|Interrogating the Project of Military History|
Last week in Claire Robertson's readings course (Colonialism, Women and Sexuality), we read Malek Alloula's The Colonial Harem (1990), a pretty much standard text in postcolonial studies, especially in critiquing what Edward Said terms "orientalism." Alloula is convinced that when European men photographed Algerian women to service the burgeoning postcard industry ca. 1890-1930, it was all about sexualizing, possessing, and penetrating those women. Judging by the photo at far left, Alloula has a point. But Alloula thinks the same agenda is present in the photo that adorns the cover of his book; also numerous photos of Algerian women covered head-to-toe and veiled so that only their eyes are visible. In fact, postcards featuring veiled Algerian women handily outnumber any other image in the book.
Alloula, without the benefit of being a colonial photographer himself, knows the colonial photographer's every thought. "The first thing the foreign eye catches about Algerian women is that they are concealed from sight. . . . The opaque veil that covers her intimates clearly and simply to the photographer a refusal. Turned back upon himself, upon his own impotence in the situation, the photographer undergoes an initial experience of disappointment and rejection. Draped in a veil that cloaks her to her ankles, the Algerian woman discourages the scopic desire (the voyeurism) of the photographer. She is the concrete negation of this desire and thus brings to the photographer confirmation of a triple rejection: the rejection of his desire, the rejection of his 'art,' and of his place in a milieu that is not his own."
Yep, the colonial photographer must be thinking this. As opposed to, just maybe, an initial experience of "Hey great! It's only 9 a.m. and here's a throng of veiled women I can photograph. At this rate I could complete my assignment by noon!" Reading along as Alloula recounted, page upon indignant page, every voyeuristic, sexually frustrated thought the photographer has, I began to get a little ticked off. This seemed a cheap and easy game. You start with a set of assumptions about the colonial photographer--as if there were only one colonial photographer--and read them into every single postcard. And how do you know your assumptions are valid? Why, just look at those postcards! Isn't it obvious?
Later, when the class met, I was comfortable enough with everyone else to say that the book had rubbed me the wrong way. The response was interesting. Most of the grad students are in women's studies. Well-grounded in literary criticism, they weren't at all fazed by Alloula's approach to analyzing the "text" of these postcards--though they were quick to perceive that Alloula could be read as sexist: "How dare those colonial men gaze upon our women?"--as if the Algerian woman was a possession of the Algerian male. Nor were they put off by my own visceral reaction to the book. But they did encourage me to think more carefully about whence my reaction arose. And once I did, it was not at all hard to figure out its roots. . . .
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