The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration

The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration

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The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration by David Spurr

The white man's burden, darkest Africa, the seduction of the primitive: such phrases were widespread in the language Western empires used to talk about their colonial enterprises. How this language itself served imperial purposes—and how it survives today in writing about the Third World—are the subject of David Spurr's book, a revealing account of the rhetorical strategies that have defined Western thinking about the non-Western world.
Despite historical differences among British, French, and American versions of colonialism, their rhetoric had much in common. The Rhetoric of Empire identifies these shared features—images, figures of speech, and characteristic lines of argument—and explores them in a wide variety of sources. A former correspondent for the United Press International, the author is equally at home with journalism or critical theory, travel writing or official documents, and his discussion is remarkably comprehensive. Ranging from T. E. Lawrence and Isak Dineson to Hemingway and Naipaul, from Time and the New Yorker to the National Geographic and Le Monde, from journalists such as Didion and Sontag to colonial administrators such as Frederick Lugard and Albert Sarraut, this analysis suggests the degree to which certain rhetorical tactics penetrate the popular as well as official colonial and postcolonial discourse.
Finally, Spurr considers the question: Can the language itself—and with it, Western forms of interpretation—be freed of the exercise of colonial power? This ambitious book is an answer of sorts. By exposing the rhetoric of empire, Spurr begins to loosen its hold over discourse about—and between—different cultures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822313175
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/18/1993
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 223
Product dimensions: 5.84(w) x 9.13(h) x 0.63(d)

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The Rhetoric of Empire

Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration

By David Spurr

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9864-6



Under Western Eyes

REPORTING BEGINS WITH LOOKING. VISUAL OBSERVATION is the essence of the reporter's function as witness. But the gaze upon which the journalist so faithfully relies for knowledge marks an exclusion as well as a privilege: the privilege of inspecting, of examining, of looking at, by its nature excludes the journalist from the human reality constituted as the object of observation.

A passage from James Agee's writing on conditions in the American South during the 1930s is remarkable for its self-conscious awareness of the power implied by the gaze. Agee describes the gathering of black farmworkers near the house of their white foreman:

They all approached softly and strangely until they stood within the shade of the grove, then stayed their ground as if floated, their eyes shifting upon us sidelong and to the ground and to the distance, speaking together very little, in quieted voices: it was as if they had been under some magnetic obligation to approach just this closely and to show themselves. (27)

They are obligated to show themselves to view for the white men, but they themselves lack the privilege of the gaze; though looked at, they are forbidden from looking back. The foreman calls for the black men to sing, and they begin the song "now that they were looked at and the order given." When the song is ended, Agee hands some money to one of the men: "He thanked me for them in a dead voice, not looking me in the eye, and they went away." The gratuity offered to the singers in effect acknowledges the unevenness of the exchange. Gazed upon, they are denied the power of the gaze; spoken to, they are denied the power to speak freely.

The scene, however, is more than a simple demonstration of power where it reveals signs of resistance on the part of the black farmworkers. The man receiving the gratuity thanks Agee "in a dead voice, not looking me in the eye," withholding his thanks even in the act of giving it. Here the avoidance of eye contact constitutes a refusal rather than a sign of submission: it says in effect, "Forbidden from looking on you freely, I refuse to meet your eye when called on to do so."

With an eye for these complexities, Agee demonstrates how looking and speaking enter into the economy of an essentially colonial situation, in which one race holds, however provisionally and uneasily, authority over another. To look at and speak to not only implies a position of authority; it also constitutes the commanding act itself: "now that they were looked at and the order given." By entering into this economy of uneven exchange, Agee becomes an accomplice to the very system of authority, of control, and of surveillance that causes him so much anguish and that removes him from those people whose lives he would attempt to understand. For all his awareness of its ironies, Agee's position is nonetheless analogous to the classic position of the Western writer in the colonial situation: the conditions of access to colonized peoples also mark an exclusion from the lived human reality of the colonized.

In 1982 Joanne Omang, a reporter for the Washington Post, shared a ride in a van with a group of other North American and Western European reporters to a tiny, remote village in El Salvador. Here she tries to imagine the effect of their arrival on the handful of peasants who witnessed the scene:

The van emptied—men in sunglasses with headphones wielding shiny microphones on long stalks pouring out behind other burly men carrying huge TV cameras and photographers drenched in Nikons—men and women alike wielding tape recorders and notebooks. We were clearly invaders from another planet. (47)

These remarks are printed not in the Post itself, but in the Washington Journalism Review, a trade journal. As a commentary on how her work is actually done, it would be out of place in a news report. Although reporters tend to know better than anyone else the limitations inherent in their methods of work, the standard journalistic forms do not easily permit reflection on the conditions—technological, economic, historical—that make reporting possible.

These conditions give the reporter a privileged point of view over what is surveyed, yet the nature of this privilege and the distance that it imposes between the seer and the seen rarely enters into the explicit content of journalistic writing. In those cases where the particular advantage inherent in the reporter's position is openly acknowledged, we suddenly see the dynamics of power that underlie even the most ordinary journalistic modes of surveillance.

In a series of articles on the Vietnam war written originally for the New York Review of Books in 1967, Mary McCarthy describes being taken up in a helicopter outside Saigon for "a ringside view of American bombing"— a routine part of the war correspondent's work. Her eyes wander over the great patches of earth scorched by the defoliation program and watch as a small plane below hits a bombing target. A typical day in the war includes 460 such bombing sorties "in support of ground forces." She comments:

The Saigonese themselves are unaware of the magnitude of what is happening to their country, since they are unable to use military transport to get an aerial view of it; they only note the refugees sleeping in the streets and hearing the B-52S pounding a few miles away.... The Air Force seems inescapable, like the Eye of God, and soon, you imagine ... all will be razed, charred, defoliated by that terrible searching gaze. (32-33)

McCarthy's account shows, first of all, that her logistical, if not her ideological, point of view is identical to that of the U.S. Air Force; her own airborne eye commands the same position as that terrible Eye of God. More importantly, her commentary implies that because of that position, the war for her takes on a different order of reality from that experienced by the Vietnamese. By looking down at the bombing targets rather than being on them, she literally sees another war.

In their disparate ways, Agee, Omang, and McCarthy are all concerned with the overpowering and potentially destructive effect of the gaze. But as any visual artist knows, the gaze is also the active instrument of construction, order, and arrangement. What one might call the ideology of the gaze takes on one of its clearest forms in the convention of the commanding view. One knows the importance of the commanding view—the panoramic vista—to architecture, landscape painting, and sites of tourism, as well as to scientific research, military intelligence, and police surveillance: it offers aesthetic pleasure on one hand, information and authority on the other. This combination of pleasure and power gives the commanding view a special role in journalistic writing, especially in the colonial situation, for it conveys a sense of mastery over the unknown and over what is often perceived by the Western writer as strange and bizarre. At the same time the commanding view is an originating gesture of colonization itself, making possible the exploration and mapping of territory which serves as the preliminary to a colonial order.

In his discussion of the intimate relation between power and visual surveillance, Michel Foucault recalls the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth-century design for a circular prison divided into individual cells, all of which could be observed from the single vantage point of an enclosed central tower (1977:200-228). This architectural design has served as the model for modern prisons such as Stateville in Joliet, Illinois, as well as for other institutions where discipline and productivity are most economically monitored by an arrangement where the eye can survey an entire operation at a glance, while remaining free to focus on the minutest detail. Hence the widespread use of the panoptic principle in schools, libraries, hospitals, and factories.

In analyzing this principle, Foucault notes that what guarantees control in the Panopticon is the analytical arrangement of space: the circular structure of the building is divided into cells of uniform size, each of which can be seen from the same angle and at the same distance from the central point. The power exercised over those who dwell in this field of vision is therefore noncorporal: it depends on spatial configuration rather than on the use of force. This means that the position of visual authority is equally accessible to anyone who occupies the center of the structure: the eye of a worker or a schoolboy commands the same view as that of a prison warden. Furthermore, a series of partitions and blinds ensures that the observer remains invisible to those who are the objects of surveillance, making the Panopticon what Foucault calls a machinery of dissymmetry, disequilibrium, and difference. For the observer, sight confers power; for the observed, visibility is a trap.

I have borrowed the image of the Panopticon in order to suggest that its principle has bearing on any occasion where the superior and invulnerable position of the observer coincides with the role of affirming the political order that makes that position possible. The device of the commanding view in colonialist writing constitutes one such occasion. Like the supervisor in the Panopticon, the writer who engages this view relies for authority on the analytic arrangement of space from a position of visual advantage. The writer is placed either above or at the center of things, yet apart from them, so that the organization and classification of things takes place according to the writer's own system of value. Interpretation of the scene reflects the circumspective force of the gaze, while suppressing the answering gaze of the other. In this disproportionate economy of sight the writer preserves, on a material and human level, the relations of power inherent in the larger system of order.


The rhetorical convention based on the sweeping visual mastery of a scene is an important feature of nineteenth-century poetry and fiction, as well as of the narratives of explorers such as Mungo Park and Sir Richard Burton. Mary Louise Pratt calls this rhetorical gesture the "monarch of all I survey" scene and notes its use by these Victorian explorers to convey moments of important geographical discovery (201). The convention is also essential to the writing of Henry Morton Stanley, one of the most daring and brilliant journalists in the history of the British and American press. Stanley's characteristic rhetorical method is to place himself on some "noble coign of vantage" and to survey the scene below in such a way as to combine spatial arrangement with strategic, aesthetic, or economic valorization of the landscape.

In September 1871, the third month of his journey to the African interior in search of David Livingstone, Stanley describes the land known as Unyamwezi. The rocky hill on which he stands is a "natural fortress," from which,

if you look west, you will see Unyamwezi recede into the far, blue, mysterious distance in a succession of blue waves of noble forest, rising and subsiding like the blue waves of an ocean.... Hills of syenite are seen dotting the vast prospect, like islands in a sea, presenting in their external appearance, to an imaginative eye, rude imitations of castellated fortresses and embattled towers. Around these rocky hills the cultivated fields of the Wanyamwezi—fields of tall maize, of holcus sorghum, of millet, of vetches, etc.—among which you may discern the patches devoted to the cultivation of sweet potatoes and manioc, and pasture lands where browse the hump shouldered cattle of Africa, flocks of goats and sheep. (1970:36)

Stanley's eye moves systematically out to the horizon, then returns to the ground which can be inspected in its minute particulars. It ranges freely over the scene, providing general outline and points of focus, bringing about spatial order from a fixed point of view. The rhetorical trope known as parataxis—placing things side by side—by the mid-nineteenth century had become a standard adaptation of language to the scientific method, in which the process of knowing the world became largely a matter of establishing natural objects as visually accessible (Stafford 34).

But the "imaginative eye" of the journalist-explorer goes beyond the mere arrangement of visual data. Pratt, in her analysis of a passage in Burton's The Lake Regions of Central Africa (i860), identifies three parts of this rhetorical convention: the landscape is first aestheticized, then it is invested with a density of meaning intended to convey its material and symbolic richness, and finally it is described so as to subordinate it to the power of the speaker (204). Returning to our passage in Stanley, we find that it conforms to Pratt's model: The "far, blue, mysterious" distances of the forest become, metaphorically, those of a blue ocean inviting voyage and adventure, investing the scene with aesthetic value. The metaphorical transformation of the syenite hills into fortresses and embattled towers confers a strategic value on the landscape, showing that it could be held, safeguarded, protected. The rich detail devoted to farm and pasture land points to the natural abundance of the land, while at the same time domesticating the scene, referring it both backward and forward to a mythic time and place—where sheep may safely graze.

In our own largely postcolonial world, the commanding view still reflects the writer's authority over the scene surveyed, but the perceptual appetite is more likely to find itself unsatisfied, and the writer's tone to be one of disappointment or disillusionment. For a 1984 New Yorker article on the Ivory Coast, V. S. Naipaul visited the president's ancestral village of Yamoussoukro, now being newly constructed as a modern city. Naipaul looks down from the sealed glass window of his hotel room to an enormous swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs. Beyond that, he sees the golf course created out of the bush: "a foreign eye had drawn out the possibilities of what to an African would have been only bush." His gaze lingers:

It was a great creation, the golf course—perfection, in a way. It represented prodigious labor. Yet it was only a view; one look took it all in. And soon it wasn't enough. Splendor on this scale, in this setting, and after a hundred-and-fifty-mile drive, only created an appetite for more: the visitor began to enter the ambition and fantasy of the creator. There was a main street, very wide; there was a market; there were workers' settlements. Something like a real town was attaching itself to the presidential creation. But the visitor, always quickly taking for granted what had been created, continued to be distracted by the gaps, the scarred earth, the dusty vacancies. And if you didn't want to play golf, there was nothing to do. (May 14,1984)

Naipaul—born in Trinidad of Hindu parentage, educated at Oxford and resident in London—is an extraordinarily complex writer whose novels, essays, and travel accounts have confronted with stark vision the despair of a postcolonial world cast spiritually adrift. But even so gifted a writer shares certain conventions of representation with his less complicated literary and journalistic antecedents. Here, for example, Naipaul's description has an order comparable to Stanley's: beginning from a fixed point of reference, his eye travels steadily outward in a progressively expansive movement, arranging and dividing the field of vision. This visual survey carries with it an assessment of aesthetic and economic value: the golf course is beautiful, thanks to the skill of a "foreign eye." The city itself is ambitious but empty and incomplete, marked by gaps, vacancy, absence. In the judgment passed within Naipaul's gaze, the African town has made progress, but has yet to achieve the status of a "real town," has yet to achieve, that is, the reality of modernity and westernization. In both descriptive passages, the precolo-nial and the postcolonial, the rhetorical construct based on visual authority acts as a concrete sign of the writer's privileged point of view in the larger political sphere. The writer literally sees the landscape of the non-Western world in terms either of the promise for westernized development or of the disappointment of that promise. Stanley gazes out at Africa as it might become under colonial rule. Naipaul gazes at an Africa which, left to itself, can only parody the splendors of the West.


When it descends from the heights of mountain ranges and hotel rooms, the gaze of the Western writer penetrates the interiors of human habitation, and it explores the bodies and faces of people with the same freedom that it brings to the survey of a landscape. The eye of the writer and its technological extension, the camera, take us inside the dwelling places of the primitive and exotic: a night club in Saigon, sacred caves in India, a terrorist enclave in Beirut, the winding alleys of the Algerian casbah, a prison in Uganda, a peasant hut in El Salvador. An entire tradition in Western literature, from colonial American captivity narratives to the novels of Forster and Malraux, has built itself around this trial of penetration into the interior spaces of non-European peoples. In these interiors the confrontation of cultures takes place face to face, or rather eye to eye, and it is here, at close range, that the gaze of the writer can have its most powerful effect.


Excerpted from The Rhetoric of Empire by David Spurr. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Surveillance: Under Western Eyes,
2 Appropriation: Inheriting the Earth,
3 Aestheticization: Savage Beauties,
4 Classification: The Order of Nations,
5 Debasement: Filth and Defilement,
6 Negation: Areas of Darkness,
7 Affirmation: The White Man's Burden,
8 Idealization: Strangers in Paradise,
9 Insubstantialization: Seeing as in a Dream,
10 Naturalization: The Wilderness in Human Form,
11 Eroticization: The Harems of the West,
12 Resistance: Notes Toward an Opening,

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