Reflection by Nasser Mufti
What does one make of the fact that the field of Victorian studies is organized around a queen’s reign, the very queen who bore the title, “Empress of India”? This tension between field and empire is in the DNA of Victorian studies, which has always struggled to think about the Victorians’ most ambitious and violent endeavor, imperialism. Armed with the fact of empire, does one read Victorian provincialism symptomatically, searching for occlusions and negative space, or does one take Victorian literature on its own domestic terms? Despite its commitment to redirect the research methods and topics of Victorian studies, V21 grappled with this old question during its inaugural symposium in October, 2015. The “Empire and Unfielding” panel, which concluded the first day of the symposium, consisted of six six-minute interventions into the study of the British empire (all but the formal response to the panel have been subsequently published by boundary 2 Online). Q&A led to an impasse of sorts: some audience members felt it uncontroversial to treat empire as part of the Victorian political unconscious, while others felt that because Victorian literature (the novel, for example) rarely travels overseas, it says more about domestic politics than colonial domination.
Forms of Empire, whose author was a speaker in the above-mentioned panel (as was the writer of this response, for full disclosure), has a familiar answer to this old debate. Hensley echoes the maxims of postcolonial literary studies when he states: “every artifact of Victorian culture is an artifact of Empire” (6). But Hensley also notes that Forms of Empire is “not in the usual sense ‘about’ the Empire at all” (6). “Rather than in such representational content, the Empire’s tattered margins figure here as the limit case for metropolitan thought and, as such, a trigger for innovation at the level of form” (6). Hensley is less interested in familiar symptomatic readings of exotic terrains, native villages, or even the odd harbor scene. He instead focuses on a primordial myth of the Victorian period: that it was an “age of equipoise.” No site makes the absurdity of this fantasy more visible than the colonial periphery. As Hensley asks in the opening of his book, given that “there were at least 228 armed conflicts during the [Victorian] period,” “what narrative forms could capture this fundamental paradox of liberal empire? What language could be adequate to the Pax Victoriana’s endless war?” (2).
I read Forms of Empire as a Benjaminian reading of Victorian sovereignty, one in which law and peace are founded on violence and war. As it turns out, this paradox of liberalism operates at home and in the colonies. In fact, Hensley teaches us how to think about the conjuncture of these two frameworks: if (to borrow a phrase from Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”) “there is something rotten” in metropolitan law (i.e., violence), then such fetidness is related to those sites that the metropole governed and dominated through violence, namely, the colonies. The corpses of Britain’s civilizing missions to which Hensley alerts his readers to in his introduction, rotting unburied in Sikandar Bagh, lay witness to Victorian law’s inherent violence.
This decomposition, Hensley teaches us, can only be fully perceived when two conditions are met. Firstly, by approaching sovereignty not as a concept, a theology, or a technique, but as a poetics. Sovereignty, in Hensley’s account, looks neither like the orphanage, nor the panopticon, nor circumlocution offices, nor adolescent spies. Nor does it manifest in literary institutions such as realist omniscience, superstructural symptoms, the marriage plot, or the occlusion of Jamaican plantations. Instead, the poetics of Victorian sovereignty looks more like the temporality of Felice Beato’s Mutiny photographs, the plot structure of Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the “leap” between the particular and general in J. S. Mill’s A System of Logic (a leap that Collins’s Armadale renders into the relationship metropolitan law has to globalization), or Swinburne’s concentration of total control and excess into “a single conceptual unit.” The poetics of sovereignty therefore functions across the traditional thresholds of genre.
Hensley’s approach allows him to track how discrete texts, sometimes asymptotically close to each other, at other times radically divergent, act as “agents of thought” that make visible the violence that was the condition of possibility for Victorian liberalism and its civilizing mission (84). Some may call it comparative, but Hensley prefers the term curatorial, and this is his second methodological intervention. There is a “dynamic of relation,” claims Hensley, between text and history, which can only be grasped when seemingly disparate texts are placed in “critical constellations” (192). So how is this different from Saidian contrapuntal reading? While Said’s “Culture” and “Imperialism” are “set into contact” by “and,” Hensley’s proposes keeping these two categories “separate, proximate, broken into sections.” This “split-screen story,” Hensley maintains, “is a way of narrating a real configuration of law and violence at a specific moment in the British empire’s long plot of dispossession and injury” (192). In other words, Hensley’s response to symptomatic readings of empire as well as those who seek traces of imperialism in representational content is to hold disparate texts in view while attending to how they think flashpoints in imperial history. The task of the curator is to stage a critical constellation such that it becomes possible to see how texts articulate the framing contradictions of the society they come from—in Hensley’s case, how little England globalized liberty through war.
The world this curator makes visible is one in which the rottenness of the law is palpable as a world historical event, a discrete episode in history (even though the episode itself is deconstructed as a narrative unit, as in the case of Hensley’s entirely novel reading of The Mill on the Floss). So what about everyday rottenness? To put it crudely, we (or some of us, at least) sense “something rotten in the law” in the banalities of our day (mere sightings of the police can elicit such a feeling), or when one pilfers at a grocery store (taking home organic tomatoes when one has only paid for the regular kind). Or in more serious terms: while events like the Mutiny or Morant Bay or the wars in Southern Africa were epochal events in the history of British imperialism, historians (Subaltern Studies in particular) have long noted how resistances to imperial rule occurred all the time, but were not historicized as such. That is to say, a particular kind of historiographic epistemology privileged and made available a certain kind of rebellion, an epistemology we draw upon in our research. Which is to say, there is a vast archive (perhaps lost altogether, and when not, visible in the negative space of the imperial text) of little Mutinies, little Rebellions, and little Wars that exceed calendrical indexing (even the 228 separate wars Hensley opens his book with). A question Forms of Empire makes possible to ask is: what does a poetics of Victorian sovereignty look like when it has written its immanent violence out of history as such?