Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Miscegenation in the Colonial Context: Defying Imperial Inclusion and Exclusion

I recently bought a used set of English flashcards published in the late 1970s. The reverse side for the word “Miscegenation” reads “Marriage between people of widely differing races” and the example sentence “Miscegenation has never been favorably regarded in the United States.” Pondering over the harmful cultural implications of such a definition I thought of a book I recently read by Ann Stoler. She shows that interracial relations are not limited to the cultural sphere and in fact have played a central role in colonialism and political power. In Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Power, published by the University of California Press in 2002, Ann Stoler demonstrates the importance interracial relationships played in the development of colonial structures of power.

This work advances several arguments and employs excellent and revealing photos. Within these she notes that many colonial cultures structured access to power and privilege through the construction of racial dichotomies. What happens when the racial hierarchies are complicated by a grey zone of biologically and culturally mixed people? Stoler indicates that, for one, the distribution of the wealth developed by the colonial enterprise becomes knotty, which catalyzes a change in the social construction of identities. Stoler’s contention is that in the colonial context of the Javanese heartland of Indonesia, the categories of inclusion and exclusion became untenable as they had previously been defined and that those in possession of power and wealth sought to stem the tide of miscegenation.

The culture of colonialism that Stoler describes in her first five chapters is one which develops to suit the needs of a European body of profiteers. This is convoluted by the reality that, for various reasons, the early period of colonialism forbade the migration of European women to the focal points of resource development and extraction. The corporate bodies in these spaces instead preferred their European subordinates to take on concubines to serve as domestic servants, sexual objects, and cultural instructors. One consequence of this was the development of mixed raced progeny. This complicated not just the distribution of wealth through the construction of self and other in the periphery but also the categories or ‘units of analysis’ in the colonial encounter, which brings us to Stoler’s theoretical argument.

Ann Stoler, an anthropologist, produced this text as a history but also one which attempts to advance the theory of history through a thorough going analysis of its methods. By aptly describing the unique position of ethnically and or culturally mixed persons in the periphery she showed how certain units of analysis are in and of themselves insufficient for describing the particulars which develop in any particular encounter. She insists though that she is not interested in merely throwing out the categories of description developed thus far. Instead she argues that it is through the process of examining the dichotomies and theoretical demarcations of postcolonial theory against and within the archive that new insights can be gained. She takes the construction of the European self, juxtaposed with the attempts to mutually construct a colonial other, as one example, and complicates it by pursuing those individuals who don’t fit entirely in either category. Moreover, she looks at the effect of the sites of intimacy on the macro-culture and the implications for the maintenance of a system of gross exploitation: the imperial project.

By reexamining certain categories, such as the self and other, or ‘white prestige’ over time and up close in the archive she is able to produce new ways of seeing the development of social, cultural, and economic systems. She shows that instead of these categories revealing the realities of the cultural encounter they reinforce what we as researchers expect to find and thus reproduce the same levels of description. Her discussion of the complexity of racial inclusion and exclusion in the colony further enhances her own theoretical position of the grey zone in mobilizing theory. Her approach seeks to re-energize theory by reconfiguring the way we approach them: critically.

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