Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity,
Princeton University Press (1999), x + 249 pp. $11.50 paper.
This book is a timely investigation of English identity, its loss and
reconstruction. Although located outside the discourse of politics and
social science, it has a profoundly political set of concerns. It takes
as its main theme the ways in which England became absorbed into its Empire
in a process constantly in flux between mastery and loss. Its topical
relevance hinges upon the implications for national identity which flowed
from Thatchers 1981 Nationality Act which, Baucom persuasively argues
in his scene-setting opening chapter, attempted to replace the complex
narratives of a ius soli by a racialised notion of national identity.
The consequences of that racialisation still pervade contemporary discussions
of English identity.
He takes the reader on a tour of the lieux de mémoire
of the British Empire which he presents as a pattern of auratic sites
where Englishness was constructed and dispersed. From specific sites such
as Bombays Gothic railway station, to their mapping in Imperial
guidebooks of the places of the Indian Mutiny, from Victorian authors
such as Kipling through to post-colonial contemporaries such as Salman
Rushdie. The methodology which draws widely and eruditely on poststructuralist
writing is ideally suited to a project which attempts to reclaim the spaces
and scripts of Empire and identity in ways which reject teleologies of
desire or nostalgia. Baucom weaves the critical discourse elegantly and
emphatically into his text, signalling ways in which critics such as Derrida,
Said, De Certeau and Foucault among many others can be employed for a
specific project of political understanding.
The research which supports the book is impressive and not only for its
undoubted scholarship. It is also a strategic triumph. Whether he is supporting
his reading of CLR Jamess Beyond a Boundary by references
to the construction of WG Grace as British imperial hero in Victorian
popular magazines or illustrating his account of fictionalised India under
the Raj by contrasting literary with epistolary accounts, he is at all
times effectively illustrating the complexity of the patterns by which
memory and knowledge of the places of empire were created and transmitted.
He is also bold enough to include a writer such as VS Naipul as a warning
to those who might seek to take comfort in certain post-colonial liberal
orthodoxies. It is, Baucom claims, because Naipul deals with the attractions
of colonial nostalgia and indicates how they have an undoubted emotional
resonance, that he is, firstly, challenging and, secondly, persuasive.
In extending Raymond Williamss observations concerning the complexities
and instabilities of hegemony and giving them a post-colonial gloss he
is able to indicate the mechanisms by which Englishness is, through all
his examples, forced to renegotiate with itself and its narratives of
connection to the outside world in order to explore the continuities and
discontinuities between its definitions of itself as they relate to an
overseas Empire and its histories in spatial terms. Attempts to provide
a stabilizing factor such as race, in the wake of the 1981 Nationality
Act, to the contradictory relationship of Englishness to Empire are fraught
with a simplifying but dangerous appeal.
At a time when Britain is seeking to rebrand itself on the crest of Blairs
project of Cool Britannia, this book implies that we must continue to
approach Britain through the complexities of its English dominant and
its relationship to its imperial spaces as sites where identity is clustered
and dispersed even as we enter a new millennium.
Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College