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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 168-178
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Narratives of Empire:
A Reply to Critics
Let me first thank Patrick Bryan, Rhonda Cobham, Madhavi Kale and Faith Smith for the time and trouble they have taken to think and write about Civilising Subjects. I greatly appreciate their comments and the dialogue that these engender. The act of reading, as we know, is itself each reader's encounter with the words on the page. In the particular readings of these commentators, different emphases and new meanings emerge from my text—meanings that are connected to these commentators' perspectives, to the politics of their locations, to their preoccupations and disciplinary belongings, to their engagement with my writing. For the text is no longer my own—it is in the public world, to be read and interpreted in different ways, to be, indeed, part of a wider dialogue about the possibilities of new kinds of history writing.
Toward the end of her comments Madhavi Kale notes my commitment to the monograph and my delight in narrative. She wonders whether this narrative framework and the characters who people my pages do "not detract from, rather than add to the contributions made by the more fragmentary pictures of the earlier book of essays." Here she is referring to essays that appeared in White, Maleand Middle Class (1992) and that prefigured some of the arguments developed in Civilising Subjects. Historical work on empire, she continues, had seemed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to offer "the possibility of a framework in which multiple causes and effects, actors and agents, stages and narratives could be—indeed, had to be imagined and mobilized." The older narratives of empire were no longer appropriate. Her own book, Fragments ofEmpire, on the genealogy of the category of indentured labor in the post-Emancipation period, made a powerful [End Page 168] case for asking different kinds of questions about empire and its projects. Inspired by Foucauldian and poststructuralist understandings of the relation between knowledge and power, it "examines how the category of labor was constituted at a particular junction in capitalist and imperial expansion (when chattel slavery was abolished in Britain's plantation colonies) and naturalized." The term "indenture" was, she argues, forged "in the crucible of empire," but historians have failed to recognize this and have continued to use it as if it were a neutral description (hence her critique of my uncritical use of the debates over labor shortages). Kale's project was not concerned with Indian indentured labor as a process or an experience but "as a site where hierarchies of empire were enunciated, contested and inscribed." If these movements of people, commonly constructed as migrations, had been named for what they were—strategies of imperial labor reallocation—we would have had a better understanding of the relations encoded in contracts, which were designed to keep racialized labor unfree. The fragments of empire in her book are the "fragments of the epic story of world-historic capital that was generated, circulated, deployed, and authorised by imperatives of imperial government and further monumentalised by historical practice." 1 Her research connected London to India and the Caribbean, and at the heart of her intellectual enterprise was a deconstruction of indenture as naturalized—"the naturalising of the imperial." 2
Kale's book makes a most important contribution, but her project was in some respects very different from mine, while in others we share important lineages. The postcolonial moment, as I argue in my introduction, demands new interpretations of the relation between nation and empire. Crucially, from the metropolitan perspective, which is my location, it demands the refusal of the deep-seated assumption that the metropole itself was unaffected by empire. While colonies were of course shaped by the empire, the historical orthodoxy has claimed that the nation itself, the "mother country," was in the main unaffected by this process. The maternal image, one might suggest, gives the argument away. What mother was ever unaffected by her children? A key issue for historians of Britain who are convinced of the significance of the colonial...