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Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity.

Monday, November 15, 1999 - 03:21
Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 27. Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv + 248 pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-58438-8); $18.95 (Pbk;
ISBN: 0-521-58604-6).

Reviewed by
Alan Richardson
Boston College

Saree Makdisi's important new book, Romantic Imperialism, appears at a critical moment for Romantic studies. Pathbreaking work by Marilyn Butler, John Barrell, Mary Louise Pratt, and Nigel Leask has successfully established that the cultural movement called "British Romanticism" cannot be fully understood without reference to the profound geopolitical transformations that make the years 1780-1830 as important for the history of the British Empire as for conventional literary history. For the first time, a significant number of literary scholars have begun paying sustained attention to such issues as the slave trade, colonial slavery, and the mass movements directed against them; the crisis in imperial confidence following the loss of the North American colonies; the increasing turn to the East, and especially India, in developing the "second" British empire; the consolidation of the "internal" empire through the Act of Union with Ireland and the pacification and commodification of the Highlands; the exploration and continuing exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa; the Haitian revolution and the threat of black self-determination elsewhere in the Caribbean; the growing importance of the Hispanophone Americas for British trade and foreign policy; and the rise of modern racism as a justification for slavery and empire. Few students of Romanticism would now be willing to dismiss these issues and events as peripheral to the literature of the time. New anthologies like Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's British Literature 1780-1830 and Peter Manning and Susan Wolfson's "Romantics and Their Contemporaries" section of the Longman Anthology have made the global aspects of Romanticism central to the new classroom canons, and essay collections edited by Sonia Hofkosh and myself (in the U.S.) and Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson (in the U.K) have helped bring a number of new critical voices and perspectives into play. Yet, as the reception of this new work has shown, a backlash is already making itself felt, even as many of the relevant texts are finally becoming widely available and the serious study of Romanticism and empire is just getting underway. Longstanding Romantic notions of the autonomy of the creative imagination and the transcendent character of high art have resurfaced in charges that to consider the imperialist and racist aspects of British Romanticism is an exercise in anachronistic "political correctness" and a reduction of complex human subjects to "ideological robots." Makdisi's powerfully argued book enters a recently trivialized dialogue with a series of claims that some will consider outrageous, amounting to a fundamentally new understanding both of Romanticism and empire. It is this very outrageousness that makes Romantic Imperialism so timely and so welcome.

Makdisi's study is impressive in three ways: for its elegance, for its ambition, and for its originality in according a major role to British Romanticism within the study of modern imperialism. Each of these virtues comes at a certain price. The book's elegance is achieved partly by means of a great deal of abstraction, such that Wordsworth's "spots of time," for example, are discussed without reference to either of the two passages in The Prelude that Wordsworth himself associated with that phrase. Its ambition--nothing short of filling the gap between Said's model of Orientalism and Jameson's theory of modern capitalism--involves a noticeable amount of overstatement and historical fudging. And its original take on "Romanticism" depends on taking for granted a traditional conception of that notoriously vexed term and concentrating on a canon of representative writers (Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Blake, and Scott as the author of Waverley) that sometimes makes Makdisi's analysis seem simultaneously cutting-edge and dated. Its very spareness and its concentration on conventional Romantic topics (Nature, the sublime, the spot of time, Romantic exoticism), however, helps the argument to emerge cleanly and with a single-mindedness that seems justified by the clarity with which Makdisi covers some very dense theoretical ground. This is a book to argue with as much as to learn from; an exemplary book to teach with and indeed to think with. It is refreshing in its willingness to take a strong position and argue it through without piling up qualifications and concessions, even though this same feature makes it misleadingly easy to take exception to this or that statement or reading.

Makdisi understands Romanticism as a "specific cultural formation" both inaugurating and resisting a larger historical process, a "cultural revolution" that Makdisi terms "modernization" (xi-xii). Modernization brings together capitalism and imperialism: It is an intrinsically global process that strives toward an impossible goal, the homogenization of world markets and cultures in the interests of dominant groups associated with the European metropolitan centers (exemplified by London). Modernization entails the reinvention both of space and time. Space must be mapped out and rationalized (a process that unites as seemingly disparate phenomena as the enclosure movement in England and the mapping of the African interior), while time is globally regulated, imposing the universal tick of clock-time in an ever-increasing range of venues from the Birmingham factory to the most distant colonial spaces. Borrowing crucially (and repeatedly) from Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other, Makdisi recurs throughout the study to ways in which literary works both participate in and contest the imposition of "this new abstract space-time" (181). On the one hand, spatial differences are reconceived of as temporal differences and a diachronic model of "development" (still present in terms like "developing nations") is imposed from the metropole onto the imperial periphery, consigning whole continents to backward or primitive status. (This is a project that Makdisi associates especially with James Mill and his History of British India.) On the other, a program of progress and development is imposed throughout the globe, not least in the metropolitan centers themselves. Romantic writers illustrate these tendencies while attempting to contest them, constructing imaginary refuges from the modernizing process that cannot, however, ultimately withstand the process they throw into relief.

The two chapters on Wordsworth demonstrate how the rise of the imperial metropole, the construction of "Nature" as a refuge from modernization, and the positing of an alternative temporality in the "spot of time" all cohere in the work of a (the?) canonical Romantic poet. Through a reading of Book VII of The Prelude, Makdisi shows that Wordsworth's London represents not only the city (in contrast to the countryside), but a modern imperial metropolis in the making, a site where the turmoil, confusion, and alienation of the modernizing process become most evident. Wordsworth's descriptions of the "colonial crowd"--"Moors, Malays, Lascars," the American "Hunter-Indian" and "Negro Ladies"--convey a colorful but also terrifying vision, one from which Wordsworth attempts to escape through the "spots of time" (31). The spot of time constitutes a temporality distinct from and opposed to the relentless forward movement of modernization; it is at once inviolate and hopelessly fragile. (Thus "Nutting" gives a better sense of Makdisi's "spot of time" than does The Prelude itself.) Wordsworth's "Nature" is seen as itself a "refuge" from modernization, an alternative space that offers an escape from (and implies a critique of) the emergent capitalist-imperialist enterprise. Taking aim at Jonathan Bate's "ahistorical" conception of nature (179), Makdisi argues that Wordsworthian (Romantic) Nature is "negatively defined" and therefore produced by the very processes that it is meant to oppose (60). It is a "heterotopic space" in much the way that Scott's Highlands or Byron's Orient constitute a threatened "pocket of the non-synchronic within a much larger and increasingly synchronized space-time of modernity" (64).

In his trenchant reading of Waverley, Makdisi argues that the process of internal colonization--the tightening of control over Scotland and Ireland under the banner of "Great Britain"--is integrally related to the larger process of modernization. Scott's comparisons of Highlanders to Africans or Orientals are anything but incidental. As Edward Waverley moves forward in space, he moves backwards in time, into the pre-modern temporality of the Highlands. Scott's Highlands constitute a colonial space valued for its exoticism and yet destined to be violently brought into the orbit of British modernity. From the standpoint of the novel's writing time ("sixty years since") rather than its narrative time, this process in fact is already well underway; in a rather cruel irony, the Highlands can be celebrated (and retailed) for their picturesque, pre-modern characteristics only because their threat as a real historical alternative has been removed by Culloden and its aftermath. The fabrication of ersatz Highland traditions (famously discussed by Hugh Trevor-Roper) is exemplified by Waverley itself, most self-consciously in the imaginary portrait of Waverley and Fergus that Scott describes at the novel's end. Illuminating as Makdisi's reading is (and I can only begin to do it justice in this brief sketch), it is less than entirely satisfying. The largest single problem is the binary opposition of the Highlands on the one hand and England and the Lowlands on the other, in place of the triangular relation among England, the Lowlands, and the Highlands that places the Lowlands (and Anglo-Scottish culture, and Scott) in the strategic mediating position. Throughout the study, in fact, Makdisi prefers binary oppositions--pre-modern and modern, synchronous and non-synchronous time, the Highlands (along with Ireland) and England (along with the Lowlands), old-style Orientalism and modern Orientalism (chapter 5)--and shows as little interest in shadings and overlaps as in third (or fourth) terms. The gain in neatness is purchased with a loss in nuance.

The chapter on Byron, Shelley, and Romantic Orientalism is a characteristically instructive study in tidy opposition. The Byron of Childe Harold is more pilgrim than tourist, constructing an Orient that still can serve as refuge from and opponent to the inexorably modernizing West, an "anti-modern" space from which to pose a critique of the metropolitan center (125, 137). Yet Byron's Orientalism is marked by the significant "anxiety" that his imagined Orient cannot ultimately withstand the onslaughts of the universal empire. Shelley's Orient in Alastor, in stark contrast, is constructed as an archaic, virtually empty space open to the progressive leadership of European liberalism--another face of homogenizing modernization. Makdisi writes compellingly of the implicit imperial violence behind the strangely desolate landscapes--and cityscapes--of Shelley's own imaginary Orient. Shelley too registers a certain note of anxiety--manifested in the haunting of the landscape by a solitary (and seemingly invisible) Arab maiden--but his vision of the Orient (particularly as developed in the Philosophical View of Reform) is congruent with the liberal universalism of a James Mill. What Shelley's--or for that matter Byron's--representation of the Orient has to do with gender is barely touched on, although earlier readings of the Romantic East (especially Leask's) have suggested that issues of gender play a crucial role in the literary Orientalism of the time.

Makdisi's reading of Blake provides the most unexpected and intriguing chapter of the book. Returning to the concerns of the Wordsworth chapters, Makdisi begins with Blake's "London" as a text concerned with the modernization process as it radiates out from the metropolis. He then traces Blake's construction of London through a number of passages elsewhere, particularly in The Four Zoas, in arguing that Blake intuits the emergence of a "universal empire" and attempts to counter it with a redemptive global vision of his own. Blake's dazzling manipulations of space and time provide an ideal subject for Makdisi's methodological interests. One can argue with some of his analyses--especially of the Book of Los, a poem which might be read as implying that only the revolutionary West can lead Asia and Africa out of darkness (a vision comparable to Shelley's). But the new definition of British Romanticism that concludes the book remains an extremely engaging one: "Romanticism . . . can be understood as a cultural discourse defining the mutual constitution of the modern imperial center and its anti-modern colonies and peripheries" (175). This is one of the most important statements that has been made regarding Romanticism as an identifiable cultural movement (as opposed to simply a span of years) in some time. Makdisi's iconoclastic view of Romanticism, with the models and readings he offers in support of it, should do much to restore a sense of seriousness to the developing critical dialogue on British Romanticism and empire.

With all due gratitude for the new impetus Makdisi has provided, I want to end by pointing out some of the areas his book ignores and that might usefully complicate both Makdisi's argument and the study of Romantic imperialism generally. First, though, I would emphasize that work in this area will gain if it develops more as a conversation than as a set of relatively isolated contributions. It is a shame, then, that Makdisi's reading of Wordsworth, London, and empire fails to engage with that of Alison Hickey, or that his reading of Scott and the ironies of commodifying a broken Highland identity does not acknowledge Peter Murphy's similar analysis, or (most unaccountably of all) that his reading of Byron, Shelley, and the East does not take up or even mention Leask's brilliant work on this topic. Nor does Makdisi register the challenge to his view of Romanticism as providing a refuge from and critique of emergent global capitalism posed by Hofkosh's argument (in relation to Equiano) that Romanticism may enable modern capitalism as well. Hofkosh's reading of Equiano on this point serves as a salutary reminder that "Romanticism" is, after all, a retrospective construct, and figures like Equiano or Southey may be as important in work on Romanticism and empire as more familiar figures like Wordsworth and Shelley. A full account of "Romantic imperialism" would include attention to women writers like Williams, Barbauld, Yearsley, Owenson, Edgeworth, and Hemans; to the "minor Romantics" of yore like Southey, Landor, and Moore (all more "major" in their time than Blake or Shelley); and to writers who have never seen much of a revival but whose works take up issues of colonialism and empire in important ways, like James Montgomery, Mary Birkett, Edward Rushton, and Hugh Mulligan. Obviously I'm imagining here not so much a single monograph (however weighty) than a critical movement, one that I hope will continue to emerge. Such a movement will, to be successful, want to pay much more sustained attention to issues of gender than does Makdisi in this study, returning to the example of Leask, and will have much more to say about Africa and the Americas. It will also do well, I think, to make the issues of the slave trade and colonial slavery central to discussions of literature and empire in the period, as anti-slavery writing brings out a quite different dimension (and even conception) of literary activity in the period. Further work in this area, however, will be the stronger for the example set here by Makdisi, and will want to take his methodology, his specific readings, and his overarching vision of Romantic imperialism into account.