By John Holmwood, Theory, Culture and Society, November 4, 2015
Abstract: Lisa Lowe’s book addresses the colonial relationships that connect the continents of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. These relationships of appropriation and dispossession are integral to liberal thought and no matter how much it seeks to present itself as transcending these contexts, liberal thought is continually fractured by them. The book asks its readers to confront the formation of modern political subjectivity and its implication in the very disciplinary subjects through which we claim to know.
This is a challenging book, which should be read by all those interested in the history of capitalism and the formation of the social sciences. It is especially challenging to sociologists who have, for too long, worked with a standard account that serves to establish core concepts of contemporary sociology. According to this standard account, capitalist modernity is a key object of sociological inquiry which focuses on the rise in Europe of the nation state, political democracy and a civil society organised around market exchanges. The colonial conditions of modernity rarely get a look in.
Within sociology, the standard approach has been challenged by Gurminder K Bhambra (2014) and her idea of connected sociologies. Lisa Lowe – professor of English and American studies at Tufts University – develops a similar argument for an expansive understanding of the global social and cultural conditions of what is typically regarded as European modernity. For many of us working in the social sciences, we might be moved to ask at the end of the book; why has our range of engagements with the history of modernity been so limited? And why are the humanities more open to the insights of postcolonial critique than the social sciences?
Lowe’s arguments are compelling, even if her data is unfamiliar. The focus of her book is, “the often obscure connections between the emergence of European liberalism, settler colonialism in the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade, and the East Indies and China trades in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century” (2015: 1). Where do we learn of these phenomena in our histories of sociology? ‘Settler colonialism’, for example, is not one of our ‘forms’ of capitalist modernity, at least not in the standard sociological accounts, and not in what we teach our students. We may have learned to add to the writers deemed to be canonical, but we have yet to disrupt our conceptual canon.
Lowe makes a bold claim and a moral claim and I, for one, am persuaded by both aspects: “the social inequalities of our time are a legacy of these process through which ‘the human’ is ‘freed’ by liberal forms, while other subjects, practices, and geographies are placed at a distance from the ‘human’” (2015: 2). The dispossession of Native Americans through colonial enclosure, the movement of populations through enslavement and indenture – the figure of the ‘slave’ and the ‘coolie’ – are these not all implicated in the protection of our ‘hard-earned’ patrimony in the fences currently erected in the US and in Europe against migrants? We continue to promote our invention of freedom and deny it in the present, just as we denied it in the past. Importantly, we are implicated as liberal subjects – as citizens – but we are also implicated as purveyors of social scientific reason formed in the very concepts that are at issue.
The arguments of the book are more aligned to cultural studies than to studies of social structure, but we should not be insensible to their mutual implication. The chapters set out different ‘journeys’ and the narratives they describe illustrate and illuminate mutual entailments of freedom and subjugation, privilege and degradation, possession and expropriation – these entailments are the ‘intimacies’ of the title. They are geographically extensive and they bring social structures of colonial modernity in their wake.
Lowe sets out four key journeys: the life journey, or autobiography, of formerly enslaved African, Olaudah Equiano, published in London 1789 in the same year as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in Paris; Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and the journeys of colonial commodities that embroider the text and provide key settings, unobtrusive in the background but defining meanings; the journeys of the East India Company to China and Hong Kong establishing trades in opium and indentured labour; the journeys of enslaved Africans and their representation in historical narratives that elide the self-emancipations recorded by C.L.R. James and W.E.B. Du Bois.
There is much to enjoy in each of these chapters, especially, the dialectical interweaving of liberal conceptions and their negation, and the careful delineation of context and claim. Ultimately, however, the book is a dissection of liberalism and its fractured and fracturing presence in the modern world. It takes its place alongside, Chakrabarty’s (1989) Provincializing Europe, or Mehta’s (1999) Liberalism and Empire. More than anything, it also sends us back to C.L.R. James (1963 ) and his Black Jacobins, not least because one of the inspirations was his remark that, “Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me” (cited by Lowe 2015: 73). For Lowe, it is Thackeray, rather than Marx, who registers the presence of colonial commodities and their circulation through Victorian households.
Yinko Shonibare’s ship in a bottle which was installed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2010-2012, confronted Nelson’s column celebrating his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Lowe chooses it as an illustration of her book and it is fitting. Shonibare’s ship confronts Britain’s colonial and Imperial past, but in looking to the past, it also brings that past into the present where it continues to live. This is precisely the point of Lowe’s book. Our political discourses and our disciplinary discourses are each formed by the past. The promise of freedom remains a promise precisely because it constructs ‘the human’ in a separation from ‘other humanities’ which remain always displaced in a promise that, for them, is unrealised.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2014) Connected Sociologies, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (1989) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
James, C.L.R. (1963) The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage.
Mehta, Uday Singh (1999) Liberalism and Empire. A Study in Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.