16 June 2009

'Like a dog'

A newspaper cartoon, published a couple of years before Independence*, seeks to represent the subservient position of the colonised mockingly observed by figures signifying British and American imperialism and (most significantly) an indigenous oppressive power group which aligns itself with them. Considerably, the state of subservience of the colonial people is represented through the figure of a dog: meek, enslaved, laughed at and deprived of basic human dignity. While the absolute aim of the nationalist movement must be independence, to not be independent citizens of a free nation, the picture seems to argue, is to not be human. It is to be dog-like.

This super-imposition on the image of the dog as a loss of everything that may be considered to be constitutive of a notion of humanity finds resonance across almost half a century on a different continent. In J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, the complexities of a post-Apartheid South Africa and the changing race relations are discussed through Lucy’s decision to give up her land to her former employee in exchange for his “protection”. The impulse behind the decision is brought out in the following exchange between David Lurie and Lucy:

" 'Yes, I agree, it is humiliating.[she says] But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.'

'Like a dog.'

'Yes, like a dog.' "

The reconfiguration of power in post-Apartheid South Africa involves, in the text, an ethic of divestment on the part of those who formerly enjoyed privilege. Once again the figure of the dog is used to invoke degradation and humiliation. To be dog-like in this case is once more entails a deprivation of basic human dignity: to start “with nothing”.**

However, despite the similarities in the connotation, the argumentative impulse behind the use of the image of the dog in both cases is contrasting. While in the first case the comparison with a dog is to highlight the prevalent state of marginalisation. The text assumes a privileging of that which constitutes as human over animality or, to be more specific, a dog-like status. It speaks of the injustice of such a subjection and voices a demand for independence and democracy. It speaks the language of rights. The second case, on the other hand, priviliges the dog-like status and talks of giving up rights: “To start at ground level.”

And yet perhaps the image of the dog seems to resonate with both, seems to willingly invite a conjunction. It perhaps seems to suggest that what is required ethically is work at both sides of the binary. A giving and taking at either end, both of which seem haunted by the image of the dog.


*27 May 1945, The Hindustan Times. I found it in Thapar-Bjorkert, Suruchi. Women in the Indian Nationalist Movement. (2006)

** I am supposing provisionally a sort of gender neutrality in Lucy’s argument. Lucy’s refusal to file a complaint against her rapists and her decision to live with the family of one of them are undeniably and unmistakably hugely problematic – a result of imposing an argument of divestment not on a figure occupying the centre of power but the gendered margin. The act of humiliation here has been (just as with the ‘colonial people’ dog) something imposed, not an act of agency. This is opposed to Lurie’s own position as white upper class male to seek ‘disgrace’, implying an act of will.

No comments: