Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MMLA Page

Printer-Friendly Version

Writing the Postcolonial
2002 MMLA Meeting
Minneapolis, MN
10 November


Kurt Koenigsberger
Case Western Reserve University

The World at One's Feet:
Rushdie and Postcolonial Exhibition

Do not cite without permission of the author.

In the last decade of the century in which Britain's global sweep reached its limits and receded, what can it mean for an Irish showman to have exhibited an Indian on a stage in London, the spectacular center of what was once the world's most extensive empire? Moreover, how can we make sense of the fact that this exhibition in the early 1990s itself formed part of a larger display that represented itself as a zoo? Given the long colonial history of the zoo humain and of imperial exhibition, we ought to think carefully about what such a display can tell us about the politics of postcolonial representation. Here, for instance, is Salman Rushdie writing in 1982 about the way in which the zoo is a site marking the persistence of imperial frames of reference:

"Recently, on a radio programme, a professional humorist asked me, in all seriousness,
why I objected to being called a wog. He said he had always thought it a rather charming
word, a term of endearment. 'I was at the zoo the other day,' he revealed, 'and a zoo
keeper told me that the wogs were best with the animals; they stuck their fingers in their
ears and wiggled them about and the animals felt at home.'" ("Imaginary Homelands" 18-

The comedian's unhappy anecdote resonates with a neocolonial logic: the British zoo is the site in which expatriate and exiled Indians, on one hand, and imported, traded, and bred animals, on the other, can feel "at home" together under the mark of the exotic. These terms dictate that the British institution can never be a proper home for the exhibited animal (or for the transplanted Indian for that matter), and it remains a site pervaded by a sense of coerced displacement. According to the humorist's narrative, the performance of the Indian naturalizes the zoo, makes the exhibition itself whole, and charms the captive animals into a sense of being "at home."

Such a formulation as Rushdie rejects here makes it all the more uncanny, unheimlich, to find that ten years after his essay "Imaginary Homelands" the Indian on display in Britain's premier space of exhibition is none other than Rushdie himself, produced by U2 from the wings of the stage at Wembley during the band's Zoo TV tour. The stadium at Wembley is itself notable as the sole surviving building from the Empire Exhibitions of 1924 and 1925, a structure built to the special demands of the Exhibition: to stage the opening and closing ceremonies over which the King and the Royal Family presided, and the three-day-long Pageant of Empire that dramatized the westward, eastward, and southward expansion of British holdings across the globe. The scene at Wembley in 1924 was one of elephants lumbering toward the stadium along streets bearing names chosen by Rudyard Kipling, processing in step to Elgar marches, and of Indians - transplanted from the subcontinent - on view as they wove baskets in the "native villages" meant to convey the breadth and diversity of Britain's empire. If in the humorist's version of the zoo the Indian serves to make the exotic animals at home as part of a exhibitionary whole, at the Empire Exhibition of 1924 Indians and other exotic people were exhibited to make British subjects feel at home with the idea of Empire as a global project.

The picture at Wembley almost 70 years later was, of course, superficially quite different: gone were the ferroconcrete models of the Old London Bridge and the Taj Mahal, Kipling's lanes and Elgar's strains, the elephants and the weavers. Nevertheless in the 'Nineties, Rushdie, like so many Indians in 1924 and 1925, "found himself, for a few minutes, up on the Wembley stage" apparently through no agency of his own, on view in the "cage of light" that fronted the stage and divided the spectators from the show ("In the Voodoo Lounge" 87, 88; emphasis added). The impresario of this exhibition was U2's Bono, in his "white-faced, gold-lamé-suited, red-velvet-horned MacPhisto incarnation" ("U2" 97). In Rushdie's account of his experience in the Wembley arena, this diabolic Bono also figures as one of the animals on show: "when I looked into [Bono's] face on the Wembley stage I saw a stranger there, and understood that this was the Star-creature that normally lay hidden in him, a creature as powerful as the big beastie it sang to, so overwhelming that it could be let out only in this cage of light" (88). The performer Bono, we might say, makes both the "Star-creature" aspect of himself and "the big beastie it sang to" (the crowd of thousands) feel at home, while his exhibition of a vulnerable Rushdie produces a broad sense of daring, of unity, and of holism (the ostensible reason for the presentation of Rushdie to the "big beastie" is that "U2 wanted to make a gesture of solidarity," in a time in which Rushdie was threatened both by the fatwa issued against him, and by the British media ["U2" 95]).

Where is Rushdie's place here, and on what terms is such solidarity established? Can any performance make him feel "at home" in Wembley's cage of light? It turns out that the author's appearance is volitional after all, since "Bono called to ask if I'd like to come out onstage" (95), but in offering himself up to the band to be exhibited, Rushdie submits not only to be framed within what was once a prime symbolic space of the British Empire, but also to be conscripted into the service of a new dynamic of power remapping the world. Recalling his travels in Nicaragua in the late 1980s, Rushdie writes about a woman who does not recognize Bono's name: "Tell me, who is Bono?" she asks. Rather than understanding the woman's question to signal the relatively circumscribed province of English-language pop music, Rushdie instead presses the woman and her society into the margins of the globe: "the question was as vivid a demonstration of her country's beleaguered isolation as anything I heard or saw in the front-line villages, the destitute Atlantic Coast bayous, or the quake-ravaged city streets" (94). The Irish rock band becomes the very touchstone by means of which connectedness or globality - and its counterparts, backwardness and isolation - should be measured: do we recognize the interpellative challenge of Achtung Baby (U2's 1991 album) or don't we? Do we feel "at home" within the confines of Zooropa (1993), comforted by its promises that each of us can "be a winner" and "be all that [we] can be" ("Zooropa"), or will we find ourselves consigned to "destitut[ion]" and "beleaguered isolation"?

In framing these questions so absolutely, I do not mean to suggest that by appearing at Wembley Rushdie has suddenly and unthinkingly acquiesced in a kind of global neoimperialism (he is not the unregenerate "Businessist" described by one of his novel's narrators, for instance), or that he has abandoned altogether the searching, skeptical politics outlined in earlier essays such as "Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist" and "The New Empire Within Britain" (Midnight's Children 474). Despite his recent writing in support of the US "war on terrorism" and his blanket criticism of Islamist politics, plenty of evidence remains of his suspicion of easy pieties when it comes to things global. Likewise, I do not want to pretend that the heavy ironies of U2's vision of Zooropa or the graphic kitsch of Achtung Baby ought to be understood in the mode of the earlier War, as a kind of high earnestness - note, for instance, the pointed way that fragments of cliché and Western military and consumer advertisement ("be all that you can be"; "eat to get slimmer") constitute this deliberately dystopic "Zooropa." I do, however, mean to interrogate the politics of exhibition, of showmanship, of display, in popular as well as traditionally "literary" registers, by way of asking what difference postcoloniality makes to the ways in which we represent the world as a whole. Salman Rushdie and U2 alike are bound up with this politics just as surely as they are with the history of Wembley when they mount the boards of its stage and stand in "the cage of light."

Exhibitionary rhetorics of the global have tended to be totalizing, and the space of Wembley is conspicuously marked by such aspirations to totalize. George the Fifth, opening the Empire Exhibition in 1924, declared that the park's geography was designed to "reveal to us the whole Empire in little, containing within its 220 acres of ground a vivid model of the architecture, art and industry of all the races which come under the British flag" ("Wembley and Its Millions"). The Wembley Empire Exhibition aimed to encapsulate all of the imperial experience, presenting the "endless variety of human types, colour of skin and national costume, and . . . profusion of tongues" as "one great empire, united under one king and flag, linked by the English language, financed by sterling, ruled by British justice and protected by the Royal Navy" (Eric Pasold qtd. in MacKenzie 112). This great human and geographic diversity requires a significant investment of imaginative energy to render it in a mode of solidarity, and the spectacle of the Empire Exhibition represented just such a large-scale imaginative project. Three quarters of a century later, nevertheless, Rushdie notes emphatically that the project has failed in the end, since "Europe's empires are long gone" ("In Defense" 51), and we can state definitively that the totality that the Empire Exhibition sought to conjure up has dissolved. The 220 acres of Wembley's exhibition-space are now reduced to a stadium that hosts domestic football cups and serves as the ground for Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones to commemorate both the heyday of "The British Invasion" and the inauguration of the pop "world tour" (Rushdie writes about the Stones at Wembley, too, concluding that they hardly seem "dangerous," and are "no longer . . . a threat to decent, civilized society" ["In the Voodoo Lounge" 91]). The recession of this imaginative or performative power that renders Britain's global aspirations whole means that the British must abandon the notion of world empire as "a kind of transcendence," for "in empire's aftermath, [the British] have been pushed back into their box, their frontier has closed in on them like a prison" ("Step Across" 364-65 ). Totalizing exhibitions in the imperial mode no longer can adequately represent such a world of contractions and devolutions.

No less an exhibitionary instrument than the palimpsestic space of Wembley, the novel and its own totalizing aspirations have at times appeared to follow a similar trajectory of dissolution and decline. On the cusp of the First World War, the novelist Arnold Bennett was still able to celebrate the novel's expansiveness by comparing it to the British colonization of the globe: "[T]he novelist has poached, colonized, and annexed with a success that is not denied . . . . [The novel] has conquered enormous territories even since Germinal. Within the last fifteen years it has gained. Were it to adopt the hue of the British Empire, the entire map of the universe would soon be coloured red" (39-40). Bennett sets up the paths of a developing realist novel as a kind of fictional all-red route, in which the novel's methods enable it to map out the observed world under its "most inclusive vision." By 1936, however, George Orwell was convinced that the novel, if not utterly doomed, was at least destined "to survive in some perfunctory, despised, and hopelessly degenerate form, like . . . the Punch and Judy Show," a reified vestige of an earlier, living, plastic exhibit (qtd. in "In Defense" 50). More recently, Rushdie has argued against this narrative of decline, pointing out that "the half century whose literary output [in Europe ostensibly] proves . . . the novel's decline is also the first half century of the post-colonial period" (51). The novel, Rushdie suggests, may now properly be the province not of "the old imperial powers" which have a "new, diminished status in the post-colonial world" ("Step Across" 364), but of that postcolonial world which rises into view even as those powers recede.

This formulation in which "Zooropa" - the collection of erstwhile colonial powers - shifts into the background, consigned to play on "the cramped boards of home," while postcolonial writing moves toward front and center of "the great stage of the world" might begin to answer the question of what it means to exhibit the Indian at Wembley in the 1990s: postcolonial cultural production, in the form of an Irish rock band and an Indian novelist, overwhelms the attenuated symbolic spaces of a contracted empire ("Step Across" 365). It is nevertheless worth pressing our inquiries further to ask about the difference that such a protrusion of the postcolonial makes to the representation of the global, and - since Rushdie is in the first place a novelist - more particularly to the novel as exhibitionary vehicle. The exhibitionary mode survives richly in Rushdie's own fiction: The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the words of which U2 set to music, is about a globe-trotting pop star; The Satanic Verses features a set of television and film personalities and performers at its center; and Rushdie's most recent protagonist (Malik Solanka in Fury) designs puppets that dominate global pop culture.

Before these, though, there was Midnight's Children (1981), which Rushdie has himself characterized as "the stuff of showmanship and myth" ("Influence" 69). Rushdie's first blockbuster book enacts its pageant of India in the lingering light of English novels such as William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847-48), whose narrator also sets himself up as a showman - "the Manager of the Performance" - and whose characters appear as "puppets." Rushdie's self-anatomizing narrator Saleem Sinai acknowledges the persistence of what we might call the Anglo literary twilight, paying homage to its traditions through his own "Anglepoise-lit writing" (Midnight's Children 38). Saleem's characterization of his postcolonial narrative in these terms simultaneously signals that British cultural authority lingers in a newly born India and acknowledges the peculiarly skewed perspective (poised at an angle) of the show he mounts on "the great stage of the world." Unlike Thackeray's Manager or Bono's MacPhisto, however, Saleem as Anglepoised impresario exercises only a compromised authority over his performance: he can hardly hold himself together, much less maintain the integrity of his narrative. Saleem nevertheless persists in offering up the showman as the essential type of the storyteller. While he sometimes acknowledges that "entertainers would [repeatedly] orchestrate my life" (116), unwittingly describing the passive role that Rushdie himself seems to assume on the Wembley stage, Saleem also recalls that he himself once "performed the function of barker. 'Roll up roll up - once in a life-time and opportunity such as this - ladees, ladahs, come see come see come see!'" (537).

Saleem's role as barker calls up not only custom for his friend Picture Singh, the snake charmer, but also the memory of the peepshow man Lifafa Das, whose cries beckon, "See the whole world, come see everything!" while he attempts to cram everything into his peepshow (83-84). Here is Saleem's approximation of the 1924 Empire Exhibition: Lifafa Das's peepshow, like the Wembley Exhibition, promises to deliver the whole world in one space, but unlike Wembley the peepshow's expansive vision is cobbled together out of an arbitrary selection of mass-produced picture postcards. As a totalizing strategy, it is contingent upon the availability of images produced elsewhere and encountered by chance; it reflects the serendipity of the world's networks, rather than the determinism of the systematic all-red routes mapped out in Wembley displays, and as Timothy Brennan points out, Midnight's Children is preoccupied with such networks and "communications" (96). That Lifafa Das's exhibition might be understood to form one of the symbolic centers of the novel is suggested by the script for a planned British television film of Midnight's Children that never came to pass; in the script Lifafa Das rather than Saleem introduces each of the episodes of Saleem's life through his peepshow ("Adapting" 76). The efforts of the novelized Lifafa Das to collect and display the whole world through postcards reminds Saleem of a similar model of encapsulating the world in another, higher cultural register: he describes "a painter whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art. 'Look at me,' he said before he killed himself, 'I wanted to be a miniaturist and I've got elephantiasis instead!'" (50). Although Saleem's narrative presents the painter's story as a fantastic episode, the miniaturist's compulsion to include everything merely offers another version of G. K. Chesterton's rationale for the Empire Exhibition: "It seems to me that man has made things almost too great for his own imagination to measure . . . . It is to be hoped that people will learn to appreciate what is large precisely because they see it when it is little" (104). While Chesterton celebrates miniaturization, however, the painter despairs of his "elephantiasis."

Although Saleem can be found in the role of coordinating showman or barker near the end of his Anglepoised story, more frequently he offers himself up as just the sort of miniature, peepshow, or exhibition that Lifafa Das and the painter struggle to orchestrate: "to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me" (4). Saleem would have us believe that he is himself a zoo humain: not merely a metaphorical exhibition of typical humanity, but a single human being containing within him a comprehensive collection of global types. "To understand me," Saleem insists again near the end of his narrative, "you'll have to swallow a world" (458). Yet Saleem himself does not swallow a world - rather, he buries it. He recalls having "a world of [my] own," made up of

"Two cheap metal hemispheres, clamped together by a plastic stand . . . . It was a world
full of labels: Atlantic Ocean and Amazon and Tropic of Capricorn. And, at the North
Pole, it bore the legend: MADE AS ENGLAND. . . . [T]his tin world had lost its stand; I
found Scotch Tape and stuck the earth together at the Equator, and then, my urge for play overcoming my respect, began to use it as a football. . . , secure in the knowledge that the world was still in one piece (although held together by adhesive tape) and also at my feet." (319)

Saleem soon inters this globe in the yard as a time-capsule devoted to remembering his own historical role, offering up another, material version of his autobiographical narrative as a whole. Years later, upon his return to his childhood home, he digs it up with great nostalgia (546). As allegory, this "world" realizes what Saleem describes as the Indian "national longing for form" - an "obsess[ion] with correspondences" and a conviction "that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes" (359). The form of Saleem's world is itself imperfectly Anglepoised: it is a globe made in England's image, but this resemblance is acknowledged in a compromised, or at least improvised, language ("MADE AS ENGLAND"): this is an English world scored by difference. In another sense, though, it is a world no longer "poised" at all, since it has nothing to stand on, nothing coordinated - like a global empire or a world system - to clamp it together. Instead, its integrity is improvised, bound together with whatever is at hand; the world once "MADE AS ENGLAND" is - like Lifafa Das's peepshow - rendered whole only serendipitously, articulated by and contingent upon whatever binding agent is available. The form of this globe is uneven and battered, but it nevertheless conveys the impression of being "in one piece" through Saleem's active work of binding it together. Finally, it rests comfortably at Saleem's feet, characterized by the promise of the future rewards of global "play."

As a metaphor extending across hundreds of pages, Saleem's globe assumes its special significance only when it is recuperated after being buried and forgotten. That old, battered world of dubious integrity becomes a repository of memory, a way of remembering the initial promise of the postcolonial - the sense of having "the world at one's feet" after decolonization - in a less happy time of neocolonial oppression. "The postcolonial world" that Rushdie champions in his defense of the novel is, of course, not one thing, much less one world, and the incongruity of the globe "MADE AS ENGLAND" with the world as it appears in the time of Indira Gandhi's Emergency measures - or in the era of Bush, Musharraf, and Vajpayee, for that matter - signals the temporal and spatial discontinuities of "the" postcolonial itself. Saleem's "Anglepoised" writing appears to be complicit with this older order of the globe, and he struggles to come to terms with the contemporary world, a world that resists the sort of exhibition typified by Saleem's globe or the Empire Exhibition. Saleem's attempt to comprehend his contemporary world therefore draws upon the older totalizing tropes: he wonders, "is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality? Worse, am I infected, too?" (84). But this is not a specifically Indian disease, communicable as it is through residual exhibitionary rhetorics of empire: Saleem's affliction is, at least in part, a function of his identity as an Anglepoised writer, made as England.

Timothy Brennan notes that Saleem casts himself in the role of Ganesh, who "provides the culmination of national style . . . . [Saleem's] style is from Ganesh, Rushdie implies, simply because it represents Midnight's Children's and India's elephantiasis of style" (116). For Brennan, Ganesh's "style amounts to the chaotic 'sum total of everything' - an appropriate paradigm for diversity, but . . . 'everything' means not just India. If neither Saleem nor [his companion] Padma create[s] 'true' national images, it is because the truth of postwar nationalism is international" (117). Under Brennan's reading, Saleem as elephant-headed writer is authentically Indian, suffering from elephantiasis, the "Indian disease," and - in attempting to represent his world - offering the elephant-god as an image of globality. I would suggest, though, that Ganesh as Indian style, India as elephant(iasis), is at least in part an illusory image cast by the Anglepoised light of Saleem's narrative: Saleem notes that "January 26th, Republic Day, is a good time for illusionists. When the huge crowds gather to watch elephants and fireworks, the city's tricksters go out to earn their living" (494). The spectacle of the elephant becomes a diversion from and alibi for more significant things happening elsewhere: while "the colorful, touristic elephant-taxi India . . . is presently being sold to the world," Rushdie notes in a recent essay, entire states are suffering from drought and disease ("A Dream" 196). The author hopes that such Anglepoised diversions will cease, that the "fake glamorizing is coming to an end, and the India of elephants, tigers, peacocks, emeralds, and dancing girls is being laid to rest" ("Step across" 375). This is the exotic India of Imperial Exhibitions and the zoo humain, which can only ever appear to be out of place in Britain and Europe. We ought to be wary of the way in which Saleem's assumption of Ganesh's mantle also functions as an illusion, a diversion.

From what is such an Anglepoised discourse of postcolonial exhibition exhibition diverting us? Is it possible to lay to rest - indeed, to bury - the zoological, exhibitionary India and still feel, with confidence and optimism, that the world is whole and at one's feet? Ian Baucom argues that "the challenge of the global is that of rethinking the form of the globe - rethinking the globe not . . . as a sort of Wallersteinian world system . . . but as something closer to a route work" (170). Saleem's narrative does not necessarily perform this "route work," invested as it still is in that older globe, "MADE AS ENGLAND." It does, though, investigate what Baucom calls the "hauntological": while global expansion concentrates political power, capital, and cultural in discrete nodes (global cities such as London and New York, for instance), the enrichment of these global nodes also renders them "the scenes of the haunting return of difference" (162). The "great stage of the world" in this aspect of globality will be haunted by the differential performances not only of the past but also of the present - perhaps in the way that Saleem is haunted by the vision of his still-alive sister's slowly decaying face, which superimposes itself upon that of his lover Parvati in moments of intimacy. Under the machinations of the "hauntological," Bono's exhibition of Rushdie at Wembley must inevitably bear traces of those earlier Wembley exhibitions: Zooropa will continue to be marked by the vestiges of its past performances on the global stage, as well as by the consequences of its current acts on the cramped boards of home. It should perhaps also be haunted by another kind of difference, the "beleaguered isolation" from globalization's chief "route work" that pointedly asks, "Who is Bono?"

Avoiding the hauntological altogether in an era of increasing globality is perhaps impossible, although several tropes present themselves as routes of avoidance. There is the Romantic drive to escape and to forget global geometries - and geographies - of power altogether: "I want to run / I want to hide / . . . / Where the streets have no name," sang Bono in 1987. There is also the fatalism that understands such geographies of power to be fixed, inevitable: Midnight's Children's Mary Pereira insists that it is "No good worrying . . . . Better you drink your Coke; nothing is going to change." Such impulses to forget or concede the form of the networks continually battering and binding our globe (no longer "MADE AS ENGLAND") work despite themselves to secure what Rushdie in a meditation on globalization calls "the metamorphosis of Planet Earth into McWorld" ("Globalization" 267), a world in which all of us run the haunting risk of being permanently out of place in the zoo humain of that world, a world in which no mere performance can make us feel "at home."

Works Cited

Baucom, Ian. "Globalit, Inc.; or, The Cultural Logic of Global Literary Studies." PMLA 116.1
(January 2001): 158-172.

Bennett, Arnold. The Author's Craft. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Chesterton, G. K. "Our Notebook." Illustrated London News 19 July 1924: 104.

MacKenzie, John M. Propaganda and Empire. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1986.

Rushdie, Salman. "Adapting Midnight's Children." 1999. In Step Across This Line, 70-79.

_____. "A Dream of Glorious Return." 2000. In Step Across This Line, 180-209.

_____. "Globalization." 1999. In Step Across This Line, 267-69.

_____. "Imaginary Homelands." Imaginary Homelands. 1981. New York: Penguin, 1991. 9-

_____. "In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again." 2000. In Step Across This Line. 49-57.

_____. "In the Voodoo Lounge." 1995. In Step Across This Line. 87-91.

_____. "Influence." 1999. In Step Across This Line. 62-69.

_____. Midnight's Children. 1981. New York: Penguin, 1991.

_____. "Step Across This Line." 2002. In Step Across This Line. 347-81.

_____. Step Across This Line. New York: Random House, 2002.

_____. "U2." 2001. In Step Across This Line. 94-98.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 1847-48. Ed. Peter L. Shillingsburg. New York:
W. W. Norton, 1994.

U2. "Where the Streets Have No Name." The Joshua Tree. Island Records, 1987.

_____. "Zooropa." Zooropa. Island Records, 1993.

"Wembley and Its Millions of Visitors." Illustrated London News 19 July 1924: 106-107.


Return to Top of Page

Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MMLA Page