed by Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, respectively. The rest of the essay will consist of six sections which confront different aspects of postmodernism and postcolonialism. In the section 3.1 I will raise the issue of ethics, which will be a constant issue throughout the 2
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whole discussion. In the section 3.2, I will dial with the issues of History and histories, referring to the contributions made by the work of the Subaltern Group. In section 3.3, I will discuss the postmodern dynamics of commodification in the light of postcolonialism. This discussion will be extended to the aspects of Art, the Spiritual and the Exotic in the section 3.4. The section 3.5 deals with the issue of identity and the connected notions of origins and meaning, all of which are crucial and controversial notions in both, postcolonialism and postmodernism. Finally, the section 3.6 uses an article about the Mabo case in order to show how postmodernism can be both, supportive or contradictory to the postcolonial agenda, depending on which aspects of it we look at. This section leads to the final conclusion of the essay, where I suggest that the relationship between the postmodern practices and the anti-colonial project of postcolonialism is doublesided.
2. BRIEF THEORETICAL FRAME
Like most of academic notions, postmodernism and postcolonialism are controversial and complex terms, which are understood in slightly different ways by different authors. I will try, however, to define both terms in the ways which seem to be convenient as a starting point for our discussion.
The term ‘postcolonialism’ or ‘post-colonialism’ –with hyphen-, has been referred to as a historical period which starts with the political independization of European ex-colonies, or as the cultural production of people from these excolonies, or as theoretical and activist attempts to fight imperialism in all its forms: physical colonization of territories, ideological hegemony, economical domination, global capitalism, Western representations and discourses about the colonized or the ex-colonized and so forth. The implications of the different understandings of postcolonialism –or post-colonialism- have created much controversies and fruitful discussions. However, all the different understandings of postcolonialism imply the recognition of a non-Western world, most often 3
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accompanied by reclamations of the rights of non-Western people. Among the historical manifestations of postcolonialism we could mention the Commonwealth literature and its attempt to give visibility to the work of writers from British excolonies, the writings and political activism of Frantz Fanon in support of the liberation of Algeria, the non-violent resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi in India, and the theoretical work of intellectuals like Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In this discussion, I will often exchange the terms ‘postcolonial agenda’, ‘postcolonial project’ and ‘postcolonialism’, in order to refer to the anti-colonialist postcolonial agenda: decolonizing the world, including the minds of the colonizer and the colonized.
I will shortly introduce some aspects of postmodernism, using as a main reference the writings of the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (19241988). Lyotard is considered to be one of the most influential characters in the articulation and development of the notion of postmodernism as a reactionary position towards the stable and universal narratives inherited from the age of the Enlightenment. Lyotard is also known for his analysis of how the characteristics of post-industrial, late capitalistic Western societies affect the human condition in the new era of postmodernity.
A promoter of postmodernism himself, Lyotard claimed that the totalizing, ‘grand narratives’ prevailing in the modern age were inadequate to represent the postmodern times, which were characterized by an increasing awareness and proliferation of difference, diversity, mobility and the ‘incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires’i. This way of thinking implies a strong scepticism towards the objectivity and absolute knowability of science, the notion of progress and the possibility of freedom. For Lyotard, postmodernity is characterized by an abundance of micro-narratives, a multiplication, reproduction and dynamic circulation of meanings. The study of the way in which meanings are produced, within such a postmodern dynamic, has given rise to a whole philosophical body of work which is known as Deconstructionism.
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The term ‘deconstruction’ was first coined by French philosopher Jacques
Derrida in the 1960s, and it consists of a postmodern way of reading a ‘text’ and understanding the processes by which human beings produce meanings. In deconstruction, a text corresponds to anything which is embedded with meaning, and eventually to everything which is perceived by human beings.
deconstructive reading is a meticulously logical scrutiny of a text, which attempts to bring to light the paradoxes and contradictions underlying its deeper structures, as well as the paradoxes and contradictions underlying the very concept of logicality.
In the vein of postmodernism, deconstructionism sees paradoxes not only as unavoidable but also as valid and even desirable ingredients of life. In this way, deconstructionism aims to question and invert predominant moral and philosophical values. All statements are considered to be provisional, as well as they are considered to be important and necessary for the continuous processes of disruption. Binary and oppositions such as are ‘good/bad’, challenged. ‘culture/nature’, The constant ‘form/content’ ‘reality/representation’
reinterpretation and reformulation of existing statements, encourages the multiplication of meanings in a process known among deconstructionists as ‘dissemination’. According to Derrida’s translator Gayatri Chockavorky, ‘dissemination’ refers to: ‘The seed that neither inseminates nor is recovered by the father, but is scattered abroad’ (Derrida, 1976). ii For deconstructionists, interpretations generate more interpretations, or as Derrida put it: ‘writing always leads to more writing, and more, and still more´.iii In this way, deconstructionism rejects the idea of origin and therefore of the notions of ‘originality’ and ‘authorship’.
3. CONFRONTING POSTMODERNISM AND POSTCOLONIALISM
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3.1. Postmodern Ethics
An important aspect of Lyotard’s reflections is his comments about the postmodern ethics. Given that postmodernism rejects universal truths and therefore universal ethics, the notions of justice and injustice find themselves in a problematic terrain. However, in his book The Differend: Phrases in Dispute
Lyotard argues that the new definition of injustice is to use the rules from one context and apply them to another. Ethical behaviour is about remaining alert precisely to this threat, thereby paying attention to things in their particularity and not enclosing them within abstract conceptuality. At a theoretical level, this postmodern notion of justice might be convenient to the postcolonial agenda, in the way that it presupposes total respect for the particular beliefs of non-Western cultures. According to this notion of ethics, typical Western concepts like development, poverty and civilization should not, by any means, be applied or imposed to non-Western communities; not even in their deconstructed forms. Indeed, most Western intellectuals and politicians fail to follow this ethical prescription but at least in theory, the postmodern ethics seems to come to terms with claims made by organizations of non-Western people who fight for their rights. Observe, for example, the point made here by Amazonian indigenous leader Carlos Viteri Gualinga :
In the cosmic-vision of indigenous societies, the understanding of the sense which life has and should have does not include the concept of development...This means that we do not have the conception of a linear life process which establishes a state before or after knowledge, of under-development and development; dichotomy through which people must transit, in order to obtain the wellbeing, as it occurs in the Western world. Nor do we have the concepts of wealth and poverty as determined by the accumulation or scarcity of material goods. v (My Trans.)
As many other indigenous leaders and organizations, Viteri defends indigenous auto-determinacy and freedom to act according to their own ways of understanding the world. A postmodern ethical position might well help to counteract the tendency of Western people and institutions ‘concerned’ about the ‘Third World’ to measure the problems and solutions of non-Western 6
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communities in Western terms. Postmodern ethics implies, for example, to respect the fact that some societies might not believe in democracy, in the equality of genders, in science, in the superiority of human beings over other creatures and so forth. We, Westerners, are warned of the tendency to try to judge cultural and political values of other cultures from our Western perspective. Postmodernism teaches us that, in order to decolonize the minds of the colonizer and the colonized, postcolonial thinkers need to shout down their own voice and listen to the stories as told and experienced from the other side. It teaches us to humbly recognize that, no matter how good their intentions might be, Western intellectuals alone will never know better what is best for the ‘colonized people’ than ‘the colonized’ people know themselves.
recommendation, Westerner intellectuals need: ‘... to undertake the careful project of un-learning our privilege as our loss.’
In my opinion, having come up with a Western deconstructive way of understanding this issue is a postmodern contribution to the postcolonial aim of fighting against imperialism and its cultural domination. In the last section of this essay, The two sides of the coin, I will present a concrete example in which postmodernistic deconstructive analytical tools can be useful in order to overturn policies and reclaim the rights of native people in ex-colonial nations. For now, let us continue to discuss the ‘problem’ visualized by indigenous leader Viteri Gualinga; this is, placing the development of Western capitalism at the centre of dialogues and encounters between Western and non-Western societies. The issue has been identified by other intellectuals who, having themselves a postcolonial agenda, write critically on postcolonial theories. Many of these intellectuals are related to one of the most dynamic movements within postcolonialism, this is, The Subaltern Studies.
3.2. The Subaltern Studies
At the end of the 1970’s, a group of intellectuals gathered in order to discuss a common concern; namely, “a general dissatisfaction with historical interpretations of the ‘Freedom Movement’ in India, which celebrated elite contributions in the making of the Indian Nation while denying the ‘politics of the
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people’”.vii One of the Subaltern Group’s central arguments is expressed by Gyan Prakash as follows:
We cannot thematize Indian history in terms of the development of capitalism and simultaneously contest capitalism’s homogenization of the contemporary world. Critical history cannot simply document the process by which capitalism becomes dominant, for that amounts to repeating the history we seek to displaceviii.
Similarly, Aijaz Ahmad alleges that post-colonialism is unacceptable ‘…because it apparently privileges colonialism as the structuring principle of other peoples histories ’ix.Hence, these thinkers recognize the problem of the Eurocentric vision of History, at the same time as they recognize the frustrating difficulty of overcoming this problem. Their criticisms touch upon the central agenda of postcolonial theories, questioning a resistance to colonialism which proceeds to put the colonial project at the centre of discussion. Thus, in an arguably postmodern move, the Subaltern intellectuals look for the absent voices in the History of Asian countries written by Western historiographers. Virtually, these absent voices are the voices of the subaltern or the oppressed; and they represent the invisible movements of resistance carried about by people who are neglected in the privileged national narratives. In looking for these absences and for the incoherency of the logical linearity of national Histories, the Subalterns make a reading in a deconstructive manner. They look for contending, ephemeral, parallel, perpendicular and de-centered micro-narratives lying under the uniform surface of the official meta-narratives of national liberation. They challenge the traditional line which goes from complete colonial domination, trough a progressive struggle led by nationalistic elites and to a final achievement of independence. This way of re-reading and re-writing history questions the notion of complete colonial hegemony and, eventually, the notion of complete independence from ex-colonizing powers. The connection between the Subaltern Group and the Post-structural readings has been discussed extensively, as well as it has been questioned. As Gayatri Spivak and other post-structuralist intellectuals have remarked, the Subaltern Group’s urge for agency and political intervention has led its intellectuals to create a ‘theoretically fictitious’ voice, which is to talk for an equally fictitious identity; namely, a Subaltern identity with a unified consciousness. Hence, the 8
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Subaltern Group deconstructs and de-centers the meta-narrative of History, only to create new narratives which fall into what the postmodernists and poststructuralist see as the biggest sin: essentialism. I would claim that, regardless of whether the Subaltern Group might have supported their methods on poststructuralist ideas or not, the fact that intellectuals have brought up connections and disconnections between the Subaltern Group and Pos-structuralism makes post-structuralist reading a possible strategy for contemporary and future postcolonial theorists and activists.
3.3 The postmodern commodity of knowledge
In ‘The Post-modern Condition, A Report on Knowledge’, Lyotard claims that ‘Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange’.
Thus, knowledge becomes a commodity which circulates within the dynamic
global market of contemporary capitalistic societies. Needless to say, this vision of knowledge belongs to the most internal structures of capitalism, and imposing them on non-Western societies is but a violent imposition of ideology.
Let us go back to the example of the Amazonian indigenous people for whom knowledge is valid as far as it serves the preservation of cosmic harmony. A balance which involves the equal importance of all creatures on earth, rather than a balance of wealth distribution negotiated among human beings. If the condition of knowledge prescribed by Lyotard applies only to the post-industrial Western world, then the global market should be careful not to commodify knowledge belonging to societies lying outside the Western, post-industrial understanding of the world. Whilst the postmodern ethics defined by Lyotard might open up the mind for a real respect for difference, the postmodern understanding of knowledge, also prescribed by Lyotard, might retreat such an achievement thereby consciously or unconsciously imposing the laws of global market on communities which are ‘different’ from the Western world. As it looks like today, the global market does impose and expands itself over an increasing 9
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number of societies, and it often does so in the name and celebration of postmodernism.
I would like to argue that Lyotard’s explanation of the ‘postmodern condition of knowledge’ can be extended to explain a ‘postmodern condition of feelings’. Somehow, we could argue that knowledge and feelings have been treated in similar ways by the imperialistic forces of global capitalism. As Marta Savigliano put it:
(The) imperialist circulation of feelings gave rise to an emotional capital –Passionaccumulated, recoded and consumed in the form of Exotic Culture: “mysterious”, “untamed”, “wild”, “primitive”, “passionate”. The emotional/expressive practices of the colonized have been isolated, categorized, and transformed into curious “cultural” patterns of behavioursxi
In the next section I will discuss the global market of feelings in relation to Western ways of understanding of Art.
3.4. From the Sublime to the Exotic
In this section I would like to argue that the Westerner’s desire for The Sublime is connected to the capitalistic commodification of the suffering of The Other in the form of The Exotic. Let me start by presenting the notion of The Sublime. The origins of the concept have sometimes been traced back to the times of ancient Greece. However, the development of The Sublime as an aesthetic quality was developed significantly during the 18th century in the writings of, among others, John Dennis, Edmund Burk and Immanuel Kant; as well as in the Romantic Art which called for strong emotions, including love and jubilance as well as horror and suffering. At the centre of The Sublime lies the feeling of perceiving something greater that the self, as well as an ambiguous feeling of pleasure and anxiety which borders the feeling of pain. The Sublime is also a powerful concept within the Christian context, where suffering has a purpose in the divine plan.
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Suffering attains its meaning through its connection with the divine, and through this connection suffering comes to appear sublime. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant explains The Sublime as an experience of pleasurable anxiety which transcends our practical preoccupations and our rational understanding of a certain object. In this way, The Sublime is an aesthetic experience, where an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it as a whole. It is a feeling of danger, alas a danger which is not real in the sense that it will not harm us; a danger whose irresistible power threatens us up to the limits of pleasure but not beyond; a desirable anxiety. The glorification of suffering -or the sublime suffering- can be found in more complex or more simplistic versions in Greek Tragedy, Christian literature, Elizabethan drama, Romantic ballet and the modern film productions of Hollywood, among others. Lyotard himself uses Kant’s explanation of The Sublime in order to discuss the relevance of avant-garde art, in the sense that:
‘...Postmodern avant-garde art never entirely loses its ability to disturb...this power of disturbance is related to the feeling of the sublime. Postmodern art attempts to present the unpresentable. This is a paradoxical task, and arouses in the viewer the mixture of pleasure and pain that is the sublime’. xii
Hence, The Sublime teaches us that the mind cannot always organize the world rationally, and in avant-garde art, this is visualized in the ‘figures’ that challenge mimetic representation and create ‘new feelings and desires’xiii. Avant-garde art transgresses norms, clichés and conventions in an ethical and revolutionary act. It fights the tyranny or reason inherited from the Enlightenment and, in this way, avant-garde art joins the philosophical vision of postmodernism, which accepts and embrace the impossibility of ‘knowing’ and ‘being’ in the essentialist sense of the words. Avant-garde art makes as enjoy and suffer - in a perfectly sublime manner- the impossibility of attaining the absolute truth, the total image of reality. It makes us desire the ‘unknowable’ by opening a door to it, only to make us feel our own incapability to reach it. Being it an experience aroused by classical Art, Romantic Art, avant-garde Art, Christian faith or nature; the notion of The Sublime involves a desire for something that is impossible – like total understanding or total comprehension-. In the Sublime, the desire arouses
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pleasure whilst the impossibility arouses pain, but also more desire and, therefore, more pleasure. Let us now speak about desire. In an attempt to interpret Jacques Lacan’s writings, we could say that ‘desire’ is possible when the others agree in its legitimacy. In more Lacanian terms, ‘desire is the desire of the Other’. In general terms, desire is related to something that is absent, that is not part of us. In psychoanalysis, the child desires to fulfil his/her mother’s desire. He/she desires to become the absent phallus in the mother’s body. There is desire because there is an absence, one which we imagine to be the absence in the ‘Other’. In the context of our discussion, it could be argued that the First World desires the Third World. This desire is based on the absences of both, the First World and the ‘Third World’; not matter how fictitious, invented or imposed these absences might be. Thus, on the one hand, the First World desires the violence, poverty, chaos, etc; all of which is arguably absent in the First World and present in the Third World. On the other hand, The First World desires to fulfil –alas only partially, so that the desire can remain-the supposed desires of the ‘Third World’; namely, the desire for civilization, order, wealth, education, health, etc. At this point, it is necessary to make some remarks. I am aware that the argument of the ‘desire for the sublime’ can indeed work in different directions. Not only the First World desires the Third World, but also the Third World desires the First World. Who attributes ‘education’ to the First World and ‘violence’ to the Third World should be a relevant question to ask. Another important clarification is that I am not denying that the First World might also desire –perhaps in a less strictly Lacanian way- more ‘positive’ aspects of the Third World such as spontaneity, good weather, good food, warm people, and so on. However, for the time being, I am more interested in the desired ‘negative’ aspects, because this is the point where The Sublime is possible. Lastly, I would like to clarify that I am not trying to argue whether the discussed notions of The Sublime and Desire are essential characteristics of all human beings, or purely Western attitudes which have been historically and laboriously constructed in Western societies. In any of these cases, my argument is that the Desire for The Sublime is a strong drive, which has influenced and continues to influence the ways in which Western societies perceive and relate to the Third World. Even when a great deal of Westerners might only look for comfortable pleasures, I would like to suggest 12
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that the desire for a kind of pleasure enhanced by pain contributes to normalize subtle neo-colonial attitudes. Connecting the notions of The Sublime and Desire, we could suggest that Western culture has promoted a desire for pain or suffering out of two reasons: First because ‘suffering is sublime’ –when experienced within the frame of the divine or the aesthetic experience-. Second, because suffering is arguably scarce in the First World as compared to the ‘real’ suffering of the Third World. Finally, I will discuss the capitalistic and postmodern reactions to this desire, expressed in the subsequent invention of The Exotic. I would like to connect the pleasure-pain ambiguity of The Sublime to the similarly ambiguous nature of The Exotic, understanding the latter as a commodity which provides pleasurable certainty as well as disquieting mystery. The creation of The Exotic is an attempt to predict The Other thereby framing it conveniently, but The Exotic is also made so that The Other is never completely exhausted to the point that it stops being interesting. This notion of The Exotic is closely related to Homi Bhabha’s notion of The Stereotype, which he explains as ‘A complex ambivalent, contradictory mode of representation, as anxious as it is assertive’xiv Hence, in tune with my initial intention of developing a discussion which supports the anti-colonial agenda of postcolonialism, I will make a move that starts to reveal itself as being a necessary pattern: Once we have benefited from the services provided by the postmodern-like strategies of visualizing ambiguities –in The Sublime, in the Stereotype, in the Exotic, and so forth-; it is time to brake the postmodern limitations of judgement and dare to point out injustices that can encourage political intervention. Let us check what Marta Savigliano, in her postcolonial analysis of Argentinian tango, has to say:
“I depict ‘Postmodernism’ as a culture of Desire: A Desire obsessed with passion...Exotic others laboriously cultivate passionate-ness in order to be desired, consumed, and thus recognized in the world increasingly ruled by postmodern standards...Postmodernism asks us to dance, intensely, a fantastic choreography rendered in the genre of horrorfiction. I read challenge in the postmodern attitude: as passionless invitation to perform Otherness passionately...The ‘true’ postmodernist is a strategist; her or his passion is to feel above, below, beyond or before the miseries of the world...fueled by the passion of passionelessness: the sacrifice of imported passion.”xv
In her discussion about tango, Savigliano makes different connections between the discourses of postmodernism and the ways in which these discourses are materialized in the dynamics of global capitalism, where the creation of The 13
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Exotic constitutes a thorny issue. As mentioned before, the suffering in The Sublime does not have practical consequences. In order to enjoy suffering without assuming its ‘real’ and practical consequences, the suffering has to be projected on The Other. It needs to be placed outside the self. In terms of capitalism, this might mean that the desired ‘suffering’ is better consumed in the form of products than in the form of personal experience. This is succinctly expressed by Savigliano when she states that: ‘While las Otras face the precariousness of passion, postmoderns playfully thiken every wound”.
Using Savigliano’s inspiring connections between The Exotic and the economical and philosophical dimensions of postmodernism, I aim to suggest that postmodernism –despite its reactionary attitudes towards some central aspects of past ages and ‘isms’ – is permeated by a historical Desire for The Sublime. What this might imply for the postcolonial agenda, is that the ‘enemies’ that need to be identified and fought against, might be hidden not only in the dynamics of global markets, the political domination, the military invasions and the racists attitudes, just to name a few instances; but also in the roots, development and several branches of Western philosophy, Christianity and theories of Art. The problem I see here, which has certainly been extensively discussed by postcolonial theorists, is that the leaders of this postcolonial fight are unavoidably part of Western history, even when their position is relatively marginal. As Savigliano herself recognizes, she has no other tools than those given to her during her Western education, and the best she can do is to ‘Appropiate post-modern strategies (poststructuralist, deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-feminist and post-colonial writings) in order to trick back rather that to unmask postmodernism’.xvii The lesson that Savaglioni gives us seems to me very important. This is, to take a critical stance towards postmodernism –or any other cultural manifestation of the West-, at the same time as recognizing the usefulness of the analytical tools provided by it. The issue of the Westernized Third World and the particular case of the ‘native intellectual’ have also been discussed before. Frantz Fanon has an illuminating description of the process which, in his opinion, the ‘native intellectual’ goes through. This process is a journey driven by his/her ambiguous position of not quite being the colonized or the colonizer. In my opinion, this ambiguity is not an exclusive experience of the native intellectual, although
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she/he might become more aware of it than other people. Nor is it only a matter of intellectual preferences or economical systems. This ambiguity goes all the way to the most sensitive and subtle layers of the aesthetic and spiritual experiences of even those who are non-artists and non-religious people. This ambiguity is embedded in the notions of the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad; and no matter how much the postmodern voice of the West recommends us to break this dichotomies, the matter of tastes and beliefs are embedded deep inside the cultural heritage of colonizers and –in most of the cases- the colonized. This is manifested in the way in which African museums make exhibitions of their own sacred African masks, and in the way in which Muslim monks perform their Dervish dances at Western theatres. It is implicit in the way in which Westerners price the beauty of Noemi Campbell because, being black, she still fulfils the Western standards of body proportions and features, or in the way in which Avant-garde artists found in African music –meaning by this a careless generalization of a great diversity of music- a fantastic source which could be appropriated and converted into the stylized forms of minimalistic music. I do not mean to invent an ‘evil’ here, but rather to find an arena for postcolonial enquiry. In order to closure this section, I will try to give examples which synthesise and visualize the use of the ideas discussed above. I come from the Andes region of Colombia. A region with a predominance of mestizo people; this is, a blending of native indigenous and European –mainly Spanish and German- people. I have been surrounded by Andean folk music and dance since I was very young and they form part of my memories of childhood. However, it is not that music and those dances what I tend to recur to, when trying to re-create my home abroad. Instead, I recur to the Afro-Colombian music coming from regions which are miles away from the region I come from. I had a ‘sublime’ revelation when I was fifteen. I got to know better the folk music and dances from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Colombia. Thirteen years later, I continue to be fascinated by these music and dances, and two years ago I decided to make a solo about African influence in Colombia, departing from one of my favourite folkloric forms of the Atlantic Colombian coast: The Cumbia. The danger- from a postcolonial perspective- is double: First, I might exoticise the Afro-Colombian people who I see as being different from me when I am in Colombia. By exoticising I mean making their dances a little bit too ‘pretty’ and reinforcing the clichés of 15
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‘animality’, ‘organicity’, ‘mysticism’, etc. Second, I can easily exoticise myself when being The Other in Sweden. I see that the more Afro-Colombian –alas an exoticized Afro-Colombian- I look in the piece, the better appraisal I get from the audience. I have thought of revealing myself against this by not doing the Cumbia anymore, but this is difficult because I am not only the colonized here, but also the colonizer. I am not only been romanticised by the Swedish audience, but I myself, and with true respect, romanticise -not to say exoticise- AfroColombian people. Why? There is something that catches my spirit, including my aesthetic being. This is the encounter of pain and celebration in the history of slavery embodied in the Cumbia. An explosive joyfulness shadowed by a kind of sadness that has been contained and hardened during a long history of segregation. The experience of dancing and watching the Cumbia- in its less commercial forms though- is for me an experience of The Sublime, in the way described above. I find this sadness all the most beautiful, most probably out of my Western education. Parallelly, I am doing a piece about Catholic religion, where I am also in the ambiguous position of the insider/outsider. Intellectually, I gave up my Catholic faith more than ten years ago, but I come from a Catholic culture where the people I love the most believe in God and go to church. No matter how much I criticize Catholicism, I still feel a profound respect for it. But most importantly, I feel a strong aesthetic appeal for it, and this is an appeal that touches the borders of the spiritual. Once again, I recognize my ‘desire for the sublime’ here. I make a piece which portrays the sublime duality present in the Christian experience: the pleasure of suffering and, in this case, the extreme beauty of suffering, the sweet surrender. I feel I am the colonizer when I use the image of the ‘real suffering’ of Christian martyrs; of Jesus to name the most obvious example. I appropriate his image in order to make Art, because in my Western education, Art is the way of suffering without suffering. It is my way of suffering in a ‘sublime’ way, without facing the sacrifices required by the divine plan. By telling all this, my intention is to make a call to the postcolonial agenda: Can the heritage of The Sublime and its pervasiveness in the Western history of Art provide one more Achilles tendon of neo-colonialism? My own solution, following Savigliano, is the following: First, I will accept – whilst wondering if I actually have a choice-my Western way of approaching Art, thereby keeping the dance pieces the way they are –even though I do have tried hard to clean them from my 16
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colonial attitudes-. Second, I will use my –notice that I say ‘my’- Western analytical tools, in order to increase my awareness of these attitudes and hopefully transform them in agreement to the postcolonial agenda of decolonizing the mind. Since I am concerned about making the audience participant of all this thinking, I will include in my performances a forum based on a postcolonial criticism of my own works.
3.5. Identity: a right, a strategy an impossible?
The issue of identity is as inescapable as it is controversial when discussing postcolonialism. Apart from violating the lands of the colonized, the colonizers violated their identity: their language, their religions, their economical systems, their conception of time, nature, etc. Thanks to a multiplicity of political resistance and national liberation movements, lands and political auto-determination has been returned to the ‘natives’, even when most of the times this return has only benefited neo-colonial native elites. Indeed, the processes of independization of the ex-colonial nations have been strongly criticized by postcolonial theorists. Some of the arguments are that the concept of nation itself is a Western concept, and that once the new ‘free’ nations are created, the people who had been most disadvantaged during the colonial times continue to be disadvantaged and exploited in the new democratic systems. However, no matter how imperialistically it might have been done, returning the lands has been possible. However, what about returning identities? Is postcolonial identity possible? Is it necessary? Is it a basic right to dignity?
In some cases, identity has played a very important role as a strategy to fight ideological and political colonial ‘enemies’, such as colonization or racism. This is the case of the ‘Negritude’ movement in French colonies during the 1930’s, the movement ‘Black is Beautiful’ in the U.S. during the 1960’s and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa during the same decade, just to name a few. These movements recurred to the shared heritage of the Black people and strived to turn the negative implications attributed to being black into positive characteristics to be proud of. The achievements of these movements should not be underestimated, in terms of their capacity to transform and challenge racist 17
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attitudes towards black people, black people’s feelings of inferiority and invisibility of black culture in the imperial power systems. However, a deconstructive revision of notions like ‘identity’, ‘homogeneity’ and ‘origin’ can give new lights to the postcolonial project.
The arguably essentialist inclinations of the movements mentioned above are visibly at odds with the postmodern understanding of identity as being fragmented, contradictory and inter-textual –always referring to other texts or, in this case, other identities-. Influenced by the early writings of Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha has referred to postcolonial discourses and identities as being characterized by ‘ambivalence’. Deconstructing the colonized/colonizer opposition, Bhabha claims that colonized and colonizer coexist in postcolonial identities. Recurring to the psychoanalytical notion of ‘ambivalence’, Bhabha suggests that: ‘The object of colonial discourse is marked by ambivalence because it is derided and also desired, like the colonial fantasy of being in two places at once, to be colonizer and colonized.’xviii What is illuminating about Bhabha’s deconstruction of the notion of ‘postcolonial identity’ is that it unveils the colonized’s identification with and desire for his/her oppressor as well as the colonizer’s attraction for the oppressed.
I suggest that a significant lesson from Bhabha’s deconstructive reading is, as usual, a warning: that a postcolonial movement of resistance needs to recognize and accept that fighting against the colonizer is to fight as well –although not only- towards the colonized’s own desires. It is a conscious decision of oppressing the own desires for a cause of justice and dignity. And if the colonized people are not ready to give up part or their own desires, a radical and thoroughly transformative resistance will not be possible. This consciousness can also reveal possible explanations of why the colonized people sometimes refuse to rebel against their oppressors and it also reveals where the rebellion against colonialism might need to start taking place.
So, what in terms of political intervention? It might be interesting to have a look at different strategies used when radical transformations have actually taken 18
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place. I will present two examples. As a complement to his psychoanalytical explanation of how colonialism and racism alienate black men consciousness and prevent them from seeing their own subjection to hegemonic white norm, Frantz Fanon supported the use of physical resistance and he also worked openly for the Algerian National Army of Liberation. Even though he had a post-structuralist way of recognizing complexities and contradictions in the notions of identity and nation, Fanon defended the political importance of national and black consciousness. Another example is the strategy of Mahatma Ghandi. Being an unquestionable believer of ‘the truth’ and therefore a contrasting character to the postmodern thinkers, Ghandi could see the contradictions existing in the depths of human beings. He questioned the Indian people for allowing the British to exploit them. He sensed the colonized’s partial complicity with the colonizer. His strategy however was a non-deconstructive strategy, a spiritual project, a search for the truth. We could say that in this way Ghandi managed to mobilize masses of people who, believing in truth, were able to recognise and give up their own desires for the colonized. As it is known, Ghandi’s non-violent nocooperation strategies played a central role in the Indian Independence Movement.
deconstructive readings of identity – or the postmodern challenge and even rejection of this notion-, it would be good to ask ourselves: Where does the postcolonial urge for identity come from, including the notions of homogeneity and origin? I suggest a quote as an answer. In their Introduction to Postcolonialism, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams explain that:
Since the West has a deplorable record of simultaneously denying the existence of any worthwhile history in areas it colonized (Africa is the most obvious example) and destroying the cultures which embodied that history, an important dimension of postcolonial work has been the recovery or revaluing of indigenous histories.xix
Lands have been returned but not identities. No matter how fictitious the notion of ‘identity’ might be, the West has had the right to it for hundreds of years. ‘Identity’ has provided the First World with pride, confidence and certainty; and even in the cases in which it might have provoked rejection and guilt – like in the case of new German generations-, identity has not been denied to the First World. No wonder why the issue of ‘identity’ is an anguishing issue for the 19
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postcolonial, especially when the postcolonial starts the project of decolonizing the mind. My opinion is that a History that has tried its best to abolish the cultures of the Third World does wrong in pretending to provide a postmodern theoretical cure – deconstructionism - to a historical wound: the Third World’ violated right to identity.
However, it should be mentioned that deconstructive readings of the notion of postcolonial identity have led to the development of concepts which might be useful for the postcolonial project. Let us have a look at Bhabha’s notion of ‘hybridisation’:
If the effect of colonial power is seen to be the production of hybridisation rather than the noisy command of colonialist authority or the silent repression of native traditions, then an important change of perspective occurs...enabl[ing] a form of subversion, founded on the undecidability that turns the discursive conditions of dominance into the grounds of intervention.xx
The concept seems to me very to be useful in the sense that it challenges the notion of total domination and gives recognition to the cultural resistance exerted from the part of the colonized; a concern which reminds us of the Subaltern Studies discussed above. However, I would like to suggest that hybrid cultural forms become ‘grounds of intervention’ only as far as the colonized sees the confrontation embedded in such forms. He or she needs to be aware that these hybrid forms are the collapse and re-creation of what was sometime two, three or hundreds of cultural manifestations. He or she needs to see where and how the colonial relationships are not one-sided. For this, I believe, it is necessary for the colonized to have a look at some origins –fictitious or not- and identify some truths which are different from the truths imposed by the colonial powers. An attempt of this kind has been done by the researcher Evon Z. Vogt, who made an investigation about the interactions between the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous people from the areas maya-tzozil and maya-tzeltal of the Altos de Chiapas in Mexico. Vogt claims that the symbol of the cross existed in the sacred iconography of the Mayas and that it was a representation of the ‘Tree of the World’. Vogt explains that:
Sara Regina Fonseca Many specialists have interpreted that this pre-Columbian form of the cross settled the cultural context appropriated for the quick adoption and subsequent re-interpretation of the Christian church by the Mayas...In the case of the Yaquis, the pre-Columbian evidence is more conceptual than iconographic. We must remember how their contemporary cross is related to “Nuestra Madre” (Our Mother), a supernatural mother of all the Yaquis. ..In a Yaqui myth, “Nuestra Madre” is transformed into a tree, which in turn transformed itself into a cross on which Jesus was crucified, so that in his last agony, he was embraced by her arms” (My trans.) xxi
The concept of hybridity allows for an understanding of postcolonial identity which recognizes the impossibility of returning to racial and cultural purity at the same time as it emphasises the agency of the oppressed cultures in the creation of intersubjective identities. If the empire manages to dominate geographically or economically, it does not manage to dominate, in an absolute way, the meanings produced by the living culture of the colonized. The colonial discourses are reinterpreted and re-created by the colonized, and when this process is purposeful and conscious, the re-interpretation can become a practice of resistance. Hybridization, as well as syncretism, cultural integration and the free flow of cultural forms in the dynamics of globalization involve a negotiation of meanings, and in many cases of meanings that are fundamental for different individuals, tribes, societies, etc. I have already exposed some reflections about the problems – for the success of the postcolonial project- involved in the creation of The Exotic. I will extend this reflection here and concentrate on the issue of ‘meaning’ in the postmodern world.
Lyotard explains us that postmodernism is a ‘condition’ determined by the dynamics of late capitalism: globalization, cybernetics, European Union, etc; a condition which is inescapable and, at least in Lyotard’s view, a condition that is positive. Thus, cultural identities are ‘disseminated’, irreversibly scattered. They are broken into pieces and thrown into the immensity of the globe, where anyone picks what they like or need, creating new fragmentary and temporary identities that are to join the endless free flow of postmodernity. Personally, as I expressed at the beginning of this essay, I believe that there is something that is not so free and that is rather violent in this treatment of identities and of the meanings connected to them. If the empire once tried to impose their meanings to the colonized societies, it does a similar injustice today, by adopting the meaningful
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forms available in the world and inserting them into a postmodern game of meanings that tends to lead towards meaningless.
Let me present an example. This is a dance piece performed in the closure event of a dance school. The character of the school is amateur, private and commercial. The dance piece starts with young girls and boys dancing a funk-like dance in tight tops and military trousers. In the middle of the dance, a man performs a butoh-like solo, dressed in the same way as the surrounding funky choir. After the solo everyone continues to dance the funk-like dance, finishing with a hip-hop like pose. All this happens in a matter of more or less six minutes. The absurdity of this mixture is not difficult to see. However, I believe that the problem is not the absurdity itself, but rather the unconscious exploitation of meanings for the sake of entertainment. Let us check what meanings are involved here. In its arguably original Afro-American context, the ‘funk’ music and dance carry –or embody- qualities like ‘sexy’, ‘loose’, and ‘fun’. Disregarding its appropriation by the fashion industry, the camouflage green patterns refer to armies and war. Butoh dance, in the radical approach of its founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, is a physical research into the taboos of civilization: sexuality, deformity, decadence, defecation, etc. So what is this postmodern cocktail? In this particular example, I dare to say that more than a challenging confrontation of meanings, the result is a parody which empties the meanings involved, alas not all of them in the same way. I would read our example like this ‘war is sexy, deformity is fun’, rather than ‘sexy is war and fun is deformity’; or I would read it as ‘this does not really mean war, or deformity or sexy, or anything. This is just a game of fractured surfaces’.
Even though this example can in no way speak for all the postmodern interaction of meanings and interpretations, I do believe that this example can speak for many examples and the way in which the young Western perceives the meaningful –or meaningless? - globalized world. Is this postmodern dynamic of representations an unavoidable and desirable condition? I suggest an answer: Maybe not for all of us in the planet. Maybe some of us want to believe in something that is meaningful, transcendental, true, untouchable or sacred. Maybe some of us want to represent deep meanings without parodying them or 22
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reducing them to self-reflective forms. Maybe some of us want to ‘be ourselves’ instead of being ‘others’ all the time. Maybe some of us want to live in the theoretical fallacy of identity, essences and origins. Will the postmodern ethics of respect for the particularities apply to this right, even when this might mean to restrict the limitless desire and curiosity of the contemporary Western soul? More than a question, this is a call for postcolonial agency. My point here is that the postcolonial project would benefit from emphasising in its agenda the respect for identity and its related meanings.
3.6. The two sides of the coin
I will conclude this essay by bringing about an example in which we can see two sides of postmodernity in relation to the postcolonial agenda. The Aboriginal Law Bulletin published an article by Stephen Gray, where he discusses issues related to Aboriginal Art within the context of the Mabo casexxii:
The interest of the non-Aboriginal Australian public in Aboriginal art is matched only by its ignorance. Most people are unable to tell the difference between ‘traditional’ and ‘nontraditional’ art, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, or genuine and fake art. Consequently they rely for advice upon a small legion of (mostly non-Aboriginal) galleries, dealers, brokers and rogues. This has led in turn to the exploitation of Aboriginal artists, to the marketing of traditional (if occasionally altered) designs in non-traditional or inappropriate contexts, and to outright forgeries. Australian law has not yet produced an unequivocal statement to the effect that the interests of such artists are protected.xxiii
Here, Gray describes what he considers to be a case of exploitation committed by the marketing of Aboriginal art. A marketing which can be said to be in tune with the postmodern condition in which ‘multicultural’ knowledge and feelings are commodified and sold in the expanding terrains of a globalizing world. This kind of exploitation has been discussed in the sections above and it is directly related to the capitalistic system of contemporary Western societies. I suggest that this is one side of postmodernism. Another side of postmodernism could be said to exist within the philosophical field. This side is also –and more significantlybrought about by Gray, when he suggests that the analytical tools provided by postmodernist-deconstruction might help to extend the legal protection of the land to a legal protection of Art. His argument is that in the Yolngu community –a group of aboriginals- art and land are inseparable, and that such an apparent contradiction can be understood and respected by a non-Aboriginal judge by using a deconstructive way of thinking. Gray explains that: 23
Sara Regina Fonseca The proposition that Aboriginal art and land are fundamentally (and in 'reality) different is one manifestation of the privileging of the present over the absent, a privileging which Derrida argues is fundamental to Western philosophy…It is immediately apparent to our senses that art and land are physically separated. What other connections there may be between art and land (eg., spiritual or other intangible links) are downplayed or considered of peripheral importance.xxiv
A deconstructive analysis, says Gray, shows that the Western oppositional relationship between land and art is only one among many ways of understanding the land-art relationship. He adds that a deconstructive reading also allows for an interpretation of art and land as being two sides of the same coin, and that the side of the coin one sees depends on how one chooses to looks at the coin. Using the same metaphor of the coin, I will proceed to present the conclusion of this essay.
From the second half of the 20th century, the anti-imperialist agenda of postcolonialism has been in continuous interaction with the material and philosophical manifestations of postmodernism. The postmodern condition, as described by Jean Francois Lyotard, debilitates the modern meta-narratives and, by doing this, it also re-considers totalizing notions such as truth, identity, nation, origins and History. The consequences of this for the success of the postcolonial project are double- sided. One the one hand, postmodern ways of thinking might increase the respect for difference as well as it might challenge the authority of Western morals and beliefs. On the other hand, in the global capitalistic system of Westernized societies, this respect for difference seems to tend to become an insatiable hunger for multiculturality; where the meaningful cultures of ‘the others’ are cut into pieces, deprived of their transcendental truths, commodified and sold to the world in the form of the Exotic. It seems to me that the relationship between postmodernism and the anti-colonial project of postcolonialism is one determined by the double-sided (if not multiple-sided) coin of the former. The capitalistic markets and the readings of deconstruction can be said to belong to the same coin, to the same postmodern condition described by Lyotard. However, the philosophical and material manifestations of this coin, its two sides, seem to have different implications for the postcolonial project. A critical discussion which confronts postmodernism and postcolonialism might 24
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help revealing which aspects of contemporary Western societies should be resisted and which ones should be used in order to favour the project of decolonizing the world.
Wikipedia, keyword: ’Lyotard’ Irena R. Makaryk (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Approaches,
Scholars, Terms, Canada: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 1993, p.514
Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction. Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1983, p.90
Jean- Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Minessota: University of
Minessota Press, 1988, p.p.126-128
http://colombia.indymedia.org/news/2004/06/14295.php Gayatri Spivak quoted in Peter Childs and Patrik Williams An introduction to Post-Colonial
Theory. Prentice Hall, Lodon: 1997, p.23.
Chatuverdi Vinayak, Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial, New Left Review and
Verso. London 2000, p.p vii-viii
Gayan Prakash quoted in Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, An Introduction to Post-
Colonial Theory, London: Prentice Hall, 1997, p.8
Aijaz Ahmad quoted in Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, An Introduction to Post-Colonial
Theory, London: Prentice Hall, 1997, p.8.
Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (1979)
Marta Savigliano, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Westview Press, Boulder:
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/Lyotard.htm#H9. Key
word Lyotard. ibid Homi Bhabha quoted in Peter Childs and Patrik Williams. An introduction to Post-Colonial
Theory. Prentice Hall, Lodon: 1997, p.126
Marta Savigliano in Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Westview Press, Boulder:
ibid ibid Peter Childs and Patrik Williams. An introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. Prentice Hall,
Lodon: 1997, p.124.
Peter Childs and Patrik Williams. An introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. Prentice Hall,
Lodon: 1997, p.8.
Homi Bhabha quoted in Peter Childs and Patrik Williams. An introduction to Post-Colonial
Theory. Prentice Hall, Lodon: 1997, p.133
Evon Z. Vogt, Cruces Indias y Bastones de Mando en Mesoamérica in Manuel Gutiérrez
Estévez, Miguel León-Portilla, Gary H. Gossen and J.Jorge Klor de Alva (eds.), De Palabra y Obra en el Nuevo Mundo. Siglo Veintituno Editores, sa. Madrid: 1992, p.272
The Mabo case is known as a decision taken in 1988 by the High Court of Australia, which
overturned the sections of the Australian law that denied the aboriginal people’s rights to land and title. The name is given after Eddie Koiki Mabo, one of the most important leaders of the movements defending indigenous land rights in Australia.
Stephen Gray, Wheeling, Dealing and Deconstruction- Aboriginal Art and the Land postAboriginal Law Bullentin, 1993.
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