Thursday, November 5, 2009

Colonial Logic: Moving Beyond the Binary

Catherine Hall’s Civilizing Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2002, seeks both to develop a specific historical investigation into a particular time and place but also to expand the state of theory and the discourse on colonialism in general. The project grew out of her own relationships, between herself and England, as well as her relationship with her parents. Her parents were both Baptists and were both engaged in the political debates of their own time. Hall threw off the yoke of her religious past but writes that she took on the political aspects of her parents thinking. While in Jamaica in 1988 she happened upon a town named Kettering, the same name as the town she had grown up in. The town had a large Baptist chapel, the same denomination as her parents had been. Civilizing Subjects thrives to understand the missionary movement in Jamaica and this particular group of colonizers. Hall aims to find out what provincial men and women knew of the empire and how they knew it and thereby seeks to more thoroughly develop our epistemology understanding of colonial logic. Her work uniquely does so by utilizing her own family history. She furthermore challenges the structures too commonly and easily used about the colonial period. She seeks to meld her families experience in the development of a cross Atlantic relationships with an aim to understanding a deeper human logic at play.

Hall mobilizes plenty of source material to develop her undertaking. She uses correspondences, newspapers, books, public records, speeches et cetera. Architecture is interestingly examined as she intellectually razes the very church of her familial lineage. She examines each of these sources throughout her text, helping the reader understand how many different sources are bound together with her argument, inviting the reader to re-examine how she interpreted her sources.

Hall doesn’t start from a single theory about the nature of colonialism, she starts with an arsenal of theories, each of which she deploys to its own purpose. Firstly, she insists on the imperative of placing colony and Metropole in one analytic frame from which she is then obligated to see both England and Jamaica as part of one story, tied together through the actions of agents in both places. Within this framework she asserts that binaries of savagery verses civilization were set up as cultural productions to keep the two, the pole and the periphery, apart from one another. She concludes of this stratagem that theorist of colonialism need to disrupt this binary and to produce more elaborate, cross-cutting ways of thinking about the processes of colonial exploitation. She further approaches the subject matter from a feminist perspective throughout the book in multiple ways.

The book asks as many questions as it gives answers. Hall aimed at such a large target in this work, it manages to intricately tie these questions together in a way which works for the reader. Furthermore this intellectual contribution enhances the ongoing debates on colonialism.


T said...


Well written review.
What do you make of Simon Gikandi's criticism of Civilising Subjects?:
“A history of the wars of representation in Jamaica, as elsewhere in the colonial world, will remain incomplete until we make the accounts of these subjects, the ones confined to the margins as it were, constitutive of it.”

T said...

For an understanding of Gikandi's Postcolonial approach see this recent talk: