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The empire as the embodiment of modern intellect: a critical reading of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians through Levinas

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This paper is an attempt to read Waiting for the Barbarians from the standpoint of an approach which is critical of modern intellect and its underlying foundations including the belief in universalism and foundationalism. Taking the Empire as the material and intellectual manifestation of the modern intellect, I will focus on the way foundationalism and universalism are likely to lead to totalization. As a result, modern intellect, despite its pretensions to holding liberal and universal views, has become inevitably reductive and exclusionary in relating to the other. The desire for boundary-drawing and closure is named ‘metaphysic of comprehension’, a term introduced by Robert Eaglestone who has been inspired by Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy of ethics. I want to argue that Coetzee’s novel lends itself to a reading in which this yearning for comprehension is exposed and criticized. The question of representation, the pursuit of truth and the implementation of justice are areas which my analysis will be concerned with.

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  1. On the importance of shouting “No!” Michael Mosez (1993) comments that the magistrate’s “repudiation of the Empire implicitly rejects all political regimes, none of which may lay claim to the philosophically defensible conception of right” (p. 123). Mosez’s point echoes Levinas’s aversion to politics and his mistrust of its totalizing nature. For Dickinson (2007) “No!” represents negative capability which is being content with doubt and uncertainty. Dickinson argues that Coetzee examines the relation between the imposition of understanding and power in Waiting. The Magistrate and Joll are both after the truth. However what dissociates the Magistrate from Joll is his “self-discriminating psychology” which is rooted in his “anxiety that his feelings for the girl” are related to “a quest for meaning that amounts to a quest for mastery” (Dickinson p. 12). Dickinson tries to show how the Magistrate, by scrutinizing his motives about reading meaning into the body of the girl, realizes that he is depriving himself of “the prospect of political resistance” because he is hunting for fact and reason (Dickinson p. 13). What he wants to do is free himself from the enclosure of language and ideology and this happens by employing a kind of incoherent language that reflects his mistrust of language itself. Dickinson particularly cites this ghastly scene of mutilating the barbarians. The Magistrate’s broken language and “the provisional no” uttered in defence of the captives, for Dickinson, suggest a negative capability (p. 14). The importance of negative capability lies in its being “half knowledge” which is not meant to be a total rejection of knowledge and interpretation because “a failure to read, then, might equal a complicity with” the oppressor (p. 14).

  2. I have borrowed the term “interpolation” from Ashcroft (2001) who argues that “interpolation ironically reverses Althusser’s concept of ‘interpellation’ by ascribing to the colonial subject, and, consequently, to the colonial society, a capacity for agency which is effected within relationships that are radically unequal” (p. 14).

  3. The interpellated colonial subjects who are witnessing the scene of punishment have come to accept the values, assumptions and attitudes of the Empire by identifying themselves negatively against the captives.

  4. Stef Craps (2007) believes that shouting “‘No!’ denounces the Empire’s denial of prisoners’ humanity and denaturalizes or defamiliarizes the distinctions and categories upon which the Empire is founded” (p. 63). In my opinion the Magistrate’s emphasis on the word “Men!” is potentially more defamiliarizing. Craps’s point is comparable to Rebecca Saunders’s who argues that “the magistrate’s word creates a hiatus, a disruptive and defamiliarizing lacuna, in the Empire’s performative reiteration” (Saunders 2001, p. 230).

  5. The terms ‘the saying’ and ‘the said’ were introduced and expanded by Levinas in his second magnum opus, Otherwise than Being (1991).


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Teimouri, M. The empire as the embodiment of modern intellect: a critical reading of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians through Levinas. Neohelicon 48, 355–366 (2021).

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