Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Authenticity and the Geography of Empire: Reading Gaskell with Emecheta

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Authenticity and the Geography of Empire: Reading Gaskell with Emecheta

Article excerpt

We must be able to think through and interpret together experiences that are discrepant, each with its particular agenda and pace of development, its own internal formations, its internal coherence and system of external relationships, all of them coexisting and interacting with others.

--Edward Said (Culture and Imperialism)

There are images and those that make them.

--Raoul Peck (Lumumba: Death of a Prophet)

This essay is an attempt to take seriously Edward Said's challenge, in Culture and Imperialism, to read imperial history contrapuntally. By contrapuntal, Said means at once comparative and something more than a simple comparison. Drawing on its musical variant, Said's use of this term is meant both to capture the variation within the structures of empire ("various themes play off one another, with only a provisional privilege given to any particular one") and yet, simultaneously, to understand the system that these variations comprise ("in the resulting polyphony there is concert and order, an organized interplay that derives from the themes, not from a rigorous melodic or formal principle outside the work" [51]). In order to see imperialism is this way, Said suggests, we must be willing to disrupt the rigid boundaries that have kept the world divided into two neatly carved-up autonomous regions speaking a univocal language of empire produced by the metropolitan culture and all but deaf to the peripheries. It is precisely through what Said calls the "discrepant experiences" of imperialism that we can begin to hear its counterpoint. Additionally, the purpose of such a project is hardly only a retrospective righting of the imperial archive. Rather, its urgency lies in our own present and future, because, as Said reminds us and as recent events have all too visibly made clear, the "world is too small and interdependent" (19) to survive either a politics of blame or a politics of polarized confrontation and violence.

With this "type of secular interpretation" (18) then, Said wagers that we may arrive at a better way of reading a truly dynamic global world. This kind of reading has both local and global coordinates and indeed holds the promise of bringing the two together, neither by reducing one to the other nor by celebrating one over and against the other. First, such an interpretive strategy restores to culture its embeddedness in everyday life. Or, as Said puts it, "To read Austen without also reading Fanon and Cabral--and so on and on--is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments. This is a process that should be reversed" (60). Second, the recognition of affiliation (and the reversals it requires) necessitates a radical transformation in how we view globalization itself. Less something that one can be for or against, it becomes the basis from which we must learn how to act and interact in wholly new ways. At a moment when alternative globalization movements are vying with a revitalized nationalistic rhetoric of "axes of evil" and "clashes of civilization" (a fateful combination of the politics of blame and violence) it seems fruitful to return to the "age of empire"--in this case, Britain's in the nineteenth century--in order to elucidate the strengths of Said's particular brand of secularism as well as its power to speak to something Said himself does not directly address in Culture and Imperialism--namely, the current international division of labor. As I will argue, an emphasis on the geography of empire (to be gleaned contrapuntally) not only alters how we may interpret any single nineteenth-century text but also productively unsettles the language of authenticity and identity buttressing the logic of empire and its particular ethos of work.

Two moments in two very different novels suggest the necessity of such a reading. The first comes in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, written in 1848, and involves the novel's fraught relationship between writing, representation, and authenticity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.