The Rhetoric of Empire

Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration

The Rhetoric of Empire

Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 224 Illustrations: Published: March 1993

Author: David Spurr

Cultural Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

The white man's burden, darkest Africa, the seduction of the primitive: such phrases were widespread in the language Western empires used to talk about their colonial enterprises. How this language itself served imperial purposes--and how it survives today in writing about the Third World--are the subject of David Spurr's book, a revealing account of the rhetorical strategies that have defined Western thinking about the non-Western world.
Despite historical differences among British, French, and American versions of colonialism, their rhetoric had much in common. The Rhetoric of Empire identifies these shared features—images, figures of speech, and characteristic lines of argument—and explores them in a wide variety of sources. A former correspondent for the United Press International, the author is equally at home with journalism or critical theory, travel writing or official documents, and his discussion is remarkably comprehensive. Ranging from T. E. Lawrence and Isak Dineson to Hemingway and Naipaul, from Time and the New Yorker to the National Geographic and Le Monde, from journalists such as Didion and Sontag to colonial administrators such as Frederick Lugard and Albert Sarraut, this analysis suggests the degree to which certain rhetorical tactics penetrate the popular as well as official colonial and postcolonial discourse.
Finally, Spurr considers the question: Can the language itself—and with it, Western forms of interpretation--be freed of the exercise of colonial power? This ambitious book is an answer of sorts. By exposing the rhetoric of empire, Spurr begins to loosen its hold over discourse about—and between—different cultures.


“Spurr is excellent at showing how current western journalistic reports from what used to be called the ‘Third World’ are inheritors of, and more often than not complicit with, the most manifestly chauvinistic, racist, and triumphalist colonial writing on ‘the white man’s burden. . . . Spurr is also adept at illustrating how western systems of classification—whether of political forms or of racial characteristics—continue to inform ‘Third World’ debates, and how a stance of exasperation and an interest in the degradations of ‘native’ life, can continue to play into stereotypes coined by Victorian invaders. . . . Deeply worthwhile, thorough and even impassioned intervention in the archeological work of uncovering further variations and strategies in the copious archive of imperialist discursivity.” — Enda Duffy , ariel

“Spurr’s emphasis spans literature and journalism from Britain, France, and the U.S. in order to interpret their historical strategies on a number of registers and continents. . . . The Rhetoric of Empire successfully demonstrates our continued complicity with colonialism . . .” — Christopher Lane, Discourse

"The Rhetoric of Empire is a richly eclectic, innovative study. It should appeal to a considerable cross-section of scholars and students and gain recognition as a significant intervention in colonial studies." — Rob Nixon, Columbia University

"Spurr's ability to make connections between literature and its shadow discourse, journalism, and to show how the two work in tandem to reinforce the culture of colonialism, is really most impressive. The overall result of his approach is a broad perspective on the global problem of colonialism." — Christopher Miller, Yale University


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