Book Review

Review of *Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our Times*

The Book

Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Duke University Press, 2016, 436 pp.

The Author(s)

Ann Laura Stoler

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.

The possible purposes of colonies and camps multiplied across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the government identified new undesirable populations.  Camps for orphans were converted into camps for the long-term urban unemployed who, government planners argued with great fervor but little evidence, would benefit from the discipline of agricultural labor.  In any event, the jobless were to be removed from places where they caused, or more accurately revealed, problems.  As the modern state expanded its police forces, courts, and prisons, authorities had more prisoners than places to put them.  An immediate solution was to have convicts replace orphans and the unemployed in many agricultural settlements.  When nearby local residents complained, the state opened new camps in the least desirable parts of “greater France,” such as Devil’s Island in French Guiana, while converting many colonies inside “metropolitan” France to training camps for the military after universal military service was required of all young men.  After World War I, camp sites were once again repurposed as the state viewed unsupervised youth as a serious problem needing expanded reform school programs as well as summer camps to occupy working-class urban children during summer holidays.

Stoler demonstrates that French policymakers took for granted the permeability of the national and the imperial.  They also treated the distinctions between agricultural colonies, penal colonies, military camps, and concentration camps fluidly and understood their practical connections despite the distinct purposes and targeted populations.  Archival records establish that, in numerous cases, individuals involved in children’s camps also helped to establish overseas prison camps or other ventures deemed necessary for national security and empire.  The individuals themselves might have imagined that their interests in improving children’s opportunity, promoting colonization overseas, or prison reform (i.e. expansion) addressed distinct problems, united only in the philanthropic generosity benefactors felt.  Nonetheless, Stoler describes a repetition of methodologies across projects as well as frequent reuse of facilities with relatively minor modifications.  Lessons drawn from planning and operating an agricultural colony for paupers built in central France were explicitly applied to building prison camps in overseas colonies.  The density of her examples suggests that connections were, even if improvised, more than casual or accidental.

Stoler extracts from her research a reading that is a historical and theorized account of France’s emergence as an imperial nation-state.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the word colony (from colonus in Latin, “farmer”) meant any settlement primarily of farmers and/or agricultural workers.  Across the century, as national governments expanded the uses of rural settlements simultaneously with building global empires, the state transformed the use of the word colony to reference many types of settlement involving “demarcated zones of exclusion and enclosure” (75).  A colony figuratively expanded to denote any territorial possession of whatever size lacking sovereignty.   In the process, “exclusion and enclosure” at various levels became a central feature of late modern governance.  Not only in France, which in developing its programs studied parallel developments in the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere.  Experts from other countries continually toured France and its possessions to see what they should borrow from the French experience.  Stoler emphasizes that in every part of the globe, the concentration camp-model was more typical of imperial expansion than free settlement.  This was true in the United States as well, where before the Civil War, westward expansion was first and foremost the movement west of slave labor camps, while both north and south, Native peoples had to be concentrated into reservations so their land could be repurposed for private profit-making ventures. Jumping ahead to the Vietnam War, Stoler observes that the U.S. policy of village relocations to prevent peasants from providing practical support to Viet Cong military forces was feasible because over the previous hundred years, French colonial government had constructed a sizable network of enclosed and controllable containment centers used at different times as prisons, as agricultural colonies, and as concentration camps.  A corollary of Stoler’s examination of modern colonialism is that the U.S. experience has been banally typical, unexceptional in practically every way.

The connections Stoler identifies are clearly visible in the archives, but long ignored she observes because historians generally look for material relevant to their topics and fields.  In revealing the connections between a variety of agricultural colony and internment camp programs, Stoler, as a historian of modern colonialism, aims to identify what she calls a foundational logic for the operations of colonial/imperial societies.  Stoler challenges the assumption that whatever happens in the “homeland” grows out of internal, “national” dynamics.  The erasure of colonial realities from the national histories of the major imperial powers, she calls “colonial aphasia,” which she illustrates in depth with two chapters examining the historiography of empire and race in France.  Given that colonial structures were the matrix for the development of the modern sciences and humanities, Stoler balances her examination of policy and politics with her assessments of the difficulties social and cultural theorists have constructing adequate models of imperial social structures.  In these sections of the book, Stoler treats pro-imperialist rationalizations only in passing.  Her focus is largely on scholarship from the left that she argues has played a vital role in operationalizing colonial aphasia.  She dissects deficiencies in postcolonial studies (a field to which she made influential contributions) and settler colonial theory.  She dismisses the concept of neoliberalism as a fetishization of temporal particularity that occludes what she considers the more important realities of how classic colonialism persists in the structures and everyday routines of contemporary life.  Her critiques of Philippe Nora and Pierre Bourdieu are particularly noteworthy and detailed.  Stoler reviews their work on the relation of Algeria and France to argue that both Nora’s “sites of memory” and Bourdieu’s habitus are saturated with nostalgic longing for an imaginary “deep France,” ahistorically impermeable and alien to externalities like Algeria except to the degree imperial connections distorted or diluted what was most authentically French.  Nora and Bourdieu, despite their opposing political positions on many issues, both demonstrate how sophisticated, path-breaking academic work contributed to intellectual “exclusion and enclosure” that invisibilized Algeria and hence any possibility for knowledge of the historical foundations of modern France.

“Connectivities,” she writes, “escape scrutiny: some … that are most pressing evade recognition.  I ask why and how that may be so” (5).  Her goal for readers is bringing them to “think otherwise,” to inhabit familiar concepts differently, to recast old arguments about national origins, to foreground “colonialism’s durable presence,” to combat “imperial dispositions of disregard” and the ease of “looking away” (9).  The chapters focused on the French empire have the richest archival grounding, but the argument is transnational/transimperial.  The theorized conclusions Stoler deduces from French examples she applies to more recent situations she identifies as prototypically colonial, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S. “war on terror.”

Addressing contemporary conflicts over the extent of basic legal, constitutional, and human rights, she argues that “uncertain domains of jurisdiction; sliding scales of rights; and ad hoc exemptions from the law on the basis of racial, cultural, and religious differences produced and protected in the name of a relentless demand for ever broader scales of ‘security’ are guiding and defining principles of imperial policy and colonial situations.  These are not exceptions to colonial norms; nor are they ad hoc, reactive measures.  They are the very ordinates of how these polities work. … imperial regimes have long been contingent on partial visibility, sustaining the capacity to remain unaccountable” (41).  The term “Illegal workers,” as an exemplary problematic but mentioned only in passing in the book, indicates a category within the labor market whose services are utilized and desired, for many employers an absolute necessity for staying in business, but who are also denied most basic legal protections.  Migrant workers without documentation are an international political problem, found in Brazil and Malaysia as well as France and the United States.  In the United States, the specific concept of “illegal” workers stems from the 1965 immigration reform act, often praised for its elimination of racial barriers to immigration into the United States, but the law for the first time set quotas on the number of visas available to workers coming from Latin America and the Caribbean.  At the time of its passage, 2 million Mexicans were already working in the United States.  The act allowed for only 100,000 annual visas from Mexico, a number that the authors of the bill believed generous, being ignorant that their quota was entirely inadequate for the actually existing labor market, much less how it would grow over the coming decades.  Is it merely historical accident (“contingency”) that the 1965 immigration bill that created illegals as a political issue passed at the same time that Congress effectively abolished Jim Crow as an organized and named system by passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965?  Stoler is clear that such policies are only exceptionally the product of more than bumbling improvisations, but given the foundation of colonialism and imperiality, the detention camps along the border filling today’s news cycles instantiate that “exclusion and enclosure” are the latest iteration of the default repertoire for how imperial states govern.

Institutions grounded in conquest, slavery, and forcible segregation are not anachronisms, Stoler argues, nor are they vestiges of previous social structures or traces of earlier mentalities.  Previous practices are often officially condemned, with apologies at times ceremoniously issued and on occasion reparations paid out, but racializing exclusionary practices have not been transcended, merely repurposed, continuing the logics of colonial governance into new political and economic conjunctures. The book’s arguments of course depend on unifying events and processes distinct in terms of intention, time, and geographic location, a troubling methodology even when it yields potentially breathtaking results.  Do reform schools, convict labor camps, the confinement of paupers, and summer camps for urban children together expose the basic operating principles of colonialism?  Are Boy’s Town in the United States and like organizations in other countries practical examples of “imperial sovereignty” at work?

Some, perhaps many readers will see the “connectivities” she describes as speculative, reifying varied activities into a conception of empire as a “protean project” metahistorically extending across time and space.  I found Stoler’s archival specificity convincing in each of the case studies presented in the book, particularly so in the French examples, which are most deeply documented. As a result, I found the hypothetical model proposed for the governing logics connecting domestic, imperial, and global governance in the epoch of European domination, an epoch that has not yet concluded according to Stoler, credible if unprovable.  The accumulation of theorized readings offered a heuristic for making more visible aspects of the historical record easy to ignore if colonialism and empire are not the central analytic categories.  As a result Stoler has made alternative perspectives no longer “unrealistic,” but arguably questions demanding considerable further investigation and rethinking.   As a historian who has worked on transnational contexts of U.S. intellectual and cultural life, I concluded that Stoler’s book can be helpful because it challenges so many ready-at-hand assumptions.  Nonetheless, I have many concerns, perhaps overly predictable and in need of interrogation:  does the emphasis on connectivities flatten political complexities and variations, arriving at a vision of power that while not unchanging appears to be enduring by nature.  Duration, durability, continuities are key words for Stoler.  Policies and politics are epiphenomenal follies.  What lasts are structures of feelings emerging from a long process of conquest and slavery that have shaped social relationships since the fifteenth century.  In the book’s conclusion, Stoler pays particular attention to the concept of “neoliberalism” as a recent intellectual effort that cannot understand the present because its advocates imagine that what is most specific to the political economy of the last forty years must be what most demands analysis.  The “evasive history of empire” disappears into “more available, contemporary terms” (369) that are also more comfortable since if explanations for contemporary developments are primarily recent, their effects might be reversible with the right policy choices.

Stoler’s argument is more tragic and demanding: policies in and of themselves change little.  They do not touch the recursive forces that reframe every reform to reinstitute deeply rooted power hierarchies.  If we look at race in the United States, there is an uncomfortable truth to her assessment.  So much has changed, much dramatic, but whether we look at criminal reform that led to mass incarceration of African Americans, or the epidemic of police killings that brought about Black Lives Matter, or the situation at the border and current ICE policies, or the extraordinarily high death rates affecting Native American women, there is so much that has endured, as if no reform can escape being utilized to reinscribe the return of hierarchy, subordination, terror.  This is a tragic perspective, necessarily uncomfortable because it insists that all reforms be viewed skeptically, even those, perhaps especially those, one embraces as most necessary for the moment.  Stoler’s long-term point, her enduring point, may well be that beyond policy, or along with policy, there must be an accounting.  Perhaps a way of saying that justice, equality, freedom, fraternity, community, understanding, transformative knowledge must be pursued even though none can be satisfied in anything more than a temporary, disappointing manner.  The aspirations those words represent ask for a civilization-building project.

[1] See Capitalism and Confrontation in Sumatra’s Plantation Belt, 1870-1979 (Princeton University Press, 1985), Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Duke University Press, 1995), Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power (University of California Press, 2002), as well as the volume co-edited with Frederick Cooper, Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (University of California Press, 1997).

[2] See in particular, Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (Picador, 2003) and Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Picador, 2004).

About the Reviewer

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. His work has explored arts and literary networks, movements, and institutions in the United States, with an emphasis on international connections and exchange. Long active in oral history, for the last six years he has been working with Voices of Contemporary Art offering two-day workshops on the artist interview. He sits on several editorial boards and committees. He has been helping organize U.S. participation in the [email protected] Cultures: A Digital Platform for Transatlantic Cultural History (1700 to Now), an international project under the direction of historians from France and Brazil bringing together scholars from every part of the world. He is a contributor to Ekphrasis, an interdisciplinary, international project based in the Netherlands exploring the poetics of text and image.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Dear Richard,

    Fascinating review. Is the key for Stoler the etymological linkage between duress and duration? Dur means hard in the Latin I believe. So is this a key way she is trying to note how the deep structures and affects that define the connectivities and continuities endure (there’s that term again!) precisely through rather duress?

    I am curious to learn more about the “deficiencies in postcolonial studies (a field to which she made influential contributions) and settler colonial theory” that Stoler detects.

    Do you think Stoler’s is a pessimistic position or a tragic one (I’m thinking of the recent development of a long-running concept of Afro-pessimism in African-American intellectual life)?


  2. Dear Michael, on the etymological question, Stoler returns frequently to words with built around “dur” but she does not thematize connections that are clearly if tacitly presented. My Latin-English dictionary states the verb “duro” mean to endure or survive, as well as to make hard or stern, while “durus,” the adjective, means hard, harsh, unfeeling, inflexible, difficult, etc., but also vigorous.

    Stoler’s theoretical critique of postcolonial studies, settler colonial theory, and the concept of neoliberalism centers around her concern for “colonial aphasia,” which she uses in preference to amnesia or forgetting. Her definition focuses, in her own words, “on three features: an occlusion of knowledge, a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things, and a difficulty comprehending the enduring relevancy of what has already been spoken.” She initially used the term to describe the many ways the historiography of France typically discussed nation- and empire-building as two distinct, somewhat opposed processes. In addition, French conceptions of citizenship, typically understood as unitary, egalitarian, and civic rather than ethnic or racial were never linked to contemporaneous ideas and practices of race. In *Duress*, Stoler begins her critique of postcolonial studies in the chapter on Palestine, arguing that the field in its effort to establish postcolonial agency developed formulations that exclude Palestine, rendering conflicts over land and citizenship in Israel and Palestine idiosyncratic, sui generis, rather than a particular instance of how what she calls “imperial sovereignty” works.

    Stoler’s emphasis on theoretical deficiencies in the fields where she has been a prominent figure underscores that her position is tragic more than pessimistic. She argues–and I need to stress that many in the fields that she critiques disagree with her–that theoretical formulations intended to advance equality, participation, justice wind up reinforcing the structures they oppose because the theoreticians misunderstand the historical structures of power in fundamental ways. Her tragic perspective extends to the many liberal social reformers discussed in the book, such as the planners of children’s camps in France who failed in helping poor children because they had no idea why so many children were impoverished. In their case, they had no ideological incentives to find out why, but that was a separate question from their motivations. But those who live between interests and ideals generally bumble their way through the problems the contradictions their institutions, beliefs, and practices never cease to generate.

    Stoler asks that analysis take into account not only immediate conditions, but consider structures, institutions, practices, routines, habits as enduring, even as they undergo permutations to accommodate to new situations, much as languages continually change while retaining the continuity needed for communication to happen. The structural and long duration underpinnings of Stoler’s arguments in no way assume that ideas are epiphenomenal. Indeed, the whole book is about the struggle to arrive at adequate models of social realities despite the inertia inherent to stable, long-standing, and well-capitalized social institutions.

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