Notes on Colonial-Imperial knowledge formation

from gt-nana’s stamp album, hand-dated 1919

A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.

One important scholar of the second school of thought is Eugene Irschick, of University of California Berkeley. In his 1994 work Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895, Irschick presents an argument that the British and south Indians mutually constructed narratives about the past (including a Tamil ‘golden age’) in order to construct socio-political regimes, including the sedentary village-based tax system.

Irschick summarises his underlying argument that ‘structures of meaning and institutions are cultural products negotiated by a large number of persons from every level of society in a given place and time…a single individual cannot produce meaning, a cultural development, or an institution by herself or himself’ (Preface, p ix).

Irschick argues, contra Edward Said, that the response of Indian locals to the British administration, including the information or knowledge they provided about local property and tax relations, was integral to the property regime that emerged under British rule. Moreover, south Indian rulers often exercised a considerable degree of independence from the British power. Hence, British rule was not hegemonic in the sense that the governance regimes instituted were the result of an imposed and totalizing discourse of the imperial power. Nor were they institutionally dominant. Rather they were the product of complex interactions between British administrators and indigenes and involved ‘heteroglot’ features or multiple voices and the contest between different interest groups. In summary, the construction of knowledge or meaning in the imperial settings of south India was a ‘dialogic’ process. (pp 8-9) Irschick expostulates:

Moreover, the segmentary organization of local polity enabled the population to develop significant arenas of juridical power not subject to formal British authority for many years. In the nineteenth century, after the British evolved their bureaucratic structure and a system of living in specific spatial areas set apart from the local population, there were hundreds of domains on the subcontinent where British authority was altogether lacking or uncertain. The shakiness of British dominance enabled these regions to serve throughout the period as critical sites for productive epistemological projects….

In the long term, therefore, scientific [or bureaucratic, utilitarian] discourse and the institutions that represent it create a negotiated, heteroglot construction shaped by both the weak and the strong, the colonized and the colonizer, from the present and the past. Thus, it is not possible to find a single, definite origin to these meanings and institutions. They are neither ‘European’ or ‘indigenous’. We must not essentialize any of the positions held by those involved in the dialogue. Equally important, we must recognise that the voices speaking at any given moment are tied to that specific historic instant. (pp 9-10).

In other words, knowledge about the present and the past of south Indian society was the product of a number of interacting sources and interests, making the institutions produced by this dialogic process a new creation, neither native nor exotic. At the same time, the participants were responding to the real-world contexts – economic, political, ideological – of their interactions, making their institutional creations potentially quite local and particular. As Irshick articulates, ‘discourse develops to deal with new historical requirements’. (p 11)

Sir Christopher Bayly’s work on Indian information orders and the British administration of India (Empire and Information, 1996) built in part on Irschick’s analysis, seeking to describe how a new Indian ecumene or public sphere was created through information and knowledge exchange and the creation of new print cultures from the 1830s especially. Bayly’s more recent work on Indian intellectual history (Recovering Liberties, 2012) can be compared with this earlier work. Bayly’s idea of Indians responding to western or British liberal ideas from within their indigenous worldviews and contexts, in an ‘upward hermeneutic’, takes Indian intellectual and political contexts seriously, while detailing the engagement of sectors of the Indian elite with new constitutional and governmental ideas from Britain, including ideas about representative government and independent courts.

Irschick’s Dialogue and History also draws connections between the newly constructed information and agricultural orders of South India and conceptions of citizenship in a ‘modern’ state. Irschick argues that:

the privileging of sedentarization resulted from an attempt on the part of both British and Indians to define citizenship strictly in terms of a society whose members possessed given places of residence, who were embedded, and who did not move about. The focus on sedentary society emerged as part of a general development in which the British and local agricultural groups interacted to create a high place for agriculture as the basis of the state.

In essence, European and local groups shared a conception about the quintessential mark of citizenship in a modern unitary state. Agriculture and the transferability of land, then, became the basic form of economic life in India and elsewhere. (p 191)

Irschick captures this construction of a ‘normative village’ as making people residents or citizens, as ‘giv[ing] them an address’. (p 192)

In the islands of New Zealand, British missionary knowledge and culture, followed by state culture, also intersected with indigenous (Maori) knowledge and contexts to create new knowledge and ideas about politics and society. The very conceptions of ‘Maori’ and ‘New Zealand’ are arguably two of these. Such connections and processes of historical change have not been adequately considered in New Zealand historiography.

3 thoughts on “Notes on Colonial-Imperial knowledge formation

  1. Am posting this as a link (with part of the first paragraph) tomorrow at Do you happen to have a twitter feed? It’s sometimes easier for me to follow scholarship that way. Thanks.


Comments are closed.