Tropes and topazes: The colonialist tropology of the tropics in John Holmes' Art of Rhetoric and Grammarian's Astronomy

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This article examines the collusions and interrelations between two sites of the articulation of the European topographical imagination of the colonial era representations of the rhetorical category of 'trope', that are predicated on a narrative of the displacement of a word from one signification to another that is isomorphic with that of voyages to those new regions of the world known as the 'tropics', and geography manuals that map out those regions and the trajectory for such voyages to them. It argues, through a reading of two treatises by the eighteenth-century scholar John Holmes (The Art ofRhetoric and The Grammarian's Astronomy), that the discourse of tropology in rhetoric has as its imaginary the topographic production of the 'tropics' as locus of erotic longing, the setting for the staging of forbidden sexual impulses that are the alluring or menacing other of Western 'civilized' sexuality as well as of mercantilist desires. Holmes' tropology reveals its collusion with colonialist topography in its designation of the destination of trope's semiotic displacement as an 'improved' one, and of the displaced word-actant as 'native', in precise semantic overlap with narratives of colonialist pedagogy that camouflaged mercenary and mercantile desires for a land, much of which is known in imperialist parlance as the 'tropics', and which becomes the imaginary backdrop of tropology. Holmes' Grammarians Astronomy is predicated upon a similar imaginary geography, wherein Europe (and in particular England) are given a punctilious representation that renders them privileged sites of presence, order, decorum and cultural development, while the tropics are represented as inferior, grotesque, primitive and relatively empty, and at the same time as a pastoral domain of a utopia that has been lost but always awaits its reconstitution in a future anterior that is eternally about to happen, thus implicitly inviting the extension of the European mercantilist libido into them and staging an imaginary prelude to colonization in the real. This imaginary prelude is predicated on the rhetorical form of enargeia or vivid description of the tropics as a site of material disorder that yearns for phallic imprinting that in the rhetorical tradition is symbolically associated with the 'master trope' of metaphor, the general equivalent of elocution. Holmes' Astronomy adumbrates through rhetorical technique the narrative of greed and exploitation which so often underlay European colonial practice during the Enlightenment, and that, in the genre of rhetoric, is inscribed into the elocutionary categories of trope and its most privileged subdivision, metaphor. Rhetoric, then, subserves the tropothetic production of the tropics as site of fantasy, and the libidinally invested geographies of the tropics filter into rhetorical discourse to serve as the anasemic substratum of tropology. The t(r)opological becomes the sign of a generic category crisis where the boundaries between the rhetorical treatise and the geography manual are destabilized to a point that reveals their common imbrication in the fantasy of possessing lands that is pastoral and Utopian as much, and at the same time, as it is economic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-303
Number of pages19
JournalTextual Practice
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1997


  • Colonialism
  • Holmes, John
  • Metaphor
  • Rhetoric
  • Symbolic economy
  • Trope


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