Prof. Eddy Kent publishes book on Corporate Culture in British India

Department of English and Film Studies Professor Eddy Kent has published a new book about Corporate Culture in British India.

Katherine Binhammer - 29 January 2015

How do empires work in the everyday? We can easily agree that power in the form of guns and money play a role in their establishment but how do empires keep functioning in the everyday bureaucratic way after the armies have gone home? The ordinariness of imperial power is the subject of Eddy Kent's new book, Corporate Character: Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786-1901, recently published by University of Toronto Press. When empires fail to function properly, Kent points out in a provocative preface, we notice.

Using the example of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal of 2004, he thinks about how imperial power manages (or, in this case, fails to manage) its operatives in the field. When asked if he felt responsible for the torture, then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said 'no' and claimed the impossibility of the center of power controlling all that happens on "the midnight shift" of its outposts. In other words, the challenge of empire that Kent unravels is "to cultivate an indirect mode of managing the workers on the midnight shift, wherein the imperial agents would regulate themselves" (xiii).

Kent's particular case study is British India which until the mid-nineteenth century was administered not by the crown, but by a private joint-stock corporation, the East India Company.

Kent refreshingly focuses not on the obvious British abuses of power in India but on the fact that Anglo-India was a "very orderly empire" that worked because average civil servants toiled away in a way that did not involve plunder and corruption but emerged from a belief that their job was making the world a better place. "Instead of trying to understand how and why an average liberty-loving Britain could support imperialism," Kent commented in an interview, "I was interested in the people (overwhelmingly men) who actually gave up their lives in Britain to work overseas. What, I ask, caused so many to work in relative anonymity for relatively little pay?"

I won't spoil the read by telling you the full answer. Suffice to say, culture plays a role in creating a "corporate character," an individual who believes in the virtuousness of their job. By analyzing parliamentary debates, documents from the East India Company's college for its civil servants,and literary texts from Sara Jeanette Duncan to Rudyard Kipling, to name a small section of theunique archive Kent has put together, he documents what he calls the first "corporate culture."

When asked what his book is about, Kent answers simply "my book traces the rise of what I argue is the world's first 'corporate culture.' We're comfortable with that phrase today-just pick up a newspaper and you'll see ads promoting 'The Best Companies to Work For.'" Reading Kent's book gives us insight into more than the particular case of the East India Company but also into the processes through which we feel positive attachments to our employers. As he says, "The story of the company man is a long one, to be sure, but I think I've come close to locating its origin." Congratulations to Prof. Eddy Kent on such a rich and prescient book.