- Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture by Nasser Mufti
Most readers will likely have at some point been struck by the seeming contradiction contained within the phrase civil war: if war is hell, how can it be simultaneously civil? Nasser Mufti’s Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture is an incisive exploration of how so-called civil war has functioned discursively over the past two centuries. It has been used at once to explain and account for history and progress in some contexts (Europe and its settler offshoots) while denying them elsewhere (the rest of the world). Civil war initially was a civil affair insofar as it could only happen within a context of civilization. But civil wars have increasingly come to be seen by the World Bank and other Western institutions as crises peculiar to the developing nations in the Global South, and that the likelihood, even inevitability, of civil wars largely accounts for the failure of such states to progress. More worryingly, these accounts often imply regression: the antithesis of history.
Mufti commences his study in the early nineteenth century, subjecting novels, histories, and essays, loosely grouped around what is often known as the condition of England question, to close readings informed by several theorists, notably Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and Edward Said. He then jumps to the era of high Imperialism, looking closely at the tropes, narratives, and metaphors associated with civil war in a number of texts associated with the Second South African War. He also turns his attention to Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904). The third section brings us up to the present and considers how postcolonial authors grappled with civil war. The many so-called civil wars over the past fifty years not only undermined the claims made by postcolonial nationalists but also exposed the limitations and the destructive impact of liberal intervention. Civil war in such a context held out no possibility for moving forward. Ex-colonies buffeted by civil war were in effect denied narratives of progress. The writings Mufti references are drawn largely from and speak to the situation in late apartheid South Africa, including Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) and J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983). He also offers a critical but nuanced appreciation of V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979).
Civil war for the early Victorians presupposed civilization, and hence it was not applicable to much of the world outside Europe. Instead, conflicts in such places were captured in terms like revolt, rebellion, or uprising—expressions that generally imply reaction rather than creation. Civil wars, under this rubric, were without much difficulty rendered as civilized, particularly when they were relatively or even absolutely nonviolent and the conflict within them could be subsumed into narratives of historical progress. This was usually the case in the early nineteenth century when writers produced tomes [End Page 655] to articulate a historical sense of the British nation coming to be. Civil war could be, consequently, both a historical event and a heuristic device that helped delineate the nation and its teleology. Inspired by Benedict Anderson among others, Mufti reminds us that “[n]ations came to be because they are narrated as having always been” (63). But if the nation is a discursive construction, what of its disintegration? What happens when those narratives rupture? How can narratives be sustained when it is not the nation singular but the nation plural that becomes exposed? For the Victorian writers considered here, namely Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Carlyle, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (separately and together), civil wars laid bare this plurality of nation/race/class (these terms often overlapped). At least within the civilized world, it was understood that civil wars could also provide the means of reconciliation or at least remediation. Civil wars, from an early Victorian perspective, moreover, were not necessarily violent: they were often considered to be latent, and they...