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Imperial leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest.

(New York and London: Routledge 1995).

MANY HISTORIANS will be interested in reading Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest for its cutting-edge methodology and analysis as much as for its subject matter. For one thing, as its title indicates, it is a work of postcolonial studies, a field which has recently encouraged many historians to situate their topics in a broader, more international context. In her acknowledgements, author Anne McClintock lists some leading lights of this field including Homi Bhabha and Edward Said. She wryly admits to the faddishness of postcolonial studies, noting it was known as Commonwealth Studies until some knowing academic thought to update its image and partake in "the dazzling marketing success of the term postmodernism." (392)

Equally influential is the related rubric under which publisher Routledge has classified the book: cultural studies. Like cultural historians Dominic La Capra and Catherine Hall, whom she also acknowledges, McClintock explores the question of how meaning -- political, economic, and social -- is produced in the realm of culture. She also shares with historians in this field her critical questioning of her sources. She treats them as discourses, refusing to believe they are transparent carriers of reality. As a professor of English, McClintock's particular focus is on literature, although graphic records figure prominently here too and are analyzed with subtlety and aplomb.

The author asks, as many other post-colonial and cultural studies writers do, how social structures of race, gender and class supported or undermined one another, reproduced or subverted existing political and economic arrangements, and were voiced or resisted by social forces in 19th and 20th-century Britain and Africa. To answer this important question, McClintock delves into the rich terrain of interdisciplinarity. This explains chapters with titles "Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising" or "Psychoanalysis, Race and Female Fetishism." Indeed, she indulges in a kind of intellectual imperialism of her own, mining the different disciplines for their most valuable insights or techniques, crossing boundaries (between psychology, literary criticism, and art history to name a few) as it suits her interest, and exhibiting what she feels is their most precious treasures.

Like any imperial endeavour, Imperial Leather organizes its subjects by geography. "Part 1: Empire of the Home" explores cultural aspects of British colonialism in the mother country. The important first chapter analyses imperialism in terms of its discursive work of bringing intellectual order to unknown territory. Maps and photographs are given as examples of representational "technologies" which, by depicting colonized peoples and places in specific ways, crossed the line from portrayal to intellectual possession and control. For McClintock, a key change in this knowledge/power process was signalled by mid-19th century when the representational technologies began operating on an industrial scale. Colonialism then became "commodity racism" (33), a political and economic system turned popular spectacle, voraciously consumed at sites such as the 1851 Great Exhibition, and in magazines and wall-poster advertisements.

McClintock carefully considers the role of women and gender in this new commodity-racism system. Indeed, in her analysis, imperialism involved hierarchies of gender as much as of race. On the one hand, the domestic realm most British women inhabited became saturated with representations of imperialism such as consumer products like Colman's Mustard, found "All over the World." On the other hand, the British patriarchal family ideal was used as a model for the public colonizer-colonized relationship, with the result that the latter hierarchical power system ruled by men was deemed to be "as natural" as the former. She finds evidence for this in popular imagery such as cartoons.

If McClintock's first chapter on imperialism at home complicates her own analytical divisions between home/abroad and private/public, seeing links rather than divisions, the next three chapters of Part 1 question the traditional split between materialist history and psychology. These chapters explore two psychoanalytic concepts introduced earlier in the book. One is abjection, an idea McClintock attributes to Julia Kristeva and which is gaining currency in cultural studies. As McClintock describes it, the abject is that element which constitutes part of a social structure, but which for political reasons is repressed to the point that the resulting structure seems to exist without it. An example she uses is of the British middle class concealing yet depending upon female domestic labour. As her reading of cleaning product advertisements and other records shows, maids for one were kept clean or unseen. They, like the working class more generally, tended to be portrayed as racially less developed. As this cultural act highlighted, they shared with colonized peoples the structural position of being economically essential but politically and socially marginalized.

The second psychoanalytic concept McClintock examines is fetishism, the process whereby people and societies transferred anxieties over social contradictions onto objects which then possessed intense emotional allure. She uses the idea of female fetishism to explain the 19th-century love relationship between barrister Arthur Munby and maid Hannah Cullwick. Their shared dirt fetish was a sign of a broadly-felt anxiety: how to cope with the paradoxical situation of working class women who helped run the middle-class man's world, but who were trivialized by it. As McClintock points out, psychoanalysis can enrich key Marxist concepts of labour alienation and commodity fetishism by teasing out some of their complicated cultural manifestations.

Parts 2 and 3 of Imperial Leather form the second half of this 449-page book. They are dedicated to the colonial space of Britain and Africa combined, and to South Africa alone. The three chapters of Part 2 concern pro-empire soap advertisements; the British novel set in South Africa entitled King Solomon's Mines (1995); and the works of white South African writer Olive Schreiner (1855-1920). Each of the three chapters in "Part 3: Dismantling the Master's House" address problems of black resistance to white domination in South Africa through cultural activity in the 20th century. They discuss the biography of the woman known as "Poppie Nongena," the Soweto poets, and black versus white nationalist politics. This is a great range of topics, times and places. Some are explored in more depth than others -- the discussion of the failure of the ANC to address feminism is frustratingly brief -- and together they do not form a satisfying whole. Tying them together, though, is McClintock's steady effort to uncover the less obvious dimensions of sex and class domination in explicitly racist colonial culture. Particularly impressive is her sensitive discussion of how a person aiming to improve the lot of one group could tragically fail to overcome her/his participation in the oppression of other groups. It is in this light, for instance, that the author assesses Schreiner's inability to go beyond portraying black women as objects, even though she was otherwise a fine feminist writer.

This balanced evaluation of Schreiner's views is typical of McClintock's approach to ideas and institutions she thinks are valuable. This prevents the book itself from participating in empire-building. She is equally critical of the contemporary historiography she admires, whether feminist, postcolonialist, or Marxist. As she amply demonstrates, understanding the full impact of imperialism -- its abjected groups, fetishes, and other cultural contradictions -- would seem to require a more flexible historical analysis than these received disciplines can provide individually. Indeed, McClintock continually reminds us that one of the major cultural acts of colonialism was producing self-serving historiography. Unless we look beyond the boundaries of our separate sub-fields, we risk repeating this fault. She warns against narrating the past as an exclusive story, and spurns the "consoling organizing perspective." (328) In McClintock's perspective, for both history-writing and colonialism, we must reclaim the labour producing the spectacle, and not be dazzled by the show itself.

Lorraine O'Donnell

McGill University
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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:1275
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