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  • From Visibility to Visuality:Patricia Grace's Baby No-Eyes and the Cultural Politics of Decolonization

'Decolonisation' is what has to happen in the minds and understandings of everyone, including Maori, so that the issues can be properly addressed and equity brought about. There can't be equality, no matter how many catch-up policies are instigated, until the issues of racism and decolonisation are addressed.

—Patricia Grace, "Interview"

Culture loses all meaning when it is defined as cultural identity, that is as a pure and simple statement of existence. . . .

—Jean Baudrillard, "The Global and the Universal"

As soon as identity . . . is granted a final statute, as soon as it is taken for granted, it becomes perverse, artificial. But as soon as it is recognized as such, we witness a search for a new voice, a new means of expression. . . .

—Saulius Geniusas, "Baudrillard's Raw Phenomenology"

A novel may serve as a cultural barometer for its times, indicating politically significant pressure points within both hegemonic and [End Page 321] oppositional discourses, even beyond the conscious or manifest intent of the narrative or its implied author. Patricia Grace's 1998 novel, Baby No-Eyes, offers a rich depiction of contemporary cultural politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand as a complex contention between the conditions that have sustained a Maori politics of visibility and those that inform a more recently emergent culture of visuality. While the former is predicated on the representational relation of sign to referent, the latter is produced by the liberation of the sign from the referent, as witnessed most obviously in the processes of image production associated with new digital visual technologies. The onto-epistemological implications of this shift can be interpreted as having more general political import, exacerbated precisely by the contemporary cultural privilege of the visual. The novel's engagement of this palimpsestic cultural-political moment is articulated thematically around interconnected Maori cultural concerns with land and embodiment. Land and bodies figure as sites of colonial expropriation, exploitation, and violence. Infused with cultural meaning, they are also sites of continuing postcolonial struggle in the face of both colonial continuities and the "new area[s] of colonisation" characterizing contemporary western consumerist society (P. Grace, "Interview" 57).

Much of the narrative implies the apparent case for persisting with a politics of Maori visibility in opposition to the oppressive and exploitative practices of a colonially founded Pakeha majority society, and it does so through narrative strategies that have been identified as promoting the visibility of Maori cultural values. However, Baby No-Eyes also contains narrative moments suggesting that the basis for a political strategy premised on visibility (and the visibility of cultural values) is now confronted by changes in the structural order of representation, generally evoked in the novel with reference to the centrality of capacities and technologies of vision, visibility, and the visual in characters' lives. The novel's concerns, expressed through characters' struggles against the theft and the real and imagined uses of human organs and ancestral DNA, are focused on processes of reification, abstraction, and expropriation—radical decontextualization—that also haunt the assertion of cultural values in narrative strategies, tropes, and themes. Baby No-Eyes points to the increasingly compelling case for a revision of stakes and strategies to address the significance, for the cultural politics of decolonization, of the shift from a representational order, where reality is deemed to precede and to have ontological priority over the image, to a virtual order, where, beyond relations of true and false, "Reality and truth emanate from signs. The precession of the model figures the real" (V. Grace, Baudrillard's Challenge 84). Nevertheless, the novel's thematic treatment of art and the artist suggests the potential [End Page 322] for culture to be rethought through the notion of incommensurable singularity, implying a more radical decolonization than liberation in the name of cultural identity. If colonization violently reduced culture to reified signifiers of identity, to become the object of struggle in a political economy of identities, art calls up the symbolic dimension of ambivalence, gesture, and reciprocity or reversibility that culture, in this sense, disavows.1

Postcolonial Politics of Visibility

In chapter 3 of The Location of...

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