Review: ‘Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804’ by Srinivas Aravamudan

Reviewed by Kate Lilley

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Tropicopolitans strategically borrows its title from natural history, where it refers to ‘species dominant in the tropical regions’, and redeploys it ‘as a name for the colonized subject who exists both as fictive construct of colonial tropology and actual resident of tropical space’ – a name which rebounds equally on those crucial Enlightenment categories, the metropolitan and the cosmopolitan. This is a bold move, one that signals Aravamudan’s rhetorical confidence, and the result is more than convincing.

Tropicopolitans is an important book in the making of the postcolonial eighteenth-century. Never less than suggestive, often brilliant, its three parts, ‘Virtualizations’, ‘Levantinizations’ and ‘Nationalizations’, uncover ‘different kinds of anti-colonial agency’. Aravamudan critiques ‘unexamined and teleological notions of literacy’ as they intersect with fetishistic processes of national canon-formation ‘from Old English epic to a postcolonial Anglophone literature’. The consequences of ‘a geocultural transformation of vernacular into lingua franca’ are figured as multifarious and paradoxical: ‘nationalization can enable an Equiano to work with the British Parliament as well as a Sierra Leone that challenges the writ of Company rule; in the French context, a Toussaint Louverture who works with the directorate as well as a Haiti that irrevocably breaks with France and tropicalizes the Enlightenment’.

Against ‘the frictionless circulation of the eighteenth century to itself as Eurocentric romance’, Aravamudan posits ‘the conjuncture between literary institution (sedimented reading formation that masquerades as the “text”) and readerly interpretation (a fresh gambit from a hitherto unexamined “context”)’ as ‘the productive terrain of committed scholarship’. Stressing the dialectical synthesis of texts and reading formations, Aravamudan’s desire to ‘activate the tropological in the tropicopolitan’ offers a kind of allegory of his rhetorical method and its necessary commitment to indirection and vicissitude, extrapolation and embedding, oxymoron and paradox (‘like Behn’s Oroonoko’, Aravamudan notes, ‘Gulliver resembles that chiasmic amalgam, a royal slave’).

Aravamudan adopts the Deleuzian term, ‘virtualization’, glossed as ‘retroactive focalization’ in the constitution of plural ‘histories of the present’, in order to stress the overdetermined and cathected production of texts, subjects and markets. His concern to unfold the complex micropolitics of virtualization at work in every text-event and author-reader finds a necessary parallel in his own labour of ethical self-placement, a careful but unavoidably incomplete reckoning of his own work as a symptomatically tropological instance of those disciplinary formations and discourses collected under the rubric of ‘the new eighteenth-century studies’. Alongside ‘tropicopolitan’ and ‘virtualization’, Aravamudan proposes ‘Levantinization’ as a term through which to particularize and ‘reconfigure critical approaches to orientalist humanisms’, by means of ‘a strategic deformation of orientalism’s representational mechanisms’. Levantinization thus refers to a specific phantasmatic discourse and practice of tropicopolitan virtualization, represented here in its more positive sense by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters from the Levant(also known as the Turkish Embassy Letters)and in its familiar negative aspect by ‘the despotic eye’ of Burke’s writings on sublime terror, Johnson’s Rasselasand Beckford’s Vathek.

Aravamudan favours synecdochical accounts which rely on textual detail and critical reflexiveness to challenge the generalizing sweep of colonial and oriental discourses. The symptomatic passage or instance in the exemplary text becomes the privileged site of both his own virtualizations and his mapping of genealogies of tropicopolitan virtualization. Most particularly, Aravamudan concentrates on a detailed critique and tropicalization of the project of ‘nationalist literary history’. The groupings of texts on which he focuses facilitate different kinds of engagement with the discourses of literary historical periodization, thematization and genre: Behn’s and Southerne’s Oroonoko; Defoe’s Robinson Crusoeand Captain Singleton; Addison’s Catowith Swift’s Gulliverand The Drapier’s Letters; Wortley Montagu’s hammam and Burke’s sublime; Johnson and Beckford; Equiano’sThe Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equianoand Anna Maria Falconbridge’s Two Voyages to Sierra Leone; the career of Toussaint Louverture between Raynal’s (and Diderot’s) Histoire des Deux Indesand Marat’s Les chaÓnes de l’esclavage.

For Aravamudan, every text represents a sequence of rhetorically and ideologically overinvested instances which in turn solicit readings which are likewise simultaneously mobile and constrained, seeing and ‘blind-sided’. However, Aravamudan’s sense of interpellation and positioning is notably productive, stressing the direct and indirect agency of subjects and texts through the reciprocity implied by virtualization: ‘my principal aim is to reconstitute the discursive connections between tropology and tropicalization as reversible rather than teleological’. To track this two-way process, Aravamudan uses the rhetorical term, metalepsis, both in Genette’s narratological sense of the hinge between ‘the world in which one tells and the world of which one tells’, and in the more psychoanalytic and deconstructive senses of buried echo and uncanny trace at play in ‘the sight of darkness’ and the darkness of sight.

The method of Tropicopolitans is persuasively syncretic. Under the rubric of ‘Colonialism and Agency’ in the long eighteenth century, Aravamudan offers an especially ambitious kind of rhetorical cultural studies, drawing its objects of analysis from aesthetic, political andeconomic theory and practice. Colonialism’s mediated projections and relayed effects frame the textual activity swirling around the novel’s emergence as a ‘monument to value’. As Aravamudan succinctly observes at the book’s outset, ‘because trope is transitive, it swerves from self-adequation to surplus’. Aravamudan’s method is also resolutely ‘transitive’: texts and subjects act and are acted upon, the tropicopolitan and the metropolitan define each other, pedagogy and cultural literacies are co-implicated in the formation of eighteenth-century studies as a discipline.

At the meeting point of effect and affect, Aravamudan seeks to analyze the fluctuating meanings and values which accrue to texts and authors over time and their axiomatic function within the disciplinary metanarratives which construe them as visible or not, fruitful or not. For instance, in a fascinating opening chapter on Behn’s and Southerne’s Oroonokoand what he calls ‘critical oroonokoism’, Aravamudan argues the logic of pethood in both directions — Oronooko as pet-subject and Oroonokoas pet text and ‘desirable origin for postcolonial eighteenth-century studies’.

Tropicopolitans‘ interest in retroactive virtualization elicits a corollary attention to the premonitory, proleptic, utopian, ephemeral, contingent, parodic and liminal. Throughout the book the operations of exchange (metonymy) and conversion (metaphor) are brought to bear in a nuanced account of ‘conflict internal to the practices of colonialism’. Aravamudan describes piracy’s ‘floating threat’, for instance, as ‘virtualizing activity on the colonial periphery’ which traffics ‘among narrative, economics and criminality’. He then turns his attention to representations of piracy in Defoe and elsewhere as self-reflexive commentary on the profession of authorship as such and the novel as ‘illegitimate discourse that eventually legitimated itself’.

Tropicopolitans is an engrossing book, notable for its subtlety, depth and cohesiveness of argument. Aravamudan’s strenuous intelligence and scholarship commands respect, attention and dialogue.


Kate Lilley is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sydney. She is the editor of Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World and other writings (Penguin Classics) and has contributed chapters to a number of collections on early modern women’s writing, most recently, ‘Homosocial Women: Constantia Grierson, Martha Sansom, Mary Leapor and Georgic Verse Epistle’, in Women’s Poetry of the Enlightenment (Macmillan).

Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 by Srinivas Aravamudan was published by Duke University Press in 1999.

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