It's the paper I turned in about Zadie Smith's White Teeth. In it, I do forgo the "plaine style," but for now, I'm either ambitious or stupid enough to try to actually make a "new" interpretation of a literary work using current critical theory. This is the first paper I've written in graduate school I feel I wouldn't be embarrassed reading at a lit. conference. --adam
Adam M. Schenck
English 557B: Modern British Literature
Prof. Roger Bowen
12 May 2005
“’[H]e hasn’t got a disorder, he’s just a Muslim’”: Multiculturalism and Virology in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
Multiculturalism, the concept, assumes definite differences between the ways of life of different groups of people. Difference in a sense makes culture, for without comparison that which is assumed to be “normal” is indeed the normal. The “multi-” prefix of the word marks limitlessness, the “culture” base of the word is an adjective, and the “-ism” finish seems to mark a way of being, which could make one culture. Multiculturalism describes different cultures coming together to form a new one, with language, fashion and music that rapidly change according to the whims of popular culture and the youth that consume it.
Commentators on Zadie Smith’s 2000 novel White Teeth have called it the first great novel of multiculturalism, and Smith, who wrote and published the novel to great fanfare while still in her early twenties, has garnered comparisons to none other than Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But although we are aware of this multiculturalism, and can point to White Teeth as an expression of it, historically speaking, we are still in the early steps of multiculturalism, unsure of what it will mean for the culture of the future.
Jan Lowe, writing shortly after White Teeth and Zadie Smith had become a phenomenon in the United Kingdom, writes that the youthful cynicism about multiculturalism expressed by characters in the novel indicates Smith’s own optimism for a truly multicultural England. Lowe juxtaposes the stubbornness of the older generation’s unwillingness to assimilate into a multicultural society with the ease with which Smith’s youthful characters synthesize different cultures. Samad Iqbal, for example, seems forever torn by his inability to inculcate his sons to devout Islam, while those very twin sons (Magib and Millat) seem far less concerned with dogma than merely finding a place—place literally—where they can find their identity (or at least take on one that fits them).
Of course, multiculturalism and identity are indissolubly linked, and the problem of identity is the thread that connects all the characters of White Teeth, both young and old: the Iqbals’ problem with religious devotion (and Indian-Asian political history), the Bowdens’ eschatological Christianity (and British colonialism in Jamaica), the Chalfens’ scientism and atheism (mixed with Judaism and Irishness), and to a lesser degree, Archibald Jones’s blue-collar Englishness and his daughter Irie’s longing to be more “white” in terms of hair and body type all indicate a wrestling with identity that could be called a multicultural theme. There is a character that is “more English than the English” (Smith 336), Samad’s son Magib, whom he sends to be educated in Bangladesh, but no character is strictly, traditionally “English” (save, perhaps, for the racist J.P. Hamilton).
It is this redefinition of Englishness through the lens of multicultural North London that could be earning Smith her lofty praise. Yet what a reading of White Teeth should do is help define what “multiculturalism” is, or could be, instead of merely asserting the novel’s position as “the first multicultural novel.” The master trope of postmodern thought can do much of this work. Percolating up at nearly the same time, the “viral” thought of Jacques Derrida and William S. Burroughs could help in defining the spread of multiculturalism. As Thierry Bardini argues in “Hypervirus: A Clinical Report,” in the postmodern landscape, language = virus, to which I want to add another possibility: language = virus = multiculturalism. Cultural forms are essentially knowledge expressed via performance, but in their performativity, cultural forms are unacknowledged or unconscious knowledge. If culture is the sum of our daily performance that we act out but may not recognize as a learned form as such, then multiculturalism is the process of how new and different cultural forms are learned and performed at a subconscious level. This framework for the multicultural in White Teeth can do much to explain the psychology of Smith’s characters and even the polyglot wizardry of Smith’s writing.
Can one recognize a multicultural society? Burroughs writes in The Electric Revolution (an out of print but seminal work for thinking about the virus as a metaphor), “It is worth noting that if a virus were to attain a state of wholly benign equilibrium with its host cell it is unlikely that its presence would be readily detected OR THAT IT WOULD NECESSARILY BE RECOGNIZED AS A VIRUS.” The word “virus” itself brings with it emotional energy: viruses attack, debilitate, kill. The term could theoretically be used in a similar way that the language of “disease” was used rhetorically by German Nazis to justify racial persecution. Thus “multiculturalism” could be argued to be an ugly expression of cultural contagion. This is the opposite of how I want to use the term. As a matter of science, a virus is a set of data that may infect individual cells and begin to alter how the cells communicate and replicate. The virus interrupts the basic communication between DNA which directs cell function. Some scientists have argued that viruses are actually “lost” bits of DNA. As Derrida points out, “The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication. Even from the biological standpoint, this is what happens with a virus; it derails a mechanism of the communicational type, its coding and decoding” (qtd. in Bardini). Many have noted White Teeth’s comedic humor and the ironic detachment of its narrator, both of which allow a randomness and play that set the novel apart from so much else in the current Anglophone high literary scene. Multiculturalism, then, is not the indication of randomness and comedic chaos; instead it is the very randomness itself. A virus works not from outside cells but from inside them, creating a chaos of communication—infecting the very writing of the cell, its DNA.
This is what scares many people. Instead of harboring a contagion, a virus actually becomes its host, and we can’t really know whether or not we have a virus, or how much of it we have, unless the body’s protective defenses weaken enough for the virus to wreak havoc. In the Derridean sense, the outside is the inside, and the virus has become the postmodern master trope because of this. As regards multiculturalism, one can’t guard against it, because it’s already in you, part of you, merely waiting to be expressed, performed at the social level.
Jan Lowe’s dichotomy between the older generation of White Teeth’s characters (the first-generation immigrants to London) and the younger generation (the immigrants’ children) is helpful because indeed, a reading of the novel shows Samad fighting against English culture while his sons become enmeshed in that culture. Samad, originally from what is now Bangladesh, fought for the British Empire in World War II, befriending blue-collar Englishman Archibald Jones while they served in a tank in Romania. Samad eventually emigrates to London, as subjects of the British Empire are allowed to do. There, he works as a waiter (despite having an unusable injured hand) and fights an inner battle to stay true to his Muslim roots while inside a London he views as decadent, foreign and Western. Yet it is he who chooses to accompany his friend Archie so often to O’Connell’s, a dive pub for middle-aged male émigrés. As Samad says, “’I have been corrupted by England, I see that now—my children, my wife, they too have been corrupted. I think maybe I have made the wrong friends’” (Smith 120), it seems he wouldn’t feel at home anywhere, literally. His “England” is both a place and a culture, and his is the language of the outside (England) infecting a pure inside (Islamic religious devotion). That this contagion of English life infects his family results in great anxiety for Samad. Sure, he can down a few pints of Guinness at the pub, but the lack of his family’s devotion and “roots” haunts him throughout the novel. Samad even chastises himself for his own hypocrisy, realizing that he has taken on the “virus” of the West, which in his case, could be defined as acting against the black and white dichotomies of Islam. This movement is illustrated by his saying, “Can’t say fairer than that” (117), a sentiment of compromise, of acknowledging the intrusion of English Western culture and its gray spaces, its comfortableness sans dogma, faith and roots.
Samad’s decisions are already compromised at the moment that he thinks in capitalist economic terms. “Samad gave up masturbation so that he might drink. It was a deal, a business proposition, that he had made with God….And since that day Samad had enjoyed relative spiritual peace and many a frothy Guinness with Archibald Jones…Can’t say fairer than that.” Samad may not be a businessman, but his thought process indicates a kind of viral knowledge—that of economic compromise—that one assumes could not occur in an Islamic setting, where one may only surrender to God (which is the meaning of the word “Islam”), surely not bargain with God as if a human were on equal terms—with Allah! And as much as Samad tries to flush his gray-space, compromising thought, the more anxious he becomes. For quite simply, once the virus is in the body, it can’t be eradicated; only its effects may be prevented or suppressed. Even those HIV positive patients for whom tests indicate no presence of the virus in the body are still defined as “positive.” The virus is at low, undetectable levels. Thus Samad blames and projects his inner turmoil, blaming “England,” while at some level acknowledging that he can never return to his “homeland,” which the narrator points out to be a “magical fantasy word,” an impossible ideal (332).
Also for Samad, multiculturalism and the problem of desire form a parallel viral movement. Desire comes from lack, and just as much as Samad seeks to solve the problem of his family’s lack of roots, the more surely he ensures that the result will bring the unexpected. His destruction of his son Millat’s collection of popular culture artifacts only makes his son more rebellious, the pile of stuff of which Samad’s wife Alsana lights “with heavy heart,” saying “’Either everything is sacred or nothing is’” (197). Of course, it’s not the albums, T-shirts, posters and VCR tapes which cause Millat’s multicultural identity. Like a fetishist, he desires and collects them not to fill a cultural absence, but to remind himself of the desire that cannot be permanently fulfilled, only temporarily sated, which is the nature of desire. For in this novel, identity cannot be fixed. Thus “multiculturalism” marks a form of cultural desire which connects it to the sentiment expressed by Samad: “roots were roots and roots were good” (161). Multiculturalism becomes “roots” of another form. So not only does cultural knowledge act in a viral way, so too does desire itself, forming deep in the recesses of the mind, expressed from the inside out, altering the nature of knowledge itself.
Even history acts like a virus in White Teeth. The major plot occurrence that finishes the novel is an example, where the forgotten past returns to show characters that their actions unconsciously prescribe their fates, as in Greek tragedy. Multiculturalism and history also meet in a sequence late in the novel: “Because this is the only other thing about immigrants (‘fugees, émigrés, travelers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow” (385). One could say, then: history = shadow = virus. Or, history is a virus from which one can only try to escape. Or, as Smith puts it, “And the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons” (135). This pertains to multiculturalism in defining it as showing new culture but just as much existing in “roots,” or historical space. Multiculturalism is about new cultural forms meeting old ones, a synthesis more complex than simple. There is no “Happy Multicultural Land” (384) for Smith because there is history. As she writes, “Because if you can divide reality inexhaustibly into parts…the result is insupportable paradox. You are always still, you move nowhere, there is no progress” (385). History as virus, then, replicates and suffuses itself so deeply that there can be no escape, no “outside” history.
And history acts equally upon both the older and younger generations, although they react differently to it. In a novel with the size and scope of White Teeth, choosing which characters and events to comment on becomes a challenge. But it seems that Samad’s son Millat, with his good looks, raw sexuality and adoption of an outlaw role is central to explaining the multiculturalism of the novel. His brother Magib preceded him out of the womb by two minutes, and their narrative follows a Cain versus Abel arc. One could point to the virus of brotherly competition, but more near the crux of the problem of multiculturalism is Millat’s ambivalent relationship to his two cultures, English and Islamic. Like his father Samad, Millat is a character in search of identity. After being picked on for his race as an adolescent, he adopts a tough guy, “Raggastani” look. And later, again searching for a place after leaving his family for the indulgent Chalfens, he finds KEVIN, an extremist Muslim brotherhood. Yet as much as he tries to adopt the cultural forms of KEVIN, he cannot escape the force of the Hollywood narrative, which becomes for him a sort of virus providing him with identity:
Now, he knew, he knew that if you wanted an example of the moribund, decadent, degenerate, oversexed, violent state of Western capitalist culture…you couldn’t do much better than Hollywood cinema. And he knew…that the “gangster” movie, the Mafia genre, was the worst example of that. And yet…it was the hardest thing to let go. He would give every spliff he’d ever smoked and every woman he’d ever fucked to retrieve the films his mother had burned… (368)
Herein lies the essential problem of the viral nature of multiculturalism. The American films with “Brando…Pacino…Liotta” provide Millat with cultural knowledge that allows him to adopt a performative identity that gives him “roots,” even if those roots are only in a few films. Like his father’s constant retelling of the story of Mangal Pande, thought to be an ancestor and famous as the first Indian mutineer against British colonial hegemony, the cultural form of the violent, masculine outsider “determined to prove himself, determined to run the clan, determined to beat the rest” (369) provides Millat with a sort of neural pathway from which he cannot break, like how a cell infected with a virus will follow its DNA inscription, no matter whether the directions are good or bad. The important part for Millat is that he find an outlet for “all the anger inside him.” And he does eventually find this, to tragic consequences.
One could say of White Teeth that randomness rules, and Millat’s seemingly magical sexuality could indicate this, but another reading would suggest that the randomness developed in the novel follows the internal logic of the virus. For a virus and its effects would seem to be random, a glitch in the system, but in actuality the virus is that which gives the random its logic. Women do not seem to have defenses against Millat’s looks:
All women, of every shade, from midnight-black to albino, were Millat’s. They slipped him phone numbers, they gave him blow jobs in public places….Now, don’t be jealous. There’s no point. There have always been and always will be people who simply exude sex (who breathe it, who sweat it). (306)
The easy part is the explanation of this instance of magical realism in White Teeth; we could chalk it up to transcendent beauty, sublimity, or any other number of ideals, or call it just another trope. But just as with the postmodern aphorism of “the outside is the inside,” one must also acknowledge that much randomness is systematic, in Zadie Smith’s writing as well as outside it. Millat’s looks cause an anarchy of beauty, but this biological abnormality is an inscription by biology itself. Just as shocking as Millat’s magnetism is the fact that it is repetitive, but not necessarily repeatable. It’s in the genes, as they say.
And just as women have no defenses against Millat’s good looks, so too do people lack the resources to even recognize that they have been “infected” by multiculturalism, or cultural knowledge that we inhabit (and that inhabits us) but we cannot recognize as such. One such example could be in how Zadie Smith writes about World War II. It was not until about a decade after WWII that the knowledge of Nazi war crimes became part of the popular consciousness—part of culture, really—with the establishment of Holocaust studies. Nowadays, US senators make comparisons of current policy to those of the Nazis and Hitler, which usually results in some complaints from the Anti-Defamation League, but the fact that senators revert to that rhetoric indicates its dissemination in our culture. And likewise, the number of six million killed in the Holocaust is rightfully singed into our minds as an indication of Nazi inhumanity. But this was not so while WWII was happening. When US soldiers liberated concentration camps, they saw emaciated, starved people, while when I went to the Dachau concentration camp museum, I saw the narrative behind the pictures of the starved people, which was not in the cultural consciousness of the liberating soldiers. This makes for a model of viral backformation, where the following would appear to be a truthful account, but one which couldn’t have appeared in 1945:
“Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. A young Frenchman. A prodigy. Very brilliant. He has worked in a scientific capacity for the Nazis since before the war. On the sterilization program, and later the euthanasia policy. Internal German matters.” (90)
The description is further unlikely coming from the mouth of a Russian soldier, the character whose dialogue the above is made up of. There is a definite difference in how Nazis are portrayed in literature and film as we move further away from the end of WWII. How would a Russian know about the hush-hush sterilization program of the Nazis, or the euthanasia policy, or even the Nazis’ use of people in scientific experiments, which is inferred in this quote? It’s not that Smith is inaccurate here; in fact, she is spot on, according to our own current cultural knowledge. But her very accuracy in depicting a cultural model for a Faustian Nazi scientist shows at the micro level how multiculturalism works, because we must assume that a writer such as her would want to be as truthful to the times as possible. Her archetypal Nazi scientist couldn’t have been recognized as an archetype when this fictional dialogue is supposed to have taken place. That this archetype bubbles up here indicates the viral movement of cultural information, the unrecognized way in which knowledge that we didn’t know we had so often comes out during performance (here, in writing) of one kind or another.
Another suggestion could be that this seemingly offhand portrait of Perret is a plot virus, destined to return later in the narrative, a formulation which would make author Zadie Smith an “implanter” of the virus. This beckons another plot line, that of Marcus Chalfen and his FutureMouse (©!) project. An atheist Jew, Chalfen is the great promoter of “Chalfenism,” which for Smith is a rather ridiculous form of English progressive liberal thought: ostensibly open-minded and generous, but in actuality insular and pedantic. The narrator seems to make satire of Chalfen’s inability to see or think outside of his bubble, such as in an episode where meeting a reader of his book (written for a popular audience) fills him with surprise when he realizes that she thinks his FutureMouse project is “’…like being God!...It’s just unnatural’” (346). To which he responds via interior dialogue: “People focused on the mouse in a manner that never failed to surprise him. They seemed unable to think of the animal as a site, a biological site for experimentation into heredity, into disease, into mortality. The mouseness of the mouse seemed inescapable.” There is much, we find, that is inescapable in White Teeth, and for Marcus “mouseness” must seem a sort of interpretive virus, the thing he wishes people could just get beyond in order to see his experiments as objectively benefiting all humanity:
Creating mice whose very bodies did exactly what Marcus told them. And always with humanity in mind—a cure for cancer, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s—always with the firm belief in the perfectibility of all life, in the possibility of making it more efficient, more logical (for illness was, to Marcus, nothing more than bad logic on the part of the genome… (260)
Marcus Chalfen’s way of thinking seems to parallel the strict black and white thought of the KEVIN members: at a visceral level hostile to the outside, the random, the unaccountable. The quote sounds religious, and that is the comparison that Magib uses in an attempt to convince his brother Millat of the rightness of the FutureMouse experiment, which the members of KEVIN strongly oppose. Science and religion have the same end, really, which is perfection of life on one hand, and the perfection of God making for righteous life on the other. Both, significantly, are based around an anxiety of influence regarding difference and the random. As a press release written by Magib says: “The FutureMouse© holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history, where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate” (357). In White Teeth, both science and religion are formed to address the essential problem of the virus, that which wreaks havoc from the inside out, which is an ontological position neither science nor religion seem prepared to deal with. Indeed, for Marcus, “…illness was…nothing more than bad logic on the part of the genome…” (260). The virus is part of the genome!
This is why the virus causes so much anxiety, and also why the multicultural likewise causes so much anxiety. The virus is at once presence and absence, which brings the interaction of the native and the immigrant into focus:
But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance. (272)
The native fears presence, while the immigrant fears erasure or absence. The virus, at once presence and absence, connects the seemingly opposed anxieties. Thus multiculturalism is not merely a trope that Zadie Smith uses; it is the trope that uses her. That, after all, is the liminal nature of writing and reading: we cannot be the ultimate arbitrators of neither what comes in nor what comes out. And that may be as good a definition of “multiculturalism” one can find. It is this peculiarly viral ambiguity that might spur Smith to write on her final page:
But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. And as Archie knows, it’s not like that. It’s never been like that. (448)
Just as much as we would like to easily separate past and future, inside and outside, the predictable from the random, and every other dichotomy of an easily assumed separation and difference, this is ultimately “the myth, the wicked lie” that we tell ourselves, at a deep cultural level, that the way we think makes the world. But, “…as Archie knows, it’s not like that.” Separation is only a postponement; multiculturalism is our fate because of how knowledge itself works. Yet we will always be haunted by the radical in-betweenness which is the virus.
Bardini, Thierry. “Hypervirus: A Clinical Report.” CTHEORY. 12 May 2006
Burroughs, William S. The Electronic Revolution. 1970. Expanded Media Editions,
published by Bresche Publikationen, Germany. 10 May 2006.
Gilman, Sander L. “’We’re Not Jews’: Imagining Jewish History and Jewish Bodies in
Contemporary Multicultural Literature.” Modern Judaism 23.2 (2003): 126-155.
Project Muse. University of Arizona Library, Tucson, AZ. 10 May 2005
Lowe, Jan. “No More Lonely Londoners.” Small Axe 9.5 (2001): 166-180. Project Muse.
University of Arizona Library, Tucson, AZ. 10 May 2006 <http://www.muse.jhu.edu.eproxy.library.arizona.edu/journals/small_axe/v005/5.1lowe.pdf>.
McFee, Gordon. “Are Jews Central to the Holocaust?” The Holocaust History Project. 11 May
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Vintage, 2001.
 Page 358 in Smith.
 See Lowe.
 Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Sen. Rick Durbin (D-IL) are examples.