Volume 3, Number 1 (Fall 2001)
Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.
x + 424 pp. ISBN 082232315X (paper). 

Reviewed by Stephanie M. Hilger
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“[T]ropicalization is a reworking of colonialist discourse through revisions by postcolonial agents or tropicopolitans; the deployment of newer reading formations toward the middle of the eighteenth century and after; and the continued retroactive creation of postcolonial genealogies, including my own, that further deform the phenomena, in the manner of a Freudian Nachträglichkeit, or deferred action” (Aravamudan 15).  With this concise definition Srinivas Aravamudan outlines his argument and sets the tone for his analysis of colonialism and agency from 1688 to 1804.  In a superbly argued book, the author casts a refreshing new look at eighteenth-century literature through a postcolonial lens, while navigating a delicate course for his “postcolonial eighteenth century [that] may go beyond the pale for some dix-huitièmistes and remain insufficiently transgressive for some postcolonialists” (330).  The author’s style is at times difficult and complex, yet it goes hand in hand with the defamiliarizing reading practice that Aravamudan advocates for the analysis of eighteenth-century “tropicopolitan” texts. 

The author bases his argument on his version of the concepts of “contact zone” and “transculturation” put forth by Mary Louise Pratt in her Imperial Eyes (1992), a study of travel writing from the eighteenth century to the present.  In a manner similar to Pratt, Aravamudan investigates the dynamics of the colonial space where various cultures meet.  He appropriates the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit, here construed as the uncontrollable and unpredictable “retroactive power” (279) that various elements wield in the creation and reception of a text, to analyze the ambivalent cultural products of that space.  By looking at familiar texts in unfamiliar ways and by highlighting their “ideological slipperiness” (91) and “parodic undercurrent” (98), Aravamudan unsettles the canon of eighteenth-century literature and questions established reading formations.  The author combines close textual analysis with postcolonial theory and psychoanalysis to demonstrate the ambivalence of eighteenth-century texts which “interrupt the monologue of nationalist literary history” (12). 

Tropicopolitans is divided into three parts.  Each part frames its discussion of eighteenth-century literature and culture with a critical concept that Aravamudan proposes: “virtualization,” “levantinization” and “nationalization.”  The first part, “Virtualization,” consists of three chapters and discusses Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688) and Thomas Southerne’s dramatic adaptation of it (1695), Daniel Defoe’s The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720), and Joseph Addison’s play Cato (1713).  The second part explores practices of “levantinization” in two chapters, one on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s travel letters based on her journey to the Ottoman Empire (1763), and the other on Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757, 1759) and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).  Finally, the third section defines and illustrates “nationalization” in an analysis of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written By Himself (1789) and the Abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique du commerce et des établissements des Eurropéens dans les deux Indes (1770-1780). 

The first part, “Virtualization,” inquires into “colonialist representations that acquire malleability because of a certain loss of detail” (17).  For example, Aravamudan posits Oroonoko as a text that transforms into literary language the discourse of contemporary paintings which equates pets with Africans and exhibits them as exotic possessions.  This reading frees Behn’s piece from conventional idealizations of Oroonoko or Imoinda as incorporations of postcolonial agency.  Instead of focusing on the African royal couple, Aravamudan shifts the focus to the narrator’s ambiguous process of self-fashioning.  He argues that “the narrator is making a retroactive bid to refashion herself as an erstwhile erotic accessory of the king with the help of Caesar [Oroonoko] as prop” (46), a claim which provides the reader with a new lens to analyze the relation between colonizer and colonized.  In the second part, Aravamudan posits the same destabilizing move in his definition of “levantinization” as “a creative response to orientalisms as a plural rather than singular category” (19).  Instead of labeling her an orientalist or a feminist, he explores the hybrid “levantinizing” moments that occur when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s subject positions of feminist and orientalist intersect.  Montagu’s discovery of smallpox inoculation in Turkey is one of those moments where the female traveler can be seen vacillating between admiration of this foreign practice and a need for “symbolic inoculation against the temptation of an elsewhere” (185).  The third part discusses “nationalization” as “a more generalized form of tropicalization, indeed that of the ‘empire writes back’ variety” which “resembles anti-imperialist political practice most effectively” (21).  Here Aravamudan explores, for example, the complicated agency of an Olaudah Equiano who, as an African slave, learns to write back in his master’s language.  Aravamudan claims that his reading is different from Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s, which, in his opinion, “pays the price of reiterating the evolutionary narrative so dear to early abolitionists, that of humanizing the African” (270).  Aravamudan shifts his attention to Equiano’s “self-consciousness around scenes of reading” (271), which leads to a broadening of the discussion to “the book as colonial fetish” (271) and the consequences of print capitalism. 

This inquiry into “the paradox of finding agency in the dead matter of books” (282) extends beyond an analysis of eighteenth-century writing.  Tropicopolitans investigates the paradoxes of “Eng. Lit.” (273), whose nationalizing tendencies excluded non-British texts before the explosion of postcolonial studies in the nineties.  Aravamudan urges a critical reading of the eventual inclusion of these texts into mainstream “Eng. Lit.,” or other national canons, for that matter: “A postcolonial eighteenth century becomes disciplinarily relevant and critically meaningful if we shift our focus from texts to the reading formations through which those texts are perceived and institutionalized” (329).  At this point, the author’s observations about the development of print capitalism in the eighteenth century come full circle as he reflects on its global version in the early twenty-first century.  Aravamudan argues that “literary studies cannot stop with the teaching that the world is textualized” (269), but instead should “dislodge texts from familiar reading formations” (330).  Taking into account questions of metaliteracy and deploying a Brechtian sense of Verfremdung when teaching and writing about (eighteenth-century) texts can ensure that “scholarship contends with its social mission alongside its professional self-justification” (330).  Aravamudan’s “disciplinary activism” (330) consists in his exhortation to “act locally along with the injunction to think globally, conduct eccentric readings as well as mount bureaucratic arguments that inscribe the margin into the center” (330).  And here, of course, Aravamudan voices a reality which is all too familiar to his readers teaching and publishing in the twenty-first-century academic system.

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