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Phantasmagoric Aesthetics: Colonial Violence and the Management of Perception

Phantasmagoric Aesthetics: Colonial Violence and the Management of Perception

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This Zahid Chaudhary piece "Phantasmagoric Aesthetics" on Benjamin, photography and colonial India's just brilliant. Also love the photos.
This Zahid Chaudhary piece "Phantasmagoric Aesthetics" on Benjamin, photography and colonial India's just brilliant. Also love the photos.

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Published by: negaratduke on Dec 06, 2009
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01/25/2013

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Cultural Critique 59—Winter 2005—Copyright 2005 Regents of the University of Minnesota
PHANTASMAGORIC AESTHETICS:COLONIAL VIOLENCE AND THE MANAGEMENTOF PERCEPTION
 Zahid Chaudhary 
You are looking at a photograph from the Sepoy revolt of 1857–58(Figure 1). The massive building confronting us and extending off-frame to the left is still imposing in its ruin, and it takes a blink of theeye to discern the litter of shattered skulls, decomposing bodies, and
Figure 1.
Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4thPunjab Regiment. First Attack of Sir Colin Campbell in November 1857, Lucknow.
Felice Beato, Marchor April 1858. The Alkazi Collection of Photography.
 
skeletons—only one complete—that extends into the space where acamera and, now, we stand. The faces of the remaining native on-lookers are virtually indistinguishable, the focus of their gaze ulti-mately indiscernible, but some appear to stare directly back at thelens of camera and eye; only the horse, its face turned away from us,has moved. This photograph shows, according to its most commonarchival caption, “The Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaugh-ter of 2,000 Rebels,” situated in Lucknow, not long after the revolt. InFigure 2, we see another image taken by the same camera, captionedin one collection “The Ruins of Sammy House Surrounded by Scat-tered Bones of Sepoys Killed in Action.”
1
Again, the eye adjusts tosee the traces of material and human destruction that survived thesuppression of the Sepoy revolt. The massacres were milestones inthe British victory. To “see” the full extent and implications of thisimaged event, including its forehistory, we need to turn, as we tendto do, from the visual to the written, but only in order to return tothe photographs in a new light, that is, to discern the nature of thein/visibility of violence laid out before us.
A “GLORIOUS SIGHT”
At the start of the revolt, Karl Marx, in his London exile, interruptedwork on
The Grundrisse
to write for the
New-York Daily Tribune
onSeptember 4, 1857:
The outrages committed by the revolted Sepoys in India [are] only there
X
ex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, notonly during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but evenduring the last ten years of a long-seated rule. To characterize that rule,it suf 
W
ces to say that torture formed an organic institution of its
W
nan-cial policy. There is something in human history like retribution; and itis a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by theoffended, but by the offender himself. (Marx and Engels, 94)
Marx refers here to the revolt (or “mutiny,” as British were pleased tocall it) that had started that May in Meerut. Its overdeterminedcauses included the discontent of some Indian landowners at losingestates to the British under the policies of the Governor-General,
ZAHID CHAUDHARY
64
 
Lord Dalhousie, the extreme exploitation of peasants through taxa-tion and land “reforms,” and the unequal treatment and abuse of Sepoys (Indian recruits in the British Army) by British of 
W
cers andenlisted men. One particular incident consistently cited in nineteenth-century sources as the spark for the hostilities was the issuing of thenew, faster-
W
ring En
W
eld .303 ri
X
e to all Sepoy regiments. Fakirs andsadhus apparently spread the rumor, in the course of their nomadicwanderings, that the new cartridges were greased with the fat of pigsand cows, thus de
W
ling Hindu and Muslim Sepoy alike (Hilton, 20).Refusing to use the new cartridges, the Sepoys took up the older dis-carded arms and aimed them at their British superiors. The majorcenters of resistance quickly spread throughout the north, from Ben-gal to Haryana, with Meerut, Cawnpore, Delhi, and Lucknow beingthe regional centers of the most sustained battles, initially won by theinsurgents (see Pal et al., 79).
PHANTASMAGORIC AESTHETICS
65
Figure 2.
The Ruins of Sammy House Surrounded by Scattered Bones of Sepoys Killed in Action.
FeliceBeato, 1858. Wellcome Library, London.

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