I’d just devoured Aldous Huxley in a 36 hour period. I was about to pitch a research project to a professor I really liked. I had a first date to attend immediately following the meeting. I was excited.
I came in guns-blazing with my thesis: we are simply pawns being moved around by powerful algorithms. We’re on a steady trajectory towards complete sheeple-ness and we’ve got to stop it.
My professor dismantled all of my thinking in one simple sentence: “You’re not really giving human beings a lot of credit are you?”
I had spent the last three years reading political theory, so it was my first introduction to the idea that human beings might actually be autonomous operators in the world.
So I did a complete 180, and now I’m presenting my new thesis.
Having spent the last 4 months reading radical political theory, particularly diving deep into Albert Memmi, I’ve realized that the flaw in my thinking isn’t unique to me. Authors like Memmi prefer to treat the oppressed political group purely as a product of structural conditions, rather than individual agents caught in history. The colonized, the working class, and the “masses” simply become objects to be affected by the nefarious ideological tools of the ruling class. It’s reductive.
So what’s the upshot? The thesis? It’s pretty simple: this way of thinking actually makes Memmi’s theory inefficacious.
With a focus on Albert Memmi’s writing, this paper will argue that the tendency of critical theorists to focus on the oppressed class as objects to be affected by structural conditions obscures viable routes to emancipation.
Memmi’s disproportionate focus on the colonized as a product of social distinctions in a colonial state gives him tunnel vision when he outlines the potential emancipatory actions of the oppressed. While he does acknowledge a kind of dualism between the colonized as the “object of history” and the “agent caught in history”, he frames the existence of that dualism as a product of the colonizer.
Memmi: the colonized, as formulated by the colonizer.
In “The Colonizer and the Colonized”, Albert Memmi paints a picture of a colonized individual whose entire sense of self has been defined by social conditions that have been erected by the colonizer.
To justify their actions, the colonizer finds it necessary to paint a deeply specific, mythical, and degrading portrait of the colonized (Memmi 79). The colonizer uses different parts of this portrait to justify different forms of structural oppression and material deprivation. To justify the inhumanely low wages paid to the colonized, the colonizer paints the colonized as “lazy” (Ibid). To justify the erection of a police state, the colonizer paints the colonized as reckless and incompetent to a dangerous degree (Memmi 82). To justify the seizure of political freedoms and agency, the colonizer never paints the colonized as a rational decision-making individual (Memmi 84). The colonized are only ever an opaque, irrational, “whole” (Memmi 85). The colonized “them” to the ruling class “us”. Without this image used as an excuse, “the presence and the conduct of the colonizer…would seem shocking.”
To justify their pervasive domination, the colonizer must ensure that this portrait of the colonized is equally pervasive in society. In Memmi’s view, this portrait of the colonized as lazy, incompetent, and irrational is drilled into colonial culture. Members of the oppressive class laugh about it and repeat it until they know it by heart (Memmi 80). Once it is baked into the cultural foundations of the oppressive class, it becomes a social, political, and judicial institution (Memmi 91). It informs the actions of people and systems alike against the colonized (Ibidi). Through cultural and social control, the portrait of the colonized becomes pervasive and real.
It is through this process that the “colonized” as a conception of self is created (Memmi 91), and ultimately accepted by the ruled (Memmi 87). Here, Memmi is arguing that colonialism is a completely transformative process:
“The bond between colonizer and colonized is thus destructive and creative. It destroys and re-creates the two partners of colonization into colonizer and colonized” (Memmi 89).
When Memmi claims that one has been “disfigured” by the colonial process into a self that is simply “the colonized”, he is describing a whole set of political and personal tendencies that he applies with uniformity to “the colonized”. Most notably, he claims that these narratives push the colonized to the point that they resign any responsibility and expectation of citizenship (Memmi 97). They are dispossessed from history, and consistently told that they fit into a colonial portrait. Thus, they surrender their political agency entirely. This is best summed up by this passage:
“He carries [history’s] burden, often more cruel than others, but always as an object. He has forgotten how to actively participate in history and no longer even asks to do so” (Memmi 92).
In these passages, Memmi is describing a process of complete transformation. Whatever previous version of self existed in a pre-colonial era is completely destroyed at the hands of the colonial process, and reformulated in the image of the colonizer. To him, this subsumption of self into the portrait of the colonized is total. The colonizer does it to the colonized through a variety of social, historical, and cultural institutions. In this description, the oppressed is simply an object whose whole consciousness is shaped by the actions of the ruling class.
Memmi: Revolt is the only way.
Memmi’s form of argumentation locks him into a particular track where he continues to collect the colonized as a set of “objects” to be defined by structural, or historical conditions. He described two “answers” of the colonized to the colonial context — but neither of them paint a blueprint for individual emancipation. Instead, they are both reactionary definitions of self that are shaped by the ruling class.
In Memmi’s telling, the first “answer of the colonized” is assimilation. In an attempt to change his condition in this colonial binary, he believes he must become like the colonizer (Memmi 120). Memmi quickly argues, though, that this is not a viable option for the colonized. He points out that in becoming like the colonizer he is not only adopting the likeness of the “rights-holder in society”, but also that of the oppressor (Memmi 121). In becoming like the oppressor, the colonized internalizes a hatred of the colonized. A hatred of self. Memmi claims that the colonized “agrees to destroy himself” in order to be emancipated (Memmi 122). Despite the acknowledged complexity of the colonized person’s inner-struggle, Memmi lands on the idea that the colonized is still invariably affected by the cultural institution that is the “portrait of the colonized”.
Realizing that assimilation isn’t an option, the colonized must “revolt”. This is a complete rejection of the colonizer in every way (Memmi 129), and a reappraisal of what makes the person who has been subject to colonialism great (Memmi 136). The problem with this “answer” is that it is not truly emancipatory at an individual level — because there is a lingering correspondence with the “portrait of the colonized”.
Firstly, the colonized person wholesale rejects anybody that resembles or represents the “colonizer” (129). To the colonized, there can be no distinction between intent and deed. To be complicit in a colonial system is to be a colonizer (130). All Europeans are colonizers. Memmi argues here that the colonized person, in the period of revolt, must become xenophobic towards the colonizer (Ibid). The problem here is that the colonized person is working within the binary created by the colonizers. It is still an “us and them” distinction. The ideology created by the ruling class is persisting. Memmi himself points out that in agreeing to the ideology of the ruling class, the colonized person is confirming the role assigned to them (88). Memmi is so prone to treating the colonized as objects of history that even the emancipatory option he provides is dependent on the colonized subscribing to ruling class’ binary ideology. This emancipatory option only digs the colonized person deeper into the ideology of the ruling class. With that in mind, it may not be emancipatory at all.
Secondly, the colonized person carries this binary with him his entire life. He begins his healing by championing his difference from the colonizer (Memmi 136). In this way he continues to “subscribe to the colonizer’s deception” (Memmi 137). Memmi is arguing here that in order to continue the colonized person, after the stage of revolt, must suppose a “counter mythology” which continues to reject the colonizer as a whole and makes the things that he defines himself by praiseworthy (139). All the while, this “counter mythology” is staffed with the same characters that were drawn up by the colonizer — if slightly reframed. “In the midst of revolt the colonized continues to think, feel, and live against and, therefore, in relation to the colonizer and colonization” (Ibid.).
It is clear that Memmi is not actually describing an emancipatory process. His preferred conception of the colonized as an object, subjected to trauma by history, has rendered the problem of colonization intractable. Memmi is arguing, in essence, that the mind of the colonized person has been structured by the colonizer in such a way that this conception of self will persist through this person’s life. In painting the colonized person as objectified — affected by the ruling class — he is leaving them with no project. No horizon for future change. If this is not yet clear, I’ll leave you with one of his parting lines about the story of the colonized:
“So goes the drama of the man who is a product and victim of colonization. He almost never succeeds in corresponding with himself (Memmi 140)”.
Counter-argument: Memmi and the complex dualism of the colonized person.
One might argue that Memmi is actually exploring a complex dualistic tension between the colonized person as an object of historical circumstances and an agent caught within said circumstances.
This argument is reinforced in his language around the process by which the colonized internalize the portrait produced by the colonizer. He describes this process as a sort of recognition, acknowledgment, and eventual ascendance of the portrait (Memmi 87). This language, in itself, indicates a kind of agency and psychological resistance to the efforts of the colonizer.
Additionally, when speaking about assimilation, Memmi refers to a complex form of self hate. He claims that in the process, the colonized is “tearing himself away from his true self; impoverishing himself” (Memmi 122). He frames it almost as if it’s a conscious agreement between his conception of self as a colonized person and a colonizer. He “agrees” to destroy himself in order to achieve the “freedom” of assimilation (Ibid). It is almost as if there is a more active agent hiding within the psychology of the person Memmi is describing, negotiating with the conception of self that has been imposed by the colonized.
This is a much more nuanced way of approaching the relationship between social institutions as wielded by the ruling class, and the production of a conception of self.
Rebuttal: Memmi is describing a dualism created by colonial conditions.
In both of the cases mentioned above, Memmi is still describing the colonized as a uniform set of objects that are affected by structural conditions.
In the first case, the process by which the portrait of the colonized is internalized happens with uniformity across the spectrum of colonized people. Memmi frames the wholesale acceptance of the portrait of the colonized as an inevitability — a process that will occur with ubiquity across the ruled class. I would ask him, is this not the right time for a revolt? For a rejection or analysis of the portrait that the colonizer is trying to impose? The stated inevitability of the portrait of the colonized coming to fruition by purely socio-cultural (rather than explicitly violent) means is a perfect example of how a set of people are reduced to objects that are acted upon by colonial processes.
In the second case, this psychological tension is still taking place within the particular Manichean division of worlds that the colonizer has created: the division between the colonizer and the colonized. He argues that the reason the process of assimilation creates an internal tension is because, in adopting the skin of the colonizer you also adopt a hatred of the colonized (Memmi 122). This is to say that the process of assimilation is a transition from adopting the sense of self as a colonized person, to that of a colonizer. This transition, and connected tension, resides firmly within the ruling class ideology which admits only to a binary division between colonizer and colonized. When discussing struggle, he is only discussing an object’s struggle between one affectation and another.
The upshot: Why should Albert Memmi care about this argument?
Memmi’s focus on the colonized as an object that has been shaped by ruling class structures prevented him from illuminating possible routes to emancipation.
He begins by outlining a highly specific, and degrading, “portrait of the oppressed”. Then explains how that portrait pervades the culture and institutions of the colonizer. In itself, that is not reductive. He then goes on to frame the process by which the colonized person adopts this portrait as a total act of destruction, and creation. The totality of this act, and the simplicity by which it is taken, is such that it could only be an act taken upon a set of objects — rather than a complex set of processes occurring among a diverse set of people. This view of the colonized as totally subsumed by these oppressive structures means that both of Memmi’s emancipatory options are also firmly planted within the oppressive structure. In the end, they are not emancipatory at all.
Memmi treats the colonized more as objects affected by history than agents existing within history. In doing so, he locks his conception of the colonized person within a colonial structure from which they cannot escape.
We aren’t sheeple walking mindlessly into endless oppression. We are diverse agents. Every one of us is the site of a complex struggle between influences and circumstances. Theory that reduces us to objects does a disservice to progress. We need to understand how systems interact with humans not objects. Emancipatory solutions exist exclusively in analyses of that particularly complex intersection.
When my professor said “You’re not really giving human beings a lot of credit are you?”, that’s what he was trying to tell me. He was right.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized: Introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre. Boston, NY: Beacon Press, 1972.