December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X

Ian 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 Thatcher’s 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 Bombay’s 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 James’s 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 Williams’s 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 Blair’s 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.

Martin Conboy,
Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College

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