Shankar Raman. Framing 'India': the Colonial Imaginary in Early Modern Culture.
The Americas have always dominated both literary and scholarly colonialist agendas. Among recent studies one thinks particularly of Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters (1987), Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions (1991), and Jeffrey Knapp's An Empire Nowhere (1992). For this reason alone, the present broadly theoretical yet rigorously argued investigation of the European discovery of "India" (a purely subjective concept and hence almost always in quotation marks) provides a flesh perspective on the way we in the West have come to think about ourselves and the world. Drawing on a multiplicity of ideological provenances and historical documents,
Raman argues that the early modern "discovery" of India contributed definitively to the formation of a "radical" and self-assertive "early modern subjecthood" (129). The result is a book sometimes exasperating, often stimulating, and almost never dull. Raman develops his thesis by closely interrogating two "canonical" and two "non-canonical" literary texts along with several late-medieval and early modern cartographical representations. These are richly contextualized with historical, theological, and philosophical discourses of the time, considered from a familiar variety of postmodern theoretical perspectives. Deploying Hans Blumenberg's "metaphorology," as inflected by new historicism and the Bourdieuvian theory of "practice," the author organizes his discussion around four "absolute metaphors"--voyage, cosmos, theater, and market--said to "mediat[e] conceptual understanding of the world" in this period (22). Together, these constitute the Lacanian "imaginary" of the book's subtitle. While these tropes are not equally persuasive in organizing the discussion--by the end of the book "market," for example, has come to signify the virtually total commodification of subject/object relations in western modernity--Raman clings valiantly to them as a skeleton on which to drape the densely varied material he invokes.
The first pair of metaphors underwrites the opening section of the book, in which Raman uses Camoens' Os Lusiadas to argue that early modern voyages of discovery destabilize the cosmos of ancient epic, achieving an aporia whose epistemological bases are underscored by early modern cartography's proto-Cartesian objectification of space. In the second section, the other absolute metaphors mediate respectively the production of colonialism itself as "an object of knowledge" (185) with the audience as its subject in John Fletcher's Island Princess (1621) and the equivocal confirmation-by-denial of the culture of commercial exchange in Dryden's Amboyna (1673). In the final section, a shrewd analysis of psychoanalytic criticism of A Midsummer Night's Dream demonstrates contemporary continuity with the historical emergence of the Oedipus complex as a "paradigm ... of [that] colonial and patriarchal domination" whereby "'India' is simultaneously constituted and effaced as object" (24).
As this quotation implies, "India" is Raman's ubiquitous-if-ever-elusive signifier. Throughout the book, India is conceived as "a symbolic site upon which to negotiate" the conflicting "impulses and energies" of Renaissance Europe (83). In Os Lusiadas it signifies the boundary whose obligatory transgression in a Hobbesian economy of desire propels the voyagers beyond the cosmetic enclosures of classical epic. The rationalization of cartography, on the other hand, drains "India" of its strangeness, so that it "enters the domain of knowledge" and is "produced as a colonialist space" (151). In the English theater it is staged by Fletcher as a "consumable object" and erased by Dryden as a "naturalized" market to be contested by European traders. Finally, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, having been redefined matriarchally by Titania and Hippolyta, "India" is suppressed in favor of a market-bound exchange whose figure is the "changeling" Indian boy transferred from Titania to Oberon.
This is heady stuff. But despite its ponderous poststructuralist rhetoric and over-elaboration of seemingly peripheral material--always the fatal Cleopatra of new-historical studies--Framing "India" serves up a rich intellectual concoction whose exotic savors always arise from a substantial discursive stew. If some of Raman's readings are pushed farther than his evidence seems to allow--I found the argument about Dryden's commercialization of patronage especially unpersuasive--the book makes a plausible case that Renaissance colonial texts representing the East encode the emergence of a modern "subjecthood." And the chapter on A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its metacritical thesis of an intrinsic relationship among colonialist subjectivity, Enlightenment rational progressivism, and psychoanalysis, constitutes a brilliant take on the Shakespeare industry's investment in the postcolonial "imaginary."
University of Houston
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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