Contact Zones in J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”

     One of the most daunting tasks that literature of the Postmodern period undertakes is negotiating the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. Postcolonial literatures Cover_WaitingForTheBarbariansattempt to apologize for the past, move forward into the future, while satisfying both colonized and colonizer so that they may function peacefully in a single territory. Mary Louise Pratt entitles this area of contention the “contact zone”. She defines it as, “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world” (Pratt). J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians is a perfect allegorical illustration of just such a space. To set the stage for the contact zone, Coetzee presents a colony of an unnamed empire, situated on the frontier of a wilderness from which the barbarian natives of the land are pushed to the periphery. This contact zone is also permeated with different utilizations of the gaze. By expounding Coetzee’s novel through Pratt’s contact zone terminology, and analyzing its various demonstrations of the power of the gaze, Waiting for the Barbarians demonstrates how the gaze functions both actively and passively to reinforce cultural discrimination and dehumanization, and comes to the conclusion that any attempt to recognize the other as human will be a failure as long as there is an imbalance of power in the contact zone.

rear-windowThe concept of the gaze, although founded in film theory, has been extended to literal text, and has infiltrated many theories that concern the dichotomy of numerous subjective selves. One type of gaze that occurs in Coetzee’s novel is what Rosemarie Thomson refers to as “the ethnographic or the colonizing look” (Thomson, 49). This type of gazing is enacted when Colonel Joll returns from one of his campaigns with barbarian prisoners. The narrator describes the spectacle of the barbarian. He says, “the soldiers lounge in the doorways watching them, making obscene comments about them which they do not understand, laughing; there are always children with their faces pressed to the bars of the gate; from my window I stare down, invisible behind the glass. Then, all together, we lose sympathy” (Coetzee, 19). All of these people – the soldiers, the
children, the magistrate – subject the barbarians to the “cultural scripting” of their gaze (Thomson, 42). Thomson explains, “When persons in a position that grants them authority to stare take up that power, staring functions as a form of domination, marking the staree as the exotic, outlaw, alien, or other” (Thomson, 42). It is the fault of the colony that these barbarians appear as if they are “animals” (Coetzee, 19). Even the magistrate admits, when he undergoes a similar dehumanization process, “A bestial life is turning me into a beast” (Cotezee, 78). The barbarians are imprisoned within the confines of the colony, placed in an arena of self-destruction to be witnessed as such. They are disenfranchised, and therefore living in fear. They are unable to be productive, to express themselves, or to contribute as long as they are held captives. By viewing the imprisoned barbarian from a position of power, having themselves placed the prisoner in this context, the colonizers exercise the muscle of their authority. It is in this way that their gaze operates as both active and passive. In this instance they also enact what Michael Foucault 3064lterms “the clinical gaze” (Thomson, 49). This type of observation is, “used to lasso the outlaw aspects of human variation into constricting categories and to diagnose difference as pathology. According to this view, medical-scientific observation as diagnosis brings home the alien in chains, converting the unusual into monstrous, sick, polluted, contagious, mad, queer, and deviant” (Thomson, 49). The narrator describes the same spectacle in terms that exemplify this clinical gaze. He says, “A rumor begins to go the rounds that they are diseased, that they will bring an Barbarian-Fanepidemic to the town” (Coetzee, 19). Both forms of the gaze, colonial and clinical, serve to brand the barbarian subject as dirty, uncivilized, diseased, and other, but ultimately it establishes the barbarian as inhuman. Another example of this occurs on the second campaign, the fruits of which are once again barbarian prisoners, only this time the barbarians are paraded around in chains (Coetzee, 101). These displays of physical inscription of the domination of one group over another serve to present the physical manifestation of authority. The bodyRUSsiberia becomes scripture. Authority writes itself upon it in various markings of pain. This provides an image for the eyes to feast upon. In this sense the eyes are hungry. The gaze devours. When the magistrate is tortured in a spectacle he says of the crowd, “On every face around me, even those that are smiling, I see the same expression: not hatred, not bloodlust, but a Beautiful Eyescuriosity so intense that their bodies are drained by it and only their eyes live, organs of a new and ravening appetite” (Coetzee, 103). The empire is reduced through synecdoche to a pair of eyes. In Coetzee’s allegory of empire, the gaze is utilized by empire in both an active and passive capacity. It is active when it is used to establish dominance through the clinical and colonizing gaze, and passive when it must witness physical demonstrations of power through the various spectacles of domination and subordination. Although these demonstrations of voracious spectatorship imply a penchant for insight, the entire colony is actually blind. It is blind to the humanity of the barbarian because it always regards him through imperial eyes.

The symbol of the imperial eye is embodied in Colonel Joll. The first paragraph of the novel illustrates this character as such:

don_sunglasses“I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand if he wanted to hide his blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. ‘They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun. … One has fewer headaches.’” (Coetzee, 1)

Once again, through synecdoche, the opaque sunglasses come to represent the whole of the person that is Colonel Joll. Through this symbol Coetzee establishes the force of imperial authority. The sunglasses represent the partitioning glass between the gazing, authoritative, legitimate subject and the receptive, subordinate, illegitimate object, or, the barbarian other. Joll is apathetic because although he is able to look through the lens of his glasses at other subjects, those subjects cannot return his gaze. The returned gaze is represented here by the sun, which, had it been able to ‘look back’ at Joll, a look prevented by the opacity of the lenses, would have caused him pain. It is only through the one-way lens of his glasses that Joll is able to stare at the sun; it is only through the partitioning glass of these lenses that he can objectify the victims of his inscriptive gaze. The magistrate, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, wishes to break this partitioning glass. When he sees Colonel Joll for the last time through the glass window of the carriage he says, “An urge runs through me to smash the glass, to reach in and drag the man out through the jagged hole” (Coetzee, 143). He wants to break through the barrier between the empire and the barbarian to put an end to the torture and tyranny. The magistrate and Colonel Joll are contrasting characters. This is made obvious by the fact that they are enemies. While they do share opposing ideologies, they are both extensions of empire. The magistrate realizes this towards the end of the novel when he says, “I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times were easy, he the truth that Empire tells itself when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule” (Coetzee, 133). In his attempt to escape the dictates of imperial rule, to truly sympathize with the barbarian, the magistrate merely succumbs to his propensity to inscribe his own meaning on that which he does not understand. A demonstration of the magistrate as one side of imperial rule occurs also through submitting various aspects of barbarian culture to his subjective gaze.

As protagonist of the novel, the magistrate attempts to perform the function of intermediary between empire and barbarian tribesman. He wishes to provide a, “point of entry,” for the barbarians, “into the dominant circuits” (Pratt). He excavates Unknowntheir ruins and accumulates a collection of wooden slips on which are painted characters from some archaic language. He attempts to decipher the language not by trying to learn the language itself, but by forcing a narrative from it. He tries manipulating the images, organizing the characters in different visual orders in hopes that it will eventually follow some narrative logic. He explains, “I cleared the floor of my office and laid them out, first in one great square, then in sixteen smaller squares, then in other combinations, thinking that what I had hitherto taken to be characters in a syllabary might in fact be elements of a picture whose outline would leap at me if I struck on the right arrangement” (Coetzee, 15). His method of extracting meaning, without any insight into what the symbols represent in the context of the barbarians, is solely based on subjective visual scrutiny. He is trying to decipher a sign system through the lens of his own sign system, which attaches an entirely different symbolic value to each sign. He assumes that his sign symbolism holds the same significations in the barbarian sign system. In this way he subordinates the barbarian artifact to his imperial view. His method of forcing narrative is similar to the way Colonel Joll forces narrative. Joll explains, “First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth” (Coetzee, 5). This pressure is applied to the magistrate himself when Colonel Joll and his men try to force the magistrate to decipher the slips. The magistrate admits, “I look at the lines of characters written by a stranger long since dead. I do not even know whether to read from right to left or from left to right. … I have no idea what they stand for” (Coetzee, 108). Nevertheless, he provides a narrative and lies to the colonel. This is the “truth” that is extracted when one applies pressure. The magistrate is unable to decipher the code of the language because the artifacts, once removed from the context of their original conception, break down in meaning. This is expressed i1_f2symbolically in the passage, “The timbers we uncover are dry and powdery. Many have been held together by the surrounding sand and, once exposed, crumble” (Coetzee, 15). It is only by learning the language of the barbarian that the magistrate will be able to read the parchment.

The magistrate’s narrow method of interpretation is also applied to the human subject, embodied by the native girl. The narrator says, “It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her” (Coetzee, 31). He then attempts to explore the marks on her body, adopting the blind girl’s method, reading her like brail. This method proves unsuccessful as well. He asks himself, “is it the case … that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little; is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?” (Coetzee, 63). The only history the magistrate can decipher in the marks on the girl are the marks of his empire. The marks run too deep into her to allow for any evidence of an alternative history to show. What he thought was an endeavor to understand the barbarian is a failure because she has been emptied of her culture and filled with the narrative that was inscribed on her through Colonel Joll’s method of pressure. imagesThe magistrate says she has, “a face masked by two black glassy insect eyes from which there comes no reciprocal gaze but only my doubled image cast back at me” (Coetzee, 43). The magistrate approaches the girl in the same way that he approached the parchment: by seeking to know it by imprisoning it. He concludes, “I have not entered her” (Coetzee, 33). While the narrator is referring to sexual entry, Coetzee is implying subjective entry. The magistrate is still unable to understand her because as long as he imprisons her within the confines of his contextual framework, she will be inscribed by his significance. Coetzee asks, “What bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of thorns?” (Coetzee, 40). The reality of this is demonstrated by the fact that the magistrate is only able to “enter” the native girl once he views her out of the framework of his contextualization, when they venture outside of the colony. In a conversation between the girl and the men who accompany their journey, the magistrate remains passive listener, and is surprised by how the native girl conducts herself. He says, “I am surprised by her fluency, her quickness, her self-possession” (Coetzee, 62). He begins to realize the extent to which he was imprisoning her not only physically in terms of territory, but mentally because the majority of their conversations consisted of him “oppressing her with gloom” (Coetzee, 62). He was manipulating her both physically, through the caressing and handling of her body, and mentally, by directing their conversations to serve his own ends. Caught_in_a_net_by_bodyworkxHe realizes he had been, “casting one net of meaning after another over her” (Coetzee, 79). Also, every one of their conversations was undertaken in English. Pratt writes that, “analyses of language use commonly assume that principles of cooperation and shared understanding are normally in effect. Descriptions of interactions between people in conversation … readily take it for granted that the situation is governed by a single set of rules or norms shared by all participants” (Pratt). The magistrate realizes that he had been making the same assumption of the native girl. He admits, “In the makeshift language we share there are no nuances. … we are an ill-matched couple” (Coetzee, 39). At this point in time he becomes aware of the necessity to set her free. He begins to understand that he will never truly know her experience. He cannot enter into her subjectivity. He says, “‘perhaps whatever can be articulated is falsely put. … Or perhaps it is the case that only that which has not been articulated has to be lived through’” (Coetzee, 63). He has similar thoughts toward the end of the novel. He sits down to write the history of the colony, but he cannot bring himself to write more than a couple of ambiguous phrases. He equates his narrative impotence with his sexual impotence when he says, “It seems appropriate that a man who does not know what to do with the woman in his bed should not know what to write” (Coetzee, 57). He realizes that he has no better understanding of his time than “a babe in arms” (Coetzee, 151). He thinks, “It would be disappointing to know that the poplar slips I have spent so much time on contain a message as devious, as equivocal, as reprehensible as this” (Coetzee, 151). He realizes also that any attempt to encapsulate history in a narrative will be derivative of the truth because it is written from the subjectivity of the author. He coats the slips of parchment in linseed oil and reburies them where he found them. He returns the native girl to her people. He relinquishes his attempt to speak for the barbarian, because he realizes any attempt will be, “a jackal of Empire in sheep’s clothing!” (Coetzee, 71).

Waiting for the Barbarians demonstrates how the gaze can work both actively, by subordinating through the clinical and colonizing gaze, and passively, by witnessing demonstrations of power. It also demonstrates how any effort to understand or to give voice to a colonized people is a failure as long as the colonized is subjected to a context dominated by the colonizer. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians presents an allegory not only of failed transculturation, but also of failed autoethnography. But is Coetzee daunting the intermediary’s task or calling forth the bird from the thicket? In spite of everything, he is urging us to cut the bird free.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York, New York: Penguin, 1999.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone”. Profession 91. New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Staring: how we look. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Web.

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2 Responses to Contact Zones in J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”

  1. mostlycinema says:

    My all time fav writer..

  2. I like very much your article. Very clear and sharing important points. thanks.

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