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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reason and Imagination 3

About Reason and the Imagination – let’s begin with the beginning image, or similitude, in the essay. It is an overdetermined one – the similitude between the map, which is what the utilitarians go by, versus the picture, or the globe versus the local. Of course, maps are not neutral things:

“They [the theorists] had better confine their studies to the celestial sphere and the signs of the zodiac; for there they will meet with no petty details to boggle at, or contradict their vague conclusions. Such persons would make excellent theologians, but are very indifferent philosophers. To pursue this geographical reasoning a little farther. – They may say that the map of a country or shire for instance is too large and conveys a disproportionate idea of its relation to the whole. And we say that their map of the globe is too small, and conveys no idea of it at all.”

Given these images, one might expect a defense of the local, imagination, against the universal, or reason. Which is why Hazlitt’s moral examples are so interesting – because they are not local. They are not British. They are colonial. In this, Hazlitt is following the Burkian machinery, one in which the sublime and the notion of delight play a key role, that always finds reason in images and images in reason, and that was most at work in the impeachment of Hastings and in the denunciation of the French Revolution. The local, for Burke, was founded on local traditions – and the universal was founded on respecting tradition. Go to the end of this logic and you come to the end of empire – but Burke himself did not find that the egress he sought. Instead, his thought envisions empire as a collusion among elites, which, in fact, was a definite aspect of the British rule in India and elsewhere during the 19th century. Yet Burke’s imagery is more extreme, more suggestive, than this outcome would suggest. It presents, perhaps, a surreptitious ideology, an unconscious one, which is why it is so exciting to read, for instance, Burke’s comment to one of his critical correspondents during the Hastings impeachment, Mary Palmer:

“I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces; but who are the images of the Great Pattern as well as you and I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.”

Hazlitt is also in pursuit of the Great Pattern, and thinks, contra Burke, that it revealed itself in the French Revolution – taking that to span the time from 1789 to 1815, as Hazlitt does – and that the post 1815 radicalism that he tried to influence has turned towards mere patterning, towards calculations based on self interest in which the self’s intrinsic, internal interest in the self is left out of account. And he is especially wary of the fact that once the self is evacuated, the population of selves can become subject to tests – we can test out policy on them. Javed Majeed, in an essay on James Mill’s attitude towards India which were put into his history of India – one of Hazlitt’s objects of scorn in the Reason and Imagination essay – writes this, in defense of Mill’s feelings concerning empire:

“Furthermore, the tensions in James Mill’s project stem from his ambivalent stance on empire. On the one hand, Mill took an economic view of imperialism in India and argued that the expense of government, administration and wars meant that Britain had not derived any economic benefits from India. In his economic writings, he denied the importance of colonies as markets and stressed that they did not yield any economic benefits. He also argued that colonies served as a source of power and patronage for the ruling elite and were used to perpetuate their position. But Mill’s History was divided between this negative view of contemporary imperialism and the possibilities that empire opened up as the testing ground for new bodies of thought which had emerged in the metropolis and which had as their aim the critique and reform of the establishment in Britain itself.” (Javed Majeed in Utilitarianism and Empire, 96)

At this point, LI has to loop back to our own self.

Years ago, in the bitterly poor winter of 2002, LI did a series of posts about Fitzjames Stephen. At that time, we were still suffering from the afteraffects of the Tech boom delusion, i.e. we were busy trying to make it as a freelance writer. Of the idiotic detours we have taken on the way to the grave, none, none has been as shamefully stupid. Hence, the bitter poverty – there is nothing like gnawing on the bone of your own failure to leave that taste of narcissism gone sour in your saliva. Ah, but we have spent the decade since mumbling that bone! In any case, the point of my 2002 series was to illustrate a thesis, which went like this:

1. in the cold war, a historical myth was coaxed into being by conservative intellectuals;
2. the myth went like this: the whole idea of the managed economy had come, by way of crazy Frenchman, Marx, and that Lucifer, Lenin, from the Soviet Union;
3. so that the idea of managing the economy, which was all the rage among the post-war technocrats, was tainted with the Gulag.

I believed these ideas were bogus. The text that codified this bogosity was Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, with the scary, Russo-suggestive Serf in the title, and Hayek’s unconscious parody of Artaud – the plague came from the East! Instead, the whole of the British imperial enterprise in the nineteenth century, especially the governing of India, was the actual locus of the idea that the state, with the proper technostructure, could manage a society. India’s laws were changed to meet an ideal created by the utilitarianists. Property rights were transformed, the rural economy was monetized, and the sub-continent, in British eyes, bloomed. Of course, British eyes did not see wave after wave of famine; they saw railroads and exports. Such success in setting the rules of the game, under the regime of free trade, made various Indian office intellectuals, and those with whom they were connected, begin to wonder if rational administration couldn’t make capitalism itself more efficient. This idea was divided between the right – Stephen being the first to introduce a colonial authoritarianism back into conservative thinking about governing the home country – and the left, all those Fabians who shuttled back and forth between position papers and jobs in Colonial office.

At the time I was putting this thesis together, I was unaware that large parts of this had already been said before, by Eric Stokes, in his The English Utilitarians in India (1959). I did eventually peruse Stokes, but I didn’t quite get him.

Well, those are our back pages. Useless to burrow back there into the warren of our burrows. I like to think of LI as a sort of roadkill of the Bush era, emitting not just the smell of the dead, but creamed in precisely such a way that one can infer the traffic that ran us over.

In any case, resurrecting my history here, Hazlitt – at the time – did not strike me as the dialogue partner that an anti-imperialist liberalism should take up. Now he does. Which gets us to Hazlitt and the slave trade … that I have still another poky post to go over.

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