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  • Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory
  • James Delbourgo
Daniel Carey and Lynn Festa, eds., Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. xiii, 378. $100.00.

What is Enlightenment in 2011? A once cheerfully unified area of intellectual history has been redefined, fragmented, vilified, and re-championed by an array of scholars in recent years. Is it still a vital concept, or an anachronistic retrospective designation? Should it serve to ground a progressive twenty-first century politics, or do its moral blind-spots leave it fatally compromised? In an era defined by Bush-led assaults on constitutionalism, rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism (the resurgence of the right in the Netherlands is a particularly bitter irony in light of that country's early modern toleration), not to mention the international financial industry's neo-liberal war on the very notion of the public, democratic politics could surely do a lot worse than reclaim the Enlightenment to defend its progressivism in the name of the common good. Academically, meanwhile, perhaps the Enlightenment is on its way to becoming an undead historical category, to borrow a phrase from Mario Biagioli. Rumors of its death are routinely exaggerated, as it appears destined to walk the earth, or at least to inhabit university curricula, as a unifying characterization of the European eighteenth century, drawing strength from the notion that the origins of what we think of as Western modernity must be sought in that era. Its historiographical utility thus seems assured.

But what about the global situatedness of this ostensibly universal European project? This is the pivotal issue, which many Europeanists repeatedly fail to address, on which Postcolonial Enlightenment innovatively turns. This is an unusually interesting volume of essays, edited and framed by Daniel Carey and Lynn Festa with care and wit. As the volume's title suggests, the collection aims to explore the potential fruitfulness of a certain creative anachronism, if not paradox, in thinking the Enlightenment post-colonially. Its contributors are literary scholars working intensively through a variety of historical sources. Srinivas Aravamudan pursues the suppressed colonial contexts of Hobbes's philosophy of sovereignty and its entanglement with England's colonial ventures in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. David Lloyd explores Burkean and Kantian sublimes: Kantian republican rationality (which savages lack) is contrasted with royalist Burkean emphasis on experiences of shock and awe, such as when whites encounter blacks. Daniel Carey explores the complexities of Edward Said's well-known method of contrapuntal reading to ask: what does the lack of evidence of Friday's enslaved status really signify in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) in the period of the British slave trade's decisive acceleration? Felicity Nussbaum describes the remarkably heterogeneous eighteenth-century signification of the term "black" and suggests that it was only with abolitionism that distinct discourses of African "blackness" and eastern Orientalism emerged. Siraj Ahmed re-reads Orientalism at mid-century and argues that British praise for Indian legal traditions served as moral cover for imperial debt-financing in the revenue system established by the Permanent Settlement. Doris Garraway pursues Gayatri Spivak's emphasis on subaltern peoples' textual silence by exploring the politics of speaking natives in Lahontan and Diderot. In ventriloquizing non-European critiques of polite civilization, however, French Enlighteners, she contends, were merely engaged in legitimating their own domestic reformism while granting no authentic voice to racial others. Daniel Carey [End Page 422] and Sven Trakulhun's essay—the richest in the book—on the play between cultural intolerance and relativism in the German Enlightenment mitigates critiques of Enlightenment universalism by reminding us of eighteenth-century commitments to religious toleration and linking these to contemporary multiculturalism, while also placing them in tension with conjectural histories of stadial development, which have often been read as licensing the conversion or liquidation of other cultural traditions. Finally, Karen O'Brien aims to connect themes of Newtonianism, global trade, and imperial cosmopolitanism in eighteenth-century British poetry.

The editors and authors must be congratulated for maintaining a fine tension between sympathetic and critical exploration of postcolonial techniques throughout. The overall effect is both experimental and disciplined: this is not an agenda...


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