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Spies Like Us: John Buchan and the Great War Spy Craze
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Spies Like Us:
John Buchan and the Great War Spy Craze

In a recent essay, “The Ordinary Business of Occultism,” 1 Gauri Viswanathan seeks to reveal the theoretical interest of the colonial interaction, both literary and social, between English professionals and Indian mystics. On her account, that interaction revolved around a complicated set of negotiations between what she characterizes as the “occult... religious knowledge” (14) of Indian mystics and the “routininiz[ing]” (9) “bureaucratic compulsions of colonial management” (3); what’s interesting about it is that it offered, and offers, “alternative possibilities for imagining colonial relations outside a hierarchical framework” (2). Though “the effect” of the encounters between colonial bureaucrats and Eastern mystics “is to normalize occult transmission as an institutional activity” (9), “a core part” of the “teachings” of the mystics nonetheless “remains inaccessible” to Western institutions (4). The records of these encounters thus “preserve[]” (4) the distinctiveness of the “occult” rather than “suppress[ing]” (4) it, and the “ordinary business of occultism” thus entails dialogue as much as domination: the occult is made, to a certain extent, ordinary business, and ordinary business is made, to a certain extent, occult.

Viswanathan’s account of a reciprocal interaction between the mystics and the professionals may represent an alternative to the usual story about colonial relations, but the basic terms of her approach to those relations are fairly conventional. The scene of conflict between Western rationality and a set of Indian social practices that it seeks to absorb or contain is the usual setting of our thoughts about colonial and postcolonial discourse, and I will address other examples of it as I proceed. For now, though, I’m less interested in Viswanathan’s production of this scene than in the awkward relationship the scene bears to other features of her argument. “Yet even as they are orientalized and their communications turned into forms of bureaucratic rationality,” Viswanathan explains, “the masters invent a new form of secular knowledge that attempts to account for the experiential realities of social and political life hidden by dominant forms of rational thought” (15). The key, and unexpected, term here is orientalized: Viswanathan is generally interested in the ways in which the professionals seek to “normalize” and westernize, not the way in which they insist upon oriental difference and exoticism. Of course, one could imagine that orientalizing is simply one of the ways in which “bureaucratic rationality” normalizes what it encounters. But then why should we think that the persistence of “hidden mysteries” (9) or “irrational... occultism” (19) in any given Western account of Indian religious practice would convert that account into a “tale of resistance” (9) to the “dominant forms”? Viswanathan seems at one and the same time to suggest that colonial bureaucratic rationality entails two different forms of activity (the normalizing and the orientalizing) and to proceed as if it involves only one of them (the normalizing).

We can begin to see why both models might emerge in her argument and why she ultimately devotes her attention to only one of them by noting that what’s at stake for Viswanathan in the relationship between rationalism and occultism in colonial encounters is the status of “the world’s thrust toward unity” (19). At first glance it’s fairly easy to see how we might understand colonialism or imperialism in terms of a “thrust toward unity,” and it’s equally easy to see that the projects that accompanied or carried out that thrust would seek to avoid “fragmentariness” (19) and “conflicts... that never get resolved” (19). But in the end the notion that imperialism’s thrust is a thrust toward unity seems somewhat skewed. Empires in general, and colonial empires in particular, require not simply that a number of political spaces be “united” under a single sovereign but also that a given sovereign reign over a number of distinct and hierarchically arranged political spaces. Empires entail both unity and diversity. The English Empire wasn’t devoted to enlarging England as such, to making more and more of the earth’s territory count as England; it was committed to enlarging England’s control and power, not its size. The empire required that India be India...