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Discipline and the Other Body: Correction, Corporeality, Colonialism

Discipline and the Other Body: Correction, Corporeality, Colonialism

by Anupama Rao (Editor), Steven Pierce (Editor), Kerry Ward (Contribution by), Shannon Lee Dawdy (Contribution by)

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Discipline and the Other Body reveals the intimate relationship between violence and difference underlying modern governmental power and the human rights discourses that critique it. The comparative essays brought together in this collection show how, in using physical violence to discipline and control colonial subjects, governments repeatedly found


Discipline and the Other Body reveals the intimate relationship between violence and difference underlying modern governmental power and the human rights discourses that critique it. The comparative essays brought together in this collection show how, in using physical violence to discipline and control colonial subjects, governments repeatedly found themselves enmeshed in a fundamental paradox: Colonialism was about the management of difference—the “civilized” ruling the “uncivilized”—but colonial violence seemed to many the antithesis of civility, threatening to undermine the very distinction that validated its use. Violation of the bodies of colonial subjects regularly generated scandals, and eventually led to humanitarian initiatives, ultimately changing conceptions of “the human” and helping to constitute modern forms of human rights discourse. Colonial violence and discipline also played a crucial role in hardening modern categories of difference—race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion.

The contributors, who include both historians and anthropologists, address instances of colonial violence from the early modern period to the twentieth century and from Asia to Africa to North America. They consider diverse topics, from the interactions of race, law, and violence in colonial Louisiana to British attempts to regulate sex and marriage in the Indian army in the early nineteenth century. They examine the political dilemmas raised by the extensive use of torture in colonial India and the ways that British colonizers flogged Nigerians based on beliefs that different ethnic and religious affiliations corresponded to different degrees of social evolution and levels of susceptibility to physical pain. An essay on how contemporary Sufi healers deploy bodily violence to maintain sexual and religious hierarchies in postcolonial northern Nigeria makes it clear that the state is not the only enforcer of disciplinary regimes based on ideas of difference.

Contributors. Laura Bear, Yvette Christiansë, Shannon Lee Dawdy, Dorothy Ko, Isaac Land, Susan O’Brien, Douglas M. Peers, Steven Pierce, Anupama Rao, Kerry Ward

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Discipline and the Other Body offers a brilliant and multifaceted exploration of the ways in which colonial power worked with the human body. Covering a great variety of colonial contexts, the contributors bring to light the connections between what Michel Foucault called biopower and the lived experience of colonial violence.”—Timothy Mitchell, author of Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity

“Here, finally, is a collection that forces us to think broadly and comparatively about the relationship between colonial power and the body, about the very interventions and invasions that made colonialism so embodied a practice. This volume will allow people like myself to teach colonialism in a way that bridges culture, politics, and gender in powerful ways.”—Luise White, author of Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa

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Duke University Press Books
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Discipline and the Other Body

Correction, Corporeality, Colonialism

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3743-0

Chapter One


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Discipline and the Other Body Humanitarianism, Violence, and the Colonial Exception

During the Mau Mau rebellion of the mid-1950s, the white settler and official populations of Kenya were swept by increasingly lurid rumors about Africans' oaths of resistance to colonial rule. At the height of the hysteria, the oaths were supposed to involve murder, blood-drinking, cannibalism, and necrophiliac bestiality. Worse, experts in the prisons department claimed, oaths once taken caused Africans to revert to savagery. Sixty years of the civilizing mission could be swept away in a night, as formerly docile peasants returned to murderous barbarism. The Kenyan government conceived of oath taking as creating a psychological problem that could be cured through an elaborate set of disciplinary techniques: Mau Mau prisoners were sent to special detention camps and forced to work in a "normal" manner, thereby returning to civilization:

If any detainee refused to comply with a lawful order to weed, [the] plan was that two warders should beallocated to that detainee and, by holding his hands, physically make him pull weeds from the ground. From [one official's] experience he was convinced that once such token work had been performed by the detainee he would have considered that he had broken his Mau Mau oath which had, by superstitious dread, previously prevented him from cooperating ... and thus [the detainee would] start on the road to freedom.

Both the rumors and the rehabilitative strategies of the detention camps reveal a curious logic to the Kenyan government's approach to ruling its African subjects. Engaging in a set of highly specific corporeal acts-ritual murder, cannibalism, sex with dead goats-seemed sufficient to destroy utterly the government's ability to rule, which could, however, be restored by forcing prisoners to mimic the motions of disciplined agricultural work. Governmental order could be achieved in relatively minimal ways (though requiring the coercive force of concentration camps), but savagery always lurked under the surface. The illegibility of natives' intentions and their susceptibility to the unreasonable worlds of magic and superstition rendered them the target of consistent and violent disciplining; native unreason could only be addressed by the exercise of unreasonable violence. Colonial discipline was justified as exceptional, a necessary disregard for metropolitan norms of justice and civility. Very often this ethos blurred distinctions between situations of war that engendered sustained campaigns of annihilation and the routine, rationalized forms of discipline through which "natives" were returned to the folds of virtuous labor and accumulation. The exigencies of governing the colonized ultimately produced uncomfortable similarities between the so-called barbarism of native practices and the acts of terror and violence used to contain them.

Only twenty years after this particular instance of colonial counterinsurgency, "human rights" came increasingly into popular discourse. In the United States, for example, President Jimmy Carter's emphasis on human rights opposed the excesses of Henry Kissenger's international realpolitik and was dismissed as ridiculously naïve by Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan. Even so, human-rights discourse has become central to a post-Cold War governmental order, and actors of all political stripes have embraced human rights as a justification for their actions-as with the United States' and its allies' claims for invading Afghanistan and Iraq as humanitarian endeavors. But human-rights discourse coexists uneasily with the exercise of imperial power.

At the time of this writing, the scandals of torture in the American-run prison of Abu Ghraib in Iraq and of prisoners' torture and shadowy legal status in Guantánamo Bay reflect a continuing tension between humanitarianism and the treatment of "other" subjects. This is illustrated by the curious nominalism inherent in the U.S. government's attempts to distinguish between torture, "abuse," and "stress and duress" and to label the tortured "terrorists." As with the moral justification of earlier imperial ventures through ideas of progress and improvement, human rights today have become that which we "cannot not want," though contemporary events underline that they seem most desirable when manifestly denied. Because human rights are so obviously a good, it is necessary to inquire into the fraught history of the concept, since their commonsensible desirability would seem to preclude deeper investigation or exploration. The sometimes peculiar use of human rights can be located within a longer-term history of humanitarian justifications for political projects: colonizing India to abolish widow burning, for example, or Africa to missionize and abolish slavery. Violence and deprivation enabled by Western technological superiority and legitimated by ideologies of democratic humanitarianism appear to be novel. In fact, they repeat a historical process that has consistently redefined the "human" through political projects of control and governance. Contemporary debates over rights, recognition, and ethical responsibility-whether addressed to domestic issues such as affirmative action and access to birth control or to appropriate international responses to human-rights violations-mark concerted attempts to elaborate and demarcate the limits of worthy humanity. To the extent that the liberal individual has become the presumed subject of contemporary human-rights discourse, it is useful to historicize the process by which histories of the "human" have intersected with and helped to constitute liberal paradigms of rights and responsibility.

The essays collected here are empirical explorations in how the history of control relates to the career of political liberalism and humanitarian intervention. Through an examination of the relationship between the political career of bodily violence and its ideological basis in colonial reason, the volume illuminates the troubled dialectic between violation and protection, between governance and atrocity. United by a basic concern with people defined as "other," as not susceptible to reason in the way "universal" (white, male, European, adult, Christian, heterosexual, middle- or upper-class) subjects were supposed to be, these essays investigate the relationship between histories of the colonial body and repertoires of colonial governance. If colonialism was about the management of difference-the civilized ruling the uncivilized-the allegedly necessary violence of colonial government threatened to undermine the very distinction that justified it. Disciplining "uncivilized" people through the use of force could often seem the only way to correct their behavior, but this was a problem: Violence also appeared to be the antithesis of civilized government. The essays collected here highlight the interdependence of and contradictions between the key terms "corporeal," "violence," "colonial," and "governance," thereby illuminating a crucial characteristic of colonial states, the paradox of colonial discipline.


This volume traces the emergence of the "other" body. In that process, ideologies of colonial corporeality came to contrast with the rational subject produced by the disciplinary technologies of modern government. The essays collected here follow diverse trajectories of the colonial body across space and time, even while addressing similarities among strategies of punishment and discipline that stigmatized the colonial body, calling it in need of corrective violence even while insisting that violence was a problem. Ideas of rights and protection are entangled with the development of techniques and practices of discipline and punishment; ideas of full personhood and complex interiority are most successfully examined at their limits.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the emergence of ethnographic, taxonomic states, where minute distinctions of race and status were elaborately encoded into forms of rule that ranged from the use of extreme bodily violence to the more overtly benign "rule of law." Objectifications of culture-the most visible end of a more complex process by which culture and biology were conflated and often deployed as justification of the natives' civic disability-served to make the "other" body a natural object for racially discriminatory governance, even while the violence that went along with it promised scandal. Colonial disciplinary correction was understood to be a consequence of native inadequacy, which justified the use of almost any level of force and violence. The visceral, embodied experiences of domination and control-the immediate manifestation of colonial corporeality-were an integral part of governmental practices of codifying, categorizing, and racializing difference. Various corporeal technologies, and most specifically bodily violence, have acted to mark and constitute boundaries of alterity. Over time corporeal violence has increasingly been applied along lines of difference, even as its application has helped to define those very distinctions. The dialectical relationship between violence and difference, governance and atrocity, has been at the center of strategies of modern power and of the human-rights discourses that critique them.

The body of the colonized became a critical locus through which ideologies of racial and cultural difference were enacted. Politicized alterity then moved to inform other relations of difference. As scholars from Michel Foucault to Judith Butler have argued, the body is not a historically static entity. Its political extensions and its social entailments have radically shifted over the past several centuries. Examining the trajectory of claims about racialized embodiment suggests a larger political subtext to universalistic liberal claims about bodily integrity and point to the constitutive role humanitarian concerns have played in the emergence of a global "concerned" public. Corporeal technologies inscribed difference on the body of an emergent other, and thus the racial politics of colonial states meshed with the peculiar modernity of colonial governance. Bridging the gap between institutional histories of the body as a productive, politically worthy, laboring instrument and histories of subjectivity that examine the ways in which the human body is understood as a locus of pain, suffering, and injury, the essays in this volume provide a comparative historical and ethnographic perspective on the emergence of the body as a political entity in colonial and postcolonial contexts. We offer a general trajectory from the early modern period to the present in which official practices of corporeal violence (flogging, torture, spectacular modes of punishment) were increasingly applied to categories of people deemed irrational (non-Europeans, the young, the working classes, religious minorities, women) even as they simultaneously emerged as scandals and targets of humanitarian reform. This history of colonial corporeality not only elucidates the lexicon of colonial control but also addresses the increasing fascination of human rights by locating that discourse within its broader genealogy.

Frantz Fanon's classic work on violence and colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, provides a useful point of departure, eloquently memorializing the tremendous violence of colonial regimes and arguing for the necessity of an answering violence from anticolonial movements, in part because nonviolent transfers of power would not properly eradicate the structures of colonialism. He also suggested that the increasing successes of anticolonial wars-Vietnam, Algeria-were a precondition for greater attention to atrocities perpetrated against the colonized, which would ultimately prove a precondition for revolutionary change. But while Fanon underestimated the attention colonial atrocities sometimes attracted-though nonetheless radically insufficient-he also overestimated the revolutionary potential of postcolonial regimes that came to power through violence. Indeed, the years since Wretched of the Earth was written have posed a different set of questions about colonial violence and the possibilities for overcoming it. The Cold War and post-Cold War neocolonial orders have underlined the flexibility and the imperfect, incoherent success of metropolitan countries' dominance over their former colonies. The imperial adventures of the United States under the second Bush administration have re-vivified centuries-old colonial paradigms with an extraordinary deafness to the lessons of the twentieth century. Does this represent a series of tragic coincidences that have allowed neoconservative ideology temporarily to replace a neoliberal global consensus, or does it mark a new chapter in a centuries-long history of colonialism? Whatever the answer, contemporary events call into question how and under what circumstances subordinated groups make effective claims on this newer world order.

This history of bodily difference, governmental control, and humanitarian intervention poses thorny questions for historical analysis. The problems examined in this collection demand juxtaposing histories of extreme violence with genealogies of governmental strategy; both present distinct methodological challenges. We propose exploring their connection by bringing the writings of Walter Benjamin on the relationship between violence, law, and state legitimacy into dialogue with Foucault's account of bio-political states and disciplinary regimes. Benjamin famously argued that violence forms and maintains state authority, even though it is consistently disavowed as contaminating and unjustifiable force. Legal regimes are founded through violent practices, and legal practices ultimately depend on the threat of violence and its application under state sanction. This dependence also poses a political problem, as officials who claim the public good as their mandate are implicated in the injury of certain citizens or subjects through a persistent, if unarticulated, belief in a hierarchy of persons of differentiated worth. The dialectic of governing exigency and humanitarian reform has consistently pushed at the boundaries of the human, creating debates over appropriate treatment for categories of people deemed less than rational. As many of the following chapters suggest, the boundaries between discipline and punishment, between the normal and the exceptional, were always blurred and often most notably represented in the public scandals that were channeled through particular colonial and postcolonial public spheres. Even while colonial states labored to disavow phenomenal violence (as nonexistent, as treatment, as education, as necessary), it consistently escaped into metropolitan discourse as scandal, exposing a peculiarly colonial structure of publicity. This volume addresses colonial violence as well as the complex public manifestations of guilt, sympathy, and outrage provoked by its discovery.


That this version of bodily alterity emerged as a consequence of European colonization raises the question of what is particular to those forms of imperialism. Imperial projects are nothing new. The forms of colonialism that animate the concerns of this volume, however, are linked to a particular set of empires-ruled by European countries from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, involving colonized peoples increasingly understood as racially different from their rulers (and thereby helping to constitute contemporary categories of race), and self-consciously modernizing. The history of colonial corporeality thus encompasses a particular kind of modernizing project caught up in the rise of global capitalism, which comprised a distinctive relationship between the organization and exercise of political power and which enabled changing conceptions of personhood.


Excerpted from Discipline and the Other Body Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Steven Pierce is Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial History at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Farmers and the State in Colonial Kano: Land Tenure and the Legal Imagination.

Anupama Rao is Assistant Professor of History at Barnard College. She is the editor of Gender and Caste: Contemporary Issues in Indian Feminism and a coeditor of Violence, Vulnerability, and Embodiment.

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