Race at a standstill

Colonial Desire
September 1, 1995

At the end of White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (1990), his influential study of post-colonial theory, Robert Young promised the reader a pioneering account of English racism and its relationship to colonialism. In a trail-blazing formula, he argued that, as this oppressive history still "lives on", the "new logics of historical writing" must now directly address these events. There is, however, something rather arrogant about this assertion. It is as if only the "new logics" of "colonial discourse analysis" can do justice to a subject which has already been articulated for decades and, far from being unwritten, is an important aspect of the history of decolonisation.

In Colonial Desire, which follows White Mythologies, Young thankfully takes himself rather less seriously. At one point, he ironically refers to the well-known troika of post-colonial theorists- Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak- as a "Holy Trinity". In this more mature work, Young has a decidedly equivocal relationship to his avowed "new logics" which, it seems, are now in grave danger of becoming something of an old orthodoxy.

It is both a book about hybridity and a hybrid book. On the one hand, it is a rather traditional history of ideas with close readings of Victorian racial dogmatics and nuanced reconstructions of the pro-slavery American Confederate lobby in London. Interspersed with these specific accounts is a good deal of reference to more recent theorists - Bakhtin as well as Bhabha, Deleuze and Guattari as well as Said - who are given weight equal to that of their 19th-century counterparts.

At his best, such as his excellent chapter on Matthew Arnold, Young is able to show the extent to which a spuriously scientific race-thinking can be said to have saturated Victorian notions of culture. Young persuasively gives the lie to the notion that the issue of "race" is unrelated to mainstream ideas of a supposedly civilising "English culture". On the contrary, he demonstrates conclusively that Englishness has always been the cultural foundation stone of a commonplace race-thinking in Britain.

Young's most significant contribution to this area is his innovative contention that Englishness, far from being rigidly homogenous, is historically "divided within itself" and was something that "other people possess". Race theorists, such as Robert Knox, John Beddoe and Havelock Ellis, all assiduously categorised the so-called indigenous inhabitants of Britain in terms of their distinct physiques. This perceived hybridity resulted in a fundamental anxiety about the definition of who was and was not "English". The link here with Arnold's analysis of the "racial component of English literature" is particularly telling. For Arnold, English culture is interestingly understood as, above all, multicultural in origin.

What connects the concept of "colonial desire" to the issue of hybridity is, Young argues, the question of sexuality. At the heart of the colonial enterprise, he believes, was an ambivalence which wanted to possess "the natives" as well as dismiss them as biologically inferior. The Victorian terror of degeneration, he maintains, was often the result of a fear that the "Aryan races" were driven to "mix their blood" with the very peoples that will eventually cause their ruin. This "discursive desire" - or "illicit, inter-racial sex" - is what brings together the disparate elements in the Victorian fascination with the "steamy model" of colonial intermixing.

Where the book is less convincing is in its failure to historicise these Victorian racial doctrines. Young lavishes much energy in distinguishing, minutely, between various contemporary delineations of hybridity. He concludes that there is "no single or correct concept of hybridity" because it "changes as it repeats but also repeats as it changes". What we are not told is exactly which construction of hybridity had the greater social and political impact. The distinctions between free-floating theorists may well be worth making, but this often reads like a solipsistic exercise. To be fair, Gobineau's pernicious opinions are shown to have had an impact on the southern states of America. And yet, this radically different context only underlines the lack of a determining social dimension in this study.

There is an unmistakable flattening of history throughout the book. Every Victorian tenet, however dogmatic, is "ambivalent", "uncertain" and "anxious" and every theorist ends up speaking with a "forked tongue". To some extent, Young is acutely aware of how post-colonial orthodoxies, which he has so ably explicated, are by now somewhat exhausted terms which, more often than not, omit the events that they are meant to be reproducing. At times, Young properly qualifies his own analysis - "we have stopped asking questions about the limits and boundaries of our own assumptions" - and he is right to implicate himself in these strictures.

Part of the problem for Young is his reductive construction of "race", which is contextualised almost entirely in relation to colonialism in Britain, and slavery in America. At one point, he refers to "positive" representations of Jews in Victorian Britain- about the only racial category in the volume that is unambivalent- as if Benjamin Disraeli can be taken at his own word on such matters. A book on 19th-century English racism that effectively ignores Disraeli is, to say the least, historically perverse. By marginalising the issue of anti-semitism, not to mention other non-colonial forms of racism, Young says a good deal about our present concerns but much less about the past.

Only in retrospect can notions of hybridity be understood exclusively in relation to the opposition between "black" and "white" or, even, "East" and "West". These distinctions might well be the dominant antitheses in current post-colonial discourse but, by themselves, they bear little relationship to the historical canvas which Young purports to explore. In a vain bid to rethink his subject, Deleuze and Guattari are eventually evoked to discuss, somewhat banally, the means by which "land and bodies are brought under colonial control". Even in its own terms, a book on "colonial desire" that finishes by reminding its readers that "colonialism above all involves the physical appropriation of land" must, surely, question the priorities of its increasingly moribund vocabulary.

Bryan Cheyette is a lecturer in English, Queen Mary & Westfield College, London.

Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race

Author - Robert J. C. Young
ISBN - 0 415 05373 0 and 05374 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 236

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