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Imperial Infrastructure and Spatial Resistance in Colonial Literature, 1880–1930


Dominic Davies

Between 1880 and 1930, the British Empire’s vast infrastructural developments facilitated the incorporation of large parts of the globe into not only its imperial rule, but also the capitalist world-system. Throughout this period, colonial literary fiction, in recording this vast expansion, repeatedly cited these imperial infrastructures to make sense of the various colonial landscapes in which they were set. Physical embodiments of empire proliferate in this writing. Railways and trains, telegraph wires and telegrams, roads and bridges, steamships and shipping lines, canals and other forms of irrigation, cantonments, the colonial bungalow, and other kinds of colonial urban infrastructure – all of these infrastructural lines broke up the landscape and gave shape to the literary depiction and production of colonial space.

By developing a methodology called «infrastructural reading», the author shows how a focus on the infrastructural networks that circulate through colonial fiction are almost always related to some form of anti-imperial resistance that manifests spatially within their literary, narrative and formal elements. This subversive reading strategy – which is applied in turn to writers as varied as H. Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner and John Buchan in South Africa, and Flora Annie Steel, E.M. Forster and Edward Thompson in India – demonstrates that these mostly pro-imperial writings can reveal an array of ideological anxieties, limitations and silences as well as more direct objections to and acts of violent defiance against imperial control and capitalist accumulation.

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Conclusion: Towards an Infrastructural Reading of the Present


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Towards an Infrastructural Reading of the Present

Colonial literature repeatedly uses infrastructural developments as symbolic objects in its attempt to resolve contradictions emerging in and across four key strands of imperial ideology: humanitarianism, segregation, frontiers and nationalism. Infrastructure developed unevenly in different colonial situations and, funded by private investors whose speculations were secured by the imperial state, spatially fixed a moment of crisis in the world-system’s accumulative processes. Correspondingly, colonial literature represented these physical embodiments of imperialism in order to achieve a cultural fix, smoothing over some of the central ideological tensions and contradictions of the period. Nevertheless, when critical attention is paid to this representation of infrastructure, these contradictions remain detectable at the level of textual form, thematic and symbolic tropes, and genre. By building on and fuelling imperial infrastructural development, colonial literature can be seen as complicit in the production of an unevenly and unequally developed landscape that has continued to scar the material and imagined geographies of now formally decolonised states, and that continue to shape the twenty-first-century’s post-imperial world.

For Georges Labica, ‘contemporary globalisation is nothing other than Lenin’s “new imperialism”, now reaching a still higher stage of development’ (2007: 228). Wallerstein similarly views the recent ‘protectionist thrust’ of governments across the world, manifested in various forms of ‘austerity’ and ‘repression’, as symptoms of ‘an ever-tighter gridlock of the system’ (2013: 32). As I have be arguing, there are clearly continuities between the historical moment of...

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