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Romantic Imperialism

by Saree Makdisi

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


1 Edmund Burke, ‘‘Speech Opening the Impeachment, first day, Friday, February 15, 1788,’’ at the Trial in Parliament of Warren Hastings, esquire, late Governor-General of Bengal, for High Crimes and Misdemeanors, pp. 378–79. My emphasis. close window

2 Hastings was Governor of Bengal from 1772 to 1774; and, following the expansion of his post, Governor-General from 1774 to 1786. close window

3 Said’s influential book Orientalism makes what I take to be a fundamentally important distinction between modern Orientalism (which, Said argues, emerged in the late eighteenth century) and earlier forms of Orientalism. However, in certain passages in his book Said glosses over this distinction, and stresses instead the continuity of Orientalism across or between different historical moments. See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1977); also see below for more on Said. close window

4 See Fabian, Time and the Other. close window

5 ‘‘When the Company acquired that high office in India, an English corporation became an integral part of the Mogul empire. When Great Britain virtually assented to that grant of office, and afterwards took advantage of it, Great Britain guarantied [sic] the performance of all its duties. Great Britain entered into a virtual act of union with that country, by which we bound ourselves as securities to preserve the people in all the rights, laws, and liberties which their natural, original sovereign was bound to support, if he had been in condition to support them. By the disposition of events [!], the two duties, flowing from two different sources, are now unified in one. The people of India, therefore, come in the name of the Commons of Great Britain, but in their own right, to the bar of this House, before the supreme royal justice of this kingdom, from whence originally all the powers under which they have suffered were derived.’’ Burke, Trial of Warren Hastings, Day One, p. 347. close window

6 Ibid., p. 330. close window

7 Quoted in Thompson, English Working Class, p.137. The great difference between Indians and England’s own ‘‘swinish multitude,’’ of course, was that the Indians were reasonably far off; the working class, on the other hand, was an enemy within, which could disease the body politic and thus require the ‘‘critical terrors of the cautery and the knife.’’ At one level, this points to the difference between Burke’s notion of Terror as opposed to the reassuringly distant Sublime. close window

8 Burke, Trial of Warren Hastings, Day One, p. 382. close window

9 Burke, ‘‘Speech on Mr. Fox’s East India Bill,’’ 1 December 1783, pp. 444–45. close window

10 Indeed many of the late eighteenth-century advocates of polygeny were irrevocably opposed to the notion of evolution. Charles White, for instance, ‘‘railed against the idea that climate might produce racial differences, arguing that such ideas might lead, by extension, to the ‘degrading notion’ of evolution between species.’’ See Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), pp. 41–42. close window

11 Hence Burke’s ‘‘message’’ to the working poor during the terrible famine year of 1795: ‘‘Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality and religion, should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud.’’ Quoted in Thompson, English Working Class, p. 56. close window

12 Burke, ‘‘Speech on Mr Fox’s East India Bill,’’ p. 448. close window

13 This is not by any means to suggest that the concepts of polygenesis and  preformationism necessarily lead to cultural relativism; only that, perhaps ironically, certain versions of relativism can be derived from the notion of a fixed and untranscendable cultural/racial hierarchy, in which each culture or race has ‘‘its proper place.’’ Or, as Renan put it, ‘‘The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races is part of the providential order of things for humanity’’; thus he argues that ‘‘Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese,’’ and ‘‘a race of tillers of the soil, the Negro,’’ and finally ‘‘a race of masters and soldiers, the European race . . . Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well.’’ [Quoted in Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1955), p. 16]. In other words, cultural relativism ‘‘as such’’ is not incompatible with certain paradigms of racism. Stephen Jay Gould writes that ‘‘throughout the egalitarian tradition of the European Enlightenment and the American revolution, I cannot identify any popular position remotely like the ‘cultural relativism’ that prevails (at least by lip-service) in liberal circles today. The nearest approach is a common argument that black inferiority is purely cultural and that it can be completely eradidcated by education to a Caucasian standard.’’ (See Gould, Mismeasure of Man, pp. 30–72). Now I would suggest that Burke’s position is indeed some sort of cultural relativism, if not quite like the ones that are paid lip-service in liberal circles today; though it would be interesting to compare Burke’s position on Indian cultural autonomy (within the framework provided by a benevolent British imperialism, of course) with today’s debates on ‘‘multi-culturalism’’ in the American academy, especially to the extent that ‘‘respect’’ for other cultures can indeed be based (or premised) on a notion of racial superiority. close window

14 This position is closer to that of Cuvier (held later by Richard Owen) than that of Larmarck or even Saint-Hilaire, let alone the much later views of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, which marked the final departure in scientific discourse from a belief in fixed types. This notion of permanent hierarchy was also applied to the various levels of social class, to which I will return presently. close window

15 See Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977). Indeed, certain pre-evolutionary scientific theories, for example, that of von Baer, did away with the hierarchy of higher and lower, so that different groups of species were simply different, and not necessarily ‘‘more’’ or ‘‘less’’ developed. Without a concept of phylogenetic transformation, a theory of recapitulation (a fundamental basis of racist doctrines), in which an individual organism, in the course of its development, ‘‘recapitulates’’ features of older and less developed species (e.g., human embryos have gills), is also inconceivable. With later theories of Orientalism and views of the colonial project, which were inextricably intertwined with the logic and discourse of an emergent evolutionary theory, this no longer obtained. close window

16 See Fabian, Time and the Other. close window

17 Maxime Rodinson, Europe and the Mystique of Islam, trans. Roger Veinus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), p. 65. close window

18 See ibid., pp. 60–65. Thus Rodinson contrasts what he describes as the‘‘pre-critical naïvité ’’ of the eighteenth century with the unabashed Eurocentrism of the nineteenth. close window

19 Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of British India (University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 28. close window

20 Ibid., p. 31. close window

21 Sir William Jones, ‘‘A Discourse on the Institution of a Society, for Enquiring into the History, Civil and Natural, the Antiquities, Arts, Sciences, Literature, of Asia, By the President.’’ (1784). In The Works of Sir William Jones in Thirteen Volumes (Delhi: Agam Prakashan, 1977), vol. III, p.2 close window

22 Javed Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill’s The History of British India and Orientalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 20. close window

23 Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 28. Jones took this so far as to compose hymns for the various Indian gods and goddesses. close window

24 Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, p.38. close window

25 Sir William Jones, ‘‘An Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations,’’ in The Works of Sir William Jones in Thirteen Volumes, vol. X (Delhi: Agam Prakashan, 1799), pp. 359–60. close window

26 Raymond Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880, trans. by G. Patterson-Black and V. Reinking (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 23. close window

27 See Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 103–25; and S. N. Mukherjee, Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to India (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1987). close window

28 Ramkrishna Mukherjee, The Rise and Fall of the East India Company (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), pp. 300–01. close window

29 These royal chartered companies included: the Levant Company (1592), the East India Company (1600), the Virginia Company (1606), the English Amazon Company (1623), the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629), and the Royal African Company (1660, originally called the Royal Adventurers in Africa!). See Wolf, People Without History, p.122 close window

30 Thus the Dutch VOC, having secured a monopoly over the produce from what was for them merely a ‘‘spice island,’’ would sometimes depopulate the island, massacring or expelling the inhabitants, in order to intensify spice production there. This they did, for instance, to the people of the island of Banda in 1621. See Wolf, People Without History, pp. 232–61. Also see C. R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), pp. 209–72. NB: those who spoke out most loudly about the preservation of Highland traditions were the ones who had played the most active role in destroying Highland culture. See chapter 4, above. close window

31 ‘‘The ‘territory’ of a trading post or company headquarters proceeded from a concession by local authorities, difficult to obtain and never granted without something in return. Taken as a whole, the system was another form of colonization – of a purely commercial nature: the Europeans settled within easy reach of the points of production and the markets, at the intersections of trade routes, using networks in existence before their arrival, thus saving themselves the trouble of creating infrastructures, and leaving to local communities the tasks of transporting the goods to the ports, organizing and financing production and handling elementary exchange.’’ Braudel, Perspective of the World, p.495. close window

32 Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, p.135. close window

33 There were, for instance, only about 31,000 English in India as late as 1805. Thomas Roe, Ambassador of the East India Company to the Mogul court, adivsed his company in the 17th century: ‘‘Keep to this rule if you look for profit: seek it out on the seas and in peaceful trading; for there is no doubt that it would be an error to maintain garrisons and to fight in India on land.’’ See Braudel, Perspective of the World, pp. 488–93. close window

34 I will take up the consequences of this shift as well as its implications for constructions of a universal world history of modernity and capitalism in the next chapter (‘‘Beyond the Realm of Dreams: Byron, Shelley, and the East’’). close window

35 See Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, pp. 337–38; Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, p. 15; also see Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1980), pp. 27–34. Gould quotes an indicative passage from Darwin: ‘‘Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue in seeking for its derivation.’’ Quoted p. 27. close window

36 Indeed, it is well known that, while tracing the connections of Sanskrit to Greek and Latin (or former the derivation of the rather from the latter), Jones stressed the superiority of the older language over the more ‘‘modern’’ and European ones. In an address in 1786, for instance, he argues that ‘‘The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.’’ Sir William Jones, Third Anniversary Discourse, Vol. III,p.34. The identification of evolution with progress came, well after Darwin himself (who did not share in the enthusiasm over progress), in the late nineteenth century, most
prominently perhaps with the writings of Herbert Spencer. As Eric Leed and others have observed, even Alfred Russel Wallace (the ‘‘co-discoverer’’ of evolution) ‘‘insisted upon the superiority of uncivilized beings and preindustrial society.’’ See Eric Leed, The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 209. close window

37 See chapter 1, above. close window

38 See chapter 6, above. close window

39 Thomas B. Macaulay, ‘‘Minute on Indian Education’’ (1835). Compare this to Jones’s assessment of the richness and vitality of the various Asiatic literatures (see above). close window

40 See Robert Young, Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1985), esp. pp. 23–55. close window

41 See David Musselwhite, ‘‘The trial of Warren Hastings,’’ in Francis Barker et al., eds., Literature, Politics and Theory, (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 77–103; and Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of British India (University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 49–74. close window

42 Suleri (Rhetoric, p.52) argues that ‘‘the lie of the impeachment proceedings is thus its failure to admit that Hastings’s misdeeds were merely synecdochical of the colonial operation, that to assume such government could take a more palatable form was to allow Burke to have his cake of astonishment and eat it, too.’’ close window

43 See Wolf, People Without History, p.247. This resulted in increasing poverty for the people, as well as several major famines. (Also see chapter 4, ‘‘Waverley and the Cultural Politics of Dispossession,’’ above). close window

44 Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest, p.27. close window

45 Ibid., p. 30. Pointing out James Mill’s Utilitarian criticisms of England and of English society and law and manners, Javed Majeed adds a third term to Viswanathan’s opposition between Anglicists and Orientalists, namely vernacularists (like James Mill) who sought not so much to replicate English society in India, but to create what for them was a Utopian society based on the principles of Utilitarianism. See Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, p.141. However, I would argue that Majeed seeks too strongly to distinguish Mill’s position from the more explicitly Eurocentric position of the Anglicists; for since when has the sort of universalism proposed by Mill not been Eurocentric – just because it substitutes claims of universal applicability for peculiarly English or European ones? close window

46 Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, p.134. close window

47 See Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (New York: Warner, 1991), pp. 263–78. Also see chapter 6, below. close window

48 ‘‘Victory may be inconstant to our arms. But there are triumphs which are followed by no reverse. There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.’’ Thomas Macaulay, quoted in Patrick Brantlinger,
Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914 (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1988), p. 30. close window

49 See Fabian, Time and the Other, p.17. close window

50 James Mill, The History of British India, abridged by William Thomas (University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 232–33, 226. close window

51 Ibid., p. 567. close window

52 For that matter, the real or imaginary links between Celtic society and the East would be put forward by way of opposition to British imperialism; this, for example, is how Javed Majeed nicely reads parts of Moore’s Lalla Rookh (set in the Orient) as allegories of the British domination of Ireland. Moore also argued for the Eastern (specifically Phoenician) origins of Irish culture; hence, Majeed argues, ‘‘the vanquished Celts are placed in this tradition of
cultures whose civilization was elevated over the military efficiency of the younger upstart cultures who suppressed this alternative tradition.’’ (See Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, pp. 86–95.) close window

53 Of course, imperial projects involve not only the construction of colonized others, but also the continuous construction of a colonized ‘‘self.’’ What Mill does in this passage and elsewhere is to posit some sort of ideal (and unattainable) colonizing self; he is, indeed, as interested in the aspects of this self as he is in the colonized other. close window

54 Mill, History of British India, p.574. close window

55 See Richard Burton’s ‘‘Terminal Essay’’ to his 1888 translation of the Thousand and One Nights, pp. 3748–82. Burton’s Sotadic zone extends from Southwestern Asia (the Turks, he says, are ‘‘a race of born pederasts’’) to Japan and China (‘‘ . . . the Chinese, as far as we know them in the great cities, are omnivorous and omnifutuentes: they are the chosen people of debauchery, and their systematic bestiality with ducks, goats, and other animals is equalled only by their pederasty’’). close window

56 Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian
England (University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 194–97. I will return to Poovey’s suggestive argument a little later on. close window

57 As discussed by Gauri Viswanathan and Javed Majeed, among others. close window

58 ‘‘The bourgeois class poses itself as an organism in continuous movement, capable of absorbing the entire society, assimilating it to its own cultural and economic level.’’ Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffey Nowell-Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 160. Compare this ideological construction of the bourgeois age with Burke’s infinitely rigid pronouncements on class. On
shifts in gender paradigms during the romantic period, see Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford University Press, 1989); Anne Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (London: Routledge, 1993); Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollestonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (University of Chicago Press, 1984); Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). I will return to some of these a little later on: see below. close window

59 More specifically, Said argues that it is the combination and interaction of Orientalist knowledge with the facts of imperial conquest and domination (sustained by Orientalism) that produces the Orient; ‘‘from the days of Sir William Jones,’’ he writes (Orientalism, p.215), ‘‘the Orient had been both what Britain ruled and what Britain knew about it.’’ close window

60 Certain fundamental pre-conditions lay the ground and prepare the way for what Said categorizes as a specifically modern Orientalism. These elements, which accumulated through the late eighteenth century, include both the work of previous generations and formations of Orientalism (and it is on this basis that Said argues for some sort of continuity of Orientalism
reaching back to pre-modern times), as well as historical events such as Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, ‘‘on whose presence the specific intellectual and institutional structures of modern Orientalism depend.’’ (Said, Orientalism, p.120, my emphasis). close window

61 See Said, Orientalism, pp. 52, 58, 67. Here Said’s argument that the Orient had to be ‘‘Orientalized’’ is particularly debilitating for his larger and more powerful point: namely, that there is no Orient with ontogenetic priority to Orientalism. Claims about distortions of Oriental realities are similarly troubling; which is not to say that Orientalists don’t misrepresent, but
rather that what they do represent as Oriental truths can’t be misrepresentations, since there is no such thing as an Orient that spans and encompasses hundreds of millions of people scattered across hundreds of societies, speaking hundreds of different languages, living in different classes and gender identities, across thousands of years of history. close window

62 See Said, Orientalism, pp. 42, 50, 72. close window

63 See ibid., p. 69. close window

64 In his book, White Mythologies, Robert Young points out what many critics have seen as a ‘‘major theoretical problem’’ in Orientalism. He asks how it can be that, on the one hand, Said ‘‘suggests that Orientalism merely consists of a representation that has nothing to do with the real Orient . . , while on the other hand, he argues that its knowledge was put to the service
of colonial conquest, occupation, and administration.’’ For according to Young, ‘‘this means that at a certain moment Orientalism as representation did have to encounter the ‘actual’ conditions of what was there, and that it showed itself at a material level as a form of power and control.’’ However, this is only a problem if one sticks to the dualisms of text and context or representation and reality – dualisms to which Orientalism poses a very powerful challenge. For if one accepts Said’s thesis that texts participate in the production of ‘‘contextual’’ realities, then one cannot cling to the notion of an uncomplicated and prior ‘‘raw’’ reality that exists independently of human, social, historical and political agency and contingency.
Javed Majeed has made a similar argument against the ‘‘circularity’’ of  Orientalism: ‘‘Said’s argument is self-reinforcing in so far as it does not make clear whether a sound undertaking of another culture is possible, and what such an understanding would consist of if it were possible.’’ Thus, Majeed goes on to say, ‘‘Said aims to unmask and dispel illusion, and yet he does not specify what to replace this illusion with.’’ If by ‘‘sound understanding’’
Majeed means ‘‘objective’’ knowledge without reference to contingency, then clearly he is right: Said does not provide any such possibility: such ‘‘sound understanding,’’ is, according to Orientalism, simply not possible (though knowledge and understanding are subject to the contingencies of colonialism in ways that may or may not obtain following decolonization).
Moreover, what Said does in Orientalism is not to unmask and dispel ‘‘illusion,’’ but rather – and to the contrary – to specify the constructedness of reality. In other words, Orientalism, according to Said, is an intervention into historical, material and political realities by way of ‘‘illusion.’’ That Said offers nothing with which to replace the ‘‘illusion’’ is precisely the point of his book.
What is a problem, however, is Orientalism’s occasional slippage into ahistorical and essentialist claims. Pointing out Said’s ‘‘rather monolithic and ahistorical conception of Orientalism,’’ for instance, Majeed argues that ‘‘if there was a dominant concern of British rule in this period [the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries], it was to appropriate and legitimize itself through indigenous idioms. This does not seem to fit into Said’s rather monolithic conception of the irresistibility of imperial power.’’ Even if Said does not insist on the irresistibility of imperial power (most of his career, both academic and extra-curricular, has been devoted to resistance against imperialism, above all in the case of Palestine), Majeed’s point is an important one. See Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 129; and Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, pp. 197–98. close window

65 For what seem to be at least in part polemical reasons, Said largely discounts the importance of industrial capitalism (and indeed the shift away from mercantile capitalism) in the elaboration of this dominant. close window

66 Homi Bhabha, while critical of Said, recapitulates some of his ahistorical claims. Thus, Bhabha writes that what he calls the discourse of colonialism ‘‘seeks authorization for its strategies by the production of knowledge of colonizer and colonized which are stereotypical but antithetically evaluated. The objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction.’’ (Bhabha, ‘‘The Other Question,’’ p. 154.) Bhabha also argues in that essay that ‘‘colonial power produces the colonized as a fixed reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible.’’ Much of what I am arguing in this chapter and the next attempts to show that the colonial other was never a fixed reality. close window

67 Billie Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 2. close window

68 Ibid., p. 7. Later on she writes that ‘‘these women’s Orient is a locus that is markedly different from that of orientalists. Women travellers and ethnographers domesticated the exotic or, put slightly differently, these women normalized and humanized the harem’’ (p. 62). She adds, however, that ‘‘curiously it is feminists like Harriet Martineau and Amelia Edwards, who present the most glaring examples of racism and cultural narcissism’’ (p. 63). close window

69 On Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Letters, for instance, Melman (Women’s Orients, p.78) writes (to distinguish Montagu from the ‘‘male’’ Orientalist tradition): ‘‘Lady Montagu’s work represents a wider consciousness of the comparativeness of ‘morality’ (her own term, designating sexual morals) and the relativeness of Western European values. Last, but not least, the Letters exude an aura of broad-mindedness and tolerance towards the Ottomans, indeed towards Europe’s religious and cultural ‘other’ as such. Lady Montagu’s letters, in short, may be appropriately designated a key text, the corner-stone in the new, alternative [female] discourse that developed in the West on the Middle East.’’ The trouble that I have with her argument here, that is, with her insistence on constituting this discourse as a peculiarly female one, is that this could as easily be said of Jones, of Burke, and of Byron, though for different reasons and at different historical moments. close window

70 Melman, Women’s Orients, p.316. close window

71 See Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Friction, esp. pp. 3–27. close window

72 Macaulay, quoted in Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness, p.30. close window

73 Poovey, Uneven Developments, p.196. She goes on to say that ‘‘Nightingale’s discourse could be so appropriated by apologists for the empire because of the way the twin compromises she represented and forged mobilized and deployed gender’’ (p. 197). close window

74 Ibid., p. 197. close window

75 See Leslie Marchand, ed., Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 358. close window

76 See Mellor, Romanticism and Gender. close window

77 See Homi Bhabha, ‘‘Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817,’’ in Francis Barker, et al., eds., Europe and its others, (Colchester: University of Essex Press, 1984), p. 97.close window

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