An Imperial Origin Story

Zarena Aslami

in The Dream Life of Citizens

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780823241996
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780823242030 | DOI:
An Imperial Origin Story

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This chapter argues that Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm provides an origin story for late Victorian state fantasy. The novel organizes complex historical changes into a contest between an older, tyrannical version of state sovereignty (power with a head and the right to cut off its subjects' heads) and a newer, detached version of liberal governance, biopower (a headless, dispersed power that gets into its subjects' heads). Detailing how colonials felt rejected by the imperial state, the novel invests one particular relationship with intense libidinal energy: that between Waldo, a colonial subject, and “the stranger,” a low-level state official. To make sense of this relationship, the chapter turns to Hannah Arendt's discussion of what she terms the “aloof rule” of British imperial practice. A variant of liberal governance, aloof rule is more resistant to critical demystification than tyrannical rule, which Arendt associates with French imperialism. The Story of an African Farm self-consciously exalts the novel form as a key technology for teaching subjects to see through the empty charade of tyranny. But it implies its own limits in undoing aloof rule, which, it argues, shapes the critical subject's very sense of self.

Keywords: Olive Schreiner; The Story of an African Farm; Sovereignty; Biopower; Aloof rule; Hannah Arendt; State power; Imperialism; Novel-reading

Chapter.  8359 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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