Duke University Press, Durham, 2015
By Jesse van Amelsvoort, student Euroculture in Groningen
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To start with the essential: Lisa Lowe’s new monograph The Intimacies of Four Continents is indispensable reading for anyone interested in political theory, history and postcolonialism. As she puts it at the beginning of her book, she examines the often ‘obscured’ connections between European liberalism, American settler colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and trade with China and East Asian colonies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Lowe examines globalisation before globalisation: the interconnectedness of the world in an era we do not usually consider in histories of globalisation.
The Intimacies of Four Continents is a critical history of liberalism and the formation of the modern European subject – but to characterise it only as such would be to downplay Lowe’s intellectual endeavour. She does so much more: she not only examines the emergence of liberal modernity as we in the West know it, she also proposes and brings into practice a new methodology for historical studies. And she does all of that in a rather slim volume – but do not let its limited size fool you: the amount of reading and thinking that must have gone into writing the essays that comprise this book is truly astonishing.
In fact, all that reading and thinking is crucial: one of Lowe’s first observations is that the archives of colonialism are not kept in one place, but are rather dispersed over many different places, and that it takes time and effort to bring them together. In Britain, for example, some documents are in the British Colonial Office Papers, others in the archives of the Foreign Office and again others are among the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. All the while, she observes, the intellectual and philosophical roots of the liberal state governing the colonies, like Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690) and much of Enlightenment thought, are wholly disconnected from the history of colonialism.
Lowe takes issue with this disconnection: the genealogy of modern liberalism (politically, economically, philosophically and culturally), she argues, is ‘simultaneously a genealogy of colonial divisions of humanity.’ The observation that lies at the basis of this claim is simple: the modern, liberal, Western European state was developed at the same time that these states claimed large swaths of land around the globe and engaged in an ever-expanding slave trade. What is more, the modern liberal state developed as an effort to manage the colonial enterprise. What happened in Europe was not disconnected from what happened elsewhere, especially in Western Africa and the Caribbean, but also in Eastern Asia. In fact, these four locations were intimately connected.
The ‘intimate’ is Lowe’s central metaphor, which she deploys firstly in relation to the global processes related to slavery, exploitation and domination and only secondly in the way that is familiar to most. That is, ‘intimacy’ denotes not a certain domesticity, nor emotional or physical openness, but rather the connectedness of Africa, America, Asia and Europe. At the same time, Lowe draws attention to ways in which global relations had to be developed in order to construct the personally intimate.
Lowe demonstrates what this means in the most powerful chapter in The Intimacies of Four Continents, ‘A Fetishism of Colonial Commodities’. There, she spells out the implications of C.L.R. James’ statement that it is William Makepeace Thackeray, not Karl Marx, who has influenced his thinking on colonialism and imperialism most. What did the Afro-Trinidadian anti-colonial intellectual mean when he said this? According to Lowe, ‘A discussion of James’s interest in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is likewise an opportunity to specify the role of literature as a particular mediation of the global social and economic forces that we have been discussing.’ The circulation of goods and people and the development of new forms of governance as a result of the growth of the British imperial state in the nineteenth century had an impact not only on the political-philosophical foundations of the state or on economic freedom, but also on literature and cultural production.
It is important, then, to understand how literature and culture ‘simultaneously recognized yet suppressed’ the contradictions of the new global social and economic forces. Vanity Fair’s domestic spaces are not just filled with, but even constituted by colonial wealth. Such readings have been standard practice in postcolonial studies for a while now, but Lowe takes the argument a step further. Commodities such as tea, sugar and silk are taken for granted; at the same time, their presence points to England’s privileged position. Vanity Fair, in Lowe’s reading, draws attention to this privilege. Realising how we are unknowingly implicated in a system of global politics and production that has an impact on the smallest of our cultural habits should be an essential part of any Westerner’s self-understanding.
Lowe is, perhaps, more resigned: the Western world was created through slavery and colonialism, its archives are manifold and dispersed, enormously complicating sustained study of them, and it would be better to acknowledge this and think about the implications. It is, of course, impossible to change the past. What is possible, Lowe suggests, is improving our understanding of the past and, in particular, our understanding of how historical developments have shaped our present. The Intimacies of Four Continents belongs to what might very well be the most radical form of postcolonialism, which examines and interrogates the very foundations of the modern Western polity. We like to promote our liberal democracies elsewhere, but as this book suggests, perhaps critical introspection would be a more appropriate attitude.