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  • Ambiguity within the Boundary:Re-reading C.L.R. James's Beyond a Boundary
  • Malcolm MacLean†

The literary turn in cultural and historical analysis has introduced a suite of new perspectives, theoretical approaches, and analytical techniques to the humanities and social sciences. The emergence of post-colonial modes of analysis, related to this literary turn, has increased our awareness and interpretation of various representational techniques in and approaches to colonial cultures. One theoretical approach has shaped a major strand of these post-colonial interpretations: Homi K. Bhabha's argument that subaltern cultures may be understood as characterized by ironic mimicry and a "sly civility." Although this model is seldom explicitly invoked in sports studies, it remains implicit in many interpretations of sport in the British Empire. This paper explores the usefulness of these tropes derived from Bhabha's work through a critical reading of C.L.R. James's Beyond a Boundary. [End Page 99]

When a great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and farts silently.1

Games have long been recognized as a vital part of the cultural politics and legitimizing of power in the British Empire. Adoption of English (often seen as British) games was, in many settings, seen as proof of the beneficial and civilizing impact of Empire and Britishness on the "natives." As the geographer John Bale and others have shown, there are also repeated attempts to read indigenous body movement and culture in imperial and sportified terms.2 Reading against this imperial and sportified grain shows a British imperial historiography that suggests that sporting cultures look in two directions, as exemplified by the phenomenon of "colonial nationalism," in which "the patrimony of 'one's own' began in the colony as new society, and drew in a sense of identity with empire as world state."3 Following such an approach, we may identify a sense of Britishness (rugby union, cricket, and netball are concentrated almost exclusively in Britain's former and residual empire) and also a sense of nationalism (styles of rugby play in New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa are seen as making the game distinctively different from that played in Britain—although Wales is an exception—and marked as iconically national; West Indies cricket has become indisputably a marker of West Indian difference and nationalism).

Yet in each place the games are the same: the formal, written laws or rules of each sport are identical. Despite this legal consistency, sport takes on different meanings in various imperial and colonial contexts. Increasing awareness of colonialism as a cultural practice and attention to the histories of colonialism's cultures has directed historians' attention to the cultural activities of colonizer and colonized. This attention to cultures of colonialism combines with these multiple meanings to pose serious questions about how to understand these seeming paradoxes: the sport may take on characteristics meaning that it is seen as British but not-British; specific matches may take on local significance justified by indigenous epistemological and ontological codes, for instance to replay historical rivalry. Such a localized reinscription of the received and understood (but not necessarily written) cultural codes of a formally regulated game is distinct from adaptations of the sport form.

The seeming paradoxes of indigenous involvements in colonial cultures, the tension between imitation and difference, and the opposition of self and other in the same bodily or cultural practice may be explored fruitfully through post-colonial analyses as shown, for instance, in cultural analyst Grant Farred's analysis of soccer in South Africa's Cape Flats Township.4 Anthropologist Michael Taussig's argument that a feature of the colonizer is an egocentric fascination with what is taken to be the colonizer's fascination with the colonial reveals an essential dynamic in the cultures of colonialism: the colonizers presume, firstly, that the colonized are in awe of their power, authority, and cultural forms and practices, and, secondly, that the colonized as a result of this awe both recognize and accept the colonizers' superiority, and therefore simply seek to adopt their ways.5 The dialectical analysis developed by Farred in which Cape Flats' soccer players modify British football symbols to their own ends critiques the colonial culture outlined by...


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pp. 99-117
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