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Review

Author(s): Mridu Rai


Review by: Mridu Rai
Source: Victorian Studies, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 164-166
Published by: Indiana University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40060314
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164

The Scandal of Empire:India and the Creationof Imperial Britain, by NicholasB.


Dirks;pp. xviii + 389. Cambridge:The BelknapPressof HarvardUniversityPress,2006,
$27.95,18.95.
NicholasB. Dirks'simportantvolumecomes at a time when the reputationof empire,
widelytaintedseveraldecadesago as an illegitimatepoliticalformation,appearsto be
receivinga freshburnishing.In the wakeof a US politico-militarypresencedeployedin
Afghanistanand Iraqsince October2001, not only haveseveralpoliticalpractitioners
and academicssoftened their attitudestowardsthe idea of empire,but some haveeven
suggested that the United States can learn salutarylessons from the earlier, more
overtlyimperial venture of the British,which, though occasionallyand regrettably
exploitative,also disseminatedthe benefits of liberal political traditions,free trade,
and the movementof laboracrosscontinentsand oceans.
In this context, Dirksurges that it is "criticalto refocusour attentionon the
of
history empire, cutting through the unquestionedassumptionsof imperialhistory
wheneverit mistakescolonialideologyfor a balancedhistory"(335).A valuablecontribution of this work,then, is to peel awaythe self-legitimizingjustificationsof governments claiming to act in the name of purportedlyhigher principlessuch as Liberty,
Democracy,or a "civilizing"
impulse,and to recognizethem for whatthey are:projects
of "dominationand exploitation"(335) begun and mired in scandal.Dirksalso wishes
us to rememberan importantelement in the imperialrelationsbetween Britainand
India in the past, with echoes in the relationsbetween the "Westand the rest"in the
present:the importantrole of Indiain makingBritaininto the modernnation-stateof
today,a debt less frequentlyacknowledgedthan India'sto Britain.
Appropriately,therefore,Dirksjourneys to the late eighteenth century in
Britainand India,whenthe historiesof the twobecamecriticallyconjoined.Thiswasthe
time not onlyof the EastIndiaCompany'sfirstterritorialconquestson the subcontinent
butalsoof the mostscandalousspectacleto rivetsegmentsof Londonsociety(andeventually,accordingto SaraSuleri,to bore them). This spectacleinvolvedEdmundBurke's
"rhetoricalexaggeration"-ostensiblya condemnationof the Company'scorruptpractices in India- during the eight-yearimpeachmenttrial, begun in 1788, that placed
WarrenHastings,until recentlyGovernorGeneralof India,in the dock.Throughnine
eminentlyreadablechaptersrevolvingbroadlyaround this scandal,Dirkssuccessfully
revealsthe hollownessof colonialself-justification.
DirkseffectivelydeflatesBurke'soratorybypointing to his doublestandards,
as in his refusalto criticizeRobertClive (creditedfor the conquestof Bengal in 1757
but also admittedlyamong the more rapaciousof the eighteenth-centuryofficialsin
India)whileunleashinghis disgustedand "exasperatedeloquence"- to borrowSuleri's
wordsonce more- againstHastings,a man celebratedalso for his "sympathetic"
sponsorship of Indian languages, learning, and traditions.Moreover,as Dirks reveals,a
more pedestrianquestionof lucre mayalso partlyexplain Burke'sdenunciationof the
Company.As Dirks points out, self-interestedBritish interventionssuch as Burke's
proceededthroughtwistingvitalaspectsof Indianpoliticalfunctioningand notionsof
rightsand sovereignty"throughthe strategicuse of culturalformsto explainand legitimatea relentlesspatternof politicaland territorialconquest"(172).

VICTORIAN STUDIES

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165

Although the trial ended with Hastings's acquittal, Dirks argues that it was
not, as is sometimes contended, a failure. As several scholars have already pointed out,
Burke's concern was less with protecting Indians than it was with shielding the ancient
constitution at home from the perversions of Company "nabobs."The trial became the
ordeal-by-fire from which the British imperial enterprise emerged purified of all ignominy. From then on, scandal was reserved for the "natives" themselves, and the
"imputed barbarism" of their traditions- evidenced in practices such as Sati, Thuggee,
or hook-swinging- was used to "justify, and even ennoble, imperial ambition" (5, 297,
301, 305).
But the eighteenth century in India to which Dirks takes us is already distinguished by a vigorous historiographical debate, "janus-faced,"that looks, on one hand,
to explain the decentralization of the Mughal Empire and, on the other, to understand
the transition to colonialism. In terms of the second concern, Dirks valuably questions
a strand of recent popular historical writing that evokes an era characterized by "unexpected and unplanned minglings" of Europeans and Indians and of their "cultures and
ideas" to forge relationships that are, moreover, characterized as "symbiotic" (William
Dalrymple, WhiteMughals:Love and Betrayalin EighteenthCenturyIndia [2002] xiv). This
world is "hybrid"and these relations "symbiotic"only if one suspends the framework of
power within which they operated. Without denying all racial and cultural border
crossings at the time, Dirks reminds us that the eighteenth century was also unmistakably an era of conquests, economic extraction, and even ruinous famines precipitated
by Company policies.
If accounts such as Dalrymple's push the colonial context too far into the
background, however, Dirks's pulls it too much forward. While an emerging British
Empire must certainly be acknowledged as part of the setting for a number of actors in
eighteenth-century India, surely it did not form the only setting. Dirks highlights the
disingenuous stances of various Company officials who deferred to the Mughal emperor's supremacy when convenient but violated it when it suited them since his "sovereign
authority was widely seen as a sham" by Britons in both England and India (179). He
fails to note, however, that a similar attitude characterized a wide variety of Indian
political actors of the time. Sanjay Subrahmanyam's account of Nadir Shah's raid into
northern India in early 1739, when he also ordered a general massacre in Delhi,
reminds us that the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah's sovereignty had been "temporarily suspended" for about two months after which he was "officially restored to the
throne" by the Persian vanquisher's permission {Explorationsin ConnectedHistory[2005]
194). Even before Nadir's devastating blow to Mughal authority, a number of powerful
noblemen of the empire had decidedly struck their own independent political paths.
And the number of those who did so afterwards, along with formerly subordinate
chiefs, warriors, and martial peasant groups, increased noticeably. An array of robust
successor states emerged to prominence through the dual exercise of both respecting
the emperor's authority and usurping his powers, the former being requisite to legitimate the latter. A discussion of these can be ignored only at the cost of reproducing an
Anglo-centered narrative- surely a far cry from Dirks's intent.
The eighteenth century, therefore, was not just a moment of British colonial
intrusion but, from the perspective of the Mughal capital in Delhi and its older elite,

AUTUMN2007

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166

for instance,alreadya scandaloustime of Indiantransgressionsof variouskinds.While


Dirksremindsus correctlythatthe "Britishneglectedto mention [how]theirown presence had greatlyexacerbatedthe importance"of a varietyof Indian traditionsthey
then describedas abhorrent(310),he lets a varietyof Indian actorsand statesoff the
hook. Byviewingall politico-economicexploitationand culturaldistortionin the eighteenth centuryso singularlyas a factorof Britishcolonialism,Dirksdiscardsvital tools
withwhichto understandother formsof dominationand oppression- whethertheybe
Brahman-decreed"untouchability"
or patriarchalsubjugation.While these certainly
receiveda fillip throughimperialpolicies,theyclearlyalso had theirIndianorigins.To
highlight Indian liabilityis not to dilute responsibilityfor what British colonialism
wroughtin SouthAsia;however,to diminishit wouldbe to writean incompletehistory
that cannot benefit the kind of criticaldebate on imperialismwhose urgencyDirksso
powerfullyemphasizesand to whichhis workmakesan importantcontribution.
Mridu Rai
YaleUniversity

ImperialMasochism:BritishFiction,Fantasy,and Social Glass,byJohn Kucich;pp. x


+ 258. Princetonand Oxford:PrincetonUniversityPress,2007,$35.00,22.95.
John Kucichhaswrittenin the pastof transgression,repression,excess,and restraintin
Victorian literature.With ImperialMasochism
he demonstrateshis command of yet
another psychosocialmotiveof the period by applyingthe insightsof psychoanalysis
beyond the individual to recoversomething like the group interiorityor collective
psychologythat has all but disappearedin contemporarycritique.As he states, then,
his intentionsare to demonstratethe continuedrelevanceof psychoanalysisto historicism;to elucidatethe role masochisticfantasyplaysin identityformationbeyond the
field of sexuality;to illuminate the social function of such fantasyin Britishculture;
and to recuperateforhistoriciststudiesboth the categoryof socialclassand the domain
of the psychological.Definingmasochismas anypursuitof physicalpain, suffering,or
humiliation that generates phantasmic,omnipotent compensationsfor narcissistic
trauma,Kucichidentifiesfour typesof masochisticfantasy:of totalcontroloverothers,
of the annihilation of others, of the omnipotence of others, and of solitaryomnipotence. Chapterson Robert Louis Stevenson,Olive Schreiner,RudyardKipling, and
Joseph Conradthen explore these fantasiesin detail.
contests current critical assumptionsthat masochismis
ImperialMasochism
about
that
it
always
sexuality;
alwaysorganizes oedipal patterns of dominance and
submission;and that, in colonial contexts,it is primarilyaboutrace, gender,or sexual
orientationratherthan class.To Kucich,masochismis a psychosociallanguage,not a
fixed set of behaviors,and masochisticfantasyis an instrumentfor social action, not a
specificact in itself. Classis a symbolicmediumof conflict- ratherthan an economic
or political category- in which conceptions of social identity are framed. Kucich
wascentralto the emergenceof professuccessfullyarguesthatwillful self-martyrdom
sional middle-classculturein the Empireat the end of the nineteenth century.

VICTORIANSTUDIES

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