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Response to Review no. 790

Philip Stern’s discussion of my book does everything an author can hope for in a review; it summarises the argument in a fluent and persuasive way, critically considers its broader implications, and offers a stimulating set of thoughts about further directions such an analysis might go. It would be an injustice therefore not to respond to Dr Stern’s comments.

I’m particular grateful to Dr Stern for engaging with the varieties of ‘apostacy’ The Domination of Strangers intended to propagate. As Stern notes, the book challenges the centrality of language, discourse and culture as the dominant categories for the history of both India and empire. It also attempted to overcome the rather simplistic way discourse is mapped onto power in many accounts that emphasise both the strength and limits of colonial authority.

In the book, I argue that to explain the formation of the colonial state and colonial Indian society the historian needs to stick close to the ‘terra firma’ on which governmental practice and political interaction actually took place. An account that privileges ‘the act of governing itself’ has important implications for the way one treats the coherence of political ideas. As many historians note, colonial discourse was contradictory and ambivalent, caught up in any number of incoherent double binds. But there were circumstances – the process of state formation in Bengal being one – where the demand for coherent concepts and categories overrode the absence of real knowledge to produce new forms of governance that emphasized abstract categories, was constantly aware of their shallow basis in reality, and thus was carried out in a hubristic yet anxious mood. This account underpins a broader ‘image of the modern state and empire’, whose power – Stern notes – is ‘produced not out of an inexorable logic for expansion but indeed from its own endemic anxieties and insecurities’; in Stern’s evocative phrase, a state ‘that looks less like Big Brother, and more like a schoolyard bully’. The Domination of Strangers had rather less to say about power than perhaps on reflection it should; Stern captures some of the implications of my argument wonderfully.

Another area that might be developed was the visual dimension. Visual metaphors are important in the book, but these aesthetic dimensions to the project might be developed further. Colonial aesthetics, as Stern notes, was ‘not just a detached imitation of Indian society but even productive of new, but ultimately dangerously incomplete and flawed, ways of understanding itself’. Natasha Eaton has followed this line of thought, tracing the artistic idioms with which India was represented in relationship with the careers and artistic practices of those who produced them. As Stern suggest, the visual and textual orientation to India I discuss meant that, ‘[p]erhaps British rule in India is “earth” without “world”’: in other words, it became an object to be observed, comprehended, manipulated and exploited, rather participated within. The way earthly treasures from India – art, trinkets and perhaps above all weaponry – were brought back to Britain, collected and displayed seems have furthered that sense of distance, in displaying yet failing to assimilate Indian life into the world back ‘home’. Stern is right to remind us that colonial practice strangely haunted efforts by officers to fit back into flexible British patterns of sociability on their return, from Clive at Plassey in Country Clare to Curzon at Kedlestone and beyond.

The Domination of Strangers argues that the sense of difference British officers experienced in India was a consequence of colonial practice, not the intrinsic incompatibility of British and South Asian society. As Stern notes, I argue that ‘Hanoverian Britain and Mughal Bengal looked far from the alien political cultures we once imagined’. Stern quietly wonders ‘[w]hether Britain was slightly more ‘modern’ in the 18th century than Wilson suggests’, with discourses of political economy, probabilistic science, statistics, credit that assumed explained social interaction with general categories. Stern may be right. Certainly one place where differences in the way social relations were conducted between Britain and India was the East India Company, with its relatively regimented official hierarchy and systems of accounting. But, most instances of abstract statistical science from Britain used to emphasize difference can be countered with an Indian example. Recent work on Mughal calculation and accounting notes the existence of many potential quantitative challenges to an affective ‘moral economy’ for example. The point is not that statistical forms of knowledge existed, but to what use were they put. I’m not convinced that statistics offered a way for government to measure and intervene in (one might add, by doing so to constitute) society before the 1830s; nor that they provided a serious component for states to imagine themselves up until that point. As Frank Perlin’s work on early-modern India shows, numbers can work in many different ways, being tools of de-centralisation and pluralisation as much as centralised state formation.

Even if we (very slightly?) disagree on its ‘modernity’, Stern and I do share a sense of the discontinuity between the looser, networked structures of the 18th-century British state and later more centralised polities with their more tightly defined notions of empire. I’ve learnt from Philip Stern’s research about the existence of complex and overlapping sub-sovereignties within the ‘British’ state. His work also corroborates the emphasis in The Domination of Strangers on the inseparability of politics and social practice in both Britain and India during the 18th century. Like a number of other historians, both of us are concerned to account for what Stern calls ‘the deeply flawed act of colonial rule’ without attributing it to the coherent intentions of a single set of actors, or treating it as a benign form of Euro-Asian collaboration. The intellectual prospects for such new approaches are exciting. I am grateful to Dr Stern for his insightful and thought-provoking engagement with my book.