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Monday, May 6, 2013

Mask of Conquest Literary Study and Business Rule in India

Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Studies and British Rule in India (Columbia UP, 1989), 206 pp., $32.50 cloth.

As cultural critics have long informed us, English literary studies as initiated as a civilizing agent at colleges and mechanic institutes for the British working class. (1) Gauri Viswanathan introduces a colonial frame to their criticism and, in doing so, transforms our picture of the discipline. Masks of Conquest: Literary Studies and British Rule in India builds a convincing case for considering the implication of Indian educational reform in the disciplinary formation of English. "This book sets out to demonstrate in part that the discipline of English came into its own in an age of colonialism, as well as to argue that no serious account of its growth and development can afford to ignore the imperial mission of educating and civilizing colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England" (2). Viswanathan initiates her educational history with the 1813 renewal of the East India Company's charter--an event accompanied by the opening of India to free trade, a loosening of control on missionary activity, and the English parliament assuming a moral responsibility over the government of India. These competing interests set the stage for her history of the disciplinary beginnings of English. Tracing how the literary curriculum was shaped by antagonistic relations between the East India Company and English parliament, Orientalists and Anglicists, missionaries and Utilitarians, Company officials and the Indian elite, Viswanathan is careful to avoid explaining the various interest groups as smooth-running cogs within a colonial machinery. Rather, she argues that English literature emerged as a cultural dominant less from a British position of strength and consensus than one of vulnerability and dissent.

What is impressive about this book is the fluidity with which its chapters move between the colonial civilizing project in India and an imperial discourse in Britain. Viswanathan describes the development of English studies as "a complex, heterogeneous formation" (7) in which its imperial mission overseas intersects with but is not reducible to its social mission at home. "Suggesting that the educational histories of England and India constitute a common history invariably communicates the erroneous impression that the function of education remains constant regardless of context" (6). By painstakingly detailing the different curriculum used at each type of school, Viswanathan reveals that Literature (as we know it) was not always a unified body of knowledge. For most of the nineteenth century, classical studies dominated a humanist education at the elite English colleges attended by members of the ruling class. English was instituted at Oxford in 1893 and at Cambridge as late as 1917. The literary curriculum at working-class schools consisted largely of religious works, the primary objective of which was to inculcate moral values and self-discipline. Since Christianizing activities were restricted in India, the use of religious texts for educational purposes was discouraged there. The Company policy of religious neutrality was the source of constant battles between civil servants and missionaries. However, the latter group soon discovered that Christian values could be imparted through literary works that were replete with biblical allusions. The threat of native insubordination coupled with pressure from the missionaries resulted in an eventual move toward a more religiously oriented literary curriculum at government colleges as well. Hence, English literature was perceived as a means of exerting a moral influence over Indians much in the same way that a religious pedagogy was aimed at disciplining the English working class.

Just when English studies was gaining prominence in Britain, a classical approach to literature was revived in India. Viswanathan explains this shift as a response to the rise of a mass reading public that threatened the integrity of English culture. India was transformed into "a time capsule" (116) for a pure English language and literature at the moment of its disappearance in the home country. While in England literary pedagogy was split between an emphasis on classical studies for the upper classes and religious doctrine for the lower, in India, English literature served as a universal standard by which to measure both civilization and morality. In this manner, an English education was the sign of class privilege among Indians just as an intimate knowledge of Greek and Latin identified members of the British ruling class.

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