Abstract and Keywords
This article examines different ways of interpreting empires and imperialisms, with an emphasis on broadly postcolonial approaches to the imperial past. Drawing on a wide range of disciplines from history and sociology to philosophy, literary/cultural studies, and anthropology, it looks at the largest European colonial empires––Britain, Spain and Portugal, France, and the Netherlands––and the extent to which they are historically circumscribed, the legacies they have left for their respective nations, and the continuities that exist between the “colonial present” and the imperial past. It challenges the notion that empire has operated as “a default mode of political organization throughout much of history.” It also discusses Enlightenment’s relationship to empire, the intellectual divide between postcolonial theory and imperial history, and empire’s link to capitalism and modernity.
Bearing in mind Stephen Howe’s exasperated claim that ‘ideas about empire have [recently] seemed to spread and multiply beyond all control: imperialism, as a word, has gone imperial’ (2002: 10), the opening section of the Handbook looks at different ways of envisaging empires and imperialisms, with an emphasis on broadly postcolonial approaches to the imperial past. While the section will offer different interpretations of empire, most of these are in accordance with Howe’s broad-based definition of empire as a ‘large, composite multi-ethnic political unit, usually created by conquest’, and of imperialism as a sum of the ‘attitudes and actions which create or uphold such political units’—attitudes and actions that imply indirect, as well as more direct, forms of authority and control (2002: 30).
Postcolonial approaches to empire are often less historical than they claim to be, which is why this section includes the work of prominent imperial historians as well as a variety of postcolonial literary/cultural critics whose work engages explicitly or implicitly with the imperial past. The phrase ‘the imperial past’ begs a series of other questions: whose past is it that is being referred to; what is meant by the adjective ‘imperial’; and when does that past begin (and when does it end or can it reasonably be expected to end)? These questions are given extra resonance by the fact that empires past and present have been so culturally different, even if many of them have operated with similar politico-economic mechanisms and apparatuses of power. The section aims accordingly to look comparatively at empire, focusing on the largest European colonial empires: Britain’s, to be sure, but also those of Spain and Portugal, France and the Netherlands. It will be asked to what extent these empires are historically circumscribed, what legacies they have left for the nations that founded them, and what continuities exist between the ‘colonial present’ (the heading of the Handbook’s next section) and the imperial past.
It will also be asked to what extent empire is a world-historical phenomenon, as evident in Asia as it has been in Europe, though it will challenge the sweeping view that empire has operated as ‘a default mode of political organization throughout much of history’ (Van Steenkiste 2008; see also Darwin 2007)—a view which, in confusing the durability of the idea of empire with the inevitability of empires, subscribes to an ideological fatalism that postcolonial critics and theorists vigorously contest. Empires are neither ‘inevitable’ nor ‘normal’, and the violence they produce far outweighs any economic and political advantages to be derived from them. Nor are they consistent; as David Harvey among others points out, different empires have historically produced different imperialisms, some of them radically incompatible with one another, while different (p. 29) conceptions of empire—‘hard’ and ‘soft’, formal and informal, coercive and consensual—can easily become ‘internalized [within] the same [political] space’ (Harvey 2003: 5; see also Howe 2002; Said 1993).
Empires are plural: they may function simultaneously as economic engines, political units, and ideological vehicles, but they obviously exist in all shapes and sizes, are subject to a variety of often contradictory motives, and produce an equally wide array of different methods for controlling (and justifying the control of) others and for understanding themselves. They are also global. Not all empires aspire to world domination, nor do they all constitute what the British imperial historian John Darwin (2009) calls a functionally interdependent ‘world system’; but empires of the past are best understood in global terms as competing visions for the conquest and control of other people’s territories and resources, just as empires of the present—whether seen or not in terms of an overriding ‘capitalist imperialism’ (Lazarus 2011)—consist in rival attempts to wrest control over the global economy that encompasses them all.
It seems only sensible to insist on political and, above all, economic understandings of empire and imperialism as instruments for predatory commercial interests, and the repeated failure to do so has been a charge laid, with depressing regularity, at postcolonialism’s door. Marxist critics such as Neil Lazarus, for example, have demonstrated increasing impatience with those postcolonial theorists (basically all those other than Marxists) who persist in seeing empire and imperialism in terms of processes of ‘cultural and epistemological subjugation, whose material preconditions have been referred to only glancingly, if at all’ (Lazarus 2011: 17; see also the General Introduction to this volume). Lazarus has a point, but surely empire and the imperialist ideologies that drive it need to be seen in both economic and cultural terms as well as in the relationship between them; strategic perceptions of cultural difference, after all, provided one of the primary ‘moral’ justifications for European economic expansion, and it is difficult to disagree with Edward Said that the battle over ‘culture’ has been central to the modern imperial experience—surfacing most recently in US-led ‘civilizationism’ (see Mignolo’s and Sayyid’s chapters in this section)—just as the various European colonial empires’ economic ‘pattern[s] of dominions [and] possessions laid the groundwork for what is now in effect a fully global world’ (Said 1993: 4; see also Part V of this volume).
A second charge made by Lazarus in the same book (The Postcolonial Unconscious) is also worth examining here. Postcolonial studies, he suggests, has not only not been particularly effective in revealing either the long history of empire or the ‘intensification of imperialist social relations’ (2011: 16) that now obtains under current conditions of globalization; it has tended to mystify these relations, either by ignoring imperialism altogether or by falsely assuming its ‘obsolescence’ (16) by the time of the 1980s and 1990s, generally acknowledged to be the key decades in the discipline’s own institutional growth. Again it seems necessary to qualify, without necessarily dismissing, this statement. There is little doubt that postcolonial studies can be seen as part of what is generally referred to as the ‘cultural turn’ at European and, particularly, North American universities during the period in question—a turn often accompanied by rapt attention to the work of Continental poststructuralist thinkers: Derrida, Lacan, Foucault. Yet (p. 30) this—as Lazarus himself admits—is only part of the complex institutional history of postcolonial studies as a discipline, and even the most ‘culturalist’ of postcolonial critics have rarely subscribed either then or now to the demise, still less the obsolescence, of imperialism; on the contrary, it is the continuity of empire as both idea and practice that works, paradoxically no doubt, to guarantee the anti-colonial credentials of those working in the field.
For Lazarus, as for other postcolonial Marxists, imperialism is—as Lenin famously saw it—a particular stage in the development of global capitalism; failing to acknowledge this, however, is hardly tantamount to suggesting that imperialism is obsolete. It is true, nonetheless, that postcolonial critics have sometimes been reluctant to address the symbiotic relationship between imperialism, modernity, and global capitalism (though equally true that they have tended to focus on European rather than non-European imperialisms, and have not always been ready either to acknowledge that the long history of empire significantly pre-dates the emergence of capitalist imperialism in the west: see Sayyid below). Elaborate distinctions between ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’, with one seen as pre-dating the other, will not help to solve the problem (see, for example, Boehmer 1995; Loomba 1999). What is needed, it seems, is a more methodical understanding of the imperial past as the product of a set of shifting historical conjunctures and relations—an understanding to which both imperial historians and postcolonial literary/cultural critics are well capable of contributing, precisely because of the significant differences in approach and method that their perhaps unduly compartmentalized disciplines entail (see Part IV of this volume).
It seems appropriate, then, that the chapters that follow in this section (and in other sections) represent a wide range of disciplines—history, literary/cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, philosophy—and that primacy is not given to any one of these; rather, close attention is paid to the relationship between them all. Postcolonial studies, after all, is a relational field investigating an equally relational subject—and a further axiom of empires is that they are always relational if not always systematic, despite their systematizing intent. Stephen Howe’s critical definition of empire as a relational term that promiscuously refers to ‘any and every type of relation between a more powerful state or society and a less powerful one’ (2002: 13) comes to mind here; or Michael Doyle’s, which sees empire as a ‘relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society [whether] by force, or by political collaboration, or by economic, social, or cultural dependence’ (Doyle 1986: 45; also quoted in Said 1993: 8).
Neither of these definitions is complete, nor should we expect it to be. Both definitions, for example, overlook the possibility of empires that are not necessarily extensions of state power. Hardt and Negri’s all-embracing postmodern empire, while speculative and abstract, is one of these: a ‘decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule’, coextensive with if not reducible to globalization, it ‘progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers’ (2000: xii). There is perhaps nothing particularly ‘new’ about the ‘new imperialism’ being argued for here, nor anything especially ‘postmodern’ about it either; rather, contemporary (p. 31) empire-building is driven, as it ever was, by the rival ideological demands of consent and conquest, and by the competing political and economic imperatives of territorial expansion and centralized power (Harvey 2003; see also Part II of this volume). That said, alternative philosophical conceptions of—and definitional disagreements around—empire are likely to continue as long as empire itself continues; ironically perhaps, one of the few things that historians and theorists of empire appear to agree on is that the imperial past is not past. That basic contradiction shadows this section, as it does other sections in this volume. But however empire is seen, and however imperialism is seen as operating, historical understandings of both empire and imperialism are as necessary today as they have ever been, partly as a way of assessing, appreciating, and, whenever and wherever necessary, contesting the multiple legacies of empire for the contemporary world.
The section begins with a chapter by the distinguished American anthropologist and historian Ann Laura Stoler, which raises the vexed issue of Enlightenment’s relationship to empire. Stoler is critical of the persistence with which the Enlightenment has been posited as central to understandings of the European colonial empires, suggesting that these understandings—both of Enlightenment and empire as well as the relationship between them—have been far more plural and internally conflicted than is often taken to be the case. Plurality and conflict also apply to some of the governing assumptions surrounding Enlightenment and empire: the identification of empire with order and rationality; the preconception that these were based on shared and agreed-upon knowledge; and the designation of Enlightenment itself as the ‘Age of Reason’—a designation belied by the central role of sentiment and the passions in Enlightenment thinking and in the ‘colonial dispositions and … practices [it] served’.
Stoler’s particular focus is on the nineteenth-century Netherlands Indies. Here, Stoler’s exemplary archival research—which has informed her work over several decades—reveals neither uniformity in colonial response nor unanimity in colonial method; instead, it shows ‘how much is missed and amiss in how [Dutch colonial] mappings of the Enlightenment onto empire [were and still are] formed’. Uncertainty is at the heart of things; and Stoler’s emphasis, accordingly, is on what she elegantly calls ‘the unquiet minds of colonialisms’ European practitioners to invoke … history “in a minor key”’—a history that ‘initiates a rereading of the anxious and anticipatory states that imperial governance engendered to better understand the regimes of security it produced and the expectant, affective economies on which imperial formations continue to depend’. Stoler does not contest that reason still held sway in the nineteenth-century Netherlands Indies, as elsewhere in Europe’s far-flung and sharply differentiated colonies; but she insists that ‘rational, scientific ways of knowing the world were insufficient for [imperial] governance’, and that these proved incapable either of describing the ‘temperament of rule’ or of capturing how it worked.
It is the messiness of empire that emerges from Stoler’s multi-layered account: the anxieties and insecurities it instilled; the hesitations and slippages it engendered; the moments of ‘discernment when … common sense and convention failed [colonial administrators], and what [they] thought they knew, and how they might know it, they (p. 32) found they did not’. Empire—in so far as it can be seen as singular at all—is less systematic than it desires, and more fashioned by desire than its claim to detached rationality supposes; indeed, it is marked by a wide range of ‘emotional registers of experience’ that demonstrate, not just the affective force of imperial governance, but also the speed with which the social passions and sensibilities attached to it ‘could traverse the colony and the globe’. These registers emphasize the interconnectedness, in European colonial regimes, of private and public spheres of influence; they also highlight what Stoler calls the ‘lived epistemic spaces’ in which colonial agents operated—fragile, often fearful sites in which their apprehension of things they could not see, and things they did not know, were imaginatively shaped.
Stoler ends by asserting the continuity of déraison, Foucault’s expansive term for the instabilities that underlie even Reason’s most self-assertive gestures, in contemporary imperial/colonial practices; ‘unreason’, she says, ‘organized the political grammar of empire at its beginning’ and now re-emerges in, e.g., the ‘colonizing passions of relentless Israeli incursions on Palestinian [territory]’, or in the ‘standard operating procedures’ of the US presence in Iraq (see also Morton in Part II of this volume). This is a salutary reminder—one repeated throughout this volume—that fear and insecurity, not just of the world as it is but of how it might be imagined to be, lies at the spectral heart of any empire, just as what Ahmad (1992) calls the ‘imperialisms of the present’ are continually shadowed by the ‘colonialisms of the past’.
In the next chapter, the American historian Tyler Stovall brings to the surface what was already embedded in Stoler’s work: namely that there has been an intellectual rift between postcolonial theory and imperial history, though theorists and historians alike, without necessarily settling their differences, have ‘learned greatly from one another’ in their respective analyses of the imperial past (see also Kennedy in Part IV of this volume). A further problem, Stovall suggests, is the immensity of the terrain that both postcolonial theorists and imperial historians cover, even within broadly national imperial enterprises: Stovall’s own focus is on the colonial empires of Britain and France. Comparison between these two empires, he suggests, has tended to focus on the differences between them, including ‘contrasting processes of decolonization, economic versus political motivations for empire, [and] direct and indirect rule’. More recent work, however, has brought out similarities, e.g. in the relationship between empire and modernity or in the role played by liberal political thought in shaping the colonial encounter, and it is on this last set of connections that the subsequent argument of Stovall’s chapter rests. His particular focus is on the rise of mass liberal democracy in both countries. This reveals the paradox that the age of mass democracy in Europe was also an age of imperialism—a contradiction that Stovall sees as being central to the modern world at large.
Stovall’s emphasis, unlike Seed’s in the chapter that immediately follows his, is on the European history of empires seen from the metropolitan rather than the colonial perspective, though his wider aim is to ‘broaden [imperial] history beyond the traditional focus on policymaking elites to consider how empire shaped the political culture of modern Britain and France themselves’. His argument turns on the transition from ‘old’ (monarchical) to ‘new’ (liberal democratic) models of empire during the nineteenth century, (p. 33) with the latter model combining the humanitarian elements of the era of democratic revolution (e.g., anti-slavery) with an ‘aggressive expansionism’ based, not just on economic imperatives but on a consolidated view of social and cultural differences shaped by nineteenth-century European racial theory (see Gopal in Part II of this volume).
While Stovall shows that the emergent alliance of liberal democracy and the new imperialism was remarkable in both of the countries (Britain and France) that form the basis of his analysis, he takes care to point out the differences between them, e.g. in later decolonization patterns and the changing political demands of the working class. However, his analysis, by and large, focuses—riskily perhaps—on similarities between the two countries. These are brought together one last time in his conclusion, where he suggests some of the different ways—highlighted later by Michael Rothberg (see Part III of this volume)—in which the imperial past in both Britain and France is far from over, not least because the manufactured polarity between metropole and colony, often phrased in the exclusivist rhetoric of nation, persists. This, for Stovall, is at the heart of the postcolonial dilemma—one in which the global spread of democracy suggests more inclusive alternatives to nationalist imperialism while ushering in new, reintensified forms of cultural differentialism that suggest that, at best, ‘the democratic project remains incomplete’.
While Patricia Seed’s chapter, like Stovall’s, focuses on similarities and differences between two former European colonial empires, in her case Spain’s and Portugal’s, it departs from it significantly by adopting a subaltern/indigenist rather than a metropolitan approach. ‘Indigenism’, for Seed, is a falsely homogenizing category created out of histories of invasion and conquest; like the colonialism to which it is yoked, it is ‘not and never has been a singular noun’. Seed’s focus, accordingly, is on separating out the important internal differences within these categories, and in exposing the equally variegated ‘colonial fictions’ by which the indigenous peoples of the Americas could be treated, depending on European political and economic priorities, as either fundamentally different or essentially the same. For Seed, it is the ‘neocolonial formulation of principles governing the status of native peoples that defies American postcolonialism and marks its distinctiveness’—a particularly bald instance of the generally fine line that separates the ‘colonial present’ (see Part II of this volume) from the imperial past. Paradoxically, Seed sees the native-born elites of Spanish and Portuguese America, who have been understandably eager to distinguish themselves from their Iberian predecessors, as attempting to rationalize their privilege by glorifying a ‘safely distant indigenous past’.
This particular instance of the colonial present is used to suggest that liberty rarely followed the transition to independence and the return of political power to indigenous communities in the Americas; nor, generally speaking, have the subsequent histories of postcolonial nations in other parts of the world offered an ‘uplifting narrative about the removal of European power’. Postcolonial literature, Seed suggests, has supplied a critical alternative, although it is as well to be reminded that the vast majority of its subaltern perspectives have been fashioned by elites (see McLeod in Part IV and Dhawan and Randeria in Part V of this volume). Subaltern authors do exist, however, and Seed provides some compelling examples from the Spanish and Portuguese Americas. Some (p. 34) of these works are self-consciously informed by a cosmopolitan perspective that appeals to a broad international community but does not necessarily carry direct political consequences, and Seed duly provides a series of cautionary tales to show how, in the face of neocolonial political and economic authority, cosmopolitanism’s ‘forward momentum’, defined as it is largely in cultural terms, ‘comes to a screeching halt’.
Seed concludes by issuing a salutary reminder that the actual status of indigenous communities in the Americas and elsewhere is often markedly different from the heroic role assigned to them in the postcolonial cultural imaginary; in the Americas, she suggests, ‘no reversal of the fundamental colonial project [has been possible], and … the cultural fictions of Indian identities remain entrenched’. Seed reminds us too that categories like ‘subaltern’ and ‘indigenous’, which continue to be mobilized by postcolonial critics for a variety of oppositional and emancipatory purposes, may also falsify the actual conditions and/or historical circumstances in which subaltern/indigenous peoples live.
Walter Mignolo’s chapter, like Seed’s, focuses on Latin America, but brings it into dialogue with the Latin countries of the European Union and the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Also like Seed, Mignolo is interested in alternatives to more-or-less mainstream, European-centred versions of imperial history, seeing—as in much of his recent work—the need for a ‘decolonial shift’ centring on transverse relations between Islam, Latinity, and modernity in a globalized world.
One aspect of this shift is ‘dewesternization’: a deliberate challenge to those ‘imperial/colonial metamorphoses of the west’ that are inscribed within the history of capitalism, Christianity, and secularism. Mignolo takes neoliberalism to be the latest iteration of this continuing history, which, folded into the composite ‘Eurocentrism’, he understands as a ‘general epistemic model that organizes subjectivity and knowledge, gender and sexuality, economy and the state’. Over and against this western model he posits the notion of a ‘transmodern’ world that both exposes the complicities between modernity and imperial/colonial power and works towards overcoming them. The ‘decolonial shift’, in this last sense, offers nothing less than a ‘radical undoing of modernity/coloniality’ that, setting its face against the binaries of post-‘9/11’ ‘civilizationism’, simultaneously opposes ‘a five-hundred-year history of empire, capitalism, and modernity … in which coloniality [modernity’s destructive underside] is conspicuously missing from accounts’.
A further aspect of the ‘decolonial shift’ reassesses the role played in the imperial past, and on into the colonial present, by the world’s subaltern peoples, whose collective agency—demonstrated so clearly in the recent events of the ‘Arab Spring’—can no longer be contained by a civil society that seeks to instrumentalize their revolutionary anger and political dissent (see also the General Introduction to this volume). This also shows the possibilities offered by transmodernity, in which modernity is openly ‘confronted with other languages, religions, and histories that take it beyond the Greco-Roman and Christian legacies of the west’.
A third aspect of the ‘decolonial shift’ requires a renewed acknowledgement of the place of Islam within rather than against Europe and a corresponding recognition of the (p. 35) currents of justice, equality, and pluralism within Islamic thought. (Mignolo concedes here that the history of Islam is as likely to yield examples of authoritarian thinking and action.) ‘Decolonial transmodernity’ is not, however, an automatic championing of Islam anymore than it is an unquestioning celebration of the imperial achievements of western Christianity; rather, in analysing the complex tracery of historical connections between them, it seeks to articulate parallel world views to those of the west, to reveal the alternative epistemologies contained within western world views, and to highlight pluralistic, often localized understandings of human relations and interactions that contest, explicitly or implicitly, universal imperial ambitions of dominating the world. ‘The single story of western civilization’, Mignolo insists, is slowly but inexorably ending; and other narratives—those informed by the ‘alternative trajectories’ of decoloniality and dewesternization—are rapidly emerging to take its place.
Like Mignolo’s chapter, Bobby Sayyid’s complicates standard postcolonial accounts of the triangulation of capitalism, modernity, and empire by working to effect a ‘decolonial shift’ that disrupts the persistent European emphasis of each of these three elements while counteracting the historical telescoping of empire that tends to happen when the elements are combined. Also like Mignolo, Sayyid looks to the articulation of Islam and empire as a way of positing alternatives to Eurocentric understandings of empire and imperialism. But whereas Mignolo’s primary concern is to use the decolonial shift to pave the way for a globally inflected, appropriately dewesternized ‘transmodernity’ (see above), Sayyid’s is to demonstrate the historically and politically specific nature of Islamicate imperialism at a time when Muslims, and the master-signifier of Islam, are being ideologically co-opted into re-establishing the ‘violent hierarchy’ between the west and the non-west.
The main thrust of Sayyid’s argument is that Islamicate empires (i.e. empires closely associated with, but not necessarily reducible to, Islam) have historically relied on the construction of a distinct Muslim identity—one, however, that is less racially exclusive than its European Christian (or secular) counterpart, which both philosophically underpins and politically reiterates the original European colonial order as ‘a racist order [in which the] European colonial empires [functioned] as racial states’. The Islamicate empires, Sayyid insists, were not structured around the logic of racialization, but one of the main ideological features of post-‘9/11’ civilizationism has been the re-racialization of Muslims as latter-day predatory imperialists intent on the conquest of the west. Ironically, civilizationism has reinstantiated western (US-style) imperialism, organizing it around the coordinates of the ‘war on terror’, with consequences—as much epistemological as cultural and political—that suggest the powerful capacity of empires to persist even given what Sayyid calls the postcolonial ‘temper of the times’ (see Part II of this volume). At the same time, Islam’s continued haunting of the west suggests ‘the contingency at the heart of the western [imperial] enterprise’; and this contingency, which also exists at the heart of contemporary postcolonial studies, might help explain why present-day articulations of Islam and empire play as much to the tensions of the ‘postcolonial imperial present’ as they do to the Islamicate imperial past.
(p. 36) In the section’s concluding chapter, Timothy Brennan maintains the theoretical emphasis of Sayyid’s piece, but makes clear that its main contribution is to philosophy, which he distinguishes from ‘jackdaw’ theory by linking it to specific, readily identifiable intellectual traditions anchored in core philosophical texts. The tradition he focuses on is Hegelian, and its core text is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (sometimes seen as a tacit defence of colonialism). For these and other reasons, Hegel might seem a curious choice, but as Brennan points out, Hegel’s critique of the Enlightenment (see also Stoler’s opening chapter in this section), his openness to non-European traditions, and his indebtedness to French revolutionary thought, all indicate his relevance to twentieth-century anti-colonial thinking, while the political oppositionalism embedded in Philosophy of Right, in particular, suggests that—contrary to the popular view of Hegel as a conservative apologist—there are radical political implications to his work.
Brennan’s careful reading of Philosophy of Right reveals further complicities between imperialism and capitalism, between political and ethical considerations of empire, and—with another nod to Stoler’s earlier chapter—between ‘the political institutions of colonialism [and] the structure of colonialist thought’. Brennan does not deny the ‘cultural disparagement’ to be found in Hegel, e.g. his robust belief in the differences between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ cultures. Notwithstanding, he insists that Hegel, seen from the vantage point of what he unequivocally calls the ‘imperial present’, provides ‘philosophical resources [for] the [continuing] anti-colonial project’, not least via Hegel’s spirited defence of human beings as the sole power capable of resisting global inequality—a defence as necessary as it ever was in face of what Brennan sees as the fake universalism and ‘cybernetic triumphalism’ of our allegedly ‘posthuman’ times (for a different view, see Rangan and Chow in Part III of this volume; also Mount and O’Brien in Part IV).
As suggested above, Brennan’s chapter returns us to several of Stoler’s arguments at the beginning of this section: that the imperial past secretes itself into the present; that empires need to be philosophically as well as materially resisted; and that resources can be found for this resistance even in the most apparently unpromising places: the self-justifying colonial archive; the racist philosophical text. This is not to compartmentalize the imperial past or to collapse it for instrumental purposes into the present; rather, it is to insist on what Edward Said calls, in another context, reading against the grain of empire in whichever forms—physical or mental, material or symbolic—it continues to be found.
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