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Abstract

This dissertation examines thematic and formal engagements with excess in the literature and aesthetic thought of the late British Empire, from 1890-1930. Attending to thematic representations of opulence and richness, invocations of luxury and extravagance, and formal experiments with superficiality and triviality, I locate these dynamic notions of excess in Anglophone literature and aesthetic thought (British, Anglo-American, Indian) from the end of the 19th century through the early decades of the 20th. The period from roughly 1890 to 1930 was marked by new heights of European imperial expansion—the British Empire having reached its fullest extent in 1922—as well as by an intensification of the trade in colonial commodities that had taken shape just before the start of the 18th century, and by the onset of a global depression that would throw the wealth of Europe’s belle époque into stark relief. This project mobilizes “excess” as an aesthetic concept with which a number of writers and aesthetic thinkers productively engaged with the defining problems of a modernity underwritten by imperial expansion. I understand excess to be both a relational and an aesthetic concept; throughout this project I engage excess as a concept invested in making sensible the transgression of normative boundaries, especially where such boundaries are figured in economic terms. This study elucidates a strain of aesthetic experimentation from this period whose explorations of opulence and richness approach excess—the ideal of a value irreducible to the market, the expression of desires that overrun heteronormative logic—as a principle that evokes connections across a striking set of processes. Such processes include the forms of trade that bind the metropole to its colonies, but also the idea of sexual transgression, of the exploitation of colonial labor, and the violence that underwrites territorial expansion. This dissertation thus contends that a set of aesthetic experiments with figures of opulence and other forms of excess, constitute sites of critical attunement, among artists and writers, to the imbrication of overproduction, overconsumption, and violence at the heart of the economy of the late British Empire. Over three chapters, I analyze literary, theoretical, and in some cases visual texts in the context of economic, sociological, and administrative discourse. Taking an interdisciplinary approach that integrates the study of various media, I situate the arts of the British Empire at the turn of the 20th century within a burgeoning and interdisciplinary attention to excess. I investigate modernist and decadent concepts of aesthetic autonomy, for instance, in the context of contemporary attempts to theorize luxury in the social sciences. I excavate debates that surrounded the future of Indian art in 1920s India in order to contextualize a tense colonial art-historical discourse that understood Indian art and Indian life to be perfectly continuous—and that, for some, articulated the ideal of the limitless appropriability and pliability of Indian labor. This dissertation endeavors to systematically study the role of excess in late 19th-20th century Anglophone aesthetics within an imperial context.

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