Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, With a New Preface. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010.
In this highly-acclaimed book, first published in 2002, Ann Stoler identifies and explains what she calls “connections between the broad-scale dynamics of colonial rule and the intimate sites of implementation.” The author, who teaches anthropology and history at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan, points to Jean Taylor’s 1983 book, The Social World of Batavia, as one of her primary sources of inspiration. What seems clear, however, is that Stoler has moved past the mostly-descriptive approach found in Taylor’s work, and has gone on to build a sophisticated interpretive framework for understanding colonial rule.
In Chapter 1, Stoler offers a rationale for her approach: it is rooted in her observation that “domains of the intimate figured so prominently in the perceptions and policies of those who ruled.” These, she says, “are the locations that allow us to identify what [Michel] Foucault might have called the microphysics of colonial rule. In them I locate the affective grid of colonial politics.” Stoler emphasizes that historians of colonialism have typically ignored or completely missed "the intimacies of empire.” Her goal is to explore them primarily at a certain place and time in colonial history, “the Netherlands Indies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century" (7-8). Beginning on page 13, the author describes each successive chapter of her book, adding that the overall structure is both "modular and recursive." That is to say, while each chapter has a stand-alone quality, the book is not a simple conglomeration; later chapters sometimes refer to and connect with ideas presented in previous ones. The chapters appear in their chronological order of composition. But this is not to say that the chapters are “linear,” although Stoler regards the sequence as “logical” (20).
Chapter 2 begins with Stoler’s complaint that conventional histories entirely miss an interesting possibility: colonial experiments impacted colonizers as much as the colonized. By way of correction, she notes that colonial projects typically gave rise to “new constructions of what it meant to be European.” And, she adds, while racism “is an inherent product of the colonial encounter,” the character and intensity of racism varies widely among different times and locales (24). The emergence of “poor whites” and the arrival of white women in the colony provide plenty of examples. Both categories, says Stoler, “marked and threatened the limits of white prestige and colonial control” (26). By comparing the boisterous Dutch plantation belt in Sumatra with the older, more-settled colonial estates in Java, the author is able to show that the lines dividing the colonizer from the colonized were neither straight nor fixed. Instead, they constantly shifted so as to properly limit “who had access to property and privilege and who did not” (39).
In Chapter 3, Stoler explores her idea that "sexual control was more than a convenient metaphor for colonial domination.” More to the point, it was “a fundamental class and racial marker implicated in a wider set of relations of power" (45). She points, for example, to a typical arrangement in the colonies according to which a European man would take an Asian concubine. These relationships turned complicated and troublesome whenever European men became emotionally attached to their concubines, and especially when children were born. The ambiguous racial character and social standing of the child created an array of problems. In time, because of such dilemmas, prostitution and marriage replaced concubinage. By way of comparison, Stoler notes that this changeover mirrors the Spanish colonization of Mexico during the sixteenth century. At first, concubinage was condoned. But once offspring began to confuse the distinctions between ruler and ruled, colonial authorities imposed sanctions so that either marriage or prostitution would satisfy the sexual desires of colonial men. That factors other than traditional Christian morality were at work is clearly demonstrated by the fact that concubinage was tolerated and even encouraged at certain times, but discouraged and even condemned at others.
Chapter 4 focuses on “the construction of colonial categories and national identities” and on those people “who ambiguously straddled, crossed, and threatened these imperial divides” (79). As an example, the author tells the story of an 1898 court case in Haiphong, French Indochina (modern Vietnam) that involved a métis young man and his French father. The son was convicted of having committed a violent crime. Before sentencing, the father appealed to the court to be lenient to his son who was, after all, of French descent. In response, the attention of the proceedings turned to a different sort of affront; namely that in the eyes of the court the alleged father had apparently so neglected his son that the young man was illiterate and did not bear the qualities of a French subject. Quotations from the record reveal a court in which prejudice and hypocrisy were the rule. Interestingly, at this exact time, Dutch sentiment concluded that anyone who had been raised and educated in the Indies could not possibly be a bearer of Western culture and civilization. Commenting on the Mixed Marriage Law of 1898, Stoler says, “Nowhere in the Dutch colonial record was the relationship among gender prescription, class membership, and racial category so contentiously debated and so clearly defined" (101). In keeping with the new law, a European or Indo-European woman who dared to marry a native man was said to have “already sunk so deep socially and morally” that her decision did not result in ruin. It merely served to “clarify her situation" (103).
According to its subtitle, Chapter 5 takes up the topic of “Children on the Imperial Divide.” Stoler observes that European policy makers and those who commented on the colonial experience seem practically paranoid about the upbringing of children. Parental neglect and the dangers associated with delinquents among the colonized are common themes. In response to such fears, Dutch authorities established schools in the colonies, particularly kindergartens, in order to curb what they saw as the decadence of language and morality in European and Indo children. (Of course, colonizers first had to answer the question of the political identity of a child. Would a mixed-blood child be incorporated or excluded?) Turning from school to the home, Stoler notes that, while having servants represented the wealth and prestige of colonial families, the very presence of those servants were a threat to the "Dutchness" of the children growing up in those families.
Chapter 6, “A Colonial Reading of Foucault,” is the most theoretical section of the book. Throughout this complicated segment, Stoler writes about a previous book of hers, Race and the Education of Desire, and also about the publications and theories of the highly-influential French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Because I have not read any of these works, I found it difficult to follow Stoler’s questions and lines of reasoning, in spite of her summaries. What seems clear enough is that, in this chapter, she attempts to resolve her enthusiasm for Foucault’s ideas with what seemed to her a critical gap in his writings: “the issue of race” (140). This omission had created a dissonance for Stoler who was convinced from her research that “the making of race” was a significant factor in the placing of sexuality “at the center of imperial politics” (142). Listening to a series of recorded lectures delivered by Foucault in 1976 was a revelation to her: in fact, Foucault had at least taken up the subject of race in these lectures which were transcribed and published relatively late. Stoler seems relieved and reoriented when she says,
No one would argue that the 1976 lectures offer a comprehensive analysis either of racial discourses or of racisms of the state. On the other hand, few others have asked such discomforting questions about modern state formations or explored the reversibilities of racial discourses and the process of reversal. If Foucault pressed on some questions more than others, it is for us twenty years later to take on the ones he could and did not (160).
And with that, she states that it is up to the current generation of scholarship “to understand the conditions of possibility that give racial thinking its continuing and refurbished currency.” In fact, the attempt to discern “what joins racisms, biopolitics, and modern states” serves to extend the legacy of Foucault, who encouraged “the writing of histories that nourish reversals, recuperations, and insurrections within them.” She says that next chapter “is an effort in that direction” (161).
Chapter 7, written with Karen Strassler,“attempts an about-face.” It turns away from the viewpoint of Dutch colonizers and focuses on “the ways in which Javanese women and men who worked as servants in late colonial Indonesia saw their Dutch employers” (162).
Throughout this chapter, the authors struggle with theoretical and practical issues like the historical value of personal interviews and the dynamics of younger, western scholars posing questions to older, Asian former servants. Questions about how to conduct interviews in ways that generate candid, accurate, and relevant responses, how to account for facial gestures and body language, and how to interpret what was said, are just as important to the authors as the transcripts of the interviews. Eventually, they put aside their inhibitions and allow the reader to listen in as it were. When they do, conspicuously absent is the nostalgia commonly reported by the Dutch. Javanese former servants rarely speak of emotional attachment to their colonial overlords or their children. What they do remember is that their jobs working for the Dutch were simply that. This book includes several dozen remarkable photographs, many of which appear in this chapter. One of the more remarkable features of several of the photos is how the Asian servants often seem more like props than people, often unnamed and unacknowledged in the original captions. More than anything else, perhaps, this chapter points to an alternate direction for future research.
The book’s epilogue is titled, “Caveats on Comfort Zones and Comparative Frames.” Here, Stoler takes up a phrase coined by Friedrich Nietzsche and repeated by Foucault. By “comfort zones” Nietzsche meant those familiar areas of research that scholars mark off and within which they conduct their work. I take the expression “comparative frames” to mean the recognition or establishment of categories for the sake of comparison. Along these lines, Stoler reflects on the lack of precision and on the interpretive issues yet to be worked out in the field of colonial studies. Stoler’s “Preface to the 2010 Edition” extends that discussion by taking up what she calls “four broad problematics.” These have to do with “(1) the analytics of comparison and (2) the treatment of the intimate and what such a focus is expected to yield.” Stoler says that both of these “put insistent demands (3) on how we read colonial documents.” And each “bears on (4) the relationship between colonial pasts” and “the debris they leave behind” (ix-x).
Clearly, among other things, this book represents a tremendous amount scholarly work. In addition to the foregoing report, the book’s seventy pages of endnotes, with a bibliography running to some twenty-eight pages, testify to years of careful research. Just a glance at the endnotes reveals the author’s knowledge of a wide array of both primary and secondary sources, not to mention her own field work. Further, Stoler does not merely cite sources. She also describes and discusses them. Consequently, a good number of the endnotes read like short bibliographical essays that take up some aspect of the topic.
So what is the upshot? What are the outcomes that readers should take away from Stoler’s work? First, to use different words in order to repeat the author’s most basic point,“[p]rivate sentiments and public policy come together in the colonial . . . because domestic and familial intimacies were critical political sites in themselves where racial affiliations were worked out” (210).
Second, historians must recognize, as Albert Memmi insisted, that “colonialism creates both the colonizer and the colonized” (40).
Third, although conventional historiography emphasizes the differences between the various colonial experiments, what is striking is that “similar discourses were mapped onto such vastly different social and political landscapes” (80). Stoler indicates that this is the case because, although the particulars are always different, what is always at stake are interests like racial superiority and colonial control.
Fourth, probing the intimacies of colonial rule reveals that the historical truth is stranger than the innocent, or not so innocent, “fictions” of traditional historiography.
Fifth, colonial categories should not be understood as fixed, because they were “binding but unbound by those within them, were excessively rigid and exceeded their limits, had nuanced criteria for inclusion that were reworked by people who made them and by those who could not contain them” (8-9).
My main criticism and reservation about this book relates to its complexity. As critics on all sides point out, or concede, the cultural turn has lead to more-sophisticated readings of sources and, therefore, more-nuanced understandings of the past. This is commendable. But when reading Stoler's book, I could not help but think that here we have an example of sophistication gone to seed. Rather than quoting and discussing several passages, I city only one example. On pages 110 and 208 Stoler uses the adjective "Manichaean" to describe the dualistic colonial categories of "ruler and ruled." Why? The word is a rare, technical term. Used as an adjective, it refers to the dualistic cosmology and religious outlook developed by one Mani, an Iranian gnostic who lived during the third century C.E. Given that, there is nothing especially "Manichaean" about the categories the author describes. The use of the word in this context is imprecise as well as confusing. So there is no reason for her use such a term and every reason to avoid it. It confuses the reader and makes the author seem either “scholarly” or pretentious. In my opinion, Stoler could have brought the same very high level of sophistication, and could have provided the same nuanced understandings of the colonial and postcolonial experience, without using such complicated language.