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Antoinette Burton. Empire in Question: Reading, Writing and Teaching British Imperialism. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4880-1. Price: US$94.95/£67.00

  • John Plotz

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  • John Plotz
    Brandeis University

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Imagine three scholarly ideal types: the theorist, the textualist, and the tactician. Theorists universalize, they put forward propositions. Jean Luc Nancy on presence and Harry Frankfurt on bullshit, diverse as their politics and their beliefs are, are alike in arguing their way from axioms to (potentially timeless) conclusions. They aim to command readers’ assent to what has self-evidently always has been the case.

Textualists read: they unpack telling encounters with artworks, or, more broadly, with “working objects” (to borrow Lorraine Daston’s suggestive term). Hypotheses or convictions come into contact with a particular artwork or event, and the collision produces microscopic examination of how a particular case inflects the general: if theorists aim to be right, textualists aim to have good judgment.

Tacticians, though, act: they write interventions. And to intervene always means to be aware that your own account is shaped as much by your present company as by the past into which you delve: their notion of what a particular event in 1865 looks like has everything to do with what people started saying about similar events in 2010. These scholars are attuned to Benjamin’s version of dialectical historicism, which insists that the jetzzeit always threatens to pop out of every purported past—or to Faulkner’s similar credo “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In extreme forms each member of this trinity has problems. Propositions grow arid: Frankfurt’s bs detector ignores significant differences between Enlightenment, Romantic, Existential and Postmodern notions of truth and reference. Encounters can lose their exemplary or casuistic virtue and shrink to mere points of light: Cleanth Brooks never disguised his hostility to critics who wanted his brilliant isolated readings not just to be, but also to mean. And interventions? They fade, victims either of their failure (who ever thought that?) or of their success (everyone knows that). In Gertrude Stein’s account of “composition as explanation,” every intervention is doomed because any given artwork (or event) is always meaningless until the moment it becomes meaningful—at which point it has always been meaningful, so that any intervention on its behalf seems absurd, overactive and pointless.

This is an admiring review of a tactician by an avowed textualist. So alongside my professional disclaimer (Antoinette Burton and I taught at the same university for a short time, and one of her many edited collections included an essay of mine) is another disclaimer: I can sense only at a remove the tactical urgency that drives Burton—who is currently Professor of History at the University of Illinois and, alongside numerous articles and edited collections, author of four previous monographs: The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau (2007), Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home and History in Late Colonial India (2003), At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (1998), and Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (1994).

Just finishing up the second decade of a brilliant career that has helped reshape both gender and imperial history, and especially the crucial intersection between them, Burton reflects on her intellectual path in this collection of some of her most influential articles. The book is made up of 16 previously published pieces, bookended with a pair of 2011 pieces that reflect on the changing historical moments that inspired the original articles and up the ante by proposing a fresh intervention for the field as it now stands. The first seven pieces are marked as surveys of the scholarly moment (1994 to 2008), while the second seven are labeled “Theory into Practice.” In both sections, though, Burton unhesitatingly locates not only what her research shows, but also why it matters at the instant of publication; how it might reshape current scholarly practices (in “Archive Stories” which gathers data about the gendering of archival research, the hints for future practice are especially pointed and salient). In 1994, for example, we learn that it still seemed provocative to argue (as Burton does in “Rules of Thumb”) that postcoloniality had made studying the domestic empire inescapable. In fact most of Burton’s interventions in the 1990s revolved around the intersection between gender studies and the question of domestic empire or Greater Britain as it was manifested in the metropole.

Terrifically successful simply as a collection of essays, then, the book also demands serious consideration as a stock-taking of the field of imperial and postimperial history (as well as several related fields where labels proliferate: feminist and gender history? cultural and colonial studies? South Asian history?). Burton is also clearly a valuable enough ally that quite different scholars are eager to claim her as an intellectual ally. This is even visible in the volume’s Foreword and Afterword. Mrinalini Sinha opens the book by taking Burton’s work to be cautioning against the trend towards globalizing imperial history, while C. A. Bayly’s equally complimentary afterword insists that Burton has opened up the “transnational sphere for study” (294), in which the “white dominions” are particularly ripe for a globally inflected reassessment (299). Burton herself diplomatically makes gestures towards both camps, but her afterword outs her current work in yet another camp: her project of “decentering India from the heart of imperial history” is not simply by Burton’s account about looking at peripheral trans-imperial culture flow (see also Enseng Ho and Isobel Hofmeyr’s work on Indian Ocean contact zones) but also about a robust comparative imperial studies (283). Burton, though, seems not yet ready to relinquish the category of the imperial (including the Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian ambits) as a lens through which to view world history and its systems.

I can understand why Sinha and Bayly find Burton worth fighting over. Both historians take Burton’s key contribution to be the idea that scholars must approach the study of the intersection of gender and imperial history without preconceptions, and with a willingness to discover that what initially looks like the “side of the angels” is not always so virtuous. In her essay on the zenana, for instance, Burton shows that those Britons who fought for women’s right to become medical doctors might do so not just by claiming that women of the zenana needed them but also that imperial duty made a woman’s right to serve in India into a melodramatically sacred fulfillment of an overtly imperial destiny.

There is also, however, a second kind of intervention at play in Burton’s work, one that ought to attract literary scholars’ serious and sustained attention. This is her defense of cultural against social history—or rather her insistence that the two need not be in conflict. It is a truism among most literary scholars that the sphere of cultural production, far from being an outgrowth of economic or political forces, has a life and an efficacy of its own. But Burton is no literary critic manqué. Rather, far from locating that cultural life within an aesthetic sphere that requires a robust defense of its autonomy, she instead sees culture much as Judith Butler sees performance, as everywhere and nowhere at once, a discursive realm that is never the entirety of what’s under investigation yet is an inescapable dimension of what’s being studied.

Burton points out how well aware the persons she studies are of that cultural realm, and the ways that narrative, images, and ideologies flow through it, taking on a life of their own. To live only in sets of circulating words may seem something that only the characters in novels ever pull off (it is what Humbert Humbert dreams of as a blessed fate for himself and Lolita). But Burton shows another way that people can live principally in texts: when their actions are primarily geared towards presenting their story in the best light in the public sphere of letters. To me, one of the high points of this volume was the story that Burton tells of a dispersed and disputatious public realm, of misunderstandings, rumors and deliberately circulated misinformation that form the totality of the “real” meaning of public events. Burton has a totally unexpected take, for example, on Rukhmabai’s presentation of herself as a child bride and victim of Indian male violence, and on Dadhabai Naoroji’s 1892 election as MP as an indirect result of his having been called a “black man” by Lord Salisbury during an unsuccessful parliamentary run in 1886 (215). The former case study turns on a series of legal battles about the British government’s power to compel Rukhmabai to go to her husband’s house. The latter charts the ways in which Salisbury’s misapplication (in Victorian racial terms) of the word “black” triggered a kind of compensatory backlash that allowed Naoroji to triangulate himself away from Africanness to appear a more plausible candidate. Both chapters brilliantly unpack not simply what happened, but how it was reported and how each actor’s awareness of what was being said about him or her in public shaped further actions.

Baudrillard might describe such media matters as simulacral effects, demonstrating a mediated world’s fundamentally simulated nature, but Burton has a different approach to the significance of the ways in which political figures are aware of their impact on the media. She mobilizes to great effect Judith Butler’s notion of “excitable speech”—the key to determining political outcomes, she argues, is what audiences make of things said (like the phrase “black man”) under the pressure of the public gaze, and with a sense that the “reality” of what is done by those words is always a product not just of underlying structural realities, not just of contingent day-to-day happenings, but also of how those happenings are unfolded into the public view. Thus, for example, Burton’s reading of which English newspapers Indian National Congress activists chose to reprint in volumes detailing the “black man” controversy uncovers a rich history of ways in which inflammatory articles were the most likely to be re-circulated in India.

What Burton ultimately reveals, especially in these most tightly focused case studies, is a long, deep, often unacknowledged history of media-savvy tactics on the part of those who are often assumed to be doing nothing more than asserting themselves straightforwardly in the print marketplace. Here she seems to me clearly to have an advantage over theorists or textualists. It takes an intervention to spot an earlier history of interventions, you might say; it’s tactics all the way down.

Finally, on top of all my other admiration for this book, I was oddly moved when Burton let the reader in on a little bit of the intellectual history behind her methodology. As she tells it, her scholarly trajectory was shaped by work she completed during a lonely Fulbright year in the UK (1987-88) and by the first set of controversial claims that she made in work stemming from that archival pilgrimage, claims about “the centrality of women to empire and of empire to the Victorian women’s suffrage movement” (9). In her work in the early 1990’s tracing the ways that women’s suffrage relied on imperial underpinnings, she “met a combination of indifference, contempt, and outrage that for better or worse, has left indelible marks on [her] style of argumentation and [her] choice of subjects ever since” (9).

Observations like this add poignancy, and memorable depth to this collection—suggesting how our intellectual genealogies are always made out of intellectual environments not of our own making. Like Burton I lived in England twice before the age of studiousness, and like her I spent another year there in early adulthood. Both of us had ample time for angloskepticism and anglophilia to take hold, but the battles she fought and the contempt she describes meeting even as a graduate student pushed her down the path towards interventions. That year made her into a tactician—while getting caught in a 1990 Poll Tax riot probably had as much as anything to do with making me into a textualist, an experience-seeker rather than a fighter. It is another sterling virtue of Burton’s work that she made me pause to reflect on what divergences like that mean. And that, too, is an intervention.