Indirect Rule


Philip Holden

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Copyright © 1999 by Philip Holden, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    Review of:

    Daniel Bivona, British Imperial Literature, 1870-1940: Writing and the Administration of Empire (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 1998), 237pp.

  1. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew notes in his recent memoirs that when, after Singapore's independence in 1965, he met other leaders of former British colonies he discovered that they had something slightly disturbing in common: all had studied English Literature at school, and most were familiar with Shakespeare's plays and other canonical texts. Lee's anecdote, and his own attachment to Victorian modes of masculine self-fashioning, might perhaps add a suggestive coda to Daniel Bivona's new study, British Imperial Literature, 1970-1940: Writing and the Administration of Empire.
  2. Bivona examines "the narrative construction of a certain type of European bureaucratic subject" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the reading of English prose fiction and memoirs that have an imperial setting. British Imperial Literature analyses the representation of an ideology of self-sacrifice in these texts, an ideology that Bivona relates to imperial proconsul Frederick Lugard's concept of Indirect Rule. Indirect Rule, Bivona notes, was "a carefully staged economy of unsung heroism" in which the invisibility of the administrator, his self-negation, was glorified. Despite this rhetoric, Bivona claims, Indirect Rule actually served to "institutionalize the manufacture of leaders with godlike powers, expertise, and fields of action out of otherwise ordinary English bureaucrats." While Indirect Rule appeared to diminish the power of colonial administrators, the system of rule and its attendant ideologies in fact enhanced their prestige.
  3. British Imperial Literature is organized chronologically, moving from an initial theoretical discussion to chapters reading David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley's accounts of exploration, selected novels of Rudyard Kipling and then Joseph Conrad, T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and finally, significant imperial novels by E. M. Forster, George Orwell, and Joyce Carey. Bivona's theoretical framework does produce significant new insights. I particularly enjoyed his reading of Kipling, demonstrating how the writer "connects bureaucratic order to a late-Victorian model of 'nature'" and thus "naturalizes and domesticates bureaucracy" in The Jungle Books. Similarly, Bivona's relation of what Kaja Silverman calls T. E. Lawrence's "reflexive masochism"--his oscillation from sadism to masochis--to his anxiety about whether he was an actor in an imperial narrative or a passive participant in a nationalist one significantly expands previous psychoanalytically-influenced readings of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
  4. Bivona's study is strong in its appreciation of the strength of imperial ideology as a disciplinary system. British Imperial Literature does not resort to a historically unanchored celebration of the power of textual ambivalence, but rather demonstrates, in its discussion of Forster, Carey, and Orwell, just how difficult it was for an English writer who had lost faith in the idea of empire to comprehensively challenge and refute imperial ideologies. The fictional texts discussed are firmly anchored in an appreciation of their social context: Bivona discusses, for instance, the implicitly expansionist rationale of nineteenth-century imperial "humanitarianism." He explores not only the ideas and practices of Cromer and Lugard regarding imperial rule, but also the complex imbrication of these practices with the writings of theorists of empire as diverse as J. R. Seeley and J. A. Hobson.
  5. Despite the book's strength, I read British Imperial Literature with a growing sense of disquiet. Small errors such as giving the title of Joyce Carey's Mister Johnson as Mr. Johnson, or an incorrect title for Harold Perkins' book on the professionalisation of British society, might in themselves be dismissed as products of hasty proofreading. More contentious, however, is Bivona's uncritical reproduction of colonial vocabulary in his own analysis: contemporary anthropologists, for instance, have noted that terms such as "tribe" have a colonial history and are not connotatively neutral. These details are, I think, symptomatic of a larger conceptual problem in the study.
  6. In the last ten years, writers as diverse as Homi Bhabha and Ann Laura Stoler have explored the complexity of colonial discourse, and the manner in which a variety of groups came to occupy diverse subject-positions within a colonial public sphere. Bivona's book's title perhaps indicates a desire to separate "imperial" from "colonial," the act of metropolitan representation from the acts of colonial reading and reinscription, but recent research and theoretical work would suggest that such a distinction is untenable. A project that involves reading a series of canonical literary texts on a centre-periphery model, as Bivona's does, and does well, now looks increasingly dated. The imperial bureaucrat of Indirect Rule was part of the same process of subjectification that reinvented indigenous traditions, and that produced a series of bourgeois colonized, often initially Anglophilic elites. British Imperial fiction was often consumed by a colonial audience, and provided a problematic but not insignificant component of the raw material of which new modernities were constructed. We need to hear of Feisal as well as Lawrence, of leaders of the West African National Conference as well as of Clifford and Lugard, of the Sultan of Johor and the Anglophone Straits Chinese elite in Singapore as well as of Conrad, in order to comprehend fully the subjectification involved in Indirect rule.
  7. Such a strategy has the capacity, I feel, to complement and extent Bivona's analysis, much as Andrea White's discussion of the post-colonial African reception of Conrad enhances her account of Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition. In a wider sense, equally, it would support present efforts to read the categories of global and post-colonial back into history--to see, as in Lee's example with which this review commenced, the relationship between the colonial and post-colonial worlds as one not only of rupture but also of surprising, and often unlooked-for, continuities.

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