Zachary Samalin: Genealogies of Self-Accusation

A 1901 depiction of the Morant Bay rebellion

by Zachary Samalin

Response to Bruce Robbins: On the Non-representation of Atrocity

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

In his V21 symposium keynote lecture, “Atrocity in the Novel, Atrocity in History,” Bruce Robbins asks whether it is reasonable or instead “unacceptably presentist” to “expect the great epoch of European realism to ‘do’ atrocity in the particular, self-accusing sense” he is interested in examining, in which “‘we’ accuse ourselves of doing something outrageously cruel, collective, and indiscriminate to ‘others.’” “Arguably,” Robbins continues, “such representations only became possible after European civilization had been shocked out of its pre-Copernican complacency by the Holocaust and the rise of anti-colonial movements. In the nineteenth century, those shocks were still to come” (Robbins 2016: 4-5). Perhaps not surprisingly in a room full of Victorian literature specialists, the response to Robbins’ lecture during the question and answer session produced a long list of 19th century works that audience members thought would complicate, enrich, trouble or outright repudiate Robbins’ hypothesis that the literature of the 19th century had yet to achieve a certain form of critical self-consciousness, and so was incapable of indicting political brutality and violence. To the contrary, this audience response seemed to suggest, the archive of 19th century literature is rife with examples of just what Robbins is looking for.

In the following response to Robbins’ lecture, I want to theorize more specifically the tension between these two seemingly irreconcilable positions, by examining one of Robbins’ central theses about the entwinement of politics and aesthetics—namely, that literature can and perhaps ought to lay claim to a privileged role in the articulation of “civilizational self-accusation,” especially in the context of the atrocities of modern imperialism. The notion that the literary has the capacity to register unwanted self-implication in destructive sociopolitical processes is extremely compelling; but, unlike Robbins, it is also an aesthetic innovation that I have come to associate with various currents in 19th century literature. And yet, as half a century of postcolonial literature and theory has helped us to see, this sophisticated innovation, which allowed for the registration, in narrative form, of undesired conditions of immanence, did little to turn the critical gaze of the 19th century novel outwards, that is, towards the ongoing atrocity of the British empire. When we read the literature of the mid- to late-19th century—Little Dorrit (1857), Notes from Underground (1864), The Belly of Paris (1873)—we don’t find a journalistic subjectivity reporting on the turbulent decades of perpetual war in Algeria, Persia, the Crimea, India, Burma, Vietnam, and China; but we do encounter a complex structure of feeling, beginning to emerge as something articulable, that conceived of modernity as a process of regressive self-destruction and of civilization as something unwanted that would soon sour itself from the inside out. In this respect, the question that Robbins’ lecture raises is to my mind not whether it is too ‘presentist’ to expect Flaubert or Dickens to have offered a critique of atrocity, but rather the enduring, perhaps more disturbing question of what specific forms of ideological blindness kept the novel form from extending the implications of its own socially critical and ethico-political insights to the imperial context?

The first point to make is that, when it came to its atrocities, 19th century Britain left behind an indisputably immense non-literary paper trail. Certain brutal events in the maintenance of the empire—such as the violent responses to the Morant Bay rebellion (1865) and the Indian revolt (1857-8)—were not only voluminously documented, but debated publicly and at length, and did much to bring to the fore the question of what it means to participate in a putatively modern and morally enlightened national culture. More often than not, as has been well established, such debates served to mask the violence intrinsic to imperialism and capitalism, focusing instead on the extent to which particular episodes of brutality and exploitation represented local failures and setbacks in the ongoing civilizing project of the British Empire. Thus while Governor Eyre came under fire in the aftermath of Morant Bay, the terms of public debate set by the Jamaica Committee did little to overturn the entrenched patterns of racist thought and economic opportunism which helped to prop up the central premises of imperial exploitation (see Holt 1992: 278-312). Like a good deal of the public and official reaction to the documentation of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in our own day, Morant Bay provided a space for a limited articulation of civilizational self-accusation in British public discourse—‘we don’t do that’—but only within a larger self-serving framework of disidentification, disavowal and civilizational (which is to say racial and cultural) arrogance that helped keep the inherent injustice of imperial occupation from taking center stage. Indeed, one limitation of framing critique in reference to specific atrocities made apparent through these examples is that the focus on the event of cruelty and violence runs the risk of obscuring patterns of ongoing or systemic exploitation.

Yet in their most trenchant form, 19th century critiques of imperialist violence did approach the form of self-critique that Robbins holds up as a more modern ideal. Marx’s criticism of the 1855 Report of the Commissioners for the Investigation of Alleged Cases of Torture in the Madras Presidency is exemplary in this respect (see Rao 2001). The report sought to establish the prevalence of physical torture and brutality as a systemic means of extracting tax revenue within British India for the profit of the East India Company, only to disavow responsibility for that violence and to condemn it, with characteristic outrage and condescension, in the racialized language of barbarism. “Our aim,” the report concludes, “is to guard the Natives against themselves” (Report 1855: 70). As Marx summarized the report, “The universal existence of torture as a financial institution of British India is thus officially admitted, but the admission is made in such a manner as to shield the British Government itself” (Marx [1857]1975: 66). Yet as Marx goes on to observe, “a few extracts from the evidence on which the Madras Report professes to be founded, will suffice to refute its assertion that ‘no blame is due to Englishmen,’” and to document instead the systematically exploitative nature of capitalist imperialism. Far from evidencing the need for colonial paternalism, Marx thought the report ought to raise for the “dispassionate and thoughtful men” of Europe the more self-implicating question of “whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects” (Marx 1975: 69). Marx’s indictment of the Madras Report may not be precisely what Robbins has in mind when he argues for the cosmopolitan modernity of civilizational self-accusation as a “very special subset of atrocity-response in which ‘we’ accuse ourselves of doing something outrageously cruel, collective, and indiscriminate to ‘others’” (Robbins 2016: 2)—but if not, it is certainly a close relative.

While Marx’s writings on India often lapse into a more rigidly developmental-teleological mode, according to which capitalism represents the first step necessary for Asian civilizations to catch up with world history, his observations about the Madras Report do more to highlight the complex ways that the question of identification came in this period to animate the representational dynamic of critique. The difference between the critical language of civilizational self-accusation, as Robbins formulates it, and the exculpatory language of civilizational disavowal, as exemplified by the Madras Report, hinges precisely on such vectors of identification—that is, on a speaker’s imagined participation in a particular ideological community. In this respect, while Robbins observes that “the modern weakening of membership” is a prerequisite for the distance needed to understand atrocity as such, I would argue that the unwanted (but inescapable) identification with destructive processes is in fact the crucial psychosocial component he ought to pursue, rather than the fraying of communal bonds more customarily associated with the onset of modernity (Robbins 2016: 1). Due in large part to a post-Enlightenment legacy that idealizes disinterestedness and objective distance, we have yet to provide even the basic outline of a history for this capacity for unwanted identification.

Understanding how these two opposite movements—towards a desirable disinterest and an undesired involvement—were fused to one another throughout the 19th century is a significant and unfinished task for scholars of the period, in the first place because their fusion accounts for the antithetical attachments to the impulse to document violence and atrocity that I have been describing. The imperialist impulse to represent violence in order to disavow it as something always perpetrated by an other, or to frame it as an exceptionality that justifies rule, cannot be fully distinguished from the self-implicating impulse to expose that violence as immanent to modernity. This is in part because they share the same language, as reflected by Marx’s insistence that blue books are the only evidence of systemic violence one needs. Though we often think of Marxist thought as working to fill in the gaps in the official discourse, I am suggesting instead that we attend to what Marx presupposes is the radical transparency of the language of domination—the presupposition that violence and exploitation had become self-evident, and were written brazenly on the surface of things in the language of the perpetrators. We might therefore take Robbins’ call to place the writing of atrocity within a longue durée of moral development as an invitation to theorize this intersection of the genealogy of self-accusation and unwanted identification with the historical transformations which allowed atrocity to be written legibly and out in the open, rather than hidden or buried in secret.

At the same time that we see extensive evidence of such a complex public discourse for engaging atrocity in 19th century Britain, we also know that in different national and cultural contexts, literary and artistic production began to develop a wide array of aesthetic strategies for representing atrocity throughout the 19th century while simultaneously problematizing the presumed security of the disinterested observer. Goya’s Disasters of War come to mind, as does the archive of 19th century photographs that Nathan Hensley and Zahid Chaudhary have recently written about; indeed Hensley has helped us to see precisely how these hermeneutic questions about the representation of violence and its implied spectators remain unanswered in the aftermath of empire (see Chaudhury 2012; Hensley 2013). Similarly, slave narrative and abolitionist literature in the United States—which of course tended not to focus only on specific atrocities but on the systemic and juridical nature of slavery under capitalism—bear directly on Robbins’ claims about the 19th century’s representational capacity for moral indictment. However, I present these not so much as counter-examples, but rather as indices of the more particular absence that Robbins has helped us to identify. We know that British imperial atrocities were voluminously documented and often publicly debated as potentially undermining the civilizational project; and we know that the 19th century saw the development of a more radical social scientific and socially critical discourse of self-accusation, that sprouted up out of an official discourse of disavowal; and, finally, we know as well that other aesthetic traditions in other cultural contexts have done a better job than the British novel at representing atrocities through some form of self-accusation or communal indictment.

So then one question: What to call this kind of ideological absence or moral-aesthetic caesura? How does it work, and how can we grasp its psychosocial dynamics? I put the question this way, since we have previously relied on the vocabulary of symptom and repression to elaborate precisely these absences. And yet it seems clear, today, as it has for some time, that the tools afforded by the vocabulary of cultural neurosis don’t quite satisfy here, given that we are not dealing with an occluded or concealed discourse of atrocity that “returns” from its repression in the interstices of the literary text, but rather with the more disjointed, more deranged fact that this proliferate and public discourse did not find its fullest expression in the exemplary aesthetic form of the period, that is, in the novel. Why not? My sense is that we still need to sharpen and refine our historical account of the ways in which representation functions vis-à-vis the intolerable, the unwanted, the atrocious, and the unrepresentable—a newly sharpened account of the writing of the disaster that takes into account the different species of blindness and specific patterns of resistance endemic to modern literary forms.

These caesuras in the political consciousness of the Victorian novel become all the more jarring when we consider that, over the 19th century, literary texts, and perhaps the novel in particular, emerged as the cultural laboratory for testing out Enlightenment ideals and for exposing them as violent or vacuous, as cruelty in themselves—whether in the name of reactionary sentiment or liberalizing social critique or some impulses more nihilistic than either of those. I am thinking of earlier works like Juliette and Gulliver’s Travels just as much as later, increasingly socially engaged texts such as Our Mutual Friend, La Terre, Notes from Underground and Jude the Obscure. Considered from this angle, the literary domain in the 19th century was a sophisticated and complex arena for elaborating a deeply affective experience of unwanted self-implication and inevitable participation in a destructive order, founded on tenuous, inverted values.

Even if the 19th century did not “possess a public capable of demanding or enforcing scrutiny of ourselves from outside” (Robbins 2016: 24), it is clear to my mind that later authors as diverse as Achebe, Vallejo and Sebald returned to this more nihilistic 19th century conception of literature as a privileged space for giving voice to an unwanted relation of immanence in the destructive processes of modernity. Indeed, the outraged self-accusation Robbins describes, in order to transcend mere bad faith or ressentiment, needs to involve a more disturbing set of identifications than simply seeing oneself as though from without. A literary genealogy of civilizational self-accusation, then, might follow unpredictable lines back through unexpected pages, from the mushroom clouds of the 20th century Robbins begins with to the storm-clouds of the 19th. How can we further specify and describe this negative structure of feeling in the novel, give it a longer history that doesn’t stop and start according to the arbitrary constraints of post-hoc periodization, and which attends to its ever-shifting blind spots and its insights alike?


Chaudhury, Zahid. 2012. Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth Century India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hensley, Nathan. 2013. “Curatorial Reading and Endless War.” Victorian Studies 56, no.1: 59-83.

Holt, Tom. 1992. The Problem of Freedom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Marx, Karl. (1857) 1975. “Investigations of Tortures in India.” Reprinted in Marx, The First Indian War of Independence, 1857-1859. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Rao, Anupama. 2001. “Problems of Violence, States of Terror: Torture in Colonial India.” Interventions 3, no. 2:186-205

Report of the Commissioners for the Investigation of Alleged Cases of Torture in the Madras Presidency. 1855. Madras: Fort St. George Gazette Press.

Robbins, Bruce. “Atrocity as Self-Accusation.” 2016.



Zachary Samalin is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago.  He is currently working on a manuscript, The Masses Are Revolting: Victorian Culture and the Aesthetics of Disgust.