In this impressive and important book, Ann Laura Stoler offers a re-reading of Michel Foucault’s volume 1 The History of Sexuality through “the prism of empire” (197). Stoler posits what appears to be an obvious oversight: “Why for Foucault, [do] colonial bodies never figure as a possible site of the articulation of nineteenth-century European sexuality?” (vii). Through meticulous research of Dutch colonial archival records, Stoler recovers “the fact of colonialism” within Foucault’s story of a nineteenth-century European bourgeois sexual order (6). Her colonial reading takes issue with Foucault’s four strategic unities that formed “specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex” (HS:103) which includes the hysterization of women’s bodies, the pedagogization of children’s sex, the socialization of procreative behavior, and the psychiatrization of perverse pleasure (HS:104–5). Stoler, again, poses what appears to be the obvious: “Did any of these figures exist as objects of knowledge and discourses in the nineteenth-century without a racially erotic counterpoint, without reference to the libidinal energies of the savage, the primitive, the colonized — reference points of difference, critique, and desire?” [my emphases] (6–7). This colonial reading places in relief what Stoler refers to as the “relational terms” through which “bourgeois selves have been conceived” (11–12). This is not a trivial point and no doubt the most powerful insight of the book. Stoler links that omission to other problems which she identifies as Foucault’s “selective” genealogy, his “specific chronologies” of the sexual history of the Occident, and his critique of the “repressive hypothesis” (4). Her interest is to confirm or challenge these themes by both drawing on Foucault and extending his analysis.
But taking up these three themes empirically as Stoler does is no easy task. The multilayered inquiry covers a range of topics from an analysis of Foucault’s 1976 lectures of the College De France on racisms of the state, to an excavation of Dutch colonial archival records, to the concluding chapter on the construction of desire. Readers will appreciate the substantive and concrete treatment given to these themes, but some, myself among them, may find her empirical arsenal an impoverished substitute for developing a meta-treatment of key concepts or exploring their philosophical implications.
Cases in point are the concepts “relational” and “desire.” A “relational” analysis is central to the principal argument of the book, yet it is thinly conceptualized. Readers may find themselves wanting to hear more (I certainly did) on how an identity/difference nexus is constituted. Stoler might draw on, for example, Ferdinand de Saussure’s hypothesis of language as a signifying system or engage more sophisticated analyses by post-Saussurean thinkers on the subject.1 The latter would enhance her empirical claims on the instability underlying the making of nineteenth-century European bourgeois sexuality.
The concept of desire, which Stoler points out as being “one of the most elusive concepts” in volume 1 of The History of Sexuality, can also be said about Stoler’s own use of the term (165). While the title of the book is about the education of desire, readers must wait until the concluding chapter for a discussion of it. We learn that desire does not have to be conceptualized in sexual (read Freudian and Foucauldian) terms. There are other kinds of desire (read Stoler’s brand) that take the form of “a more complicated range of longings and sentiments” (170). Some examples Stoler points to include “the desire to pass as white” and “to have one’s progeny be eligible for higher education” (190). We get the gist of how desire might be conceptualized in nonsexual terms but I am wondering why Stoler treats “longings” and “sentiments” as if they were empirical facts rather than linguistic mediations. That treatment may have to do with Stoler’s concern over the “unreflexive use” of Freudian concepts such as “repression, displacement, identification and projection” and how these concepts are “invoked to substitute for an analysis of historical...