This refusal to accept the mass of evidence, the stubborn repetition of the error, and the insistence on making it a central theme in any account of Maghrebian history cannot be accidental. The myth did not arise by chance. It was deliberately forged and inculcated into the framework of colonial ideology.
In The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, published by Verso in 1993, Thomas Richards analyzes the proliferation of information systems in the British Empire, and the ways in which this link between state power and the measurement of fact were expressed in literature.
"Most Victorian epistemologies presupposed a superintending unity of knowledge," Richards writes. "A comprehensive knowledge of the world was for most of the century the explicit goal of all forms of learning." Later in the introduction, he continues: "this system-building impulse was the imperial archive's greatest inheritance from a philosophical tradition that posited a universal and essential form of knowledge, the tradition of Leibniz and Kant and von Humboldt, but it also took much the same ideas from a source nearer to hand, English Romanticism."
In the excerpt below, Richards considers three narratives of monstrosity — Lewis Carroll's Alice novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World — in the context of the evolution of the science of morphology.
Detail from Georg Dionysius Ehret's illustration of Linnaeus's sexual system of plant classification, 1736. via the Linnean Society of London.
This chapter is about the place of monstrosity in the nineteenth-century imperial imagination. Until Bram Stoker's Dracula, there are few monsters in Victorian fiction. In Victorian literature ghosts, those images of a nether world replete with human significance, are more common than monsters, and it is worth asking why. Victorian travellers like Richard Burton and Henry Stanley never saw monsters. In his Voyage of the Beagle (1831-36) Darwin travelled around the world without seeing one. Thomas Henry Huxley doubted whether monsters ever existed, even in the distant past. In Poe “monstrous” is always an adjective, never a noun, and monstrosity resides in the behavioral perversions of the self, as it does in Lombroso, where the monster is the criminal. In Victorian gothic it is the natural landscape that is monstrous. Even in the murky world of imperial gothic, as in Haggard's She (1887), there are no monsters of nature save for a woman who lives on eternally in a dead city. Why are there no monsters in Victorian literature?
In the science of form, the ancient distinction between forma and materia remained in force well into the twentieth century. Aristotle had held that there could be form without matter, though no matter without form. As late as the 1940s Joseph Needham was still criticizing morphologists for devoting themselves to the study of living form “without much consideration of the matter with which it is indissolubly connected.” The classic texts of morphology do focus almost exclusively on the stately progress from form to form. Whether they deal with continuous or discontinuous change, the morphologists all end up by positing a structural stability in which forms join at specific junctions to compose the pattern of a whole. In On Growth and Form, D'Arcy Thompson devotes almost no space to the particular forces that cause forms to change. Nor does the scientist in Dracula take any interest in the material composition of his monster of mutation; Dracula exists for Van Helsing not as a chemical substance but as a continuum of changing forms. Form in morphology is almost entirely a matter of aesthetics, and the assumption joining all morphological thought is that all forms must turn out in the end to be beautiful, however violently they may at first jar the conventions of perception (even vampires appear at beautiful ease in their final moment of destruction). Over time the science of form has supplied a variety of aestheticisms with a basic lexicon of beauty, the vocabulary of ideal design, even as it extended the domain of the aesthetic to include new shapes of life and death.
Aijaz Ahmad's essay on the history of the far right in India and its encroachment into the country's liberal institutions was included in the the Idea of India, Background Papers, EMS Smrithi Series compiled by M.N. Sudhakaran et al, Thrissur, June 2016 and previously published online by The Indian Cultural Forum.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh meeting, 1939. via Wikimedia Commons.
Indian liberalism makes a formidable claim: that the Republic is grounded in such a structurally elaborate and ideologically hegemonic liberal-democratic institutional framework that political forces of all hues are forced to consent to this framework, stake their claims and test out their fortunes within it, go in and out of the corridors of power through procedures of electoral democracy, and thereby further strengthen the liberal framework itself. It is further claimed that since all political forces, from the communist to the fascist, are compelled to accept the norms of universal franchise and multi-party elections, they are further compelled to move closer to the liberal centre as soon as they begin to participate in the exercise of governmental power. For the political centre of this power is itself circumscribed by equally powerful institutions of the civil bureaucracy, an independent judiciary, a freewheeling fourth estate, as well as a vibrant and highly articulate civil society. And, indeed, more than enough empirical evidence is available for one to construct a plausible narrative of post-Independence India on such premises. Its plausibility is what gives to the claim such persuasive power.
It is no easy task to define the concept of imperialism. The same term is customarily used to designate diverse, and in certain respects antithetical, concepts. Indeed, theoretical controversy is often based on nothing more than a failure to grasp what is the object of reference.