Philip Tsang's Obsolete Empire asks a hard and inconvenient question: What does it mean to be attached to an empire that does not recognize you as a full subject? The answer, in his account, tells us not just about empire but about literariness itself: about how and why individuals affiliate with a given literary tradition or author; about literature's status as a form of untimely object, always representing the distance between past and present. Empire, as he describes it, is a “totality of obsolete objects” (11)—including literary texts. Literariness, here, comes to mark the sense of historical distance represented by obsolescence—a sense that this object is not your own, but you might be attached to it anyway.

Crucially, these attachments, in his telling, are not the mere workings out of imperial power, not merely the imposed products of a colonial education system. Tsang highlights instead “the historical contingency of readerly...

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