restricted access The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire by Thomas Richards (review)
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REVIEWS Thomas Richards. The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy ofEmpire. London: Verso Books, 1993. viii + 179. $74.95 CDN (cloth); $23.95 CDN (paper). The editor of The Cambridge Modern History, Lord Acton, wrote in 1896 that, though "ultimate history we cannot have in this generation," nevertheless "all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution." The philosophes' dream of encyclopedic knowledge seemed to Acton on the horizon, and it also seemed to him that the fulfillment of that dream would be a specifically British rather than French triumph. But this nationalistic — indeed, imperialistic — aspect of Acton's fantasy meant that that horizon was forever (always already) lost. In The Imperial Archive, Thomas Richards examines the connections between Empire and the imperialistic epistemology that informed late-Victorian and Edwardian variations on the theme of encyclopedic knowledge (or "ultimate history"). He is especially good at exposing the ironic contradictions inherent in the universalism of Enlightenment rationality: Richards demonstrates how the fantasy of universal knowledge was always in some sense a corollary to the fantasy of universal empire and state control. Throughout his trenchant, often brilliant analysis, Richards focuses upon the collective fantasies of nationalism and empire on the one hand, and reason and science on the other. Though he is not always clear as to whether or how the dual fantasies of empire and of universal knowledge give rise to each other, he is right to insist — as he states in the first sentence of his introduction — that "an empire is partly a fiction" (1). Here and elsewhere, his book reads like a more Foucauldian and more empire-based sequel to Benedict Anderson's study of the fictive foundations of modern nation-states, Imagined Communities. Equally fictive (though seldom acknowledged as such) are aspirations to scientific knowledge, at least when these are totalizing or absolutistic, as in Acton's desire for "ultimate history." As does Anderson, Richards Reviews79 analyses self-proclaimed fictional works — novels including Kim, Lost Horizon, Dracula, Tono-Bungay, Riddle of the Sands, and Gravity's Rainbow among others — and also the unacknowledged fictions underpinning nineteenth-century sciences including economics, ethnography, morphology (both pre- and post-Darwin), and thermodynamics (Maxwell's demon and the concept of entropy). Richards is surely right to declare, during his analysis of James Hilton's fantasy about Shangri-La, that much Victorian and modernist culture expresses "a nostalgia for a goal that once appeared on the horizon of possibility and then was lost from sight, a lost horizon of comprehensive knowledge" (39). He is also right that, in each of the main novels that he analyzes, knowledge is equated "with national security" (5). This equation already suggests why the goal of "comprehensive knowledge" is forever retreating beyond a "lost horizon": the ideologies of nationalism and imperialism, universalistic though their aspirations may be, are self-evidently antithetical to universalism. But Richards is aware of other ways in which "the imperial archive," even though its effects have been very real, is always already phantasmagoric. Besides the now-standard array of poststructuralist arguments about the relativism, groundlessness, and metaphoricity of all knowledge, the word "entropy" names the most interesting of the concepts that Richards deploys against the imperialencyclopedic aspirations of late-Victorian and Edwardian culture. For Richards' argument, entropy is of greater interest than poststructuralist or postmodernist arguments about the inadequacy of metanarratives, in part because it was initially a Victorian concept. As H.G. Wells presented it in The Time Machine, entropy pointed far, far into the future — millions of years hence — to the eventual heat-death of the universe. But the term also pointed to immediate forms of disorganization and decadence in the present — even within the carefully mapped and patrolled borders of the British Empire — as for example in the manifold transformations of culture (read: "high culture") into mass culture: literature into journalism, handcraft into mechanical reproduction, art into kitsch — Richards focuses especially on the transformation of knowledge into information. "The concept of entropy came into being precisely because the possibility of positive knowledge was beginning to be eclipsed by an explosion of too much positive knowledge. Information was the name given to this knowledge that came from everywhere...


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