Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 310-316
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Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Modernities
The Erotic Margin:
Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse
Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Modernities. By Antoinette Burton. New York and London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. 224. $90.00 (cloth).
The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse. By Irvin Schick. New York and London: Verso, 1999. Pp. 288. $30.00 (cloth).
Both of the books reviewed here are most profitably understood as contributions to postcolonial studies and to the larger project of mapping "modernity." "Modernity" is an unwieldy concept, notoriously difficult to define or bound, and yet apparently indispensable. No other term seems to register the trajectory of cultural, technological, spiritual, economic, and aesthetic change since the Age of Revolutions. In this regard, as well as in its slippery qualities, "modernity" bears a marked similarity to "colonialism." Like the notion of the "modern," the notion of the "colonial" is both necessary and inadequate to describe the relations between and among nations and peoples. The problem common to both terms is that their enormity makes it impossible to pin down their exact interpretative significance. After all, no two regions "modernized" in the same way, no two empires were structured alike, and no two colonies developed according to the same pattern. Yet, without the concepts of "modernity" and "colonialism" to anchor research and analysis, attention to the specific configurations of particular cultures must remain frustratingly limited in its ability to locate those cultures in the context of the increasingly interconnected modern globe. It seems clear that we need to find a balance between local case study and larger international context if we are to trace the historical relations of imperial power and desire that have shaped the world we know today.
Perhaps the best-known recent work to take up this balancing act is Ann Stoler's Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's "History of Sexuality" and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995). Stoler's explorations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dutch culture led her to question the common belief that modernity originated [End Page 310] in the West and was then exported from the metropole to the "backward" or "undeveloped" outposts of empire. Instead, she makes the case that modernity, in metropole as in colony, developed in and through imperialist practice. Tracking the "education of desire" in the Netherlands and in the Dutch East Indies, Stoler emphasizes the extent to which modernity took form in the always-contested relationship between metropole and colony. Furthermore, she demonstrates that sexuality was one of the central technologies of both modernization and imperialism. Stoler's work is impressive in large part because she uses the historical development of a particular colonial configuration of racial and sexual discourse to open a window onto the larger world-systems of empire.
Both of the books reviewed here take up the questions Stoler explores. Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Modernities more successfully negotiates between the level of the particular (local studies) and the general (colonialism, modernity) than does The Erotic Margin. Antoinette Burton's anthology follows Stoler's lead, both in its attempt to locate specific colonial situations in the contexts of imperialism and modernity and in its attention to sexuality as a central site for the production and negotiation of "colonial modernities." Burton's introduction lays out the analytic commitments and conclusions that inform the essays that follow. What these contributions have in common, as she explains, is an interest in examining "the way that ideologies of gender and sexuality were foundational to the projects of colonial modernity" (p. 2). Contrary to common understandings of colonialism as the proverbial juggernaut, she proposes that we think of colonial hegemony as "unfinished business," for imperial powers could never fix "with absolute authority the social and cultural conditions out of which citizens and subjects could make and remake their relationships to the state and civil society" (p. 3). In the attempt to do so...