- Hating Empire Properly: The Indies and the limits of Enlightenment anticolonialism by Sunil M. Agnani, and: Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death by Mary Nyquist
As Mary Nyquist notes in Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, tyranny and the power of life and death, “postcolonial studies often divorces itself prematurely from the early stages of Euro-colonialism,” the result of which is a “foreshortened perspective on the conditions against which decolonization movements struggle or from which various neocolonialisms extend” (17). These two studies offer important correctives to this recurrent problem though in very different ways.
The title of Sunil M. Agnani’s Hating Empire Properly: The two Indies and the limits of Enlightenment anticolonialism self-consciously adapts Adorno’s famous injunction that “one must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly.” Taking his cue from Adorno, Agnani argues for a critical reappraisal of Enlightenment anticolonial thought from the inside. Via a predominantly literary-critical approach, he offers a fresh textual analysis of a selection of colonial writings by Diderot and Burke. Situating these two diametrically opposed thinkers side by side alone reminds us of the plurality of the ways in which empire was conceived and criticized during the period, although Agnani goes further in focusing his attention on tracing the internal inconsistencies and contradictions within Diderot’s and Burke’s shifting criticism of the imperial enterprise. In order to highlight the complexities of their thinking, he insists that we read their writings on the West and the East Indies in the same frame. Moreover, and especially with Burke (to whom he devotes the majority of his study), Agnani argues that political perspectives on empire should be read alongside, and as deeply informing—even to the point of underpinning—the ways in which European political and social change was interpreted.
Agnani begins by returning to Supplement au voyage de Bougainville and the Histoire des deux Indes to show how Diderot’s furious radical anticolonialism was shot through by a recurring fantasy of consensual colonialism. His detestation of all forms of domination lead him to dream of a form of empire that would be propelled by the interbreeding of colonisers and colonised and cemented by the reciprocities of doux commerce. Agnani then accounts for the terms of Burke’s conservative critique of empire by arguing that his writings on British colonialism in India are intimately related to those decrying the French Revolution. Analysing a wide variety of speeches, letters and published material, he suggests that Burke’s intellectual movement across different geographical spaces can best be understood analogically. Such a method certainly produces some startling correlations, the core of which is that Burke’s attack on the East India Company gives shape to the criticisms he later levels at revolutionary Jacobinism. Both constituencies are envisioned in Burke as colonial usurpers laying waste to tradition and history. This analogical analysis is later tracked through Burke’s attitudes to the loss of the American colonies, Ireland and the Haitian Revolution. All, in their different ways, provide geographically diverse scenes upon which Burke registers his profound fear of rapid political and cultural change and social mobility.
Hating Empire Properly contributes to the current refocusing of critical attention on the multifarious and often contradictory attitudes to empire during the late eighteenth century thus further complicating the unifying conceptual thrust of “the Enlightenment.” Agnani is a skillful, theoretically attuned and provocative close reader. His method certainly casts fresh light on Burke’s aesthetic in order to reveal the stubbornness of his political prejudices. Extracting particular short passages from across Burke’s enormous body of work, however, risks abstracting his flamboyant rhetoric from the wider political and historical contexts within which he was maneuvering. Moreover, at times, Agnani’s insistent focus on identifying inconsistency and plurality coupled with the density and energy of his contemporary theoretical mapping renders the political thrust of his critique somewhat opaque.