Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times

Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times

by Ann Laura Stoler


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How do colonial histories matter to the urgencies and conditions of our current world? How have those histories so often been rendered as leftovers, as "legacies" of a dead past rather than as active and violating forces in the world today? With precision and clarity, Ann Laura Stoler argues that recognizing "colonial presence" may have as much to do with how the connections between colonial histories and the present are expected to look as it does with how they are expected to be. In Duress, Stoler considers what methodological renovations might serve to write histories that yield neither to smooth continuities nor to abrupt epochal breaks. Capturing the uneven, recursive qualities of the visions and practices that imperial formations have animated, Stoler works through a set of conceptual and concrete reconsiderations that locate the political effects and practices that imperial projects produce: occluded histories, gradated sovereignties, affective security regimes, "new" racisms, bodily exposures, active debris, and carceral archipelagos of colony and camp that carve out the distribution of inequities and deep fault lines of duress today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822362524
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/04/2016
Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book Series
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and the author and editor of many books, including Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination and Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Imperial Durabilities in our Times

By Ann Laura Stoler

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7361-2




How do colonial histories matter in the world today? Are not these histories of a past that is over and done with, as former imperial polities and those once subject to them deal with more pressing issues: epidemics, disaster management, persistent racial inequities, ecological catastrophes, forced dislocations and refugee populations, humanitarian failures, border regimes, and security protocols that impinge on their everyday and future possibilities? Did not decolonization confer sovereignty and autonomy nearly fifty years ago on most of the world that was once colonized, making postcolonial disorders and globalization the issues at hand? And do not these histories matter more to a bevy of academics than they do in a contemporary world in which the past is something that needs to be reckoned with so younger generations can be freed to move on?

It is one premise of this book that these are indeed issues of the day but that many of the most urgent ones — be they toxic dumping in Africa, devastated "waste lands," precarious sites of residence, ongoing dispossession, or pockets of ghettoized urban quarters — are features of our current global landscape whose etiologies are steeped in the colonial histories of which they have been, and in some cases continue to be, a part. It is the contention of this book that many of these conditions are intimately tied to imperial effects and shaped by the distribution of demands, priorities, containments, and coercions of imperial formations.

Those connectivities are not always readily available for easy grasp, in part because colonial entailments do not have a life of their own. They wrap around contemporary problems; adhere in the logics of governance; are plaited through racialized distinctions; and hold tight to the less tangible emotional economies of humiliations, indignities, and resentments that may manifest in bold acts of refusal to abide by territorial restrictions imposed or in the flare of burning tires in "sensitive" urban quarters. Colonial counterinsurgency policies rest undiluted in current security measures. Molten in their form, colonial entailments may lose their visible and identifiable presence in the vocabulary, conceptual grammar, and idioms of current concerns. It is the effort of this venture to halt in the face of these processes of occlusion and submersion, to ask about how they work, their differential effects; and on whom they most palpably act.


Tyranny is a pedagogic scenario of pure loss. ... The question of education is no longer the question of how to transmit knowledge but of how to suspend it. — Martin Heidegger, The Art of Teaching, 1945

Some work in the field of (post)colonial studies has assumed that the connectivities joining colonial pasts to "postcolonial" presents are self-evident and unproblematically identified and accessed. This book starts from the premise that more often they are not. Many of the "vestiges" of colonial constructions seem as though in easy reach. Local and regional administrative units may be kept in place, albeit outfitted with new agents; the segregated divisions of colonial urban planning may be demolished but still mark the social geography of where upscale housing clusters and where dense settlements of privation remain. While many of the roads, railways, bridges, and canals built under colonial engineering projects with forced local labor may be in disrepair or bombed out, elsewhere they have been refurbished to move people and produce to service new profit-sharing ventures between national elites and foreign multinationals. Oil palm plantations may no longer serve to transform peanut butter into a U.S. staple. Indeed, they now do much more as their acreage has expanded to supply one of the major biofuels in the world today. Plush shopping malls built over razed squatter settlements with police dogs guarding their gates are the Janus face of the "postcolony" from Johannesburg to Jakarta.

But colonial constraints and imperial dispositions have tenacious presence in less obvious ways. The geopolitical and spatial distribution of inequities cast across our world today are not simply mimetic versions of earlier imperial incarnations but refashioned and sometimes opaque and oblique reworkings of them. Colonial pasts, the narratives recounted about them, the unspoken distinctions they continue to "cue," the affective charges they reactivate, and the implicit "lessons" they are mobilized to impart are sometimes so ineffably threaded through the fabric of contemporary life forms they seem indiscernible as distinct effects, as if everywhere and nowhere at all. The preserved disrepair of colonial buildings are top selling points in tourist excursions throughout the world: colonial homes refitted as colonial-era hotels confer the nostalgic privilege of those who can pay their price; girls' boarding schools are turned to the profit of "educational tourism"; slave quarters are now assigned as World Heritage sites; colonial ministries are updated as archival depots for the dissertation industry; plundered objects are refashioned as ethnological museums in metropolitan centers to valorize cultural difference. All are comforting affirmations that colonialisms are over, initiatives and gestures that firmly and safely consign those places and sometimes the people who once inhabited them as frozen icons of a shamed and distanced past.

But leftovers are not what most interest me here. Connectivities to those colonial histories that bear on the present can escape scrutiny: some of those that are most pressing evade recognition. I ask why and how that may be so. The analytical tools we use to identify either historical continuities or, alternatively, profound ruptures from the past may be obstacles rather than openings. Colonial archives can impede the task: They have a way of drawing our attention to their own scripted temporal and spatial designations of what is "colonial" and what is no longer, making it difficult to stretch beyond their guarded frames. Qualified and celebrated memories black out censored ones. Environmental effects of colonial agribusiness are renamed and compressed into more generic ecological hothouse phenomena in our climatically sensitized anthropocentric world, sharply cut off from the history of imperial mandates that set them on their damaging course. The acrid smell of industrial rubble masks, and is often more palpable than, the toxins of imperial debris.

Or perhaps there is a problem with our vocabularies. The scholarly romance with "traces" risks rendering colonial remnants as pale filigrees, benign overlays with barely detectable presence rather than deep pressure points of generative possibilities or violent and violating absences. The "haunting" trace seems too easily unmoored from material damages and disseminated landscapes, or from border barricades installed as colonialism's parting gestures, now hardened and more intractable than stone. Duress, as I shall argue, has temporal, spatial, and affective coordinates. Its impress may be intangible, but it is not a faint scent of the past. It may be an indelible if invisible gash. It may sometimes be a trace but more often an enduring fissure, a durable mark. One task, then, is to train our senses beyond the more easily identifiable forms that some colonial scholarship schools us to recognize and see.

Not recognizing these colonial genealogies, however, may have as much to do with what the connectivities between past and present are expected to look like — what are imagined as the dominant features of colonial formations, the attributes assigned to what colonial governing strategies are thought to have encompassed, or what colonial racism is thought to have looked like (always posed as so much fiercer than they are today) — how tangible or intangible those effects are expected to be.

Here I consider what methodological renovations might serve to write histories that yield neither to too smooth continuities nor too abrupt epochal breaks. Each chapter attempts to capture the uneven, recursive qualities of the visions and practices that imperial formations have animated, what they have both succeeded and failed to put in place. Each works through a set of conceptual and concrete reconsiderations of the logics and sensibilities that pervade our imperial present, that evade easy access and still carve out the jagged lineaments, political scissions, and some of the deep fault lines of the world today.


Duress (n.)early 14 c., "harsh or severe treatment," from Old French duresse, from Latin duritia "hardness, severity, austerity" from durus "hard" (see endure). ... — Online Etymology Dictionary, 2014

French dure-r, to last, continue, persist, extend<Latin durare to harden, be hardened, hold out, last. Sense of "coercion, compulsion" is from 1590s. — Dictionary.com, 2016

1. Hardness, roughness, violence, severity; hardiness of endurance, resistance, etc.; firmness.

2. Harsh or severe treatment, infliction of hardship; oppression, cruelty; harm, injury; affliction.

3. Forcible restrain or restriction; confinement, imprisonment.

4. Constraint, compulsion; spec. in Law, Constraint illegally exercised to force a person to perform some act. — Oxford English Dictionary, 1989

"Duress" figures in the title of this book to capture three principal features of colonial histories of the present: the hardened, tenacious qualities of colonial effects; their extended protracted temporalities; and, not least, their durable, if sometimes intangible constraints and confinements. Duress, durability, and duration in this work all share a politically inflected and afflicted historical etymology. But endurance figures here, as well, in the capacity to "hold out" and "last," especially in its activated verb form, "to endure," as a countermand to "duress" and its damaging and disabling qualities.

How one chooses to address imperial duress depends in part on where and among whom it is sought, how it is imagined to manifest, the temporalities in which it is lodged, and the sensory regimes on which it weighs. As an object of inquiry, it demands that we ask how we know it and what the political consequences are of knowing in certain ways. One founding premise of this book is that the concepts called on to identify and make sense of the durabilities of colonial duress may be inadequate to the task. An excursion through the politics of conceptual labor is the meat of the chapters that follow. The political effects and practices that imperial formations impose and induce are its marrow.

Duress, then, is neither a thing nor an organizing principle so much as a relation to a condition, a pressure exerted, a troubled condition borne in the body, a force exercised on muscles and mind. It may bear no immediately visible sign or, alternatively, it may manifest in a weakened constitution and attenuated capacity to bear its weight. Duress is tethered to time but rarely in any predictable way. It may be a response to relentless force, to the quickened pacing of pressure, to intensified or arbitrary inflictions that reduce expectations and stamina. Duress rarely calls out its name. Often it is a mute condition of constraint. Legally it does something else. To claim to be "under duress" in a court of law does not absolve one of a crime or exonerate the fact of one. On the contrary, it admits a culpability — a condition induced by illegitimate pressure. But it is productive, too, of a diminished, burned-out will not to succumb, when one is stripped of the wherewithal to have acted differently or better.

In recounting his life as an invisible, racially marked man in the mid-twentieth century United States, Ralph Ellison described his writing as an effort to access "the lower frequencies" of human experience. Duress may be one elemental attribute of that very domain: not manifest in the scenes of high-pitched drama but what is borne at "lower frequencies," the quotidian defamations of personhood inflected at an insistent pace, or punctuated, mercilessly, in non-verbal registers. If duress is borne, we might ask what forms it takes, the conditions that produce the silenced exertions it demands, encumbered possibilities, relations of power incrementally imposed. Situations of imperial duress might be measured by the force embodied in it and the frequency by which it is applied, by the limits on endurance and the refusals it produces in its wake. Duress as I conceive it is a relationship of actualized and anticipated violence. It bears on those who are its perpetrators, produces anxieties, and expanding definitions of insecurities that are its effect, a demolition project that is eminently modern, and as Franz Fanon conceived it, a form of power that slashes a scar across a social fabric that differentially affects us all.

Not least, the landscape of duress depends on the concepts we call upon, those seen as available and construed as relevant, those that call on us and command our attention. Conceptual conventions may do more than get in the way. Such conventions can hamper our capacities to re-vision those histories and dislodge what we imagine already to know. At issue are the ready-made concepts on which we rely and what work we call on them to do; less obvious may be an adherence to an implicit notion of the stability of concepts, more fixed than are concepts themselves.

My interests are threefold: in the distributions of inequities that concepts condone, inscribe, and inhabit; in the challenges of writing new colonial histories that press on the present; and, not least, in unlearning what we imagine to know about colonial governance and why those understandings and misrecognitions should continue to concern us now.

In identifying the sinews and sites of duress, concepts emerge as seductive and powerful agents. They invite appropriation, quick citation, promising the authority that such invested affiliations are imagined to offer. They also invite unremarked omissions when their capacities to subsume are strained, a setting aside of what seems uneasily, partially, or awkwardly to "fit" within the analytic repertoire of "cases" that confirm both disciplinary protocols and ready analytical frames.

The sort of conceptual labor I work through here attempts a venture unyielding to easy fit, one that is about neither the "usage" of concepts nor acts of "borrowing." It is, rather, an exercise in attentiveness and vigilance in a provisional, active mode. The challenge is both to discern the work we do with concepts and the work that concepts may explicitly or inadvertently exert on us. Rather than acquiesce to the resolute security that concepts may be marshaled to confer, we might better look to the unmarked space between their porous and policed peripheries, to that which hovers as not quite "covered" by a concept, as "excess" or "amiss," that which cannot be quite encompassed by its received attributes, when "portability" is not self-evident, to that which spills across its edges.

How to think otherwise (penser autrement) — a project that Michel Foucault took as his own task — is always the critical challenge. In an effort to do so, these chapters make two entwined moves: one to examine a set of concepts familiar to those concerned with colonial histories and imperial formations and to ask how well these concepts have worked; and two, to ask what sorts of rethinking and reformulations might allow a better understanding of the political grammar of colonialism's durable presence, the dispositions it fosters, the indignities it nourishes, the indignations that are responsive to those effects. The latter move is not necessarily offered as a replacement for those concepts, on some of which colonial regimes avidly called. Rather, thinking otherwise is to inhabit them differently, to envision how to recast the resilient impingements and damages to which imperial forms give rise. Not least, the task is to recognize the force field of colonialism's conceptual web in which many more of us than often acknowledged remain entangled. Some are elements in what I have elsewhere argued are the "imperial dispositions of disregard": that which makes it possible — sometimes effortlessly and sometimes with strenuous if unremarked labor — to look away.

Each of these chapters is an intervention of sorts that reflects on the conceptual vocabulary and interpretive categories that might open to the occluded, alternative genealogies of imperial effects. Each seeks to think through the conceptual habits we bring to the study of colonial presence, not least the assumption of "confident access" to what that presence entails: how it manifests and on whom it most impinges. These are the assumptions that these essays attempt to identify and from which conceptual conventions may turn us away.


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Table of Contents

Preface  ix

Appreciations  xi

Part I. Concept Work: Fragilities and Filiations

1. Critical Incisions: On Concept Work and Colonial Recursions  3

2. Raw Cuts: Palestine, Israel, and (Post)Colonial Studies  37

3. A Deadly Embrace: Of Colony and Camp  68

4. Colonial Aphasia: Disabled histories and Race in France  122

Part II. Recursions in a Colonial Mode

5. On Degrees of Imperial Sovereignty  173

6. Reason Aside: Enlightenment Projects and Empire's Security Regimes  205

7. Racial Regimes of Truth  237

Part III. "The Rot Remains"

8. Racist Visions and the Common Sense of France's "Extreme" Right  269

9. Bodily Exposures: Beyond Sex?  305

10. Imperial Debris and Ruination  336

Bibliography  381

Index  419

What People are Saying About This

Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology - Etienne Balibar

"Concept-work, as performed by Ann Laura Stoler, is always concerned with very concrete objects and situations. However, the stakes are highly speculative and ethical: to reform our understanding of time, as it tacitly inflects the common perception of things 'postcolonial,' under the premise of a past that was fatal, or should never have been. Tracking the duress of the colony within our present experience becomes an injunction to proceed from occlusion to insecurity, to transform our historical selves."

Didier Fassin

"Pursuing her uncompromising quest for the invisible or unthinkable traces of our colonial past, Ann Laura Stoler questions and complicates self-evident genealogies. Extending her critical reflection to multiple scenes across continents, she offers a beautifully written book on how people and societies endure this everlasting yet occluded or silenced presence of imperial debris."

The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor - Patricia J. Williams

"Duress is an extraordinary excavation of colonialism’s recurrent conceptualizations of massive zones of ecological ruination, human vulnerability, and affective disregard. Ann Laura Stoler is laser-like in the forensics of those imperial pursuits—global and across centuries—whose accumulating sedimentations have all but naturalized unremitting states of emergency, eternal war, and perpetual exceptions to the rule of law. This book’s comprehensive clarity about the histories of our present is a gift of vision that, if heeded, might point the distance toward reckoning and repair."

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