- Modern England: Police State, Empire, Cosmopolis
The notion that all nations, events, and populations are inextricably interconnected is relatively new, historically speaking, though it has already become virtually hegemonic, at least on the Left. Ironically, this central plank in the new humanist consensus derives in its most recent, and perhaps fullest, iteration from Cold War paranoia. That paranoia taught us to think of all nations as interpenetrated with one another. A coup in Cuba was no longer a problem for Cubans alone but a direct threat to American national security. The presence of Russian troops in Afghanistan became reason enough to fund insurgents, including of all people, Osama bin Laden, for fear of too much [End Page 351] communist influence in the Middle East. Thus the desperate logic of twentieth-century imperialism has fed into a revived logic of humanist universalism: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) dates only from 1948, and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) from 1990. As we grew accustomed to thinking of nations as both sovereign and ineluctably entangled with all other nations, it became increasingly necessary to revise our understanding of sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, and the political itself. Such reconsiderations still occupy the forefront not just of much political theory today but also of international policy: the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published the Responsibility to Protect document in 2001, making the case for violating national sovereignty in the event of humanitarian crises.
In its most expansive sense, this rethinking includes critiques of subjectivity, history, empire, and globalization and constitutes a key element of postmodernism and a defining aspect of our tendentially postimperialist moment. The problem with postmodernism–or at least one of them–has always been determining its relation to modernism. As the above hints–and despite the interventions of Jed Esty, Simon Gikandi, and Susan Stanford Friedman, among others–modernism is still frequently aligned with empire, and modernist thinking with isolation, insularity, fragmentation, disconnectedness, and European superiority. The historically recent emphasis on interconnectedness is consequently often figured as postmodern precisely because it is seen to reject modernist self-involvement. The relationship between nation and narration, as Bhabha would have it, particularly from the beginning of the nineteenth century through the age of decolonization in the latter-half of the twentieth, is thus commonly cast as a project of legitimation. In this account, narratives of all sorts justify European imperialism through ideological messages encoded in their choices of style, genre, and theme when they are not outright didactic. Thus, even though modernism was often openly cosmopolitan or international in its orientation, it is still frequently (mis)understood by non-modernists as fundamentally Eurocentric and aligned with imperialism.
But lately, this view of modernity has been under some intense scrutiny, and a new spin on things has been initiated. Driven in no small part by Edward Said’s revelations in Culture and Imperialism and Orientalism, critics like Laura Winkiel and Laura Doyle, Ian Baucom, Gauri Viswanathan, and Michael Valdez Moses (as well as those named above) have moved beyond simply detecting moments of imperialist awareness in canonical works to showing how such an awareness actually reconfigures Englishness. In brief, they have argued variously that Englishness (or national identity more broadly) only becomes an issue once it must be defined against a non-English other. Imperialism necessitates a strengthened national identity and provokes a need for distinctiveness. Thus, as these critics have shown, it is no longer enough simply to recover instances in which the empire underwrites the domestic [End Page 352] scene. Now it is necessary to show how that underwriting in fact inaugurates the domestic as domestic and puts continual pressure on it to reconfigure itself against a...