British soldiers with objects looted from the royal palace during the military expedition to Benin City in 1897 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Melancholy, Paul Gilroy once argued, is a common reaction to “the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence.”  He made this observation in his Wellek Library Lectures, delivered at the University of California Irvine in 2002, and published in 2004 under the title Postcolonial Melancholia. The third lecture took its cue from Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s 1967 book The Inability to Mourn — a psycho-historical study of West Germany’s relationship with its recent past in the aftermath of the defeat of fascism. Gilroy brought this pathology of denial, guilt, trauma, silence, and intergenerational conflict into dialogue with the theme of his talk. He was speaking about how British people might come to terms with the ideologies of “race” and supremacy that formed the master narratives of European colonialism. Before British people “can adjust to the horrors of their own modern history and start to build a new national identity from the debris of their broken narcissism,” Gilroy argued, “they will have to learn to appreciate the brutalities of colonial rule enacted in their name and to their benefit.” 

Twenty years on, at last Britain may be witnessing the emergence of a variety of the Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance) that has helped other European nations negotiate and dismantle the cultural legacies of violent, hateful ideologies. But in some quarters, latent melancholy is now resurfacing in the form of retaliation. In the 2020s, our collective understanding of the unfinished, sublimated, institutionalized nature of the British colonial past has undoubtedly reached a tipping point. And yet with a grim inevitability, at this transformative and hopeful moment for our universities and museums, and for the arts and culture sectors more generally, backlash is underway. This backlash makes a stand against the removal of racist statues in the streets, opposes the restitution of cultural artifacts looted under colonialism, and attempts to derail the process through which scholarship that highlights the enduring legacies of imperialist racism is now entering mainstream public discourse. 

The parallel vision of two new books by British emeritus professors provides a snapshot of this emerging reactionary genre of cultural critique — one that we might call anti-anti-colonialism. The first, Reverend Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: a moral reckoning, presents the anti-anti-colonialist case from the perspective of right-wing evangelical Christian ethicism. The book takes the form of an extended second-hand discussion of a decade of new scholarship that is expanding and transforming our understanding of the history of the British Empire, from the work of Hilary Beckles to that of Shashi Tharoor, and Caroline Elkins. Against this new thinking, Biggar wants to cling to and defend old colonialist dogmas. In his survey of those places where new historical research is correcting some chunk of colonial propaganda or another, Biggar mounts contestations through a strangely thin and circular method: He simply repeats the very same gobbets of Victorian or Edwardian propaganda that are being corrected, as if this could throw the new scholarship off balance. On social media, this strategy has become known as “shitposting’ — a word that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

A nonsensical, irrelevant, or deliberately provocative post on social media, esp. one that is intended to amuse an in-group, elicit a reaction, subvert a discussion, or distract from the main conversation.

The misdirection runs as follows. Primary among motivations for British imperialism, Biggar argues, was “the excitement of foreign adventure.” British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was “nothing out of the ordinary,” he claims, seeing as slavery has existed in so many other times and places. Colonialism’s relationship to racism revolves merely around the fact that “patronizing” attitudes were common at the time, he writes. Stolen land? Technically, it wasn’t theft, Biggar states. Looted art? Again, technically speaking, it wasn’t actually theft, he suggests. The industrialized ultra-violence of colonial militarist slaughter, from the sacking of Benin City in 1897 to the Amritsar massacre of 1919? These were “just wars” with benevolent, humanitarian aims. The imposition of Christianity and the destruction of traditional African religions? An “exaggerated and misleading” idea. Colonial genocides? An emotive and misguided framing, since such incidents were “far more tragedy than atrocity.” In one astonishing line lifted directly from the evolutionary anthropology of the 1870s, even the later Stone Age communities of the British Isles are described as “the cultural equivalents of some of the native peoples that Britons first encountered in North America, Africa, and Australia.” 

The thrust of Biggar’s sermon is no “curate’s egg view” of the British Empire, that it was “good in parts.” Instead, his revivalist project is a call for the rehabilitation of British colonialism as “a cause for admiration and pride.” Underlying the argument is an insistence that colonialism is a historical phenomenon, not a contemporary one. “Britain’s imperial moment has passed, once and for all,” he tells us; so British people shouldn’t feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors because we can’t change history. Moreover, by “overegging the sins of British colonialism,” scholars of empire are “corroding faith in the West.” The new generation of scholarship is dismissed as merely “postcolonial” studies, twisting the very point of the books he discusses: That the British Empire is far from over.

Colonialism: a moral reckoning seeks desperately to introduce an abstract moral argument about the rights and wrongs of the past, and thus to distract the reader from the urgent task at hand: understanding how we dismantle the enduring, unfinished legacies of empire in all their forms. In his rage against the dawn of a new historical consciousness of British colonialism, Biggar argues that “No culture has a moral right to be immune to change or even to survive.” That certainly must be true in our museums and our universities.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar (William Collins, 2023) and The Museum of Other People by Adam Kuper (Profile Books, 2023) (photo Dan Hicks/Hyperallergic)

In the second book, The Museum of Other People, veteran anthropologist Adam Kuper applies a similar brand of anti-anti-colonialism to how we understand European and American museums. There is the sense that the rhetoric here is less of a moral position than a publishing marketing strategy, but the argument is just as nihilistic. Kuper built a career writing about the history of anthropology. His influential and irreverent 1973 textbook Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School has gone through four editions, despite being widely criticized by scholars as presenting a “Great Man” history of the discipline, from Bronisław Malinowski to Claude Lévi-Strauss. That book famously concluded with an impassioned case for social anthropology as an academic discipline distinct from sociology, arguing that when it comes to theory, “the anthropologist, flying the Jolly Roger in uncharted seas, has usually brought home the more exciting booty.”

Kuper’s new book is about anthropology’s material, rather than theoretical, booty. The bulk of the book is a partial, rambling, and poorly-edited history of anthropology museums from the 1840s to the present day. Kuper writes up his notes on men whom he calls the “pioneers,” “father figures,” and “Big Men” of the field: Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, Gustav Klemm, Georges Cuvier, Adolf Bastian, Louis Agassiz, E.B. Tylor, Franz Boas, Augustus Franks, Frank Cushing, Augustus Pitt-Rivers; the list goes on. With a relentless anecdotalism, we learn how the financier George Peabody was “blackballed” when he was put forward for membership of London’s Reform Club, and how the Smithsonian Institution’s John Wesley Powell liked to spend his holidays. The verdict of anthropologist Tim Ingold on another of Kuper’s histories of anthropology comes to mind: It “reads like a lengthy footnote to modern anthropology, of marginal and mainly antiquarian interest.” 

The kick, however, comes with Kuper’s desire to refute the way in which he claims anthropology museums have been “charged with sequestering other peoples’ heirlooms.” He describes an openness to returning the Benin Bronzes, looted by British troops in 1897, as driven by “attacks on the right of Museums of Other People to own, display and interpret their collections.” Reviewing cases of the return and reburial of ancestral human remains from museums, from Kennewick Man to Sara Baartman, Kuper criticizes what he calls “the taken-for-granted dogma that body parts should be buried,” given the wide cultural diversity of attitudes to the treatment of the dead. In Washington, DC, he claims that the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian were established as concessions to “reverberations of the culture wars.” 

“These identity museums,” he rails, “represent a potent challenge to the Museum of Other People,” whose “shell-shocked” curators are giving into “identity politics” — which, in his view, represents a challenge to the very authority of anthropologists to write about “other people,” and to anthropology as a discipline. “Claims of insight based on identity may be understood as a power play,” he writes. Giving into such “romanticism,” museums will usher in “the silencing of scholarly expertise,” he warns. It may even become “impossible, in good faith, to undertake ethnographic research” at all. 

But what exactly is Kuper’s “Museum of Other People”? A lengthy complaint about the closure 26 years ago of London’s Museum of Mankind provides the answer. The institution was an anthropological outpost of the British Museum that opened in Mayfair in 1970. Kuper relates how the Museum of Mankind was curated by his contemporaries, with whom he “shared the same intellectual formation,” before it was shut down by “high-and-mighty mandarins.” This defunct institution is offered, improbably, as a model for a future “cosmopolitan museum” — where visitors are “free to enjoy the prizes and surprises of unexpected juxtapositions.” Where in the past, Kuper sought to police the boundary between anthropology and sociology, now he is vexed by the anthropology museum’s relationship with art history. From the Metropolitan Museum in New York to Musée du quai Branly in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, art historians are continuously blamed by Kuper for the erasure of living traditions of anthropological modes of curation.

The dénouement comes with Kuper’s criticism of the removal in 2020 of a controversial display in the institution at which I work, Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum. The glass cabinet bore the title “The Treatment of Dead Enemies.” It stood close to the entrance to the galleries, operating for more than a century as a kind of introductory case for the museum as a whole. The “Dead Enemies” cabinet displayed human skulls, skin, hair, and teeth from Canada, the United States, Brazil, Borneo, Nigeria, Malaysia, India, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, alongside ten examples of “shrunken heads” (tsantsas) from Ecuador and Peru made from human, sloth and monkey heads. There was even a bamboo knife from Melanesia with a label that claimed it was “used for cutting off heads during head-hunting raids,” two notches supposedly representing two victims. In reality, when it was installed in 1903, the “Dead Enemies” display was dedicated to promoting the myth of cannibalistic “headhunter” cultures as a meaningful sociological class or type for comparative anthropology. At the same time, it was a kind of in-joke by the Edwardian curator, suggesting that the main rationale of this colonial museum was to display objects and human remains raided from the “dead enemies” of the British Empire.

Kuper makes the odd suggestion that the “Dead Enemies” case was “no doubt dear to General Pitt-Rivers’ heart” — despite having been installed three years after the death of the museum’s founder, and almost a quarter of a century after the soldier-anthropologist was involved in any aspect of its regime of display. He also fails to mention that even Augustus Pitt-Rivers argued, back in 1882, that antiquities should not be seen as trophies of war, and that stolen monuments might be returned to Africa and “put up again in their proper places.” Kuper criticizes the museum’s removal of the display on the grounds that the Shuar and the Achuar people who made tsantsas have “no traditional or recent precedent” for burying shrunken heads. He makes no reference to that old grizzly racist trope of head-hunter societies and its message about the supposedly “barbarous” and “primitive” nature of supposedly “other” people — an instance of “identity politics” if ever we saw one.

“This is not about imperial nostalgia,” Nigel Biggar states. How then should we understand the emergence of these marginal tracts of the new anti-anti-colonialism? Why should we even concern ourselves with attention-seeking, reactionary retirement diatribes that cling to tacit infatuations with failed modes of supremacy? Perhaps they can, as Richard Drayton has observed, “provide insight into how some of the embers of empire continue to burn, and even to kindle obscure new flames.” 

Taken together, the Biggar-Kuper axis represents a kind of salvage auto-ethnography of the neo-melancholic, anti-anti-colonialist that shines a light on a wider phenomenon. They serve to remind us of how in the museum and the university, we encounter enduring imperial belief systems that make it hard to imagine the world otherwise. This is reminiscent of what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism.” These books document the increasingly desperate, hollow rhetoric of a cultural revanchism that tries to hold onto those parts of modern British society that were co-opted by 19th-century colonial ideologies, and put to work for the fabrication of what we might, following Fisher, call “colonialist realism.” As a technology of display, the anthropological museum was co-opted in attempts to conjure and evangelize colonialist realism and to make it last. As a technology of memory, so too was the field of imperial history, whose past propagandistic redactions of dispossession and violence these books now seek to reinscribe. 

The backlash against reevaluating British colonialism is turgid and scattergun in its melancholy. But it reveals the extremes to which those who still yearn for those pathological forms of wilful amnesia and collective repression of British colonial brutality, to which Paul Gilroy bore witness, will now go to find new skins for the old wine of colonialist realism.

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His latest book is The Brutish Museums, Twitter @ProfDanHicks and Instagram @ProfDanHicks

One reply on “Beware the Rise of Anti-Anti-Colonialism”

  1. Dan,
    This article was really hard to follow. While – I think – I agree with its premise, the term anti-anti- colonialism may have click bait allure, but its double cancellation renders it meaningless. Where is Hyperallergic’s editor? It comes off as a gratuitously rambling academic lecture about the clash of cultural perspectives. These opinions and debates have always been present in academia representing the first ugly drafts of published history – which as you observe – is in a constant state of revision, thank goodness. Tracking the variety of perspectives that make up our public understanding of history can be fascinating to discuss if the interrogation is made for the purpose clarity, and not lost to the weeds of ‘verbose and obscuring verbiage’.

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