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The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (review)

Mridu Rai

Victorian Studies, Volume 50, Number 1, Autumn 2007, pp. 164-166 (Article)

Published by Indiana University Press

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The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain, by Nicholas B. Dirks; pp. xviii + 389. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006, $27.95, 18.95. Nicholas B. Dirkss important volume comes at a time when the reputation of empire, widely tainted several decades ago as an illegitimate political formation, appears to be receiving a fresh burnishing. In the wake of a US politico-military presence deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001, not only have several political practitioners and academics softened their attitudes towards the idea of empire, but some have even suggested that the United States can learn salutary lessons from the earlier, more overtly imperial venture of the British, which, though occasionally and regrettably exploitative, also disseminated the benefits of liberal political traditions, free trade, and the movement of labor across continents and oceans. In this context, Dirks urges that it is critical to refocus our attention on the history of empire, cutting through the unquestioned assumptions of imperial history whenever it mistakes colonial ideology for a balanced history (335). A valuable contribution of this work, then, is to peel away the self-legitimizing justifications of governments claiming to act in the name of purportedly higher principles such as Liberty, Democracy, or a civilizing impulse, and to recognize them for what they are: projects of domination and exploitation (335) begun and mired in scandal. Dirks also wishes us to remember an important element in the imperial relations between Britain and India in the past, with echoes in the relations between the West and the rest in the present: the important role of India in making Britain into the modern nation-state of today, a debt less frequently acknowledged than Indias to Britain. Appropriately, therefore, Dirks journeys to the late eighteenth century in Britain and India, when the histories of the two became critically conjoined. This was the time not only of the East India Companys first territorial conquests on the subcontinent but also of the most scandalous spectacle to rivet segments of London society (and eventually, according to Sara Suleri, to bore them). This spectacle involved Edmund Burkes rhetorical exaggerationostensibly a condemnation of the Companys corrupt practices in Indiaduring the eight-year impeachment trial, begun in 1788, that placed Warren Hastings, until recently Governor General of India, in the dock. Through nine eminently readable chapters revolving broadly around this scandal, Dirks successfully reveals the hollowness of colonial self-justification. Dirks effectively deflates Burkes oratory by pointing to his double standards, as in his refusal to criticize Robert Clive (credited for the conquest of Bengal in 1757 but also admittedly among the more rapacious of the eighteenth-century officials in India) while unleashing his disgusted and exasperated eloquenceto borrow Suleris words once moreagainst Hastings, a man celebrated also for his sympathetic sponsorship of Indian languages, learning, and traditions. Moreover, as Dirks reveals, a more pedestrian question of lucre may also partly explain Burkes denunciation of the Company. As Dirks points out, self-interested British interventions such as Burkes proceeded through twisting vital aspects of Indian political functioning and notions of rights and sovereignty through the strategic use of cultural forms to explain and legitimate a relentless pattern of political and territorial conquest (172).

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Although the trial ended with Hastingss acquittal, Dirks argues that it was not, as is sometimes contended, a failure. As several scholars have already pointed out, Burkes concern was less with protecting Indians than it was with shielding the ancient constitution at home from the perversions of Company nabobs. The trial became the ordeal-by-fire from which the British imperial enterprise emerged purified of all ignominy. From then on, scandal was reserved for the natives themselves, and the imputed barbarism of their traditionsevidenced in practices such as Sati, Thuggee, or hook-swingingwas used to justify, and even ennoble, imperial ambition (5, 297, 301, 305). But the eighteenth century in India to which Dirks takes us is already distinguished by a vigorous historiographical debate, janus-faced, that looks, on one hand, to explain the decentralization of the Mughal Empire and, on the other, to understand the transition to colonialism. In terms of the second concern, Dirks valuably questions a strand of recent popular historical writing that evokes an era characterized by unexpected and unplanned minglings of Europeans and Indians and of their cultures and ideas to forge relationships that are, moreover, characterized as symbiotic (William Dalrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India [2002] xiv). This world is hybrid and these relations symbiotic only if one suspends the framework of power within which they operated. Without denying all racial and cultural border crossings at the time, Dirks reminds us that the eighteenth century was also unmistakably an era of conquests, economic extraction, and even ruinous famines precipitated by Company policies. If accounts such as Dalrymples push the colonial context too far into the background, however, Dirkss pulls it too much forward. While an emerging British Empire must certainly be acknowledged as part of the setting for a number of actors in eighteenth-century India, surely it did not form the only setting. Dirks highlights the disingenuous stances of various Company officials who deferred to the Mughal emperors supremacy when convenient but violated it when it suited them since his sovereign authority was widely seen as a sham by Britons in both England and India (179). He fails to note, however, that a similar attitude characterized a wide variety of Indian political actors of the time. Sanjay Subrahmanyams account of Nadir Shahs raid into northern India in early 1739, when he also ordered a general massacre in Delhi, reminds us that the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shahs sovereignty had been temporarily suspended for about two months after which he was officially restored to the throne by the Persian vanquishers permission (Explorations in Connected History [2005] 194). Even before Nadirs devastating blow to Mughal authority, a number of powerful noblemen of the empire had decidedly struck their own independent political paths. And the number of those who did so afterwards, along with formerly subordinate chiefs, warriors, and martial peasant groups, increased noticeably. An array of robust successor states emerged to prominence through the dual exercise of both respecting the emperors authority and usurping his powers, the former being requisite to legitimate the latter. A discussion of these can be ignored only at the cost of reproducing an Anglo-centered narrativesurely a far cry from Dirkss intent. The eighteenth century, therefore, was not just a moment of British colonial intrusion but, from the perspective of the Mughal capital in Delhi and its older elite,

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for instance, already a scandalous time of Indian transgressions of various kinds. While Dirks reminds us correctly that the British neglected to mention [how] their own presence had greatly exacerbated the importance of a variety of Indian traditions they then described as abhorrent (310), he lets a variety of Indian actors and states off the hook. By viewing all politico-economic exploitation and cultural distortion in the eighteenth century so singularly as a factor of British colonialism, Dirks discards vital tools with which to understand other forms of domination and oppressionwhether they be Brahman-decreed untouchability or patriarchal subjugation. While these certainly received a fillip through imperial policies, they clearly also had their Indian origins. To highlight Indian liability is not to dilute responsibility for what British colonialism wrought in South Asia; however, to diminish it would be to write an incomplete history that cannot benefit the kind of critical debate on imperialism whose urgency Dirks so powerfully emphasizes and to which his work makes an important contribution. Mridu Rai Yale University

Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class, by John Kucich; pp. x + 258. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007, $35.00, 22.95. John Kucich has written in the past of transgression, repression, excess, and restraint in Victorian literature. With Imperial Masochism he demonstrates his command of yet another psychosocial motive of the period by applying the insights of psychoanalysis beyond the individual to recover something like the group interiority or collective psychology that has all but disappeared in contemporary critique. As he states, then, his intentions are to demonstrate the continued relevance of psychoanalysis to historicism; to elucidate the role masochistic fantasy plays in identity formation beyond the field of sexuality; to illuminate the social function of such fantasy in British culture; and to recuperate for historicist studies both the category of social class and the domain of the psychological. Defining masochism as any pursuit of physical pain, suffering, or humiliation that generates phantasmic, omnipotent compensations for narcissistic trauma, Kucich identifies four types of masochistic fantasy: of total control over others, of the annihilation of others, of the omnipotence of others, and of solitary omnipotence. Chapters on Robert Louis Stevenson, Olive Schreiner, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad then explore these fantasies in detail. Imperial Masochism contests current critical assumptions that masochism is always about sexuality; that it always organizes oedipal patterns of dominance and submission; and that, in colonial contexts, it is primarily about race, gender, or sexual orientation rather than class. To Kucich, masochism is a psychosocial language, not a fixed set of behaviors, and masochistic fantasy is an instrument for social action, not a specific act in itself. Class is a symbolic medium of conflictrather than an economic or political categoryin which conceptions of social identity are framed. Kucich successfully argues that willful self-martyrdom was central to the emergence of professional middle-class culture in the Empire at the end of the nineteenth century.

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