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University of California Press
Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History / Edition 1

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History / Edition 1

by Frederick Cooper
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In this closely integrated collection of essays on colonialism in world history, Frederick Cooper raises crucial questions about concepts relevant to a wide range of issues in the social sciences and humanities, including identity, globalization, and modernity. Rather than portray the past two centuries as the inevitable movement from empire to nation-state, Cooper places nationalism within a much wider range of imperial and diasporic imaginations, of rulers and ruled alike, well into the twentieth century. He addresses both the insights and the blind spots of colonial studies in an effort to get beyond the tendency in the field to focus on a generic colonialism located sometime between 1492 and the 1960s and somewhere in the "West." Broad-ranging, cogently argued, and with a historical focus that moves from Africa to South Asia to Europe, these essays, most published here for the first time, propose a fuller engagement in the give-and-take of history, not least in the ways in which concepts usually attributed to Western universalism—including citizenship and equality—were defined and reconfigured by political mobilizations in colonial contexts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520244146
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/06/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 339
Sales rank: 853,264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Frederick Cooper, Professor of History at New York University, is author of Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (2002) and coeditor, with Ann Laura Stoler, of Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (California, 1997), among other books.

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Colonialism in Question

Theory, Knowledge, History
By Frederick Cooper

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2005 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24414-1

Chapter One


Colonial Questions, Historical Trajectories

The burst of scholarship on colonial studies in the last two decades-crossing the disciplinary boundaries of literature, anthropology, and history-has begun to fill one of the most notable blind spots in the Western world's examination of its history. Yet there is something strange about the timing: scholarly interest in colonialism arose when colonial empires had already lost their international legitimacy and ceased to be viable forms of political organization. Earlier, when colonialism was an object of mobilization, scholars and intellectuals were most captivated by the drama of liberation movements and the possibilities of "modernization" and "development" for people whom colonialism and racism had excluded from the march of progress.

Part of the impetus behind the recent research and writing on colonial situations has been to ensure that this past is not forgotten. But the colonial past is also invoked to teach a lesson about the present, serving to reveal the hypocrisy of Europe's claims to provide models of democratic politics, efficient economic systems, and a rational approach tounderstanding and changing the world, by connecting these very ideas to the history of imperialism. Such concerns have led some scholars to examine thoughtfully the complex ways in which Europe was made from its colonies and how the very categories by which we understand the colonies' past and the ex-colonies' future were shaped by the process of colonization.

Yet a significant part of this body of work has taken colonial studies out of the history whose importance has just been asserted, treating colonialism abstractly, generically, as something to be juxtaposed with an equally flat vision of European "modernity." This side of the field has focused more on stance-on critical examination of the subject position of the scholar and political advocate-than on process, on how the trajectories of a colonizing Europe and a colonized Africa and Asia shaped each other over time. Not only does such an approach obscure the details of colonial history and the experience of people in colonies, but the aspirations and challenges posed by political movements in the colonies over the course of history disappear beneath the ironic gaze that critics have directed toward claims for progress and democracy.

The refusal to leave the "colonial" as a neatly bounded, excisable dimension of European history marks an important challenge to historical analysis. Yet unbounding colonialism risks leaving us with a colonial project vaguely situated between 1492 and the 1970s, of varying contents and significance, alongside an equally atemporal "post-Enlightenment" Europe, missing the struggles that reconfigured possibilities and constraints across this period. This is why a reconsideration of colonialism's place in history should both engage deeply with the critical scholarship of the last two decades and insist on moving beyond the limitations that have emerged within it.

Europe's ambivalent conquests-oscillating between attempts to project outward its own ways of understanding the world and efforts to demarcate colonizer from colonized, civilized from primitive, core from periphery-made the space of empire into a terrain where concepts were not only imposed but also engaged and contested. From the very moment of the French Revolution, rebels in the plantation colony of Saint Domingue raised the question of whether the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen applied to the French empire as well as the French nation, and in so doing, they, as Laurent Dubois puts it, "'universalized' the idea of rights." Ever since, political activism in and about empire has posed not only possibilities of accepting or rejecting the application to colonial worlds of ideas and structures asserted by Europe, but also the possibility, however difficult, of changing the meaning of the basic concepts themselves.

Conceptual issues are the focus of this book. How can one study colonial societies, keeping in mind-but not being paralyzed by-the fact that the tools of analysis we use emerged from the history we are trying to examine?

Interdisciplinarity and the Conformism of the Avant-Garde

Historians' quite recent interest in colonial situations owes much to the influence of literary studies and anthropology; scholarly work on colonial issues gave rise to a cutting-edge interdisciplinary field of scholarship. Yet the basic problem with interdisciplinary scholarship is the same as that within the disciplines: conformism, gatekeeping, conventions that one should publish in the "right" journals-whether the American Political Science Review or Social Text-and cite the right people, be they Gary Becker or Homi Bhabha. The economist-to take the most theoretically monolithic of the disciplines within the American academy-generally has to write within the confines of neoclassical theory and to devise and test abstract models; he or she gets little credit for fieldwork into the complexities of actually experienced economic relations. In cultural studies, the assistant professor is required to decenter, destabilize, and disrupt socially constructed categories and to empower subaltern discourse. To transgress the norm of transgressivity is to be unaware of one's own positionality. The cultural critic may relish her disciplinary hybridity yet have a great deal in common with the economist who thinks that more work within neoclassic models has a higher marginal utility than an excursion into anthropology. Interdisciplinary studies can be impoverished by once provocative constructs that have become cliches, just as a discipline can be narrowed by professional hierarchies, required methodologies, or theoretical conservatism.

The urge to conform is evident in some favorite phrases of scholars charting trends: the "cultural turn," the "linguistic turn," and the "historical turn." These expressions imply that scholars in history, cultural studies, or the social sciences take their intellectual curves together, and anyone who does not is off on a tangent or has entered a dead end. The cultural turn of the 1980s and 1990s corrected to a significant extent the excesses of a previous turn, toward social history and political economy in the 1970s, but after a time scholars were told that we were "beyond the cultural turn," which meant-as some of the more thoughtful participants in these discussions frankly put it-bringing back questions of social and economic history. Excellent research and valuable reflection came out of the cultural turn, as from previous and subsequent turns. Meanwhile, however, a generation of graduate students experienced pressure from their mentors and peers to focus their work in one direction, just as a previous generation had been influenced to conform to a different trend. In African history, my generation avoided colonial history for fear of being thought to do "white history"-and contributed thereby to the doldrums of imperial history of which many later complained-whereas now the history of Africa before the European conquests is neglected. Scholars' openness to new ideas and directions is one thing, taking "turns" together another.

Interdisciplinary studies have their own pitfalls, in particular credulity toward other fields that do not apply to one's own, such as the historian's belief that a quotation from Geertz means doing anthropology or that a reference to Bakhtin means mastery of literary criticism. One is likely to fall for conventional wisdom in another discipline, miss internal debates, and pick up tidbits without exploring their relationship. The remedy for these difficulties of interdisciplinary work, however, is not disciplinarity but discipline: a more thorough and critical engagement with other fields, a more rigorous and wider reading of social theory that both reconfigures and deepens methodological understandings.

Writing on colonialism in the last two decades has had a double-and positive-impact in regard to established verities: calling into question a narrative of progress radiating from Europe that ignored how deeply this history was entwined with overseas conquest, and rejecting the consignment of "non-Europe" to static backwardness regardless of how those regions' fates were shaped by interaction with Europe, including the sidetracking of other modes of change and interaction. The bandwagon effect within colonial studies or postcolonial theory is probably no more severe than in other areas of academic inquiry, but rather is illustrative of a wider problem in intellectual life. Like other new fields, colonial studies has been the object of a dismissive backlash that ignores the insights and the healthy debate within the field-indeed, the considerable heterogeneity that characterizes writing on colonial subjects. I hope in these pages to steer between the conformism of the avant-garde and the dismissiveness of the old regime in the study of colonization, colonial history, and decolonization by focusing on specific conceptual and methodological issues.

Bashing the Enlightenment and criticizing modernity have become favorite activities within colonial and postcolonial studies. Such positioning has been answered by a defense of modernity and Enlightenment against the barbarians at the gates who threaten the universal principles on which democratic societies are based. Debate at such levels of abstraction is unedifying, not least because both sides are content to treat Enlightenment rationality as an icon separated from its historical significance. There is a delicious irony here, for Europeans become the "people without history," a notion once reserved for the colonized. Both sides are content to let unchanging and unmediated images of reason, liberalism, and universality stand in for a much more convoluted trajectory, in which the status and the meaning of such concepts were very much in question. The not-so-delicious irony is that the critique of modernity aimed at destabilizing a smug, Europe-centered narrative of progress has ended up preserving this category as a defining characteristic of European history to which all others must respond. Only a more precise historical practice will get us out of the involuted framing of such a debate.

In chapter 2, I take up the paradox noted at the beginning of this essay, that scholarly interest in analyzing colonialism peaked at a time when it was no longer a political issue. Its starting point is Georges Balandier's article of 1951, "The Colonial Situation," which was a call for analysis of colonial rule using tools perfected in studying indigenous groups but now directed at the "totality" of coercive, structural, and ideological mechanisms of colonial power. This call-timely as it was-went largely unanswered, because scholars, including Balandier himself, were more fascinated by the possibilities of modernizing societies that had been held back and by the liberation movements themselves. My essay surveys the changing focus of scholarship on colonial societies in the half-century since Balandier's intervention, not as a succession of turns, but as overlapping and often conflicting perspectives, all in relation to the shifting politics of decolonization.

Part 2 of this book turns to key concepts that epitomize the current direction of scholarship-in colonial studies and other interdisciplinary endeavors. The use of these concepts has provoked new thinking and important research, but they deserve a scrutiny that the bandwagon effect of scholarly trends has to a large extent repressed. I will examine in detail three concepts-identity, globalization, and modernity-and later in this introduction raise questions about concepts like coloniality, postcoloniality, and post-Enlightenment rationality. In questioning the analytic value of such concepts, my intent is not to step away from the objects of inquiry envisaged by those who use these concepts, but rather to ask if they are adequate to the work at hand.

Identity, globalization, and modernity occupy a large and growing place in scholarly fashions. Figure 1 shows how often these terms have appeared as keywords in a leading web-based index of scholarly articles over the past decade, while references to the buzzwords of a prior era, like industrialization, urbanization, and modernization, have stagnated at lower levels. Identity wins the prize, and if modernity isn't as "in" as identity, it passed modernization-a related concept with a different valence-in 1995. [Figure 1]

The use of such concepts addresses important subjects: subjectivity and particularity in people's collective vision of themselves, the apparently increasing importance of cross-border interaction in today's world, and the apparent power-for good or for evil-of a view of historical change as moving in a forward direction. In all three cases, I argue, the concepts are important as indigenous categories, as terms used in today's politics and culture. They need to be understood in the often conflicting ways in which they are deployed. The problem comes with scholars' widespread use of these terms as analytic categories, as tools for description and analysis. This usage does more to obscure than to illuminate the problems of social connection, cross-border interaction, and long-term change that they are thought to address. There is nothing inherently wrong in using the same term as both an analytic category and an indigenous one, but there are two problems that need to be confronted if one does so. First, the usefulness of an analytic category doesn't follow from its salience as an indigenous one: such concepts must perform analytic work, distinguishing phenomena and calling attention to important questions. Second, the academic's endeavor to refine and sharpen analytic categories may obscure the ways in which historical actors deployed similar terms, thereby complicating the task of understanding forms of discourse in their own contexts.

These chapters address not just the words as such-although in all three cases academic language adds confusion to ordinary English definitions-but the conceptual questions to which writing about them gives rise. To question the analytic usefulness of the category identity is not to presume that people's particularistic and subjective concerns-about gender, ethnicity, or any other form of affinity-should be downplayed in favor of the great universalisms, be they the liberal idea of a citizenry of equivalent individuals or the Marxist idea of class. But understanding how people conceive of commonality, belonging, and affinity does require a precise and differentiated set of concepts.

Much recent scholarship on identity uses the same word for something that is claimed to be general but soft-that is, everybody seeks an identity, but identity is fluid, constructed, and contested-and for something that is specific and hard, that is, the assertion that being "Serbian," "Jewish," or "lesbian" implies that other differences within the category should be overlooked in order to facilitate group coherence. This contradictory usage leaves us powerless to examine what scholars most need to understand and explain: why some affinities in some contexts give rise to groups with a hard sense of uniqueness and antagonism to other groups, while in other instances people operate via degrees of affinity and connection, live with shades of grey rather than white and black, and form flexible networks rather than bounded groups. In chapter 3, written by Rogers Brubaker and myself, we do not argue for a more refined or precise word to replace identity, but rather for the use of a range of conceptual tools adequate to understand a range of practices and processes.

With globalization and modernity, we again encounter two words and two bodies of scholarships that confuse normative and analytic categories and reinforce the metanarratives that they pretend to take apart. It is hard for anyone who lived through the modernization debates of the 1970s to read the globalization and modernity debates without a sense of deja vu. The idea that people were being liberated from the stultifying edifice of colonialism or the backwardness of tradition-producing a convergence toward the social practices and living standards of the West-was the hallmark of modernization theory in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently, some pundits and scholars insist that globalization is inevitable as well as desirable. Critics again decry as malignant what advocates insist is beneficial, while some scholars accept the narrative of ever-increasing interaction but deny that it is producing convergence. My argument is neither for nor against globalization; rather, I attempt to reframe the issue, pointing out that the globalization story claims as new what is not new at all, confuses "long-distance" with "global," fails to complement discussion of connections across space with analysis of their limitations, and distorts the history of empires and colonization in order to fit it into a story with a predetermined end. The alternative to the concept of globalization is not to reify the state or any other container of interaction, but to detach mechanisms of connection from the artificial notion of globality and to study the marking of territory and the crossing of territorial boundaries in more specific ways than those implied by the linear concept of globalization.


Excerpted from Colonialism in Question by Frederick Cooper Copyright © 2005 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Colonial Questions, Historical Trajectories
2. The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Colonial Studies, 1951–2001

3. Identity—With Rogers Brubaker
4. Globalization
5. Modernity

6. States, Empires, and Political Imagination
7. Labor, Politics, and the End of Empire in French Africa
8. Conclusion: Colonialism, History, Politics



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