Cultural Geographies of the Colonial Southern Hemisphere: Thoughts and Reflections

Cultural Geographies of the Colonial Southern Hemisphere: Thoughts and Reflections

by Dr. Fariha Shaikh 

The ‘Cultural Geographies of the Colonial Southern Hemisphere’ conference was a stimulating two days of rigorous discussion: the carefully curated programme meant that papers spoke both to each other and across panels, allowing us to explore productively the analytical and methodological overlaps, connections and contentions between them. Forgoing the traditional opening plenary speech, the conference opened instead with two panels on methodologies: What are the frameworks and analytical tools with which we begin to explore the idea of the Global South? The rich selection of six papers across these two panels opened up an on-going interrogation over the two days of how we use the concepts of location, scales and networks in our own work. While the ‘South’ can denote a particular geographical location, this location is also unfixed and unstable: as Nikki Hessell suggested in the discussions, rather than thinking about the binary of ‘centre-periphery’ as a stable signifier of relations, it might be more useful to think of them as mobile concepts.

The term presupposes the reference of a culturally and economically dominant ‘North’, but this reference point shifts depending on one’s position within a global network. James Mulholland’s paper on the outpost culture in eighteenth-century Bay of Bengal demonstrated the ways in which places generate their own regional cultures, which are distinct from, albeit connected to and re-routed through the metropolitan centre. Mulholland’s call to focus on regional cultures is a welcome move towards thinking closely about the accrual of cultural formations in the peripheral places of empire. These regional centres, however, are critical nodal points within the larger network of imperialism. Networks of empire can be scaled up or down: as Alan Lester reminded us, scales are socially constructed, and thus they have an imaginary and power. Peter Otto’s paper exemplified the ways in which different temporal and spatial scales can be used to understand the ‘globe’ and the ‘world’. Networks of empire are also layered: in addition to exploring the lateral connections between places in the South, we also need to be attentive to ways in which different empires, such as the British and the French for example, worked together in collusion to consolidate their hold over their colonies.

As the SouthHem database of book catalogues in the southern hemisphere show, the British empire was also dependent on interconnected networks of literary production and consumption. Lara Atkin’s and Sarah Comyn’s papers drew upon these moments in South Africa and Australia respectively, arguing for the importance of the periodical press in forming settler communities, and in the production of literary taste in them. Manu Samriti Chander’s paper on racial theory and taste formation, Nikki Hessell’s paper on Maori appropriations of Macaulay’s works, and Jason Rudy’s paper on the politics of genre recognition posed the question of how literary studies of nineteenth-century settler culture address colour, indigeneity and voice within the research questions they frame. How can Anglophone studies of settler literary culture explore the production, circulation and consumption of texts within the period, without reproducing their silences and occlusions? How can we set up research questions from the very beginning so that they incorporate indigenous modes of knowledge and ways of thinking? To what extent is this always viable, and when it isn’t, how do we address this? Jane Stafford’s paper on colonial scrapbooks and albums raised methodological question of reading the bricolage of such texts. In this regard, Andrew van der Vlies’s paper examined how genre structures affect and affectation in colonial texts (in particular, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm). He bought in Benita Parry’s idea of the ‘limit text’ of colonial discourse: texts that share the language of colonial discourse, while disputing its authority.

An aspect that could have been explored in further depth was the elision between ‘settlerism’ and the ‘South’: at times, these were used interchangeably at the roundtable discussion. We needed to unpack the historical and critical conditions which leads to this elision: why did this elision occur, is it possible to extricate one from each other, under what conditions, and what do we lose/gain by doing so? Not all colonies were settler colonies in the way that Australia and New Zealand were, for example: what is particularly distinctive about settlerism in the South? How is this elision informed by labour and material conditions?

The rich array of papers over the two days demonstrated the range and depth of work that is currently being undertaken at the cusps of Romantic literary studies and postcolonial theory. The number of new books – both recently out and forthcoming – that were celebrated at the conference stands as testimony to this. A quick snapshot of the works are: Jason Rudy’s Imagined Homelands (2017), Manu Samriti Chander’s Brown Romantics (2017), Jane Stafford’s Colonial Literature and the Native Author (2016), Nikki Hessell’s Romantic Literature and the Colonised World: Lessons from Indigenous Translations (forthcoming) and Sarah Comyn’s Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of ‘Homo Economicus’ (forthcoming). Perhaps because there is so much being done in this area, the discussion naturally led to how the field will develop and shape in future years. Elleke Boehmer provided a robust defence of postcolonial theory, pointing out the range of its theoretical terms that were in play in our discussion session. How do we situate postcolonial theory alongside world systems theory: is the latter being subsumed into the former, are they mutually exclusive, or are they allowing us to undertake two different types of analysis?


Dr. Fariha Shaikh joined the University of Birmingham in September 2017 as a Lecturer in Victorian Literature. Previous to this, she was an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin. She is currently completing her first monograph, Textual Cultures of Settler Emigration in  Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art (Edinburgh, forthcoming 2018). She is interested in the intersections between the global circulations of people and texts across the nineteenth-century British Empire.

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