There tends to be a gap between how imperialism and postcolonialism are taught and studied in history and literature departments. Courses in the latter concentrate on representations of empire and their contestation in literary and other cultural artefacts, while those in the former have an event-based bias, focusing on political and economic processes.
Barbara Bush bridges the gap between the two disciplines in her excellent book. She stresses that imperial and postcolonial studies require interdisciplinary methodologies, in which new approaches to imperial history need to build on existing conventional studies within a postcolonial theoretical framework. This is exemplified in her study, which deals with imperialism as a historical process of political and economic domination, while analysing how empire, modulated by categories of ethnicity and gender, was represented in a variety of media and cultural artefacts in both "high" and popular culture, ranging from visual art and literary and ethnographic texts to advertising and popular colonial exhibitions.
Bush takes a productively comparative approach, looking at empires diachronically as well as synchronically. She outlines the constellation of political, economic and cultural domination in ancient empires, especially the Roman Empire, and in modern European imperialisms, while also touching on non-European imperialisms before 1800. This allows her to consider the commonalities and divergences between empires over time, and whether modern European imperialism was different in kind from pre-modern empires.
She is careful not to homogenise modern imperialism, paying attention to how, for example, the British Empire included different kinds of colonies, and considering similarities as well as differences between modern European empires. More crucially, while examining contradictions within modern European/Western imperialism, she shows how that imperialism continues to shape our world today.
Rather than explicitly outlining her own position, Bush explores the complex problems of imperialism by introducing students to the critical arguments on both sides of debates on crucial issues. Her useful bibliographical essay reinforces this exploratory style. Her succinct study complements rather than clashes with Robert Young's powerfully positional Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2001).
Bush's historical comparativism will also usefully complement the two compilations of postcolonial theory edited by Bill Ashcroft et al (1998), and Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (1993). This book's combination of comparativism with case studies, framed by an interdisciplinary approach, will make it essential introductory reading for undergraduates and postgraduates in history and literature for some time to come.
Javed Majeed is senior lecturer, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London.
Imperialism and Postcolonialism. First Edition
Author - Barbara Bush
Publisher - Pearson Longman
Pages - 304
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 582 50583 6