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  • Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain's Empire in Asia
  • Karen Steigman
Sanjay Krishnan. Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain's Empire in Asia. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. xii + 242 pp.

What is the task of the literary critic in the era of globalization? If this is the central question of Sanjay Krishnan's Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain's Empire in Asia, his book is an exemplary instance of what such a global literary criticism might look like. Krishnan brings his literary training to bear on what by now may seem the ineluctable naturalization of the global perspective, the abiding sense that globalization as such is already here. (From the outset, Krishnan refuses to take sides on the relative merits of globalization: if the global has already arrived, he is not interested in celebrating or lamenting the moment; anyway, in the spirit of deconstruction— [End Page 866] Krishnan's methodology—what may be "dangerous" may be always also "useful" [4].) Instead Krishnan shows how the global perspective is itself a historical one, a figuration of dominance at once woven into and produced by text. By meticulously tracking the emergent production of this modern global perspective in a select series of texts by Adam Smith, Thomas de Quincey, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, and, inevitably, Joseph Conrad, Krishnan shows how the global is not a stable entity existing in and of itself, but rather a distinct and contradictory "mode of bringing the world into view" (4). That view (which supports the dominant perspective of Western imperial subjectivity) depends on a concomitant textual "suppression of marginalized or subaltern perspectives" (2). Krishnan's method explicitly follows the work of Gayatri Spivak and others in aiming to produce a different reading of the global, one that might usefully attend to the textual production of meaning ("textured analysis" [160]) and deconstruct the ineluctable and naturalized global perspective that so far has been the "uncritically assimilated" (1) provenance of social scientists and historians. Thus Krishnan advocates an "unorthodox" (33)—or with Spivak, even deliberately "mistaken" (22)—practice of reading that could critique the dominant global perspective and produce a theory of global difference (but not a different global theory). That is, Krishnan trains his reading on what he calls the "formal" or "rhetorical" conduct of a text (attending to a text's own protocol) (33, 37); and in turn, he seeks to train his own readers in that same reading practice, one that can resist a text's representation of its truth claims and attend to its complications or moments of unease. By virtue of this double move, Krishnan seeks to tease out the "interruptive potential" of representation and, as his title indicates, to "trouble" the tacit truths and underlying assumptions—the reality effects—of the contemporary global narrative (166).

In short, this book sets out to matter to "anyone concerned with the matter of reading" (47), and what matters centrally in Krishnan's reading is to produce a concept of the global that refers not to "an empirical thing or process" but rather to "the frame in which empirical facts are made to appear and are given their particular and contextual assignments" (28). Specifically at stake here is to show how the Malay Archipelago appears and "is made available as an object for representation" within the global frame (29). Each chapter of Krishnan's book thus strategically reads representation "against the grain" of a global perspective as it is instituted and inculcated (2)—indeed, invented—in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British imperialist narratives of Asia; to this end he closely (and quite brilliantly) tracks the "suppressed or disenfranchised valences" of certain critical words and figures ("subsistence" in Smith's Wealth of Nations, "amuk" in [End Page 867] De Quincey's Confessions, "I" in the Hikayat Abdullah, and "animality" in Lord Jim) (167). For instance in chapter 1, "Adam Smith and the Claims of Subsistence," Krishnan submits Smith's production of the concept of subsistence to an engagement with the techniques of literary analysis. Tracking the rhetorical sleights of hand ("narrative tendencies" [43]) that Smith himself deploys in order to "train [his] reader into a new way" of thinking...


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