Book discussed in this essay:
Michael Meyer, ed. Word and Image in Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures and Cultures. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2009.
Lucy Weir is a PhD candidate in the department of history of art at the University of Glasgow, researching Orientalist tendencies in the development of 20th century contemporary dance.
The legacy of colonialism has undoubtedly had a tremendous effect on the development of visual and literary cultures across the globe, leaving its mark on the societies of both the colonised and the colonisers. In view of this, Michael Meyer’s dense anthology brings together a broad range of texts illustrating the significance of linguistic and visual representation in inter-cultural relations. His collection explores not just a range of time periods and civilisations, but also an impressive variety of media, from photography and feature film to children’s picture books and pop music. The volume is roughly divided into two sections, ‘Colonial’ and ‘Post-Colonial Representations,’ though the majority of material falls under the latter category. The assorted articles are certainly diverse in subject matter, yet can be loosely grouped together by continent; the ‘Postcolonial’ section begins with a range of essays exploring African text/image representation, before moving on to Asian diasporas, and finally the Anglo-Aboriginal world.
The articles within Meyer’s collection highlight markers of colonialism and cross-cultural influence in a combination of literary and visual media. Certain essays stand out as particularly engaging; for instance, Gisela Feurle’s text regarding African studio photography is poignant and enlightening, containing beautiful reproductions of the Malian, Ghanaian, and Kenyan photographers she describes in some detail. Such images represent the merging of traditionalism and modernity, but also social aspiration; couples in national dress wearing Western wristwatches, or men in sharp suits posing with icons of modern living such as telephones, alarm clocks, and radios. Susan Arndt’s piece on J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace and the issue of ‘racialised markers’ is also excellent, investigating the idea of the implied racial ‘Other’ in South Africa’s post-colonial landscape–that is, the identification of a character’s race through the use of careful linguistic word play and racial symbolism the reader is arguably socialised to inherently understand. In a similar vein, Jens Martin Gurr’s essay rounds off the collection, discussing representation of Native American massacres in Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist Western Dead Man; his is another exploration of the explicitly unsaid but implicitly revealed, through the use of striking visual clues.
As an anthology of what could perhaps be termed ‘imagology’ issues in colonial and postcolonial studies, Meyer’s collection succeeds in gathering a great range of material covering extensive stretches of time and space. While this benefits the reader in terms of the breadth of writing surveyed, groupings of essays can be slightly too eclectic at times. Nonetheless, while much of the material is disparate in focus, as one works through the volume, certain common themes emerge, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the ghost of Edward Said is palpable throughout the texts in this collection, his theory of ‘Orientalism’ being applied to new contexts and territories. Overall, Meyer’s collection is not aimed at the (post) colonial studies initiate, given the very specific subject matter of each essay concerned. Equally, certain contributions are stronger than others in terms of theoretical engagement or writing structure. Despite these minor points, taken as a whole, Word and Image is a weighty and thorough anthology that explores a number of niche elements of colonial and post-colonial image and literary culture, adding fresh voices to the ongoing dialogue between cultural studies and anthropological themes.