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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 4 (1997)

Colonialism s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government, by Nicholas Thomas. Cambridge: Princeton University Press, 1994. xi, 238 pp.

 

Reviewed by Gregory Eliyu Guldin, Pacific Lutheran University.

Colonialism and colonial ways of thinking persist stubbornly in our late twentieth century world. Thomas book is a good antidote to all the au courant talk of postcolonialism, when he reminds us that neocolonial domination in international and interethnic relations is undeniable and ranges in scope from nasty jokes and pervasive inequalities...[to] frequent military assaults against Third World states to enforce First World Domination. The focus then is on understanding colonialism in our neocolonial world.

The argument is based on the assumption that colonialism is not best understood primarily as a political or economic relationship. Instead, it should also, equally importantly and deeply be seen as a cultural process. Colonial cultures are not simply ideologies that mask, mystify, or rationalize forms of oppression...they are also expressive and constitutive of colonial relations in themselves. Here Thomas is at one with the postmodern emphasis on discourse and meaning. More importantly, however, his blending of the economic, political, and discursive is a good holistic approach to the phenomenon. Colonial culture thus includes not only official reports and texts related directly to the process of governing colonies and extracting wealth, but also a variety of travelers accounts, representations produced by other colonial actors such as missionaries and collectors of ethnographic specimens, and fictional, artistic, photographic, cinematic and decorative appropriations (16).

Thomas stance amidst all the debate about colonial discourse, the Other, and Orientalism is that too often colonialisms are discussed as if they were universal totalities, that one pattern fits all. Not true, says Thomas, only localized theories and historically specific accounts can provide much insight into the varied articulations of colonizing and counter-colonial representations and practices. Most writing on colonialism he critiques for confusing Asian, African, and Amerindian; modern and premodern; metropolitan, settler, indigenous, and diasporic subjects; and assimilationist and segregationist colonizing projects. By doing so, he claims to be extending the work of Edward Said, Johannes Fabian, and Bernard Smith.

Not that there s also room to find fault with these predecessors. In criticizing Said, Thomas points out that not all accounts of colonialized cultures are negative; they can be sympathetic or idealized. Furthermore, while Orientalism may well characterize Euro-American views of Arabs in the twentieth century, it is not so true of the ninetieth century, nor of areas further afield such as East Asia and the Pacific. Similarly Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Abdul Jan Mohamed are all excoriated in turn for being colonial discourse universalists. Now Thomas interest in located subjectivities draws inspiration from Pierre Bourdieu, Colonialisms, not colonialism.

This somewhat Boasian emphasis on localizing and historicizing is meant to ward off the demons of essentialism, spirits which have possessed much of the colonialist discourse in anthropology, history, and literary studies of late. Although implicated in the earlier construction of racist cultural hierarchies, anthropology is saved by its ethnographic emphasis on the here and now, whereas travel receives a good dose of damnation as part and parcel of a process of domination and transformation. Foucault is invoked here as well to help us centrally situate government and power inequalities in our understanding of language, knowledge, and narrative. Thomas also auto-localizes by placing himself and his work in the Australian-Pacific relationship and its particular dimension of cultural politics and colonialism.

Thomas attempts to avoid going to the other extreme and does not call for detailed colonial histories. He shows the balance he is after in a number of case studies, all drawn from the British Empire, to illustrate the value of a historicized, ethnographic approach. His discussion of colonial projects and discourses from the late ninetieth century through the twentieth is meant to show varying colonizing projects with different models of settlement, and with differential rates of successful colonial representation and presentation.

Towards the book s end, Thomas attempts to domesticate our understanding of colonialism s culture by finding it among us First Worlders at the present time. Dances with Wolves, the movie, is analyzed for its projection of contemporary colonialist views of indigenous peoples. This critique of representations of primitivism in Australia and North America is needed and useful.

Overall, Colonialism s Culture is somewhat dense to read, what with Babha, Foucault and some other intellectual heavyweights. But the book was accessible to nearly half the undergraduates in my class on The Development of Underdevelopment, so I trust the readers of this journal will accomplish no less! Thomas has some important things to say about contemporary international and interethnic relations and by the time one reaches the concluding chapter on the Post-Colonial, the author has succeeded in convincing the reader of the need to conceive of the multiplicities of colonialism.