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Thinking Back through Empires

Can we widen our analyses to the largest scale while keeping faith with the particular?

—Thomas S. Davis and Nathan Hensley

It would be going too far to say that widening our frameworks is the only way to keep faith with the particular. Yet certainly it is one powerful way to keep that faith. Human acts and works of art often arise from a past linked in one way or another to far-flung systems. This condition becomes crystal clear when we think in terms of connected histories, not only across global space but also across sedimented time and “before European hegemony,” in Janet Abu-Lughod’s phrase.[1]

As I’ll highlight here, recent scholarship establishes that, for millennia, sophisticated, vying states have worked both together and in competition with profiteering economic actors; and together they have built “modernizing” systems, including institutions of knowledge. From century to century these linked states, economies, and systems have gathered force and depth, accruing into infrastructures that perpetuate unequal control of resources. Over time, for the generations of peoples living amid these states and systems, this history has issued in a palimpsest of political memories, identities, and investments—in other words, a long-historical political unconscious, to adapt Fredric Jameson’s phrase. This long global past thus inhabits events in the present like restless yeast, leavening the singularity of each encounter and catalyzing forms of art. In this light it is clear that the widening work we face as literary scholars is long-historical as well as geo-spatial. Texts evince the pressures of both, so close reading remains our tool.

Fig. 1. Thirteenth-century manuscript depicting Abbasid scholars at work in a library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We do better justice to the aesthetic-cultural mediation of these accretions, I argue, when we think less strictly in terms of a difference between “premodern” and “modern” and more in terms of an ongoing dialectical co-constitution of world structures, including as shaped by colonizing empires. Many artists have brooded on the microphysics of this force field, but we have not taken sufficient notice of their long-historical imaginations and critiques, including those of the artists we call modernists. Captivated by artists’ loud rejections of the old for the new, scholars have sometimes missed modernisms’ meditations on the old as it re-enters and troubles the new. If we habitually begin with the contingent, volatile interactions between persons and among states, while also taking stock of their accretion into determinative material and affective structures with world-making force, then we will have followed many artists into their métier.

This long-historical brooding is not peculiar to modernism; it infuses all kinds of aesthetics. In the case of the long twentieth century, I believe that modernism and realism share an interest in the long-historical—and specifically in the violent history of political economy—contrary to common assumptions about their divergent political investments. I am grateful for Bashir Abu-Manneh’s tour de force essay in this cluster about the urgent need for fuller attention to the slum-proliferating force of global capitalism as it is linked to aesthetic forms. I also agree that there are many forms of subversive experimentation, including some that would not typically be called modernist. This is why I’m doubtful that a resurrection of the debate about realism versus modernism will get us very far in thinking about either of these modes in relation to political economy. As Aarthi Vadde suggests in her contribution here, such categories have often gotten in the way; so, sometimes, category “confusion” is a good sign. Peter Kalliney’s recent analysis of the categories of modernism and realism as they operated during the Cold War should caution us against building political-aesthetic theory on an opposition between them. On the cultural front of the Cold War, the Soviet Union on one hand and the British and U.S. empires on the other sought (as part of their economic and geopolitical platforms) cultural allegiance from third-world writers, with communists touting the realism of the masses and capitalists touting the free experimentalism of the bourgeoisie. As Kalliney convincingly argues, it was exactly to slip the noose of all these superpowers that decolonizing writers shrewdly championed aesthetic neutrality and autonomy.[2] That is, knowing full well that aesthetics are politically entangled, these writers took the strategic high ground in order to pursue their own politically committed aesthetic projects.

Geo-aesthetic conditions like these of the Cold War may serve as segue here into my larger case for a certain kind of long-historical, geopolitical analysis of literature, which highlights the dialectical role of vying states, especially empires, before as well as after European hegemony. In this inter-imperial method, the “inter” refers both to multiple interacting empires and to the multiple subject positions lived within, between, and against empires, including positions occupied by authors and translators. This approach begins from the fact that multiple states and globalizing, profit-driven extractive economies have long emerged together, as historians have clarified. I emphasize that state and economic actors have managed their strained, competitive relations so as to collaborate on through co-constructed infrastructures, networks, and centralizing practices—from labor regimes and banking codes to railway-building and Greenwich time zones. Attending to both macro-political and microphysical dynamics in these co-formations, an inter-imperial model provides one way to conceptualize the broad-scale coordinates of cultural production while also “keeping faith” with particular texts produced in particular times and places.

The role of competing states especially deserves this reconfigured emphasis because it is often eclipsed in transnational and world-systems approaches. An inter-imperial method incorporates the insights of both transnational and world-systems analysis while aiming to supplement their insights. Our understanding of the conditions of diasporic displacement, economic exploitation, or international resistance changes, for instance, when we look not only at western European cores and peripheries, but also at these as they interact with Ottoman core and periphery, or Chinese core and periphery, or Russian core and periphery, or all at once. Each state’s core-periphery policies and instabilities shapes that of the others. And together these relations structure the larger force field within which all populations must operate—creating specific kinds of inter-imperial positionality and burdens for each community and person.[3] If we overlook this multi-centric and dialectically determining field, we will also overlook some of art’s mediating work. We risk misreading art’s geopolitical difficulties, its ambivalent attachments, its aura of sadness, and its cunning.

In short, as I’ll indicate, the inter-imperial contests and dissident maneuvers of the millennium before European hegemony have something to do with those following the rise of Europe—for instance, with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in 1914 and the gathering of African and Asian delegates in Bandung in 1955. Those pre-1500 centuries bear down powerfully—as dream and nightmare—on the imaginations of Ayi Kwei Armah, James Joyce, Jamaica Kincaid, Bohumil Hrabal, Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gertrude Stein, Velimir Khlebnikov, Salman Rushdie, Alejo Carpentier, Kiran Desai, Virginia Woolf, and Jean Toomer. Joyceans have long perceived the connections, led there by Joyce’s own explicit and epic historical meditations on these violent histories.[4] Postcolonial scholars have meanwhile recognized that long aesthetic histories inform the experiments of African, Indian, Asian, and American indigenous writers even as those writers also engage with Anglo-European authors. In recent years, more detailed postcolonial scholarship on these distinct and combined influences has begun to emerge.[5] Some of it entails attention to the kinds of philological histories highlighted here by Chris GoGwilt and elsewhere by scholars such as Nergis Ertürk and Annette Damayanti Lienau.[6] This scholarship is likely to clarify, among other things, the long durée aesthetic-political histories of postcolonial, geomodernist, and realist literatures.

To embrace this challenge of the long and wide does involve new lines of historical reading but it need not entail a new literary-critical method. Reading closely for patterns and subtexts remains the core practice. The shift required is mainly a matter of training our eyes to read texts for other cues, multiply imperial and long-historical, just as critics have in recent decades learned to read for queer subplots and pivotal Africanist moments in white-authored texts. In this case, we would follow the specific historical and imperial reading-paths that beckon to us in the text’s allusions and generic affiliations.[7] Fortunately, the rich historical scholarship on materials from outside Europe and pre-dating European hegemony makes the task feasible. Below I describe these historical materials and processes, which I analyze at more length elsewhere and in the larger book project.[8]

Inter-imperial Dialectics: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

The underlying principle of an inter-imperial method is that polities form relationally—like persons. That is, persons, communities, and states all emerge within a volatile, uneven, and fundamental condition of relationality in which each survives by necessary relations of alliance that are interwoven with relations of coercion and domination—on both microphysical and macropolitical scales. This relationality is always already structured by political histories embedded in material habitats, bodies, and institutions.

In its geopolitical dimension, this angle of vision brings into focus the fact that in each historical era over at least the last two millennia, several vying empires have taken shape in relation to each other and to the peoples between them. Thus when the first Islamicate Umayyad empire conquered the Persian Sassanid empire in the eighth century CE, it not only absorbed the Persian institutions of learning but also incorporated Persian scholars and state-builders. These groups in turn aligned with the Abbasid faction within the empire and helped to effect the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyads. Importantly for subsequent world history, the Umayyads fled to southern Spain, later known as al-Andalus, where they built academies and libraries. In the tenth century and after, individual libraries of Islamicate states from Baghdad and Cairo to Cordoba held hundreds of thousands of volumes each, while the largest libraries in Christendom contained at most a couple of thousand volumes.[9] These institutions of the global southeast drew northern European scholars south, and especially to the scholarly communities of al-Andalus in Islamic Spain, thus helping to catalyze northern Europe’s (belated) era of scholasticism, university-building, promulgation of scientific method, and eventually its Renaissance. A similar story of dialectical “domino effects” can be told about, for instance, the agricultural water-engineering practices that Islamicate states inherited from Mesopotamian empires past when they conquered those lands. Like the cultural institutions, these agricultural techniques made their way west and were eventually carried to South America via Spanish empire. There they were retooled in conjunction with, for instance, Incan infrastructures, fostering Spanish agricultural colonization. The world today represents the accretion of such transhemispheric and inter-polity processes.[10]

As hinted in this brief account, scholarly institutions have likewise been entangled in this inter-imperial trading and warring.[11] As Jonathan Bloom establishes, empires not only gave books to imperial allies as gifts but also deliberately stole library collections as booty in situations of war, for strategic reasons.[12] Scholars too were kidnapped or killed, and many of them assimilated. From the Abbasid and Chinese “medieval” empires to the seventeenth-century Safavid, Mamluck, Ottoman, Mughal empires, such “hybrid” scholars often directed ambitious state translation projects, including translation of science and math texts that facilitated imperial trade and engineering, and translation of religious, philosophical, and literary texts that helped to consolidate control over conquered territories and manage relations with rival empires. Such intellectuals creolized knowledge while also maneuvering in ways that have likely shaped scholarly codes and legacies.

It’s worth noting, in relation to Marxist and world-system studies, that state funding of translation and scholarship in pre-1500 periods also fostered the emergence of a capitalist system. This point comes into sharp focus when we consider the history of math and accounting. The decimal system for computation emerged with the publication of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi’s ninth-century book, Calculation of the Hindu Numerals (circa 825 CE), in which, building on the Hindu-Arabic numerical system, al-Khwarizmi worked out computational methods using the zero and the notion of place value. His work depended first of all on paper—that is, on the inter-imperially appropriated technology of paper production—and its effects were equally inter-imperial, for al-Khwarizmi’s book was soon translated into Hebrew and Latin by other expanding states. (Al-Khwarizmi himself was of Persian descent working in the Abbasid empire—thus embodying the inter-imperially-formed identities that underlie intellectual institutions and histories.) According to Edmund Burke III, this newly shared computational practice helped to create, “a single market from Spain [and Africa] to India and China, with a single language of administration (Arabic) and a single monetary system,” facilitating the integration of European markets and eventually American markets into an increasingly global world system (“Islam at the Center,” 184). In al-Khwarizmi’s case, as in other cases, translators participated (voluntarily or not) in the dialectical and globalizing processes of co-adaptation, centralization, and homogenization.

In light of this long-historical accretion of institutions and technologies and with attention to the multiple empires in any one period, we can productively adjust the familiar narrative of Britain’s rise to unchallenged global dominance by the nineteenth century—and enrich our analyses of literature accordingly. For instance, we can reframe western European Orientalist translation projects, understanding Orientalism as inter-imperially generated, building on the work of scholars who are increasingly establishing the “global ensemble” of Orientalism.[13] Doing so includes tracking the interlocking moves among the Russian, Chinese, Ottoman, Prussian, Safavid, Mughal, and Spanish empires in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, into which Britain entered belatedly.

Yet increasingly this inter-imperial jockeying has also created openings for maneuvers among anti-colonial revolutionaries, albeit very risky ones. Herein lay the systems’ dialectical effects. The very animosities between empires allowed political leveraging by anti-colonial actors while the technologies funded by empires became tools for their resistance. At the turn into the nineteenth century both Irish and Haitian anti-imperial leaders played Spanish, French, and British empires against each other, garnering arms and funds from one to expel the other. Although in these cases, as always, the empires’ intention in supporting dissident groups was to seize the lands won by the rebels, or at least to destabilize their rivals, the Haitian Revolution gave evidence that the imperialists’ aims were not always realized according to plan. Along with faster ships and more widely produced arms, the technologies of paper and print played key roles, whether via dissident newspapers fostering Atlantic-wide abolitionist boycotts, or novels exposing “gothic” imperial brutalities, or publications of ex-slave memoirs. Likewise in the twentieth century, as we know, anti-colonial movements used newspapers, printing presses, and little magazines to create transnational, transperipheral solidarities, to coordinate international events, and to share strategies. As Elleke Boehmer and Isabel Hofmeyr have argued in different ways, these forms also affected literary genres insofar as the editors and writers experimented with journalistic formats and creolized languages, creating new audiences in the process.[14]

Mediating Inter-imperially: Twentieth-Century Literatures

This rebalanced historical picture makes visible the long-historical imaginations of many writers of the long twentieth century—whether realist, postcolonial, geomodernist, Marxist, feminist or some combination of all. It also positions literature’s labors of mediation squarely within a transhemispheric field of vying empires. As is most evident in World Wars I and II, yet also manifest in battles such as the Anglo-Boer wars, the convergent, clashing forces of multiple empires had become a global juggernaut by the twentieth century. Authors signal toward the long-historical accretions that have issued in contemporary violence and geopolitics. A few brief closing examples may suffice for this Modernism/modernity forum.

Notice for instance that at the center of his novel El reino de este mundo (1949 [in English, The Kingdom of this World]), Alejo Carpentier abruptly carries one of his ex-slave characters to imperial Rome, juxtaposing this section against the novel’s main settings in inter-imperially embattled Cuba and Saint Domingue. His main character, the repeatedly enslaved Ti Noel, meanwhile links slave resistance to the legendary narratives of African states and conquerors. In this way Carpentier signals the radioactive half-lives of empire that reach across centuries, imaginations, and oceans. He also invites us to reflect on one of the tragically ironic effects of these persisting energies of empire: that slave and master alike come to invest in imperial subjectivities. Or, take Virginia Woolf, clearly writing from a very different inter-imperial position. Her novels are saturated with multiple imperial allusions, from the Roman and the Ottoman to the Russian, Spanish, and British. If everything she had to say concerned British Empire alone, why are these others in her fiction? Philosopher of relationality that she is, Woolf broods on inter-imperial relations, I propose. She also pursues two other dimensions that deserve fuller notice. She places sexual and gendered relations at the heart of these competitive and contestatory dynamics; and she streams a flood of literary allusions into all of her texts, gesturing toward the entanglement of the arts in these long histories.

James Joyce probably wins the prize for explicit reference to the widest range of empires and inter-imperial sedimentations. In Ulysses, these reach from ancient Persian–Greek wars to the contemporary Russo-Japanese War underway on Bloomsday. In the opening chapter of the novel, Stephen positions himself inter-imperially—between the Holy Roman Catholic and Protestant British empires—as the doubly squeezed “servant of two masters.”[15] At the same time he also creates Leopold and Molly Bloom as inter-imperial versions of the trope of the “wandering Jew”—signaled in both Leopold’s musings on Palestine and Molly’s Moorish-Jewish al-Andalusian origins.

When we consider authors such as Carpentier, Woolf, and Joyce together we also begin to see that imperial infrastructures loom large in their worlds. Pivotal scenes are set in or catalyzed by state buildings and sites: not only in military buildings, such as Haiti’s Citadel and Dublin’s Martello Tower, nor only in imperial monuments to figures like Lord Nelson; but also in buildings of culture, such as national libraries and newspaper offices. Foregrounded as sites of dialectical contestation where writers do their diverse mediating work and navigate their own ways through the pressured inter-imperial field, these elements beckon us to reflect on our own positions as intellectuals whose practices issue from a long geopolitical history.

In this light we might also revisit Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935), which signifies pointedly on Woolf’s and Joyce’s “day in the life” novels by narrating a day in the life of his dalit protagonist Bakha. Anand positions Bakha as the literal servant of two masters, Hindu and British. Most interestingly, Anand ends his novel with the Indian writers and intellectuals debating about the invention of the flush toilet—yet with reference to India’s long, pre-European history of such modernizing projects. How many ways is Anand revising Woolf and Joyce? What is the full range of his mediating effort? To plumb the full depths of his project we would need also to consider the question together with his subtextual invocations of Hindu philosophies of knowledge and aesthetics; and we would also note his positioning of Muslim characters, with whom Bakha feels a kinship as members of another disenfranchised social class, and who sometimes act as intermediaries for Bakha. In any case it’s fair to say that the long-historical dimensions of Anand’s imagination are manifest in Untouchable.

Other questions might also be fruitfully pursued in this context. Are there grounds for linking the famous multi-perspectivalism and experimental temporalities of geomodernist and postcolonial texts to the multi-dimensionality of imperial identities and pressures? Are there also grounds for reading them in relation to a longer history of experimental and realist genres (such as the framed, embedded tales of 1001 Nights) which were similarly forged amid the conquering, forced migrations, and gendered formations of earlier inter-imperial landscapes? Or, at the level of textual production, what might emerge if we approached geomodernist and postcolonial authors’ translation projects, their small magazines, and their printing presses within an inter-imperial frame? Might we better understand the censorship that editors and writers faced? Might we better understand Rabindranath Tagore’s self-translations of his poetry? Or the choices made by Gandhi or the Woolfs about which works to publish at their small printing presses?

In short, study of the longer global history reveals not just the imperial construction of knowledge and arts but the inter-imperial construction of them, by a range of interacting agents. Created under these conditions, literature and the arts have implicitly carried these layered histories and (anti)imperial identities forward, in their aesthetic forms as well as in themes and tropes. In some cases, literary and other arts have perpetuated the investment in one imperial subjectivity while challenging the incursions of another. In other cases, artists have developed a craft—and craftiness—by which they more broadly question the inter-imperial order of things. In all cases, authors not only write back to or negotiate a relation to one empire; they negotiate a position between and among empires.

To explore the possibilities requires attention, I’ve argued, to the co-constitution of macro-political and micro-textual structures over deep inter-imperial time. We have most of the tools at hand, both the close reading methods and the archival research done in many lands and languages. Among other benefits, when we look at this longer history we better understand the provincial and belated nature of the region we call western Europe.[16] When we have reduced Europe to its proper size within this history—fully shedding narratives of Europe’s supposed modernity-spawning prowess—we will be in a better position to interpret the geopolitical dimensions of art and literature, reaching from the first millennium translation projects of Chinese and Islamicate empires to the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, the literary story is not that one set of authors borrowed “belatedly” from the others, although there has been plenty of borrowing and appropriation. The story is not a succession narrative. Nor it is exactly a story without a plot, to echo Claude McKay’s subtitle for his novel Banjo—even as authors like McKay were working to undo this implicitly imperial narrative telos. A literary history that takes account of these geopolitics unfolds as a framed gathering of tales-within-tales. Many authors in many languages have offered their retellings. They have reflected, from different world positions, on a shared problem: the inter-imperial order of things.


[1] See Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). My phrase “connected histories” alludes to the work of historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who has developed this approach to world historiography. See Explorations in Connected History: Mughals and Franks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Peter Kalliney, “Modernism, African Literature, and the Cold War,” Modern Language Quarterly 76, no. 3 (2015): 333–68.

[3] I am indebted to Sanja Bahun for her formulation of the notion of “interpositionality” in her essay, “The Balkans Uncovered: Toward Historie Croisée of Modernism,” in the Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 25–47.

[4] Among the many studies that give a sense of Joyce’s long-historical imagination, see Medieval Joyce, ed. Lucia Boldrini (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), Mary T. Reynolds, Joyce and Dante: The Shaping Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

[5] See for instance the special issue of Modern Fiction Studies on “Inter-imperiality," forthcoming Fall 2018. Also see Revathi Krishnaswamy, “Toward World Literary Knowledges: Theory in the Age of Globalization,” Comparative Literature62, no. 4 (2010): 399–419. Krishnaswamy addresses both the need for more such work and the possibilities opened by attention to non-European aesthetic practices and theories. For thoughtful earlier exploration of this topic, see Deepika Bahri, Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). For an intriguing case study of the hybrid literary experiments emerging from this history, see Sebastian Lecourt, “Idylls of the Buddh’: Buddhist Modernism and Victorian Poetics in Colonial Ceylon” PMLA 131, no. 3 (2016): 668–85.

[6] See Nergis Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), and Annette Damayanti Lienau “Reframing Vernacular Culture on Arabic Fault Lines: Bamba, Senghor, and Sembene’s Translingual Legacies in French West Africa,” PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015): 419–29.

[7] In my courses, for example, I sometimes ask students to make an index of empires referred to in a text, then to research the contemporary and/or historical geopolitical importance of them, reflecting on the implications for the text. Likewise with very old literary genres retooled by recent authors, I encourage students to explore their genesis in earlier periods and in relation to the imperial field of those periods, especially if the students’ multi-lingual language and cultural backgrounds allow.

[8] The full discussion will appear in a book, to be published in 2019 (provisionally titled The Inter-Imperial Condition). Meanwhile an extended analysis can be found in Laura Doyle, “Inter-imperiality: Dialectics in a Postcolonial World History,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16, no. 2 (2013): 159–96.

[9] Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 118–22.

[10] On Incan infrastructures, see Terence N. D’Altroy, The Incas, 2nd ed. (Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2014). For discussion of circulating “technological complexes,” including water-engineering technologies, see Edmund Burke III “Islam at the Center: Technological Complexes and the Roots of Modernity,” Journal of World History 20, no. 2 (2009): 165–86. Also see John M. Hobson’s similar discussion of “resource portfolios” in “Is Critical Theory Always for the White West and for Western Imperialism? Beyond Westphilian Towards a Post-Racist Critical IR,” Review of International Studies 33, no. S1 (2007): 91–116, 109.

[11] I discuss this at more length in “Inter-imperiality.”

[12] See Bloom, Paper Before Print, 118–22.

[13] Aamir R. Mufti uses the phrase “global ensemble” in his essay “Orientalism and the Institution of World literatures,” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 3 (2010): 458–493, 464. Scholars have continued to widen the story of Orientalism, recounting its emergence from multi-directional interactions that included scholars of the Mughal empire. In The Inter-imperial Condition I am building on these studies. See Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Orientalism’s Genesis Amnesia,” in Antinomies of Modernity: Essays on Race, Orient, Nation, ed. Vasant Kaiwar and Sucheta Mazumdar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 98–125, and Kamran Rastegar, Literary Modernity Between the Middle East and Europe: Textual Transactions in Nineteenth-Century Arabic, English, and Persian Literatures (New York: Routledge, 2007). For a related discussion, also see Amit Chaudhuri, “The East as a Career,” New Left Review 40 (July/August 2006), 111–26.

[14] See Elleke Boehmer, Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[15] James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler (New York: Vintage, 1986), 17, lines 643–44.

[16] Dipesh Chakrabarty points in this direction in his book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). I am indebted to Chakrabarty and I aim to push his argument further through grounding in earlier world history.