Dominic Davies

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

Peter Lang Ltd, 2017

298 pages


Reviewed by Hayley Braithwaite

Offering a materialist critique of colonial fiction written in the latter years of British imperial rule, Dominic Davies’s ambitious text tracks the depiction of infrastructural developments in literary works set in Southern Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. Centering on the years 1880-1930, Imperial Infrastructure tackles a period of immense transformation. Across this half-century, the Empire’s infrastructural networks (railway, shipping lines, telegraph wires, roads, bridges) expanded rapidly as Britain attempted to create a series of global trade connections. By engaging with fiction set against this backdrop of vast development, Davies aims to improve scholarly understanding of the colonial landscape.

Highly engaged with theory, Imperial Infrastructure draws on a number of thinkers from a number of disciplines (including, but not limited to, Edward Said, J. A Hobson, Edward Soja, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg). No one theorist is more heavily represented within this text, however, than Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein’s “world-system” theory forms the foundation for much, if not all, of Davies’s analysis. A large portion of the text’s introduction is, as such, given over to unpacking the many complexities and nuances of Wallerstein’s theoretical apparatus.

Whilst his own thesis is, at times, lost amidst the crowd of theoretical voices, Davies does make space within the introduction to outline and coin the text’s primary critical methodology: “infrastructural reading.” Building on the work of world-system theorists, Davies identifies the complex spatiality of the colonial nation. He asserts that infrastructure demarcates the uneven development of the world-system; underdeveloped towns, villages, and neighborhoods find themselves divided, and visible, as the railway charts a path across the globe. Analyzing the depiction of infrastructural systems within colonial writings, of necessity, reveals the inherently exploitative nature of imperial expansion regardless of the literary work’s own (often pro-imperial) agenda. To use Davies’s own terms, infrastructural reading has the power to locate pockets of anti-imperial “spatial resistance.”

Despite Davies’s theoretical approach, this work does not suffer from lack of close textual engagement. “Infrastructural reading,” this book reveals, necessitates a kind of micro-analysis. Davies’s aim is not to perpetuate or reassert the blatant pro-Imperial ideologies of these novels and short stories, but rather to uncover hidden, silenced, or misinterpreted moments of anti-imperial resistance–work that must be done at the level of close textual analysis. Colonial literature, he writes, “gives voice to more than it realises.”

Imperial Infrastructure is organized into four chapters, each of which aims to map what Davies determines to be the period’s four most “dominant” ideological paradigms: ‘humanitarianism,’ ‘segregation,’ ‘frontiers,’ and ‘nationalism.’ Drawing on geo-critical methodologies (principally the work of Franco Moretti), Davies’s choice of primary material is, for the most part, non-canonical. Across his four chapters, Davies focuses on works by Flora Annie Steel, Olive Schreiner, H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, E.M Forster, Edmund Candler, and Edward Thompson.

Davies situates himself in opposition to a post-Said tendency to avoid critical engagement with colonial literature because of the racial, cultural, and political hierarchies such work is structured by. Davies’s choice of texts is born of a belief that to leave such works unread is itself dangerous; by not engaging with colonial literature we risk losing sight of the ideological complexities of the imperial world-system.

Whilst the inclusion of female authors does expand the scope of voices represented within this study, one cannot help but ask how the work of native authors might interact with Davies’s critical apparatus. This is not so much a criticism of the work (which successfully tackles multiple complex theoretical notions and an ambitious number of primary works) but is rather an example of one of the many potential avenues of study infrastructural reading illuminates.

Imperial Infrastructure begins its analysis in the Indian sub-continent through a selection of Steel’s short stories. Taking his reader on a four-step journey, Davies establishes firstly that Steel’s (and the Raj’s) humanitarian ideology is used to justify infrastructural development, secondly that infrastructural development is uneven, and thirdly that uneven development leads to socio-economic violence. These strands of argument are pulled together in the chapter’s conclusion as, completing the fourth step, Davies asserts that socio-economic violence is produced by humanitarianism and is, thus, implicit within depictions of imperial benevolence. Textual engagement in this chapter is particularly noteworthy. Whilst the more impressive moments of analysis are reserved for later chapters, Davies’s engagement with a series of evocative textual vignettes, such as the story of the starving Gopâl Das from Steel’s 1903 Surâbhi, A Famine Tale, draw his arguments into sharp relief.

Turning to the work of H. Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner, and William Plomer in his second chapter, Davies draws parallels between the material infrastructure in colonial literature and the textual infrastructure of colonial literature. This is perhaps best exemplified through Davies’s discussion of Plomer’s Ula Masondo (1927). Set, as all of the texts discussed in this chapter are, in Southern Africa, Plomer’s work subverts the conventions of the imperial romance genre. Rather than detail the journey of a white imperialist from South to North, Plomer’s adventuring protagonist is a black African who moves from the undeveloped North to a Southern industrial center. Explicitly replacing the imperial romance’s linear journey on an empty road with a voyage across a complex network of trains, trams, cars, and bicycles, and its natural dangers with the barracks, compounds, and mines of Johannesburg, Plomer draws attention to the infrastructural developments and socio-economic realities of colonial capitalism.

Moving his focus from core to periphery, Chapter Three is interested in the frontier. Building on the well-established theoretical associations between the frontier, imperialism, and liminality, Davies coins the term “frontier consciousness.” In the work of Buchan, the frontier is figured both as an antidote to the urban center’s socio-economic issues and as unsafe because it lacks infrastructure. The frontier narrative is read as a “cultural fix” that attempts, unsuccessfully, to resolve the crisis of uneven infrastructural development. This chapter’s analysis of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), specifically Davies’s reading of London’s own infrastructure and his identification of a frontier consciousness in Scotland, is noteworthy. In moving his analysis out of the colony, Davies provides a glimpse of the potential applications of infrastructural reading outside of colonial and post-colonial scholarship.

In the book’s final chapter, Davies explores the impact of India’s imminent independence on pre-partition writings. Diverging from what Davies’s analysis has thus far revealed, in the wake of Indian Independence, spatial resistance in the works of Forster, Candler, and Thompson is found not in the subtext but on the surface. Each of these texts, Davies asserts, attempts to undermine the legitimacy of Indian nationalism whilst simultaneously imagining that the infrastructural networks established by the Empire will continue after British rule has ended.

Despite its 1880-1930 focus, Davies’s book demonstrates an impressive awareness of the impact imperial infrastructural development (and underdevelopment) continues to have in post-colonial nations. The decision to center his conclusion on reading the present infrastructurally effectively asserts the book’s relevance both within and without the academy. Given its focus, Davies’s text will be of particular value to those interested in literary depictions of space and infrastructure, and those working on British imperial literature. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that scholars working outside of Imperial Infrastructure’s remit will find no value in this work. Davies’s book is not only theoretically illuminating and contextually sensitive but provides critics with the tools to locate resistance within cultural productions from a range of colonial, post-colonial, oppressive, and exploitative geo-historical contexts. The kind of work that is, as Davies succinctly affirms, “of ever-increasing urgency in the contemporary world.”