The Rhetoric of English India [NOOK Book]


Tracing a genealogy of colonial discourse, Suleri focuses on paradigmatic moments in the multiple stories generated by the British colonization of the Indian  subcontinent. Both the literature of imperialism and its postcolonial aftermath emerge here as a series of guilty transactions between two cultures that are equally evasive and uncertain of their own authority.

"A dense, witty, and richly allusive book . . . an extremely valuable ...
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The Rhetoric of English India

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Tracing a genealogy of colonial discourse, Suleri focuses on paradigmatic moments in the multiple stories generated by the British colonization of the Indian  subcontinent. Both the literature of imperialism and its postcolonial aftermath emerge here as a series of guilty transactions between two cultures that are equally evasive and uncertain of their own authority.

"A dense, witty, and richly allusive book . . . an extremely valuable contribution to postcolonial cultural studies as well as to the whole area of literary criticism."—Jean Sudrann, Choice
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226050980
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/16/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • File size: 2 MB

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The Rhetoric of English India

By Sara Suleri

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-05098-0


The Rhetoric of English India

"THIS WAS HOW IT HAPPENED; AND THE TRUTH IS ALSO AN ALLEGORY OF Empire," claims Kipling's narrator, as he opens with grim brevity the quasi tale of 1886, "Naboth." Like much of the early writing that Kipling published in the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, the story itself represents a dangerously simple moment of cultural collision: situated on the cusp between the languages of journalism and fiction, its three pages record an occasion of colonial complicity that bears testimony to the dynamic of powerlessness underlying the telling of colonial stories. The colonialist as narrator carelessly throws a coin to the "native beggar" in his garden, "as kings of the East have helped alien adventurers to the loss of their Kingdoms" (p. 71). Naboth to the narrator's Ahab, the beggar initiates an act of counter-colonialism, setting up a confectionery stall in the colonizer's garden that profits with a surreal speed, growing from a trading post to a set of shops, and finally, into a brothel. When the narrator puts a violent end to this invasion of his role as invader, he offers the following commentary on colonialism's ambivalent relation to the anxiety of empire: "Naboth is gone now, and his hut is ploughed into its native mud with sweetmeats instead of salt for a sign that the place is accursed. I have built a summer-house to overlook the end of the garden, and it is as a fort on my frontier from whence I guard my Empire. I know exactly how Ahab felt. He has been shamefully misrepresented in the Scriptures" (p. 75).

Kipling's tale functions as a cautionary preamble to my present work, which both seeks location within the discourse of colonial cultural studies and attempts to question some of the governing assumptions of that discursive field. While the representation of otherness has long been acknowledged as one of the most culturally vexing idioms to read, contemporary interpretations of alterity are increasingly victims of their own apprehension of such vexation. Even as the other is privileged in all its pluralities, in all its alternative histories, its concept-function remains too embedded in a theoretical duality of margin to center ultimately to allow the cultural decentering that such critical attention surely desires. As the allegory of "Naboth" suggests, the story of colonial encounter is in itself a radically decentering narrative that is impelled to realign with violence any static binarism between colonizer and colonized. It calls to be read as an enactment of a cultural unrecognizability as to what may constitute the marginal or the central: rather than reify the differences between Ahab and Naboth, Kipling illustrates both the pitiless congruence in their economy of desire and the ensuing terror that must serve as the narrative's interpretive model.

Such terror suggests the precarious vulnerability of cultural boundaries in the context of colonial exchange. In historical terms, colonialism precludes the concept of "exchange" by granting to the idea of power a greater literalism than it deserves. The telling of colonial and postcolonial stories, however, demands a more naked relation to the ambivalence represented by the greater mobility of disempowerment. To tell the history of another is to be pressed against the limits of one's own—thus culture learns that terror has a local habitation and a name. While Ahab may need to identify a Naboth as a discrete cultural entity, finally he knows that his encounter with the other of culture is only self-reflexive: in the articulation of Naboth's secular story, Ahab is caught up against a more overwhelming narrative that forces him to know he has been "shamefully misrepresented" by the sacred tales of his own culture. The allegorization of empire, in other words, can only take shape in an act of narration that is profoundly suspicious of the epistemological and ethical validity of allegory, suggesting that the term "culture"—more particularly, "other cultures"—is possessed of an intransigence that belies exemplification. Instead, the story of culture eschews the formal category of allegory to become a painstaking study of how the idioms of ignorance and terror construct a mutual narrative of complicities. While the "allegory of empire" will always have recourse to the supreme fiction of Conrad's Marlow, or the belief that what redeems it is "the idea alone," its heart of darkness must incessantly acknowledge the horror attendant on each act of cultural articulation that demonstrates how Ahab tells Naboth's story in order to know himself.

IF THE LIMITS OF CULTURAL KNOWLEDGE DICTATE THE CURIOUS GENEALOGY OF English India, then its chronology is intimately linked with a failure of ignorance to comprehend itself, or to articulate why the boundary of culture must generate such intransigent fears. The term "English India" demands an explication that would render it both literal and figurative at the same time: English India is not synonymous with the history of British rule in the subcontinent, even while it is suborned to the strictures of such a history. At the same time, English India is not solely a linguistic concept, a spillage from history into language, one that made difficult oppositions between the rhetorical and the actual. The idiom of English India expresses a disinterest in the continuity of tense, so that the distinction between colonial and postcolonial histories becomes less radical, less historically "new." In the context of colonialism, English India represents an ambivalence that addresses the turning point of such necessary imbrications as those between the languages of history and culture; of difference and fear. As a consequence, its trajectory is extensive enough to include both imperial and subaltern materials and in the process demonstrates their radical inseparability.

From the vast body of eighteenth-century historical documentation of British rule in India to the proliferation of Anglo-Indian fiction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the narratives of English India are fraught with the idiom of dubiety, or a mode of cultural tale-telling that is neurotically conscious of its own self-censoring apparatus. While such narratives appear to claim a new preeminence of historical facticity over cultural allegory, they nonetheless illustrate that the functioning of language in a colonial universe is preternaturally dependent on the instability of its own facts. For colonial facts are vertiginous: they lack a recognizable cultural plot; they frequently fail to cohere around the master-myth that proclaims static lines of demarcation between imperial power and disempowered culture, between colonizer and colonized. Instead, they move with a ghostly mobility to suggest how highly unsettling an economy of complicity and guilt is in operation between each actor on the colonial stage. If such an economy is the impelling force of the stories of English India, it demands to be read against the grain of the rhetoric of binarism that informs, either explicitly or implicitly, contemporary critiques of alterity in colonial discourse. The necessary intimacies that obtain between ruler and ruled create a counter-culture not always explicable in terms of an allegory of otherness: the narrative of English India questions the validity of both categories to its secret economy, which is the dynamic of powerlessness at the heart of the imperial configuration.

If English India represents a discursive field that includes both colonial and postcolonial narratives, it further represents an alternative to the troubled chronology of nationalism in the Indian subcontinent. As long as the concept of nation is interpreted as the colonizer's gift to its erstwhile colony, the unimaginable community produced by colonial encounter can never be sufficiently read. Again, the theoretical paradigm of margin against center is unhelpful in this context, for it serves to hierarchize the emergence of nation in "first" and "third" worlds. The colonial experience renders such numerology illegitimate, perhaps by literalizing how archaic as opposed to modern the will to nation may be. For colonialism ultimately supplies the answer to the crucial question raised by Benedict Anderson, when he ponders the paradoxical elective affinities that the idea of nation poses to contemporary thinking: "In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals ... to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism ... show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles. On the other hand, how truly rare it is to find analogous nationalist products expressing fear and loathing." In colonial encounter, a disembodied nation of cultural exchange merges "love" with "fear and loathing," thus creating a historical context where nationalism is synonymous with terror. As a logical correlative, the narrative of English India poses the following question to the concept of nation: what rhetoric is required to embody, and then to disembody, the communities of faithlessness that colonialism implies?

In other words, if colonial cultural studies is to avoid a binarism that could cause it to atrophy in its own apprehension of difference, it needs to locate an idiom for alterity that can circumnavigate the more monolithic interpretations of cultural empowerment that tend to dominate current discourse. To study the rhetoric of the British Raj in both its colonial and postcolonial manifestations is therefore to attempt to break down the incipient schizophrenia of a critical discourse that seeks to represent domination and subordination as though the two were mutually exclusive terms. Rather than examine a binary rigidity between those terms—which is an inherently Eurocentric strategy—this critical field would be better served if it sought to break down the fixity of the dividing lines between domination and subordination, and if it further questioned the psychic disempowerment signified by colonial encounter. For to interpret the configurations of colonialism in the idiom of such ineluctable divisions is to deny the impact of narrative on a productive disordering of binary dichotomies. To state the case at its most naked, the Indian subcontinent is not merely a geographic space upon which colonial rapacities have been enacted, but is furthermore that imaginative construction through which rapaciousness can worship its own misdeeds, thus making the subcontinent a tropological repository from which colonial and postcolonial imaginations have drawn—and continue to draw—their most basic figures for the anxiety of empire.

This anxiety is most readily identified in a continually dislocated idiom of migrancy. A study that opens with Edmund Burke and closes with Salman Rushdie, as does mine, obviously seeks to make an issue of cultural migrancy in order to situate the language of the colonizer within the precarious discourse of the immigrant. Certainly Burke's great terror of the adolescence of colonial rule has genealogical congruities with Rushdie's comical horror of postcolonial infantilism: English India suggests a family tree that is less chronological than it is perpetually at odds with the geographic location of cultures. The nomadic possibility of vast cultural as well as continental drifts provides an anxious edge to the method through which the colonial project presents itself as an act of cultural interpretation. As a consequence, culture as "order" translates into a principle of misreading that barely knows its own failure in the apprehension of the fluidity of culture. Instead, terror must dictate its discourse. While anthropological self-examination has learned to acknowledge its uneasy relation to the telling of others' stories, colonial cultural studies has yet to articulate a strategy that would allow for a productive reading of terror. We thus confront a discursive field that must take up what are best described as dead-end terms—"terror" and "disempowerment," as well as Benedict Anderson's "self-sacrificing love"—in order to open their various possibilities as tropes of productive loss, which would render their dead-endedness culturally available to a theoretical "immigration."

To deploy migrancy as an interpretive figure is not at all to repress the crucial situatedness of cultures, or to suggest that colonial encounter can be reread only as an abstraction so slender as to be effete. Instead, it implies that the stories of colonialism—in which heterogeneous cultures are yoked by violence—offer nuances of trauma that cannot be neatly partitioned between colonizer and colonized. If both are identifiable as victims of traumatic change, then the idiom of trauma itself requires a reformulation that can provide a language for the slippage of trauma from apocalypse into narrative. The situation of postcolonialism, in other words, informs each inception of colonial encounter, in which the migrant moment of dislocation is far more formative, far more emplotting, than the subsequent acquisition of either postcolonial nation or colonial territory. In historiographic terms, colonial trauma can be read only in the context of an apocalyptic "end" or "beginning" of empire, even though a merely cursory knowledge of the trials of English India makes evident the obsession of that idiom's, and that era's, engagement with the transfer of power. This transference constitutes an immigrant idiom alternative to an apocalypse that cannot see beyond its own vision of localized terror. Such revision, however, is the task of colonial studies today, which must pause to make an obvious point: in the context of Anglo-India, the key term of transaction imposed by the language of colonialism is transfer rather than power. There are too many Naboths with which Ahab must deal; each moment of appropriation is, as Kipling suggests, a bitter reminder of how precarious is the imperial system of control.

The narratives of anxiety that emerge from such a system are consequently colonial testimonials in which aggression functions as a symptom of terror rather than of possession. Most typically, such terror translates into the ostensible unreadability of the colonized subcontinent: from the early travelogues in the seventeenth century to the proliferation of Anglo-Indian fiction in the nineteenth, the dominant Western metaphor for India suggests a spatial intransigence, or a geography so figural that—like the Marabar Caves—it can be read by Western eyes only after its transmutation into a threadbare and dangerous literalism. This unreadability is of course simply one instance of a discursive transfer of power, which fetishizes a colonial fear of its own cultural ignorance into the potential threats posed by an Indian alterity. Thus, writing in the twilight of the Raj, Edward Thompson offers a summation of a long-standing colonial tradition of discursive fear when he articulates a crucial figure for his reading of "Indian intransigence": "Many Englishmen in India must have had my experience. They have been puzzling over the problem, honestly anxious to find out where the point of exasperation—no, more than exasperation, of severance—came, and to see if anything could be done. Then they have thought that they have found it—yes, it was here, see! They have pushed hard, only to find that they have gone through a curtain painted like a wall, to find the real wall, granite and immovable, behind (emphasis added)."

Thompson's figure supplies a useful encapsulation of the discursive equation between "Indian intransigence" and colonial terror, in that his claim depends curiously on the structure of tautology. His conflation of the wall and the veil suggests less a discovery of the unreadable granite at the heart of Indian intransigence than a replication of interpretive terms that implicates both the colonizer and its other in the construction of a novel narrative. In this new story, the unreadability of India functions as a rhetorical device to stave off those peculiarities of cultural reformulations that render both self and other into immigrant configurations. Where empire takes, it equally must lose, causing its migration to generate the culturally tautological idiom of English India. Unlike territory, stories cannot be so easily stolen: their guilt is too declarative of itself to be subsumed into easy categories of imperial binarism. To deploy Gayatri Spivak's casual aphorism in the service of such muddied narration, the genealogy of English India provides a resonant exemplification of her claim that imperialism requires rereading "not because Empire, like Capital, is abstract, but because Empire messes with identity." The narratives of empire do not merely "mess" with the colonial subject, but are in themselves encoded with a dubiety that requires the fiction of intransigence to protect the myth of colonial authority.


Excerpted from The Rhetoric of English India by Sara Suleri. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments 1. The Rhetoric of English India 2. Edmund Burke and the Indian Sublime 3. Reading the Trial of Warren Hastings 4. The Feminine Picturesque 5. The Adolescence of Kim 6. Forster's Imperial Erotic 7. Naipaul's Arrival 8. Salman Rushdie: Embodiments of Blasphemy, Censorships of Shame Notes Index
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