Breeding ‘Post-Imperial’ Nations

By Leslie Allin

Issue 5.2 | September 1, 2014

Nadine Attewell. Better Britons: Reproduction, National Identity, and the Afterlife of Empire. University of Toronto Press, 2013. 324 pp. 

This work is a refreshing and timely intervention in the ongoing process that nation states formerly part of the British Empire use to determine who belongs within a political community. Nadine Attewell’s Better Britons: Reproduction, National Identity, and the Afterlife of Empire investigates how ideas about British and settler citizenship in the 20th and 21st centuries are forged through the policing and politics of reproduction. The work’s title gestures not only to the fantasy of constructing an improved national identity derived from the mother country, but also to the established tropes of constructing, via Australia and New Zealand, better Britains. Interrogating visions of the future articulated through ideas about reproduction, Attewell unpacks projects of identity construction and nation-building in order to unsettle narratives of settlement and destabilize colonial amnesias surrounding origins.

Examining the recent colonial histories and attendant reproductive discourses of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, Better Britons insists that we recognize the enduring cultural blindness to the deployment of forced sterilization and visions of forced reproduction as weapons of colonial control. This work argues that, since settler identity has been largely based on imagining indigeneity for itself, the project of narrating a right to occupy territory has necessitated the erasure of the indigenous bodies on whom the illegitimacy of the colonial state is inscribed. Hence, through fantasies of reproductive control—that is, of reproducing legitimate bodies and foreclosing the reproduction of non-legitimate bodies—the state imagines it can limit the presence of Indigenous people within colonial territory, identify what kinds of bodies will be part of the nation, and obfuscate territorial challenges to the state that Indigenous people embody.

Rooted in feminist and queer theory and critical race studies, this work is in dialogue with other scholars interested in imperial legacies, such as Anne McClintock, Paul Gilroy, Ella Shohat, and Daniel Coleman. In further situating this book critically, Attewell addresses the problematic status of the framework of post-coloniality and the dubious status of the “post” for contemporary Indigenous peoples, as well as the existence of ongoing neo-colonial projects globally. Similarly, Attewell uses the notion of empire’s “afterlife” in order to gesture to the lingering relationships of dominance that constitute imperial residue, and to articulate that the persistent denial of empire’s impact on the present itself still remains, although haunted by structures that refuse to die.

Attewell’s methodology is as refreshingly original as her subject of inquiry. While she considers fiction, poetry, film, and drama, Attewell also investigates modernist texts beyond literary genres, such as governmental memoranda, public debates, immigration policy, and other institutional writing, in order to underscore a broad and pervasive social preoccupations with the constitution of national identity. In this way, Attewell draws attention to broad and underlying cultural orientations rather than limiting her focus to a particular aesthetic. Although Attewell’s explicit discussion of generic expectations in her analyses of texts is light, she nevertheless offers her readers nuanced, historically integrated, and critically informed readings of the texts’ cultural and political concerns. This study’s structure reflects the integration of different kinds of texts in social discourses in order to outline the extensiveness of this socio-political project of nation-building through fantasies about reproduction. Moving from the early decades of the 20th century to 2012, and back and forth from Australia to New Zealand to Britain, Attewell powerfully demonstrates the temporal and spatial continuity of the mechanisms by which “post-imperial” and settler identity construction leverage discourses surrounding reproduction.

Part One, Beginnings, reads three works of science fiction alongside the Australian government’s intervention in the lives of Northern Territory Aboriginals in the 1930s. In a eugenic initiative called “breeding out the colour,” women of mixed Indigenous and white decent were encouraged to marry white husbands in order to shift the racial composition of the state. In an unconventional but highly productive pairing, Beginnings demonstrates that the institutional texts (from governmental memoranda to ethnographic photographs) that comprise part of this eugenic project share with contemporary modernist novels the belief that alterations in reproductive practice can determine social organization as they underscore the central elements in the enterprise of nation-building. Chapter one explores how Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher (1934) imagine radical social transformations as underpinned by systems of reproductive control. These works, Attewell argues, articulate imperial anxieties surrounding crossings of the boundaries dividing nation and colony, with the contact zone figuring as a threat to national reproduction. These fears about identity transgression lie behind fantasies of reproductive management as a means to control who constitutes the nation. Isolation and insularity, then, become modes of guarding against contamination. Attewell thus teases out the key trope of “island solutions”—that is, the notion of geographical isolation and the retraction of national boundaries—in utopian projects of reproductive reform, biosocial engineering, and nation-building.  

Against this insight, Attewell reads the machinations and implications of “breeding out the colour.” Examining a range of institutional writing and contemporaneous fiction, chapter two brings into sharp relief the process of the Australian government’s concerted “forgetting” of the presence of Indigenous people and their claim to territory. The project insisted that the Australian nation would be a white one; the control of reproduction—the invasion of the private lives of indigenous people through state promotions of interracial marriage and claims of guardianship of Indigenous children, along with the rendering of Aboriginal people into data through governmental surveillance and descriptions of their ages, complexion, and locations—attempted to produce such a society. The central mechanism of displacing Indigenous people from their land was erasure: governmental intervention was figured as white paternity as the state asserted custody of Indigenous children in order to replace Aboriginal parentage, thus erasing genealogy. Meanwhile, the disruption of Aboriginal structures of kinship obfuscated knowledge of Aboriginal bloodlines, thus erasing proof of biological descent and with it Aboriginal land rights. Drawing on the connection between this history of genealogical effacement and late 20th-century federal laws that base Aboriginal access to land on demonstrable biological descent from Indigenous groups, Attewell argues that the focus on the absorption of otherness—the erasure of an indigeneity that was entitled to space—through reproduction still obtains and is furthermore a crucial element of Australian modernity.

While Part One outlines efforts to breed better national subjects, Part Two, Endings, engages with fantasies of collapse in order to configure futures of national belonging. Chapter three returns to analyses of fiction and historically rooted close readings to continue an interrogation of how women are rendered responsible for the labour of reproducing the healthy nation and the “right sort” (115) of subjects. Here, Attewell investigates how abortion as a form of foreclosure is also a gesture to other possible futures—futures alternate to motherhood. The texts examined rework the dominant narrative that the need for abortion (i.e. premarital sex) was evidence of loose morals, and thus justified policing women’s sexual and reproductive actions in order to secure a moral citizenry of the future. F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) invites readers to think about the asymmetrical access to medically sound abortion along class lines and conveys the need for more complex understandings of female desire—ones that do not simply frame it within questions of degenerative morality or abnormality. This chapter also uses abortion to explore the genealogies between metropole and colony and questions about authentic and/or mutated Englishness. In Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark (1934), abortion, as undertaken by Anna, the Creole woman whose miscegenated white body threatens the biological division between the ‘English’ centre and colonial periphery, works to police reproduction insofar as it affirms dominant ideas about which classes are fit to reproduce. In the protagonist’s case, unwed pregnancy and thus sexual conduct (which is also bound up with her ambiguous racial and national position) signifies as maternal incompetence. However, Anna’s preoccupation with returning to Dominica and its troubled colonial genealogies, after she’s taken to England to “[start] all over again” (134) reworks fantasies of home and belonging. As well, her own body of mixed heritage underscores what Attewell calls a “counter-genealogy of Britishness” (143) by bringing to the surface the messiness of Britain’s imperial past in the face of a national investment in forgetting.

Attewell’s next section explores the apprehension of loss (of children and/as nation) within marginal forms of maternity in the interwar period. New Zealand author Robin Hyde, in her late 1930s texts, Wednesday’s Children and The Book of Nadath, imagines the foreclosure of reproduction as a way to think through resistance to the war machine—that is, the refusal to supply bodies destined to become soldiers—and explore fantasies of loss as apotropaic manoeuvres. Imagining the experience of loss (of children, of a future with an internationalist logic, of land and sovereignty, and of the seemingly ever-vanishing native), Attewell argues, potentially enables Pākehā visions of a utopic New Zealand nation that hinges on the imagined death of both settlers, whose bodies merge with the soil, and Indigenous people, who are constructed as already disappeared. These manoeuvres then enable Pākehā settler society to obscure Māori survival in order legitimate their own claims to indigenous land.

Attewell’s fifth chapter links 21st century demographic panic about Islamic populations proliferating to outnumber dwindling white European ones to sensationalist warnings of race suicide in the South Pacific in the beginning of the 20th century. This contemporary panic, Attewell contests, is underpinned by contentions about defining Britishness (for example, along racial, geographical, or ideological lines) in the afterlife of empire. In considering the ways in which fantasies of collapse that emerge from anxieties regarding racial demographics articulate what the nation should become—who will be inside and who will be outside—Attewell analyzes Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s 2002 zombie film 28 Days Later and its association of the Rage virus with foreign threats coming back to impact the metropole. Importantly, she notes, the trope of zombification in post-slavery Caribbean societies served to articulate the dehumanizing effects of the imperial slave system and its moral bankruptcy. The zombie was thus a historically complex figure who represented the injured slave, and whose proliferation—that is, reproduction of future slaves—was enforced by laws of the white slave-holding society that dehumanized enslaved people. Meanwhile, as Attewell points out, in 28 Days Later, the role of non-zombies in zombie reproduction is entirely obfuscated by the viral element. Instead, a decontextualized, dehistoricized Rage, associated with decontextualized, dehistoricized Third World violence, is positioned as the root of the attack on Britain. The film, she argues, goes on to imagine the future through purification, gesturing to a fantasy of rebuilding society, and reconstituting the family unit in a pastoral setting. Attewell deftly demonstrates just how relevant camouflaging the violence of empire and demarcating insiders and outsiders is to recent pernicious British National Party efforts to align immigration with colonialism. In doing so, she powerfully argues for the importance of foregrounding the historical and political valences of “indigeneity.”

Attewell closes her book with a consideration of how otherness emerges in the family through the figure of the child as immigrant. In a captivating reading of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Enrique López Lavigne’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), Attewell unpacks how the family—so central to a vision of the future in 28 Days—becomes a site of violence and a source of infection: it is through familial relations and genetic inheritance that Rage is able to go global. Thus, this model of violence disrupts the notion of a healthy inside and a contaminated outside. At the analogous level of the nation, then, that children from mixed-marriages can access British citizenship suggests the promise of new histories of imperial genealogy that are, as Attewell puts it, “written … on the surface of the body” (211). In other words, a careful consideration of bodies as archives potentially and productively disrupts the fictions of settler “ab-originality” (214), not by locating origins but by making visible ruptures and discontinuities in so-called “post-imperial” narratives of belonging and homemaking. 

This rich and complex study forcefully encourages a redress of the ongoing amnesia regarding brutal racial histories of empire and reveals them to be very much alive in contemporary culture. While Attewell’s focus is on genealogies between Britain and the South Pacific, her study invites explorations, using similar critical perspectives, methodologies, and research questions, into the workings of discourses about reproduction in other Anglo-settler societies, such as Canada, the United States, and South Africa. Though there is some question of how the importance of the “island solution” as nation-building trope would translate to spaces with land borders, my sense is that settler-invader configurations of territory, boundaries, and narratives about inheritance of land feature key similarities to the kinds of fictions that Attewell teases out.

While Better Britons will be fascinating to scholars specializing in empire studies, indigenous studies, and critical race theory, along with those working within post-colonial, queer, and feminist perspectives, anyone working on twentieth and twenty-first literatures within the former British Empire would benefit from reading this sophisticated book.

Leslie Allin is a recent doctoral graduate from the University of Guelph. She is currently working on her first book project, which, examining adventure fiction and government archives, argues that British aggressions and confrontations in Africa between the Anglo-Zulu War and the early twentieth century produced crises in identity that yielded profound reconstitutions of national conceptions of imperial masculinity and martial efficacy.