Richard Cándida Smith Reviews *Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our Times*

Historians in the News
tags: books, intellectual history

Richard Cándida Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published seven books, most recently Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) and over forty essays in publications from the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Britain. 

Duress is a broad-ranging, conceptually rich book that synthesizes the author’s forty years work rethinking the history of modern colonialism.  A historical anthropologist whose first book presented an in-depth, archivally based account of how Dutch capitalists reorganized agricultural production in Sumatra in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Stoler has been best known for her work on sexuality and affective attachments in imperial societies, developing her arguments through close readings primarily of late modern Dutch and French colonial life.[1]  Her historical interpretations rest on a complex theoretical framework, drawn from many sources, but Michel Foucault’s work on biopower, sexuality, and what he termed “the racisms of the state” has been a critical starting point.[2]  Research into the histories of imperial societies must be theorized, Stoler argues, because most accounts, whether apologetic or critical, tend to be “recursive,” that is to say, authors reflect upon and renarrate well-rehearsed trajectories.  They reinforce past elisions and obfuscations with more up-to-date rationalizations that typically avoid coming to grips with what cannot be denied: empires operate in an enduring state of crisis.  Stoler turns the tables by relinking activities that remain disconnected in the literature.  The approach foregrounds a state of systemic “duress” saturating the contemporary world because coercion and contradiction have always been and remain inherent to the exercise of imperial sovereignty.

Chapter 3, subtitled “of colony and camp,” offers a particularly effective demonstration of how Stoler combines archival research with theoretical critique of both sources and historiography to say something new by connecting topics typically studied separately.  The chapter opens with an ambitious, if only partially realized program in nineteenth-century France to build a system of children’s agricultural colonies.  Stoler removes these settlements from the histories of social reform and class formation in metropolitan France, the foci of previous historical investigations, in order to reposition programs for state concern for orphans within a history of a nation-state expanding domestic programs as it aggressively expanded the country’s overseas empire.  Precise and thorough archival work clarifies the importance of social settlements that assembled disadvantaged and displaced persons within France and then made them available to other policymakers looking for colonial recruits for settlement in Algeria, New Caledonia, and elsewhere.  Colonial administrators exported the camp model to the colonies, first as reception centers for newly arrived settlers, but very quickly as a network of detention centers for controling colonized subjects or wayward colonizing subjects exported from France because they were considered problematic citizens.  She notes that detainees in either metropolitan France or in its overseas possessions were not typically resisters or rebels, but came from social categories that elites for often inconsistent reasons identified as in need of control.  As a result, the occupants of rural camps, including many of the settlers sent to the colonies, were often interned against their will rather than voluntary participants looking to the state for assistance.

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