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By Ann Laura Stoler. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
The relevance of studying European empires and so-called legacies of the past has been at the heart of debates in Africa and Europe over the last few years. The discussions within and outside academia have been linked to the notion of reparations and to ideas about decolonising minds. Stoler's book is both timely and innovative. She centres her argument around two main points: Firstly, she seeks to examine the overt, covert, occluded and even unsuspected duress that are at the core of colonial and postcolonial histories and settings. Secondly, she makes a case for a re-imagining of our conceptual approach to the study of empires and post-colonial presence.
Stoler looks at traces of the past that serve several purposes. She examines, for example, traces that remind us of a negative past in places where the inhabitants have been plunged into chaos and poverty while others have renovated colonial infrastructures and have appropriated those legacies of the past in ways that reproduce social and political inequalities. In that respect and in its resolutely uncompromising stance, Stoler's volume echoes Achille Mbembe's narratives in On the Postcolony and in Sortir de la Grande Nuit: Essai sur l'Afrique Décolonisée. Dislocated and complex postcolonial environments have given birth to and are intertwined with new surfaces and agents of change that challenge our understanding of what is supposed to act as direct remains of the colonial past. In some ways these traces are easy to study and have reached a utilitarian purpose. They are, for example, used by academia and by the tourism industry.
Stoler notes that we are quick to follow these markers. We have become accustomed to using cues and concepts that are imperfect since they do not convey adequately the realities of colonial and postcolonial contexts. Following Michel Foucault's footsteps, she invites us to think differently and not only to deconstruct the settings, the arguments and the language but also to understand that these are part of the reasons why we cannot, even with archival material, fully recover certain stories. The link between past and present has been difficult to make because there is no linear understanding of these stories.
What about occluded stories, Stoler wonders? Some of these histories have been uncovered, forgotten and unveiled again. She acknowledges that there is a geopolitical dimension to these trajectories but also argues that there are other ways to occlude these stories. Categorising them in specific areas and so marginalising them can purposely occlude them. Colonial and postcolonial violence is multilayered and multidirectional. Her in-depth analysis of Palestine and Israel (post) colonial studies as well as her study of nineteenth-century children in agricultural colonies in France are telling examples of such mechanisms. The study of these cases has been relegated to national history or to social history. She demonstrates that violence is at the centre of these histories. Both were and are carefully crafted enclosures within tightly managed settings. They are in actual fact imperial stories.
Stoler studies multiple colonial settings to analyse how duress works. She also delves into French colonial stories and in particular into the public and academic effervescence that took place around these allegedly uncovered histories in contemporary France. Central to some of these cases is the question of race. For example, in chapters seven and eight she examines "Racial Regimes of Truth" as well as the "Racist Visions" in France. Both stories appeared to tackle racism in France but vary in their recurrence. The first one has given way to the second one but both should be understood in different manners. The 1884 Indigenous Code and other legal measures led to a hierarchy that ruled exchanges between the coloniser and colonial subjects. Understanding the origins of certain attitudes is not the primary aim of these analyses. Instead, Stoler remarkably shows how racism is polymorph and how that allows it to permeate heated issues in contemporary France.
Stoler masterfully ends the volume with "Imperial Debris and Ruination." She contends that studying debris should not to be...