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Romantic Imperialism

by Saree Makdisi

Chapter 5: Domesticating exoticism: transformations of Britain's Orient, 1785-1835

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  Cornwallis, Wellesley, and other governors-general also introduced policies to "begin" the "education" of the Indians, although as Gauri Viswanathan has argued, "England's initial involvement with the education of the natives derived less from a conviction of native immorality, as the later discourse might lead one to believe, than from the depravity of their own administrators and merchants." [44] Viswanathan points to the long debates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries between the so-called "Orientalists" of Hastings's following (who believed in the sort of "reverse acculturation" proposed by Burke and Jones, and argued that Company administrators should be trained to fit into native "ways of life," and were able, through a rearguard action, to keep missionaries out of India until as late as 1813) and the so-called "Anglicists," who called for the transformation of Indian social and cultural institutions and who pressed for the increasing education of the natives and the "improvement" of their morals. Viswanathan argues that, since Anglicism was dependent on Orientalism for much of its ideological program, the two positions should be considered "not as polar opposites, but as points along a continuum of attitudes towards the manner and form of native governance, the necessity and justification of which remained by and large an issue of remarkably little disagreement." [45]

  As I have already suggested, the debate over Indian education both informed and was informed by much larger debates and transitions. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain "had gained the most complete victory of any power in the entire history of the world, having emerged from the twenty years of war against France as the only industrialized economy, the only naval power -- the British navy in 1840 had almost as many ships as all the other navies put together -- and virtually the only colonial power in the world." [46] By the 1820s, only the struggling Ottoman empire stood between Britain and India, and the East ceased to be, from imperial Britain's point of view, so much a place as it was a question -- the Eastern Question -- to be "answered," of course, by Britain's foreign and colonial policies in the region. In the Levant, Britain's "answer" was to preserve the Ottoman empire for as long as possible, to thwart Russian and French designs on the Balkans and west Asia; a policy that, even if it angered Shelley, Byron and, other advocates of Greek independence, more or less lasted until the Crimean War in the 1850s.[47] Farther to the East, in India, there began taking place the shift in imperial and colonial administration that I have indicated above.

  Now no longer the immutably different space governed by Hastings, "defended" by Burke, and fervently studied by Jones, the Orient became a space definedby its "backwardness," its retardation; no longer a region or a field offering materials for extraction, exploitation, and exchange, it became a field to be rewritten and transformed; it became "undeveloped," a region whose "development" suddenly became the European's burden. The Orient, in short, became a backward, debased, and degraded version of the Occident; having lost its immutable alterity as a member of "another species," so to speak, it became recognized as a member of "our species," and one that in the fantasies of colonialism and colonization needed to be "raised" and "improved" until it became "like us"; or, rather (as with James Mill and the Utilitarians), wiped clean and re-written until it became what "we" would ideally be (if only we could be wiped clean "ourselves").[48]

  The once so impassable sea that Burke envisioned between Europe and his Orient gradually narrowed into an evolutionary river, shaped and defined by a powerful upwards current.[49] Increasingly (though not exclusively), cultural difference could no longer be accepted, let alone appreciated or valued; it became something that Europe had a "duty" to "improve" -- and hence to seek out, penetrate, uproot, eradicate and destroy. The Orient became something not to learn from, as Jones had argued, but to instruct. Thus James Mill, in The History of British India, notes not only the "rudeness of Hindu civilization," but, attacking Jones for his credulity, he insists that England has the obligation to overcome this rudeness, to help India on its "progress towards the high attainments of a civilized life." [50] In a work that would later inspire Macaulay as well as a whole generation of experts in India, Mill disputes Jones's claims about the veneration, learning, and wisdom of Hindu sages capable of offering profound "truths" to Europe. For, writes Mill, "under the glossing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy"; indeed,  

    Such, in many of them, is their imbecility of mind; so faint are the traces of their memory; so vivid the creations of their imagination; so little are they accustomed to regard truth in their daily practice; so much are they accustomed to mingle fiction with reality in all they think, and all they say; and so innacurate is their language, that they cannot tell a true story, even when they are without any inducement to deceive. 

To this sweeping condemnation of the Oriental type, Mill adds this astonishing footnote, as "proof" of what he means:  

    The following is a case so analagous as to afford some instruction. "He that goes into the Highlands with a mind naturally acquiescent, and a credulity eager for wonders, may come back with an opinion very different from mine; for the inhabitants, knowing the ignorance of all strangers in their language and antiquities, perhaps are not very scrupulous adherents to truth; yet, I do not say that they deliberately speak studied falsehood, or have a settled purpose to deceive. They have inquired and considered little, and do not always feel their own ignorance. They are not much accustomed to be interrogated by others; and seem never to have thought upon interrogating themselves; so that if they do not know what they tell to be true, they likewise do not distinctly perceive it to be false. -- Mr. Boswell was very diligent in his inquiries; and the result of his investigations was, that the answer to the second question was commonly such as nullified the first." Johnson's Journey to the Hebrides.[51]  

It is clearly not coincidental that Mill should mention the Highlanders (who by his time were being uprooted and cleared from their ancestral homes by the very forces of modernization, rationality, and civilization of which he speaks so highly). The very fact that he could think of the Highland clans and the Indians in the same terms, that he could use "evidence" supplied by the one as "proof" against the other,[52] suggests that the two types are remarkable not so much in their similarities to each other, but in their radical difference from the third -- equally constructed and invented -- character-type he in invoking here by way of opposition: the cultivated, rational, honest, clean British Utilitarian whose apparent duty it was to stand as an example to Indians, Highlanders, and other Others of the "proper" way "to be." [53] For Mill, this propriety could not merely be taught through example; it had to be enforced through disciplinary apparatuses like Bentham's Panopticon, which he says could be put to good use in India in "hospitals for the [degenerate] mind." [54] Thus, through the elaboration of this new vision of the Orient, the region becomes not merely a backward and undeveloped version of Europe, but a degenerate and perverse -- sick -- version of Europe, plagued with all the characteristics of Richard Burton's Sotadic Zone; that is, with all the associations of European "illnesses" and "weaknesses" (and "pleasures") -- perversion, sodomy, pederasty, imbecility, irrationality, deceit, perfidy, innacuracy, and laziness.[55] This Orient is then a perfect "patient" for European treatment, as Mary Poovey suggests in her reading of Florence Nightingale's discourse on the medical "treatment" of India, in which the subcontinent is reduced to the level of a sickly patient who needs to be nursed (i.e., colonized and civilized) by a benevolent and matronly Great Britain.[56]

  Thus, in the early nineteenth century, a new version of Orientalism began to emerge, through which the Orient was altogether reinvented. This new Orientalism emerged in a dialectical, mutually enforcing, and symbiotically related association with the new paradigms of imperial rule exemplified by both the Utilitarian and "Anglicist" educational and institutional policies for India;[57] with the nascent institutions of industrial capitalism and its attendant discourses of productive transformation and development; with bourgeois constructions of class, centered on mobility and fluidity, and of gender, centered on dualism and opposition;[58] and with rapidly unfolding but still emergent social/scientific theories of evolution, transmutation, and race. These "discourses" fused together in the imperial realm, contributing to the emergence of new attitudes towards -- and indeed versions and productions of -- Orientals and the Orient as a space of opportunity. 

  The claim that I am making here involves an extensive elaboration of what I see as some of the central arguments of Edward Said's Orientalism: first, that the Orient does not exist "as such" and was brought into existence by Europeans at a certain moment in European cultural history;[59] second, that that existence has been continuously renewed in a political and historical process; third, that the modern version of Orientalism emerged in the late eighteenth century and is conceptually, politically,and culturally distinct from and discontinuous with earlier versions;[60] and, finally, that Orientalism is part of the process that brings those fluid and dynamic identities, "the Orient" and "the Occident," not into being, but into an endless becoming -- and, coextensively, into a constantly changing and dialectically constituted historical relationship with one another. There are certain moments in the book in which Said undermines what I take to be these, his most important points (e.g., by claiming that Orientalism "distorts" the "real" Orient,[61] by claiming that Orientalism has certain unchanging "essences," [62] by claiming that Orientalism has a continuous history from ancient Greece until today,[63] etc.). But I believe that his central claims withstand the text's shortcomings; and what brings those claims together is Said's challenge to the politically charged opposition between representation and reality, text and context. Orientalism's "representations" help to produce the very realities that they claim merely to be faithfully re-presenting, so that, as Said puts it, these texts (and all others) are "worldly" events, participating in the production of reality. [64]

  William Jones and Edmund Burke simply do not fit into -- and are in fact antithetical to -- that disciplinary version of Orientalism which Said has designated as modern (and which is exemplified by figures such as Mill and Macaulay). In other words the shift to a specifically modern version of Orientalism marks so radical a break from older versions of that discontinuous and heterogeneous discourse that one cannot speak unproblematically -- as Said sometimes does -- of a continuity of Orientalism across that break, which has been designated as the romantic period in Britain. This, at least, is what I want to propose, in the remainder of this chapter and in the chapter that follows.

  At that transitional moment -- the romantic period -- when Orientalism overlapped and gradually fused with other integral processes of modernization (modern imperialism, industrial capitalism, evolution, modern constructs of race and gender), an altogether new discourse on otherness came into being. The "Orientalism" that Said spends so much time discussing in his book really only emerges from this new formation, which began to develop in the late eighteenth century, and which was more or less intact (though still changing) by the 1820s and 1830s.[65] But the various tendencies, trajectories, assemblages, intensities, and desires of this new formation are no longer separable (if they ever were), except perhaps provisionally and heuristically, into separate "discourses," and mark instead a turbulent, heterogeneous, and discontinuous "continuum." The old discourse of Orientalism was, in other words, radically transfigured as it merged and productively fused with the modern discourses of evolution, racism, industrial capitalism. This fusion marks the emergence of the Universal Empire of modernization - that overall cultural process which would rise to dominance into the nineteenth century -- into which Orientalism was assimilated during this period as one discourse among others. This is what separates romantic Orientalism from all previous Orientalisms and pushes us to see it as part of a broader transformation in modern European discourses of otherness.

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