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Reviewed by:
  • Imperial Emotions: The politics of empathy across the British Empire by Jane Lydon
  • Rob Boddice
Imperial Emotions: The politics of empathy across the British Empire
By Jane Lydon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

There are two red herrings in the title of this book that must be addressed. First, this is not a book about “empathy”; second, it is not a book that goes “across the British Empire” in its coverage. This is a book about situated and historically specific forms of fellow-feeling in the context of colonial Australia and New Zealand up to the end of the nineteenth century, with a chapter on twentieth-century Australian republicanism at the end. It might be objected that I am nitpicking, but the clarification on these points does not diminish the work’s importance. Indeed, disentangling the specific subject from the generalism of the book’s purported analytical framework helps to make sense of it and to situate its historiographical value.

Lydon begins by making a justification for writing about “empathy,” which is acknowledged to be of twentieth-century coinage and unstable definition. Lydon’s subject matter is the “compassionate emotions, today glossed as empathy.” In this usage, Lydon claims to follow Adam Smith’s “inclusive sense of ‘fellow feeling,’” rather than “empathy” as emotional identification. The claim that “Smith’s broad conception of sympathy encompassed what during the twentieth century increasingly came to be called ‘empathy’” is factually inaccurate (2). These beginnings are unnecessary contortions. “Empathy” has no place here. Its introduction is anachronistic. The attempt to narrow down what is meant by it and to conflate it with historical categories risks misunderstanding on two levels. The meaning of “empathy” remains unstable and readers may well interpret what it is meant by it here incorrectly; and surely there is a great risk of obfuscating the historical, situated meanings and experiences of fellow-feeling in context. Lydon’s purpose is to “map” the “political effects” of “emotions such as empathy” in historical context (3), but a) empathy in its wide variety of twentieth- and twenty-first-century meanings is not typically classed as an “emotion” in its own right and b) does not even exist in this particular historical context. It is somewhat surprising in this regard that no mention or use is made of Susan Lanzoni’s Empathy: A history, the useful volume Empathy and Its Limits (Jay Winter’s essay especially), or indeed my own Science of Sympathy. Also missing are earlier works that focus on the contextual particularities of the emotional dynamics here in question, such as Thomas Dixon’s Invention of Altruism, Michael Frazer’s Enlightenment of Sympathy, Ildiko Csengei’s Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century, or the edited volume Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture.1 All of the above might have lent something to the framing here, and might have saved the reader from having to unpick and clarify this book’s subject matter.

Happily, turning to the subject matter, we find a valuable book. Lydon offers an account of the politics of the expansion and limitation of the category “human” in Antipodean settler-colonial context, drawing together contested concepts of humanitarianism and philanthropy in missionary activities and antislavery civilizational politics. These conceptually slippery and historically specific usages are carefully handled, through visual, literary and print-media sources, to carve out a story of emergent fellow feeling that nonetheless preserved racialized distinctions between types of human. It makes for an empirical exemplification of Joanna Bourke’s What It Means to be Human, though Bourke is not cited here.2 This is augmented by an exploration of the politics of intimacy as an expression or technology of imperialism and dispossession, and of evangelical pity as “a modality of power” (19). Most importantly, Lydon’s book mines a deep-seated political framing of colonial context as domestic realm, replete with figurations of family, parenthood and childishness that were made to serve the natural and cultural dominance of the metropole and of whiteness over Indigenous ways of life. Here metaphors of family and manhood, in the context of religious or imperial affiliation, were the emotional tools of subjugation, control, conversion, civilization...


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