The authors problematically engage a teleology of the United States’ “politics of difference.” They first describe a process of Othering that used discreet categories such as “subjects” and “non-citizens” to subjugate native peoples, Blacks and nonwhite immigrants; then they conclude that “only in the late twentieth century would Americans celebrate their diversity” (286). While neglecting the complex politics of empire interior to the U.S. itself, Burbank and Cooper trace the rise of American exceptionalism and its imperialist mission abroad. Posing the question of “colonization without colonialism?” (321), the authors examine the use of infiltrative polities and economics, indigenous intermediaries, and ideologies that cemented racialized notions of mastery, progress, and development.
Consider Burbank and Cooper’s discussion of Hong Kong – a classic example of a “hybrid” colonial context. [What is “hybrid?” Is everything “hybrid?”] In lieu of engaging dualities of East and West, Chinese and British (their clash and synthesis) the authors survey the territory’s economic linkages with “Japan, the Dutch East Indies, the Spanish Philippines, Portuguese enclaves in Macao, East Timor, and Goa, and, further afield, British India” (300). By crediting Chinese entrepreneurs for establishing trade networks that contributed to Hong Kong’s dynamic social topography, they subvert canonical conceptions of the imperialist’s primary role in strengthening colonies through their imposition of “foreignness” and encouragement of (asymmetrical) exchange.
In “From Immigrant to Transmigrant,” Schiller, Basch and Blanc parse the ultimate paradox – “‘the age of transnationalism’ is a time of continuing and even heightening nation-state building processes” (59). In attempting to describe migrations, movements and diasporas, historians are compelled to delineate, rather than deconstruct borders. Rather than centering on the mutability and changeability of categories like country, colony or nation-state, we are tempted to leave such constructs untouched for the sake of cohesive narrative construction. Connecting this issue to Burbank and Cooper’s treatment of Japan’s pan-Asianist mission, a metanarrative emerges wherein historians must (de)construct the same boundaries and identities that historical actors themselves sought to (de)construct – “that colonized as well as colonizer were Asian was emphasized again and again by Japanese ethnographers … but the vision of racial brotherhood was a hierarchical one. Japan was the elder brother, China the younger” (402).
I was disappointed that Burbank and Cooper did not explore further the use of English as a colonizer language and its role in cultural and epistemic infiltration. They mention a “Hindu College” founded in 1818 which used English as the language of instruction and the change of the government language from Persian to English in 1835 (308). The authors remark on three interpretations of such policies – an opportunity for Indians to acquire (Anglocentric) cultural capital, an act of erasure and domination, or a “middle ground” – a hybrid system forged from two preexisting hegemonies. The latter understanding mirrors the rhetoric surrounding Hong Kong’s retrocession (441) – known as “the Handover” in the territory itself, but “the Return” in the mainland (something the authors do not touch upon). Four years after their book was published, the Umbrella Movement began – how might their work have treated young Hong Kongers’ protests against “Chinese interventionism?”
Too often, Caliban has been replicated and reimagined in exclusive sites of literature and memory as either a victim of “backwards” indigeneity or the European oppressor. Said lauds Roberto Fernández Retamat for treating him, instead, as a “symbol of hybridity, with his strange and unpredictable mixture of attributes. This is truer to the Creole, or mestizo composite of the new America” (213). As such, resistance features both a restoration of what was, as well as a conscious acceptance of what is – resultant of a painful past, but a blueprint for a reclaimed future.*
Said discusses imperialism as an act of geographical violence. He cites Alfred W. Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, describing the appropriation, transformation, and exploitation of land in tandem with the construction of a settler identity and the establishment of an imperial system (225). This relationship lends itself well to a discussion of expansionism versus encroachment – a historiographic orientation that either favors the spread of Western domination from margins to center or highlights the interiority of indigenous perspectives on and experiences of colonization. Indeed, popular narratives of colonization center on the movement and settlement of foreign (human) bodies, without elaborating on its ecological and ideological forms. In other words, the transplantation of flora and fauna, and ideas and norms (respectively) may establish themselves as separate, but overlapping spheres of inquiry, well-suited for environmental and cultural historians. After all, the postcolonial historiographical project should not just be the responsibility of social and political historians. Such genres are artifice, anyway. A responsible scholar engages the intersections of these domains.
Said argues “slavery and empire are shown to have fostered the rise and consolidation of capitalism well beyond the old plantation monopolies, as well as to have been a powerful ideological system” (94) – a point similar to LaFaber’s introductory remarks. In “Consumption of Dependency Theory,” Fernando Henrique Cardoso describes how claims of “underdevelopment” or “backwardness” are articulated in terms of a Western, capitalist vision of modernity (11). I previously mused about subaltern experiences’ connection to changes in ruling economic power – from enslavement to sharecropping and the prison-industrial complex. How might neocolonial forms of exploitation be linked to imperialist processes? One might compare historical instances of colonization to modern-day gentrification, or interrogate “First World” autonomy in the global economy.
* This point is reminiscent of Saidiya Hartman’s argument in “Venus in Two Acts” – “a history of the present strives to illuminate the intimacy of our experience with the lives of the dead, to write our now as it is interrupted by this past, and to imagine a free state, not as the time before captivity or slavery, but rather as the anticipated future of this writing” (4).
To that end, how has the Afrofuturist movement emerged from the intersection of literature and identity, story-telling and ideology that Said describes? How might it cement our vision of a free state by straddling what was, is, and could be?
James describes Toussaint’s adoption (assimilation?) of European philosophy, the “crude words of [his] broken dialect” (197). I am interested in the significance of language in decolonization – in revolutions, politics, and epistemology alike. What constitutes a “broken” dialect, if not a language of hybridity – a creole communication that transcends the circumscriptions of what is considered “correct” by the white man and his “pure” tongue? It was proposed that slaves be taught to read but not write – such that they could consume white epistemologies but not produce their own (375). Language is the middle ground – forged out of context, connection and necessity. Does James’ glocalized history ascribe too readily to essentialized conceptions of place and position? Or can we (constructively) internalize the white man's dichotomous delineations of “us and them?” Parsing monolithic constructions like nation states or “the Third World” allows us to complicate our reception of the past.
In “An Age of Imperial Revolutions,” Jeremy Adelman problematizes the notion of the nation state as a fictive, teleological successor to empire. Citing Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, he demonstrates that historical narratives on the rise of communal consciousness and identity in the West play into a white supremacist ideology of exceptionalism (330-1). Indeed, by citing the notion of a “regime change” (319), Adelman makes room for more analyses that assess the interiority of both imperial and colonial forces. In other words, what does a “regime change” from imperial colony to nation state look like from within? Does the instantaneous claim, appearance, or external presentation of a new system of governance match the experiences undergone by people at both the centers and margins of such territories? Is nationalism as unified, cohesive, or automatic as the historiography has portrayed it? On Haiti, Adelman observes that France’s proclamation of independence and virtue made “good of the French Revolution that the old empire had betrayed. What was common was the prolonged effort to reassemble the practices of sovereignty to rely on empire to shore up understandings of sovereignty” (337).