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In Romantic Imperialism, Saree Makdisi presents a richly detailed bridge between postcolonial theory and Romantic studies. On one side, we have postcolonial theory's identification of modernity as both an episteme dominated by capitalist-inflected imperialism and a force driven to absorb objects and subjects into a totalizing uniformity (geographically, ideologically, commercially); on the other, familiar authors from the romantic canon, primarily William Blake, William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, P.B. Shelley, and Byron. [1] The bridge, however, marks a contestatory space. Makdisi aligns romanticism with "anti-modernity," suggesting that it "can be partly understood as a diverse and heterogeneous series of engagements with modernization. . . . It can also be understood as a mediating discourse, through which the multitudinous political and economic facets of modernization . . . are related to each other to a greater or lesser extent, situated as parts of an overall cultural transformation" (6). Romanticism's diversity emerges dialectically, as romanticism/modernity is aligned with local/global, discontinuity/continuity, constellation/empire, resistance/dominance, "spot of time"/temporality, and nature/technology.

Makdisi begins with, and at key points returns to, James Mill's History of British India. This is a commonly cited text in discussions of early nineteenth-century orientalism and imperialism. But Makdisi's point is specific and grounds the central premise of his study:

The historical narrative into which Mill is eager to incorporate India is not so much that of British imperialism or that of capitalism, but rather the narrative of their joint transfiguration by, and convergence in, the process of modernization. Paradoxically, however, the sudden appearance of such a narrative of modernization as world history anticipates the actual (and much more gradual) convergence of capitalist and imperialist practices within the process of modernization.


For Makdisi, Mill thus clarifies the transformation of (national) whig history into (global) modern history. The work of Edward Said and Frederic Jameson, as well as Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, are clearly powerful influences here, and there is a concomitant emphasis on a twentieth-century notion of modernity (rather than, say, an Enlightenment concept of the "modern"). In Romantic Imperialism, the literature of the early nineteenth century is represented primarily in terms of its engagement with a nascent modernity, as the new assimilatory and self-consciously global history "provided the conditions for the simultaneous emergence of a discontinuous constellation of attempts to resist, or to chart out alternatives to, its history—in romanticism" (4).

Following his interest in globalization and imperialism, Makdisi situates the texts he considers in the context of geographical and economic displacements: Wordsworth's Prelude and "Michael" are linked to the rural diaspora and subsequent overflow in the cities; Scott's Waverley is associated with the clearing of the Highlands; orientalist discourse is located in the context of colonial administration and colonization; and Blake's representations of London are clarified through a discussion of the transformation of labour relations and values. Through such displacements, London and the "East," imperial core and periphery, collapse into each other: the imperial port-city absorbs global subjects, "so that one need go no further than London to see much of the entire planet" (31), and the orient is defined through its relationship to the core, in "the end of a quest for otherness and a troubled beginning of a new quest for sameness" (121).

As the key site of the "convergence of capitalist and imperialist practices" (2), London occupies both "the space of empire" and the "abstract space of capital" (31, 43). The centre and circumference of modernity, London anticipates De Quincey's nightmare vision of the orient in the threat it poses to the bourgeois subject's epistemological mastery (36). London thus becomes central to Makdisi's interesting discussion of Wordsworth's "spot of time": "it is as a refuge to the spatio-temporal flows of modernization," which overwhelm London, "that Wordsworth must construct a more stable, recognizable, and knowable kind of place: a spot of time" (43). Makdisi offers a similarly compelling extension of Blake's "Satanic wheels": "the machinic tyranny of the industrial revolution is transcoded in his works, and appears in his poetry as this complex of wheels and cogs, metaphors for both the material and the figurative processes and apparatuses of production, commerce, and domination in the Universal Empire" (159). [2]

Makdisi maps the absorption of the Orient into the space and time of empire, beginning with key statements by Sir William Jones, Edmund Burke, James Mill, and Warren Hastings. He draws on the work of such scholars as Sara Suleri and Javed Majeed to suggest that, in the British imagination, the Orient begins the Romantic period as an unassimilable Other and closes the period as a yet-to-be-assimilated region: "the 'civilizing mission' of modern British imperialism can be seen as one of planetary 'domestication,' through which England's unfolding domestic sphere could be extended to the entire world—or rather, through which the entire world could be absorbed into the bosom of gentle English domesticity" (118).

Makdisi places Byron at the crux between the two. Byron, specifically in the early cantos of Childe Harold, is sympathetic to the potential of the Orient, as the "site of immutable difference" (121), to offer "liberatory possibilities for the critique of Western, European, English concepts, taboos, norms, and standards" (137). But he is also aware of, and influenced by, the growing power of the "modern" model in which the Orient "becomes instead a space to be cleansed, purged, and re-written" (121). For P.B. Shelley, however, the East no longer functions as a viable, autonomous space: his version of the East is "always already in ruins" (141). In Alastor, "Emptied of their peoples, the living cities of the Orient are rendered as tombs of the dead, frozen museum-piece images" (142). Thus, while Byron's East is a place in which the European can escape Europe, Shelley's is "a vacancy and an absence to be filled in . . . by the European" (143-44).

In Makdisi's study, romanticism itself looks a little like Shelley's East. Modernity here is the real force of history, varied and wide-ranging in its impact, buttressed by technology, commerce, non-fictional prose (Mill, Jones, Burke), political power and military might. Romanticism is its ineffectual spectator, uttering literary laments without socioeconomic force—the Cassandra of modernity. Makdisi thus closes with the suggestion, "Maybe it is this that lies at the heart of romanticism's uneasiness: at once seeing what the world would become, and hoping without hope that it might be different" (185).

This idea of an uneasy romanticism is a provocative one, especially if one considers the texts discussed here in relation to the more activist works contemporary with them. Next to Thelwall, Wollstonecraft, Paine, Drennan, Cobbett, and a host of others—not to mention the Luddites, protesters at Peterloo, United Irishmen, and members of the various radical organizations across Britain—the authors considered here do look rather uneasy, or at least a little uncertain as to how to proceed. Makdisi ascribes Byron's ambivalence about the Orient to a recognition of anti-modernity's potential to enable, rather than disable, modernization: "[Byron's] desire to keep this space of non-Western and anti-modern otherness intact is . . . contradicted by his increasing awareness that to do so would only accelerate its penetration by the West and by the forces and structures of modernization" (137). Makdisi thus not only offers a compelling analysis of romanticism's dialectic relation to modernity, but also invites us to consider the ways in which romanticism was susceptible to appropriation by, or even tacitly complicit in, the very modernity it opposed. One might wish for more attention to the terms on which the romantic texts considered here were suited for such an appropriation, and an interrogation of these texts' post-1837 success in the context of the forces of modernization (particularly given Wordsworth's importance in colonial curricula and the rising commercial and cultural value of Shelley's and Blake's poetry as the period of high capitalism approached). But Makdisi offers a theoretical and historical framework in which such questions can be more effectively posed, and compelling readings which serve to illustrate a finely drawn argument.

Romantic Circles Review