The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan Book review

The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan Book review

The Poetics of Imperialism can be classed among several recent postcolonial reexaminations of imperialist practices, such as Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands: The Collected Essays (New York: Viking, 1991) and Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia UP, 1991). These studies share with The Poetics of Imperialism a postcolonial anxiety about the inauthenticity of translation in the context of cultural and political imperialism. The Poetics of Imperialism deals more specifically than they with the hegemonic intention and format of American foreign policy; it focuses mainly on the symbolic action of Anglo-American imperialism in the new World.

Eric Cheyfitz’s study of the poetics of imperialism is a sustained deconstructive critique of materialist politics. The outcome is a fascinating account of American foreign policy, greatly reinforced by a meticulous dismantling of various traditional models of figurative language. The author intends to call into question “Western modes of knowing that are grounded in ideas of “place” as “property” (155). His specific aim is to unravel the often concealed, generative connections between materialist power politics and verbal practices of a given culture. The postcolonial project in The Poetics of Imperialism is to uncover the ideologies of class, race, and gender underlying such seemingly apolitical linguistic activities as metaphor, translation (translatio imperii et studii, topos, and “eloquence.” Cheyfitz sees the processes of cultural communication — embodied in the figure of translation — as an enactment of the transmission of colonialist power: “this scene of colonization is also a scene of translation” (115).

Chapter I, “US Foreign Policy in the Twentieth Century,” introduces the political violence of translation as the key figure in expansionist politics. In it Cheyfitz identifies two key texts: Richard Hakluyt’s Discourse of Western Planting (1584) and the Instructions from the London Council of the Virginia Company of 1609. The interval between the two documents, according to the author, “marks a shift in the strategy of translation” (7). In both these documents, Cheyfitz maintains, translation is set up as the instrument of domination and domestication. However, in the intervening years, the emphasis changes from the colonists wanting to learn the “language of the people” (Discourse 1584) to the imperialist imperative that the American Indian is to be the one who “must learn English” (7). Cheyfitz sees in this a rewriting of the “script of foreign policy,” a rewriting that leads not only to a mistranslation of American Indian cultures, but in some cases to a “repression of the problem of translation” that gives rise to a “foreign policy of forgetfulness” (9).

Cheyfitz cites from the colonialist documents based on the crowning of Powhatan at Werowocomoco in 1608 as an instance of the Anglo-American colonist’s nonrecognition of the fact that in Algonquin languages there are no words for king, sceptre and crown and that the absence of such words indicates a very different political economy. However, this failure of translation itself results in the final, official translation of American Indians into the English language as “domestic dependent nations” (11). Deliberate mistranslation of the word carib in Arawakan and Cariban languages into Caliban via the Spanish word Canibalis is cited as another instance of the failure as well as the violence of translation (41). Following a train of such signifiers in which foreign policy gets written and rescripted, Cheyfitz concludes that colonialist usurpation and subjugation are forms of “transfiguring the domestic and the foreign in terms of one another,” and “history is inevitably a romance of translation,” a narrative paradigm for which is provided by Tarzan of The Apes. In addition, “at the heart of every imperial fiction (the heart of darkness) there is a fiction of translation” (15). An almost naive reliance on various forms of linguistic idealism sometimes defeats the well-intended libertarian politics of Cheyfitz’s project. Perhaps without being conscious of it, he allows himself excessive indulgence in contemporary forms of elitist eloquence while attacking earlier forms of such eloquence.

After implicating the figure of translation in the politics of colonialist discourses, Cheyfitz continues to search through the archives of traditional rhetoric in order to “deconstruct” or “politicize” the figure of metaphor (108). It is obvious that all imperialist agencies of culture use available tools of knowledge to facilitate the exercise of power and to sustain forms of oppression. For example, in Shakespeare’ s Coriolanus Menenius Agrippa uses the belly fable to silence the plebeians’ demand for grain at their own rates. At the same time, Shakespeare ironizes the use of the belly metaphor in part to comment on the riots over the scarcity of grain in Warwickshire and other counties in the summer of 1607. However, Cheyfitz chooses to speaks of metaphor not as a tool in the hands of power groups, but as an autonomous agent. In his desire to extend linguistic autonomism to an extreme limit, Cheyfitz is not content with seeing metaphor simply as an analogue for the distortions generated by imperialist politics. Instead, he poetically constitutes metaphor as a malevolent verbal agent that can be absolutely identified with such distortions.

As the monolithic argument of the book continues, metaphor, translation, and eloquence are repeatedly spoken of in anthropomorphic terms that make them appear as sinister human agents involved in the global criminality of expansionist politics. An incisive overview of the traditional definitions of metaphor-Aristotle, Cicero, and others — offers compelling evidence to characterize metaphor “as a double agent in the game of foreign intrigue” (92). Using Abraham Fraunce’s description of the metaphoric processes that turn a word from its place of “natural signification” to “other signification,” Cheyfitz shows how metaphor, as the basis of the imperialist power of eloquence, sustains and generates materialist practices of translation, transportation, and usurpation. He sees eloquence as a linguistic value that is necessarily connected with the social values of class and privilege (100). The Tempest, Cheyfitz maintains, “is the figure of the map of Renaissance power as eloquence”(25).

The question of Caliban’s eloquence as opposed to Prospero’s comes up, but is summarily dismissed. Caliban’s eloquence is referred to as proto-eloquence. In the same manner, Frederick Douglass’s testimony of the aesthetic and emotive power of the slave songs falls into a non-specific category of eloquence. Cheyfitz introduces, but does not adequately deal with, the possibility of two forms of metaphoric eloquence, the Master’s and the Slave’s. A fuller elaboration of this possibility might have made it clear that perhaps there is no political virtue in the interpretive activity of determining linguistic entities to be the culprits. In the last chapter, the author refers to Walter Benjamin’s notion of a non-hierarchical order in which there will be no master language. In the absence of a master language, the processes of translation and metaphor would become at least partially unusable as instruments of imperialist power politics. It is unfortunate that the author only briefly introduces, and summarily dismisses alternative possibilities of Benjamin’s model (135).

The purely rhetorical merit of The Poetics of Imperialism is evident in Cheyfitz’s deft use of the deconstructive method. However, its political value is less evident and hard to establish. Paradoxically, its limitations are embedded in the methodological apparatuses that the author has decided to use. In the later chapters, the political argument becomes more and more entrenched in the linguistic idealism that is powerfully invoked in the earlier chapters. One feels trapped in the proverbial “prisonhouse of language” and wonders if the disfiguration of metaphor, translation, and eloquence does not serve simply to neutralize and naturalize the processes of imperialist power politics.