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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 127-136

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Subject to Question:
Empire and Catherine Hall's Civilising Subjects

Madhavi Kale

Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, Catherine Hall. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. ISBN 0-226-31334-4

Reading Catherine Hall's Civilising Subjects, particularly in the run-up to the Anglo-American invasion (and now occupation) of Iraq, evoked for me a number of other works on empire, as well as several related concerns about historical practice and the subject of empire (itself a civilizing subject?). 1 Since we have been asked not to review the book, I will approach Hall's work through the prism of these evocations and associations, rather than head-on, as one would do in a conventional review essay. They may appear as a set of unrelated fragments. However, I hope they may be permitted as strategic for these times, times simultaneously of hopeless fragmentation and of triumphal (imperial) consolidation. 2

One of the first things to strike me came on reading Hall's introduction. In it she situates Civilising Subjects in her own personal and intellectual histories—from the [End Page 127] seemingly bounded world of the Baptist Church in Kettering in northern England into which she was born, through education in Britain as a historian, political activist and white mother of interracial children, to a twinned vision of the world of her birth, precipitated by her engagement, archivally and in person, with its namesake in Jamaica over the last fifteen years. One of the notable and salutary things about Hall's account of this intellectual and political trajectory is its stark difference, in effect and in motivation, from the concluding (and conclusive) gesture made by her very near contemporary, David Cannadine, in Ornamentalism, 3 his much shorter gloss on empire and history. Whereas Cannadine is at pains to assert the diminishing significance of the empire for the formation of his postwar generation of Britons, Hall seeks to understand how empire—which in the context of this autobiographical narrative, signifies race but also the power that permits, as in the case of Cannadine's effort, its submersion—constituted her personal and political life. More important, perhaps, Hall also seeks to understand how empire escaped her scholarly endeavors until the two collided headlong during a summer in Jamaica, when she encountered not only a namesake of her birthplace, but also the traces of William Knibb, an English Baptist missionary celebrated in the histories of both towns (pp. 1-6). The difference between Cannadine and Hall casts into relief the ways in which their accounts of their own histories and historical practices are profoundly gendered, and provokes us to confront the engendering of historical practice more broadly, from its methodological fetishization of documentary evidence to such recently produced historical monuments as the six-volume Oxford History of the British Empire. 4

Speaking to this point, Michel-Rolphe Trouillot 's Silencing the Past contemplates Haiti and its suspensions in history to eloquently trace the insinuations of power in the production of history from "primary" sources to textbook syntheses. 5 However, even as he elucidates how historical practice engenders power, Trouillot pays scant attention to gender as a category of analysis. In emphasizing the domestic and conjugal contexts in which she and her analysis were formed, Hall's introduction (and indeed, all her work as a historian for the last quarter century) both highlights gender as a category of analysis (to again invoke Joan Scott's foundational essay) and illustrates how profoundly—if also without acknowledgment—gender informs historical practice and narrative. 6 Whereas [End Page 128] Cannadine's history (of himself and of empire) is masterful and magisterial (forged in the crucibles of self-constituting subjects), Hall's acknowledges the contingency of the conditions she and her sources encountered as well as the extent to which changes in conditions transformed the ways both she and they saw, understood and cast the dramas they variously inhabit(ed). Where Cannadine gives us a glib postscript about intellectual formation and being a product of...


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