Reflection by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb
Nasser Mufti’s Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture advances an unapologetically Saidian argument about the limits of contemporary political scientific theories of development by tracking the persistent strains of Orientalism in evolving and interlinked definitions of both civil war and nation from the Victorian “age of equipoise” through late-imperial decline and Bandung-era disappointments to the fraught postcolonial present. The literary, historical, and political theoretical readings in Civilizing War take up questions of just war theory, the politics of bellicose nomenclature, and uneven development’s pre-history by way of well-chosen and admirably efficient readings of post/colonial stalwarts like Nostromo, A Bend in the River, and Life and Times of Michael K., as well as understudied texts by Kipling (“A Sahib’s War”), Disraeli (Sybil), Engels (The Conditions of the Working Class in England), Carlyle (Chartism, Past and Present) and Foucault (the 1975-76 lectures at the Collège de France, Society Must Be Defended). Regarding the theoretical matrix that organizes the book—Foucault, Balibar, Anderson, and to a lesser extent Clausewitz, Agamben, and Schmitt—I would have been excited to see Mufti connect the first part of his central thesis, namely that civil war can be read in the nineteenth-century as that which constitutes the civic-as-such, more robustly to the work of Schmitt’s recent commentators in comparative literature and political theory. I am thinking here particularly of the deep overview that opens Daniel Heller-Roazen’s study of the concept of the unjust enemy in The Enemy of All, and Ian Baucom’s work on inimical life, but more is nascent in Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan and The Nomos of the Earth as well, and I’d have been happy to linger with Mufti in a more sustained reading of this material.
To the detriment of our understanding of neoimperial political and cultural formations, the geographical and temporal sweep of Mufti’s argument has gone somewhat out of fashion in recent decades. When these kinds of ambitious projects do show up, they often lack the postcolonial chops to do much more than Columbus what subaltern studies was already doing thirty years ago, and wait for the accolades to roll in from people who don’t know any better. In the best instances, however, the generous parameters of this kind of old school postcolonialism can turn nineteenth century texts into stunning prisms of political and historical legacies yet to come. Civilizing War is such a book. The most contemporary reflections—largely contained in the introduction and coda—point to the ways in which a once-developmental discourse of agonism, conflict, and historical dialectics migrate from metropole to colony like so many discarded political ontologies, donned improperly and naively in the crumbling ruins of the Global South where they grow threadbare in the “conflict trap” of dysfunctional nationhood. The implicit message of this kind of development discourse, where poverty ensures civil strife if not all-out civil war, is simple: postcolonial subjects are inveterately uncivilizable. Just look how they can’t stop killing each other in the countries they so badly wanted. Compounding what I would call Mufti’s ethnicization thesis of civil war discourse (he tethers this to Foucault’s theory of race war) is the lazy conviction, born out in social scientific studies of immigrants, refugees, and terrorist ideology, that ISIS, as a metonym for global Islam, is forcing the entire world population into a “global civil war.” These sections on contemporary geopolitics are, for me, the most satisfying in the book in terms of their explanatory force, their confident style (the “War on Christmas, war on terror” (179) line is straight lols), and their applicability to a wide sphere of literary production and cultural commentary. One has the sense, reading Mufti, that he has written the kind of book many literary scholars would like to write just now—the kind of book that refuses to stop short at gesturing to the presentist upshot and instead remembers why it is that criticism matters now, why a Left tradition of discourse analysis and a diagnosis of empire’s legacies is an unfinished and still-urgent project. Or, as Mufti puts in wittily in the book’s high-five-worthy final line, “the East is still a career.” This unfortunate fact, I agree with my colleague, demands our continued attention.
If it isn’t abundantly clear what variety of regressive and racist politics is served by imagining our contemporary moment as a “global civil war”—between reason and barbarism, progress and degeneracy, the “West” and the great-brown-believing-unwashed—then perhaps it is instructive to note briefly how the term ramifies in a symptomatic novel of our time: Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Published in 2015 and set in 2022, Houellebecq’s work of proximate speculative fiction, an inverse of the “historical novel” that forms the backbone of Mufti’s archive, imagines the shriveled husk of French Republicanism finally consumed by the oil fires of Arab money and Salafist Islam. A looming “civil war” in Europe (a term the novel deploys dozens of times) between the growing Muslim masses and “the indigenous peoples of Europe, the first occupants of the land” (53) fanned by “ethnic hatred,” and philosophical incommensurability, structures the narrative. Houellebecq capitalizes, in ways that resonate with Mufti’s reading of global capitalism’s perverse exploitation of unsustainable life in the former colonies, on the perceived “energy,” “drive,” “creativity,” and “guts[iness]” of intrepid migrants. Submission exploits the cultural infusion of strife, discord, disagreement, plain Otherness that has become an acknowledged accessory of Muslim emigration and flight from the Global South in order to reimagine dystopic fiction as a near-reality, an outgrowth of the “dissipation,” of cultured metropolitan life in the twenty first century. It is no accident that the novel’s narrator is an erstwhile literature professor. That Civilizing War leaves me ready to delight in not-yet-extant chapters poised to eviscerate our moment’s bestselling international garbage is a testament not only to Mufti’s rewarding critical style, but also to the ongoing relevance and concentric adaptability of his framework and claims. This book will be a friend to my thinking not only about literature, but also about global politics and contemporary nativisms, for a long time to come.