Ornamentalism

Finished today a nice little tome, Ornamentalism, by David Cannadine, in which he argues, contra (well, under a mitigated contra really) Edward Said that British views of ‘the Orient’ were not all based upon race and the ever-abiding sense of ‘the Other.’ Instead, much British Imperial policy- particularly, if not primarily after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857- was structured around ideas of class and hierarchy. Guided by a fusion, on the one hand, of pre-Enlightenment ideas of rank and hierarchy, which had little to do with race or ethnicity, and on the other an emergent British Imperial ideology, Imperial policy sought to recognize native aristocracy and hierarchies. These native hierarchies could be collaboraters with the British, who often saw themselves as protectors of native tradition, as Western capitalism engulfed the East. British Tories saw in native societies parallels with their own traditional, rural, aristocratic order; they also saw in such native societies a means of perpetuating the traditional ideas associated with such orders. Hence the British approached native culture and pre-existing hierarchies with a greater degree of respect and appreciation than Said would suggest. Most importantly, they saw in these societies a self-image, a reflection of their own traditions.

The problem- or rather, one of the problems- was that British constructions of native societies were often poorly drawn. They saw aristocracies and classes where there were none, or not as the British wished to percieve them. Not only that, but they tended to neglect the contingencies of native societies and their maleableness- prefering to see them as ancient and unyielding. The British found themselves unable to engage and confront the developing nationalist narratives and agitations in the rising educated middle classes- fueled by the sweeping technological change and urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries- of their holdings; nor did they consistently secure the adequate cooperations and collaberation of the native elite. All of these elements, Cannadine argues, contributed to the eventual failure of the British project in regards to native hierarchies- and the Empire in general.

Cannadine makes compelling arguments, considering the brevity of the book. His arguments for the importance of class and hierarchy in contrast to preoccupation with race are quite compelling, though, as he himself notes, the full reality of British Imperial imagination and activity is a mixture of both elements.

The salient point of Ornamentalism is, I think, its deconstruction of the radical separation and antagonism so often depicted as existing between ‘colonizer and colonized,’ ‘East and West,’ and so on. Instead, the historical reality in British Imperialism- especially in regards to India- is, as anywhere else in history, quite complex, with overlapping levels of Anglo-Indian relations and understandings. This is reflected in literature for example- the more I read of period writings from British India the more struck I am with the complex, multilayered relation of the British to the subcontinent and its subculture. Today I browsed through a volume of ‘Asian Miscellanies,’ which included, among other things, English translations of Mughal love poetry and two hymns to Hindu deities composed by an Englishman. Such example of ‘hybridity’ can be extended much further. William Dalrymple’s excellent book White Mughals presents a masterful examination of one such extension, in which a British official, James Kirkpatrick, married a high-class Indian, Khair un-Nissa (the idea and importance of class vis a vis race is prominent throughout, incidentally); in the process he converted to Islam.

In short, the interaction of ‘East and West’ is not and has never been simple or dualistic, much as some would like to think. This should be obvious enough, but we have a tendency, expressed in historical study and elsewhere, to desire easy systems and simplifications. History- and especially massive cultural interaction such as experienced in empire- cannot be easily systemized or simplified.

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