O'Quinn, "Introduction"

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The Containment and Re-Deployment of English India


Daniel J. O'Quinn, University of Guelph

  1. If we are to understand Romanticism as an institutional nexus with cultural, political and social effects then the challenge of articulating the relationship between literary culture and emergent forms of governmentality travels by way of the Indian sub-continent. This volume of Romantic Praxis started as a somewhat polemical intervention in the 1997 NASSR conference at McMaster University which operated under The Pass of Sichi Gulley the thematic rubric of "Romanticism and its Others." I proposed a session on English India aimed not only at questioning the belatedness of colonial discourse analysis in Romantic studies, but also at re-orienting this emergent interest to questions of institutional effects. The recent discussions regarding the redefinition of Romanticism as the period between 1750 and 1850 for the purposes of staving off the institutional encroachments of the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while largely a matter of public relations, pose urgent political questions regarding the spatial and temporal reach of Romantic studies. Within that temporal frame where precisely does one locate British literature?

  2. At the risk of making the efforts of my contributors bear more weight than they were designed to bear, I want to approach this question historically in order to sketch one possibility for the "patient labor required for our impatient demand for liberty" (133). Invoking the final sentence of Foucault's "What is Enlightenment?" has a multiple purpose here. The salient feature of Kant's famous essay is his emphasis on how asking historico-philosophical questions of the present necessarily poses questions regarding the state and, more particularly, the art of government. The historical period presided over—at least in part—by the academic construct Romanticism marks a crucial moment when, according to Foucault ("Governmentality"), Ann Laura Stoler, and Ian Hunter, key aspects of governmentality were increasingly detached from the state form. The complex deployment of sexuality which features so prominently in the emergence of bio-political forms of governance and the consolidation of state racism animates much of the cultural, social and material production in both colony and metropole. However, these re-alignments in economic and social policy, whose impact on representations both political and aesthetic is profound, remain unelaborated despite important historical and literary scholarship over the last ten years.

  3. Part of the impulse for this volume was rememorative, for even a cursory glance at the popular print media from 1765 to 1813 indicates the extent to which the metropolitan population was concerned with governmental matters in India. As H. V. Bowen A View of the Fort of Gwaliorhas persuasively argued the metropolitan population was extraordinarily ignorant not only of the culture of the peoples colonized by the East India Company, but also of the economics of colonial activity. However, despite this sanctioned ignorance the interest in the regulation and management both of people and capital was both detailed and wide-ranging. The public scandals surrounding Clive and Hastings and the celebration of Cornwallis and later administrators of imperial power speak to differing colonial problematics, but in all instances one sees a repeated subordination of the fact of colonial violence to the form and constitution of colonial regulation. The transference of English colonial activity from the East India Company to the British state was arguably as significant as the American revolution—albeit in different ways—for the necessary re-imagination of the British imperial project. Like the impact of the American revolution on British self-stylization, the cultural negotiation with the Indian sub-continent requires a significant re-engagement with the problem of nationhood and of the state. I raise the historical spectre of the American colonies because the careful modulation of revolutionary constituent power into its constituted form so admirably detailed by Antonio Negri is matched by a reverse phenomenon in the British metropole wherein the statization of the colonial economy is undertaken to avoid future tears in the map of empire. We could see the cultural work of Romanticism as a correlative prophylactic venture whose legacy is still operative.

  4. The endurance of that prophylaxis forces me somewhat reluctantly to enter the realm of intemperate polemic which is of course always haunted by discomfort. To state the issue bluntly: is the belatedness of our discipline's response to the challenge of post-coloniality constitutive of romantic praxis both historically and in our present moment? The discomfort here goes beyond the fact that the question immediately prompts a list of valuable essays and books written by scholars to whose efforts we are all indebted. If it were simply a matter of generating a discipline-exonerating bibliography—i.e. if it were simply a question of knowledge—then there would be no need for this demonstration of embarrassment. However, the discomfort goes beyond that of knowledge into the realm of ethics and as such demands that we address the question's disturbing assertion. I believe we must consider the belatedness as a strategy of avoidance that both conceals and reveals the use of history in imperial discourse that emerges with Romanticism itself.

  5. After all, the British functionaries of the East India Company and the writers who represented India for the metropolitan audience tended to need a similar historical displacement. The best indicator here is perhaps the first volume of Asiatick Researches for it reveals a fascination with the archeological, the lost and barely recoverable. And yet, especially in the case of William Jones, this sense of coming too late emerges out of a desire to develop strategies for managing colonial populations, for circumventing the role of the Pandits in the administration of the law by predating them. The sense of coming too late to an already tightly woven social fabric is the perennial problem of conquest and colonization for the very economics of trade rely on mediations which despite all assertions otherwise, involve social interaction. What is interesting about Jones—and what perhaps explains why he receives so little attention in our current historical moment—is the degree to which he emphasizes the necessary and difficult task of thinking through the colonial problematic in a world historical frame. That task, as Jones demonstrates, requires an extraordinary level of historical knowledge and linguistic facility. Len Findlay's "'[T]hat Liberty of Writing': Incontinent Ordinance in 'Oriental' Jones," which opens this collection, gives an ample sense of the depth of Jones's learning and emphasizes an underappreciated aspect of Jones's career—i.e. that his activities both prior to and during his involvement with the East India Company are fundamentally connected to the history of liberalism. The desire for "freedom" and its collateral violence are mutually constitutive in ways that read all too readily into our present geopolitical circumstances. Intriguingly, the current neo-liberal rhetoric of globalization amounts to a re-vivification of a position rendered temporarily obsolete by the early nineteenth century. By the time of Macauley's "Minute on Indian Education," the metropole's patience for such a difficult engagement had elapsed and Jones's legal translations lost their value as colonial tools and were re-designated as examples of arcane knowledge. It is this shift from tool to scholarship that deserves our attention for Jones's work is superceded by far more instrumental forms of knowledge production. In the realm of linguistics, British attention shifts from Sanskrit to vernacular languages. As Rita Raley argues in "A teleology of Letters; or, from a 'Common Source' to a Common Language," that shift is indicative of a change in governmental relations. If Jones's activities could be seen as a strategy suited to the governing practices of the East India Company which operated through the mobilization of alliances and resentments of pre-existing power structures, then Gilchrist's investment in the use value of translation and language acquisition is an apt expression of the erasure of the pre-colonial India presupposed by the administration of the colony by the British state. To quote Gilchrist's shockingly precise epigraph to Dialogues, English and Hindoostanee: "What spell have ARMS, with useless Tongues when led/ Or Lion's hearts—without a HUMAN head."

  6. Lest we have any desire to flee from Gilchrist's instrumental reason to Jones's seemingly less ethnocentric studies, it is important to recognize that what has changed is the use-value of the knowledge produced. The de-valuation of Jones'sA View of Calcutta historico-archeological approach to Indian culture needs to be understood as a shift in the use of history for the imperial state. Put reductively, the decision to govern in addition to trade carried with it an imperative to eliminate the history of the sub-continent rather than to manipulate it. The long, complex and ultimately impossible task of elimination was the object of various educational strategies which sought either to suppress local knowledges or replace them with new imperially-sanctioned ones.[1] However, for students of British Romanticism, the devaluation of the use value of Indian history for direct political manipulation is crucial, for it opens an entire exotic field of representation for redeployment in the metropole as commodities ripe for exchange in the market of entertainment. This sense of the commercial viability of Eastern materials for Romantic verse has been well documented with regard to Byron and Thomas Moore.[2] But Byron's famous remarks are amply preceded by a series of aesthetic materials which have their roots in quasi-anthropological and historical writings generated under the aegis of the East India Company, but which reduce and re-constitute the materials of Indian history in order to regulate largely metropolitan concerns. Texts like Sydney Owenson's The Missionary, or Elizabeth Hamilton's Translations of the Letters of the Hindu Rajah, or the various Eastern plays of Elizabeth Inchbald do more than generate stereotypical representations of Indian society that anchor British imperial practice.

  7. Close attention to any of these texts reveals that they are far more concerned a) with constructing heteronormative representations of bourgeois life and b) with allegorizing geographically more proximate colonial crises. In other words, the "liberation" of representations of Indian history from their role in the direct governance of British-Indian relations allows them to be re-deployed in the regularization of the heterosexual family and in the struggle over Irish political autonomy. In this light, the liberal project inherent in Jones's work outlined by Findlay re-emerges in Owenson and Moore's allegorization of Irish affairs and in Hamilton and Inchbald's feminist practice. Susan Taylor's "Irish Odalisques and Other Seductive Figures: Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh" and my own essay on James Cobb's Ramah Droog demonstrate how deeply intertwined the questions of sexual and colonial governance are in these allegories of Irish affairs. In both Moore's poem and in Cobb's comic opera, discursive details of Eastern life are mobilized for political ends thoroughly disconnected from their sub-continental locale. And yet the sexual fantasies which traverse both works build on racially constructed notions of middle class life that, as Ann Laura Stoler has persuasively argued, are not only operative in the colonies, but also the object of intense state intervention.

  8. The relationship between these state interventions and the production of metropolitan romance is addressed in Siraj Ahmed's essay on Owenson's The A View of the Inside of a ZananahMissionary and the history of missionary practice following parliament's lifting of the ban on missionary work during the reign of the East India Company. Ahmed's essay "An Unlimited Intercourse": Historical Contradictions and Imperial Romance in the Early Nineteenth Century" carefully charts the redeployment of a historical narrative of violent conflict to British hegemony in Vellore and argues that the romance plays a key role in the metaphorical containment of colonial insurrection. What Ahmed's essay so beautifully demonstrates, however, is that Owenson's romance simultaneously empties the colonial encounter of its historical content and embodies in its form the contradiction at the heart of the concept of civil society—i.e. that it always has its origins in violent acts. The Missionary, therefore, both occludes and reveals the violence of the "civilizing mission" that characterized Britain's governmental activities.

  9. Ahmed's attention to the language of civil society, Findlay's discussion of the role of "liberty" in Jones's text, Raley's discussion of the instrumentality of Gilchrist's linguistics, Taylor's demonstration of the commutability of colonial discourses and my own emphasis on the spectral presence of Cornwallis in Ramah Droog indicate the degree to which theories of statecraft animate this literature. Kate Teltscher's essay "Colonial Correspondence: The Letters of George Bogle from Bengal, Bhutan and Tibet, 1770-1781" demonstrates the integral relation between these supposedly public activities and the practice of everyday life. Teltscher's incisive readings of the literariness of the letters between the first British envoy to Bhutan and Tibet and his sisters reminds us that the force-field of colonial relations is subtended by the flow of intimate correspondence and material goods. The terms of this intimacy are revealing for time and again the details of Bogle's commercial and diplomatic activities are displaced either by re-figuring historical events as rehearsals of favourite literary scenes or by focussing on the things—clothing and rooms—that surround his mission. The fact that the commercial mission is so highly mediated by literary antecedents should give us pause for like The Missionary in Ahmed's argument, Bogle's letters both conceal the political aspects of his journey and reveal precisely how the realm of political and foreign affairs penetrates the realm of the domestic sphere. The affect generated by Bogle's letters becomes finally indistinguishable from the political project of colonization.

  10. This affective interface is crucial to an understanding of the history of the British involvement in India for it shifts from being a mechanism of displacement in letters like Bogle's to being part of a regulatory technology. The institutional translation of "civil society" to Indian peoples throughout the Raj depends on this inculcation of emotion as an aesthetic and a political effect. The essays collected here attempt to give some sense of the power of emotion for the emergent imperial capitalism that defines Romanticism.


    1  See Viswanathan.

    2  See Leask.

    Works Cited

    Bowen, H.V. "British India, 1765-1818: The Metropolitan Context." The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II: The Eighteenth Century. Ed. P.J. Marshall. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

    Foucault, Michel. "Governmentality." The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. 87-104.

    ---. "What is Enlightenment?" The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1997.

    Hunter, Ian. Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education. London: Macmillan, 1988.

    Leask, Nigel. British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 13.

    Negri, Antonio. Insurgencies. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998.

    Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

    Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Volume Technical Editor: Mike Duvall

Published @ RC

November 2000