Jan 222012

Spurr, David. 1993. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke University Press, 212 pages.

In The Rhetoric of Empire David Spurr analyzes colonial discourse from the colonial era to this day. He does so by identifying the rhetorical features of that discourse and by studying the way in which they work. In the process he focuses mainly on nonfiction writing and in particular on journalism, which he expects to be less mediated by aesthetic requirements than fictional writing. One of the central questions that he poses during his explorations is: „How does the Western writer construct a coherent representation out of the strange and (to the writer) often incomprehensible realities confronted in the non-Western world?“ (3). Spurr tries to find answers by mapping the tropes of the discourse and by compiling a genealogy of the variations of these tropes in texts of the nineteenth and twentieth century. In twelve chapters, which work quite independently, he points out different ways in which the Western writer constructs the reality of the colonized. An abundance of examples from works by Charles Darwin or T. E. Lawrence to contemporary journalistic texts published for example in the Washington Post, National Geographic and many other well-known sources support his arguments while at the same time facilitating the reading.

Spurr’s first chapter is entitled „Surveillance: Under Western Eyes„, in which he identifies the act of looking at landscapes, interiors and bodies as the first step in writing a report about a Third World culture. But this seemingly simple procedure already contains problems, for instance when an American Vietnam War reporter is taken up in a helicopter of the U.S. Air Force to get an overview over the battlefield. From there he naturally sees the war from a very onesided perspective. In the end, Spurr draws the conclusion that a writer always mediates what he sees, that he in a sense colonizes the landscape as he arranges the scene as the object of desire (27).

In the second chapter, which has the title „Appropriation: Inheriting the Earth„, Spurr gathers texts in which Western writers justify their colonizing actions and in a way claim for themselves the duty to exploit nature’s material resources that are hidden in the colonies. Thus, colonization becomes a gesture of „human solidarity“ because it „unites the intellectual and moral qualities of Europe with the material wealth of the tropics“ (29).

In „Aestheticization: Savage Beauties„, Spurr goes on to analyze the way in which information about the colonies is presented to the Western reader. He suggests that reports are often mediated in order to make reading an enjoyable and aesthetic experience. As a very striking example he cites guidelines by the editor for articles of National Geographic in the first half of the twentieth century, who, amongst other things, asks for an abundance of beautiful illustrations and an omission of controversial material (51).

Chapter 4, „Classification: The Order of Nations„, deals with the colonizer’s habit of classifying colonized people according to how modernized they are in comparison to his own nation. Spurr mentions other views on this issue, too: they take into account that modernization might not always and everywhere be desired and that traditional societies might, for instance, favor the aesthetic over the technological (74).

In „Debasement: Filth and Defilement„, Spurr describes the Westerner’s method of looking down on non-Westerners. This often happens in three distinct manners: „a colonized people is held in contempt for their lack of civility, loved for their willingness to acquire it, and ridiculed when they have acquired too much“ (86). This debasement is also visible on a formal level. In a book about the source of AIDS in Africa, the author at the same time reduces and magnifies the people into the equivalent of a natural desaster; he writes about them as if they were an epidemic or an inundation (91).

In the following chapters David Spurr analyzes Western rhetoric in terms of negation, affirmation, idealization, insubstantialization, naturalization and eroticization. A particularly interesting idea is developed in chapter 8, „Idealization: Strangers in Paradise„. Spurr names a series of writings that have produced an „idealized savage“, which means that the „savages“ live a happy life in a harmonious society on a tropical island. Against the background of the assumption that we see as happy those peoples who make us happy when we look at them, because of the poetic or aesthetic emotion evoked by their appearance, he comes to the conclusion that the idealization of the Other is „symptomatic of modern alienation and as a mark of profound self-doubt in the collective consciousness of the West“ (135).

In his last chapter, which Spurr calls „Resistance: Notes Toward an Opening„, he writes about resistance to colonial discourse. An impressive example from 1926 mentions a Sudanese woman, who sees the British as simply the latest in a history of foreign occupiers. She calls them Turks and complains about their smell. This makes the author of the anecdote think and realize that both colonizer and colonized are in a similar way entrapped within the structures of power (187). The problem in the recent past is that the decolonialization of the Third World has not brought about a decolonialization of thought, which would cause a subversion of the powers that are included in discourse (200).

The Rhetoric of Empire offers a rich source of examples and their interpretations, so that the reader encounters excerpts from a very diverse range of publications. At times, however, one gets the impression that in his research David Spurr has come across passages that he liked very much and that he wanted to use in his book just for the sake of telling them to his readers, although he already had enough material to make his argument; the welcome abundance of examples sometimes turns into a redundance. Apart from that, Spurr might have been better off if he had more often included a focus on the readership of the texts he analyzed in his interpretations. The occasional distinction between, for example, a popular and a professional audience had surely shed light on further interesting reasons why a rhetorical feature is used in a certain text in a specific way. All in all, Spurr has compiled a readable outline and helpful analysis of contructions of the colonial „Other“.