- The Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe
Lisa Lowe's Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (1996) helped usher in the transnational turn in Asian American studies, reorienting the field from a narrow and long-standing focus on model minority discourse and generational relations toward postcolonial theory and gender and sexuality. Immigrant Acts focused on the contradictions between the promises of democracy and equality and the needs of racialized labor for American nation-building. Lowe's latest book, The Intimacies of Four Continents, allows us to reconsider the relationship between race and literature by focusing on continuities between freedom and slavery; liberty and empire; the figures of the Chinese coolie and the African slave; and modern, individual intimacy and its colonial, collective origins. The Intimacies of Four Continents takes on intimacy as a world historical condition born from empire, slavery, and capital. Lowe's use of intimacy departs from its dominant, bourgeois form to address the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. She examines how the historical forces of capital, empire, and slavery generated connections among diverse actors that have been lost to disciplinary and nationalist protocols governing a totalizing narrative of progress. Lowe writes that "it is necessary to conceive settler colonialism, slavery, indenture, imperial war, and trade together, as braided parts of a world process . . . permitting an optic on early nineteenth-century liberalism and empire, which might be otherwise unavailable" (76-77).
The first chapter lays out the scope of the book while delving into nineteenth-century archives that detail the shift from slave to coolie labor in the British West Indies. Lowe argues that Chinese coolies were differentiated from African slaves as a free and voluntary labor force that was thought of in terms of the "fantasy of Chinese family civility" (33), disrupting potential alliances between these two racialized groups. In an especially incisive second chapter, she reads Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) to understand how autobiography "exemplifies the liberal imperative that the 'life' emplot the transition from slavery to freedom, . . . [via] political emancipation, and Christian redemption" (57-58). The question here is one of genre: how do [End Page 204] different kinds of writing, although they may appear far removed from the scene of politics, perform "some of the important work of mediating and resolving liberalism's contradictions" (46)? Lowe examines how The Interesting Narrative, striving to become legible within a genre, produces a very specific narrative of individual development and achievement that masks the collective intimacies at work in the grind of empire. In the autobiography, slavery becomes source material for individual uplift, "encourag[ing] readers to understand the emancipation of the individual as if it were a collective emancipation . . . in which slavery is only legible as a distant origin" (50). Lowe argues that the narrative necessarily fails as autobiography because slavery's violence disrupts generic writing. Given the historical problematic of slavery, "'failure' is the very important sign that the genre of autobiography cannot resolve and contain the contradictions of slavery" (65).
Equiano makes the genre tremble because of what Lowe calls "an archive of colonial uncertainty" (78), a concept she pursues in every chapter. This uncertainty results from the racial violence that otherwise must be disavowed from the narrative of modernity—an uncertainty that demands renewed attention to discipline, method, and epistemology, provoked by the collective intimacies of empire, slavery, and capital that she examines. Neither Equiano nor any of the other figures Lowe draws attention to, including Karl Marx, William Thackeray, John Stuart Mill, Henry Pottinger, C. L. R. James, and W. E. B. Du Bois, can avoid the history of slavery and colonialism that subtends the history of modernity. In Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848), which Lowe writes about in the third chapter, we see colonial commodities—tea, chintz, and silk—put on display in the Victorian home, which allows for an inquiry into how the British East India Company managed trade and labor in both India and China. In the fourth chapter, she...