Book Review


Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (1997), edited by Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, is a typical product of the postmodernist impulse as manifested in historical scholarship. Like all postmodernism, it deals primarily with “discourses,” with the play of conflicting subjectivities, identities, ideas, cultures, “vocabularies,” “grammars,” etc., in this case in the context of European colonialism. Specifically, the editors and contributing authors are interested in how “both colonies and metropoles shared in the dialectics of [cultural] inclusion and exclusion, and in what ways the colonial domain was distinct from the metropolitan one” (p. 3). The authors’ purpose is to explore how in “the shared but differentiated space of empire…hierarchies of production, power, and knowledge” were shaped, paradoxically, against the backdrop of universalist ideologies such as liberalism, democracy, and human rights. A theme running through the book is the conventional postmodern polemic against “binary oppositions,” including those between ruler and ruled, white and black, and “active” metropole and “passive” colony. Things were and are complicated, not “Manichaean.” Another theme is the argument that universalist Enlightenment ideologies themselves bore much of the blame for the exclusions and violence perpetrated in the colonies. Also, of course, it is argued that the colonized had agency, resisted but participated in their own subjection, and that colonial cultures, instead of being purely passive, influenced metropolitan cultures to some degree. (The metropoles defined themselves in relation to the Other, etc.) In sum, the book is devoted to “deconstructing” supposed “meta-narratives.” Its strengths and weaknesses are those of postmodernism in general.


The weaknesses are on full display in the introductory essay, which surveys postcolonial scholarship. The authors insist, rightly, on the complexity of the issues and the importance of subjectivity and particularity—such insistence is the main strength of all postmodernism—but aside from this, one is hard-pressed to find strengths. First of all, the chapter and the book, like most postmodernist “texts,” fluctuate between hyper-particularity and hyper-abstractness, never finding a middle ground. Furthermore, the abstractions tend to be either truisms or oversimplifications. Consider some examples: “Colonial regimes were neither monolithic nor omnipotent. Closer investigation reveals competing agendas for using power, competing strategies for maintaining control, and doubts about the legitimacy of the venture” (p. 6). That’s a truism, totally uncontroversial but presented as if it is an important insight. (When has power ever been monolithic or omnipotent? Who has ever thought it was?) “What is striking is how much the consolidation of bourgeois power at home and abroad drew on a polyvalent discourse of civility that emphasized different criteria for its measure and at different moments could move state policy in opposite directions” (p. 10). Truism. “Focus on the contingencies and contradictions of colonial rule emphasizes that political possibilities do not just lie in grand oppositions but in the interstices of power structures, in the intersection of particular agendas, in the political spaces opened by new and renewed discourses and by subtle shifts in ideological ground” (p. 18). Truism. Nothing interesting there. “As we have shown, the colonial situation was characterized by alternative projects and by the displacement and failure of such projects in colonial encounters: such processes did not begin or end with decolonization. Meanings of institutions, bureaucratic habits, and cultural styles set up in the colonial era were continually being reshaped” (p. 33). Truism. 


The authors also tend to oversimplify or uncharitably characterize opposing positions. World systems theory, for example, argues that “colonization was one aspect of the development of a capitalist world system, through which the ‘core’ allocated itself the more complex and lucrative productive processes…and the ‘periphery’ was allocated the task of producing primary commodities through slavery or coerced cash crop production” (p. 19). The authors criticize the theory for ignoring “agency”—but that’s silly, because obviously when one is analyzing the entire world economy one cannot pay close attention to the agency of some village in Senegal or some protest movement in Ecuador. “The theory’s assumption of passivity within colonial economies,” they write, “has been amply refuted by research in different parts of the world.” It is hardly a profound discovery that people in India were not, after all, rocks, passively letting colonizers do whatever they wanted to them. But unquestionably the colonized were more 'passive' (victimized) than the colonizers; this is all that world systems theory is committed to. –And yes, it’s true that by saying “colonized vs. colonizers” here I’m positing a “Manichaean” dichotomy, a “binary opposition,” but, again, in order to talk, or to explain anything at all, one has to make simplifying assumptions that abstract from the infinite complexities of lived experience while grasping essential features. This is how science proceeds, for example. If one brought postmodernist hyper-particularity and methodological qualms into the natural sciences, nothing would ever get done.


The second chapter, written by Uday Mehta, titled “Liberal Strategies of Exclusion,” illustrates another typical fault of postmodernism: excessive idealism, i.e. the attribution of more “agency” to ideas (or discourses, etc.) than to institutions or people. Mehta is puzzled by the historical contrast between “the inclusionary pretensions of liberal theory and the exclusionary effects of liberal practices” (p. 59). “One needs to account for how a set of ideas that professed, at a fundamental level, to include as their political referent a universal constituency nevertheless spawned practices that were either predicated on or directed at the political marginalization of various people. More specifically, one must consider if the exclusionary thrust of liberal history stems from the misapprehension of the generative basis of liberal universalism or if in contrast liberal history projects with greater focus and onto a larger canvas the theoretically veiled and qualified truth of liberal universalism.” It is as if Marxism never happened. Let’s leave aside the bad writing and unnecessary jargon. The point is that Mehta blames practices on ideas: a set of ideas “spawned practices.” We’re back to Hegel, but without the profundity.[1] In reality, of course, it is practices and institutional dynamics—people’s material interests, the interests of power-structures, etc.—that spawn ideas, or at least determine what kind of rhetoric and ideologies predominate in a given society. If the liberalism of John Stuart Mill’s day tolerated colonialism and various political exclusions, that isn’t because liberalism itself is somehow “necessarily” exclusionary; it is because intellectuals and power-elites consciously or unconsciously accommodated themselves to the interests of powerful institutions. Indeed, a much stronger case can be made that “true” liberalism, uncompromised by acquiescence to the interests of power-structures, is committed to the freedom and rights of all people, their right to control their economic, social, and political lives. Certainly classical liberals like Wilhelm von Humboldt would find much more to like in a Noam Chomsky than in a Friedrich Hayek, or any other apologist for the powerful.


The rest of the essays in the book are uneven in their quality, although they do, at least, show careful scholarship. They analyze conditions in colonies from Southeast Asia to sub-Saharan Africa, subtly investigating the dilemmas and paradoxes of racial, class, and gender identities among Europeans, Creoles, and natives. One is uncertain, however, what conclusions to draw from them, except that…things were complicated. Identities and cultures, not surprisingly, are full of tensions and “contestations.” The authors investigate in bewildering detail all the permutations of these contestations. After reading for several hours, one closes the book and thinks, “Wow, cultures sure have been contested.” Aside from that, specialists and antiquarians would find much of interest in this anthology.



[1] Appropriately, Mehta begins his essay with an epigram from Hegel.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright