M. Keith Booker’s Colonial Power, Colonial Texts presents an interesting if controversial view of history that is influenced by readings of Foucault, Lukács, Jameson, and Gramsci. The book seeks to uncover the presence of “the bourgeois cultural revolution” as the subtext of the modern British novel. Booker’s interpretation of this revolution is premised on Jameson’s belief that “the transition from feudalism to capitalism is what is secretly (or more deeply) being told in most contemporary historiography whatever its ostensible content.” Booker supplements this Marxist model of history with Foucault’s history of the technologies of power in Europe and Gramsci’s description of hegemony. Foucault traces the evolution of techniques of punishment into the modern bourgeois era and stresses that the decline in public tortures and executions was implicated in a movement toward greater efficiency in controlling the population through disciplinary techniques designed to obtain voluntary obedience. Gramsci argues that the European bourgeoisie maintained its power through hegemony, that is, through social and cultural practices that convinced the subaltern classes to accede to their power. Booker states that although the British tried to supplement their control of India through a complex of hegemonic practices that involved subtle strategies of cultural manipulation, they were never able to achieve complete hegemony in India. Consequently, the British Raj remained informed by the kinds of repressive practices that were associated with the feudal-aristocratic power of the pre-bourgeois era.
In his preface Booker defends his decision to “recover the power of traditional Marxist modes of historiography” and stresses that the history he is primarily concerned with is British, not Indian. Nevertheless, to assert, as Booker does, that “the boyhood adventure tale that informs Kim reflects not so much Kipling’s own nostalgic longings [. . .] as the growing power of international capital” or that “A Passage to India is interesting not because it illuminates Forster’s existential angst (or, alternatively, anxieties caused by his homosexuality in a homophobic British society) but because of what it can tell us about a broader sense of historical crisis” is to privilege a totalizing narrative that trivializes [End Page 1035] and subsumes alternative histories. This narrative ignores a plethora of sophisticated readings of these colonial texts by critics such as Jenny Sharpe and Christopher Lane and dismisses differences of gender, sexuality, class, and birth that are implicated in the literature under discussion. Women, for instance, are either absent from Booker’s analysis, or like Joan Blackett in The Singapore Grip, they participate in their own commodification. Colonial Power, Colonial Texts also contains references to the “authentic” world of the subaltern that are reminiscent of Jameson’s nostalgia for the third world, but the study does provide some insightful observations on class differences between the British at home and in the colony.
The book is organized around a selection of canonical and popular literature which includes Kipling’s Kim, Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s A Jewel in the Crown, Orwell’s Burmese Days, and Farrell’s The Empire Trilogy. The first chapter addresses the use of knowledge as a tool of British colonial power in India. Booker provides an excellent analysis of the way in which Kipling’s descriptions of an old cannon and the Lahore museum in Kim represent a complex combination of feudal aristocratic and bourgeois techniques of power, and then goes on to discuss the theme of epistemological failure in Forster’s A Passage to India and Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur in the context of the pretensions of Victorian science.
The second chapter is Booker’s most important. It offers a significant contribution to discussions of the theatricality of the British Raj and develops an interesting thesis about the “bovarysme” of fictional colonial creations. Booker points out that the precariousness of British political power was responsible for bourgeois spectacles such as Victoria’s coronation in 1877, which sought to win support for the empire both at home and abroad. He also suggests that “bovarysme,” a term adapted from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary...