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Reviewed by:
  • Imperial Formations
  • A. Dirk Moses
Imperial Formations. Edited by Ann Laura Stoler, Carole McGranahan and Peter Perdue (Santa Fe, MX: School for Advanced Research Press; Oxford: James Currey, 2007).

This volume is the product of a School of Advanced Research seminar on “Empires: Thinking Colonial Studies Beyond Europe,” held in Santa Fe in 2003. The seminar was organised to challenge the paradigmatic hold of the modern British and French empires on colonial and imperial studies. What about Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Soviet, and Ottoman empires, for instance? Can modern and early modern, European and non-European empires be considered “in the same analytical frame?” (xi). A welcome anti-Eurocentrism animates this venture. In view of the popularity of—and controversy about—the empire motif in political and academic discourse over the past decade, particularly regarding the projection of US power, the book seeks to not only to attend to the specifics of imperial rule in concrete cases across time and space but also to “confront the confusion of empire in the present” (xi).

Without doubt, the essays in this book confront this apparent confusion. Whether they resolve it is another question, because each operates with different definitions of the salient keywords: empire, imperialism, colony, colonization, colonialism, and so forth. But the problem inheres not so much the individual contributions, written in the main by leading historians at the top of their game. It is the long, programmatic introduction that must necessarily tend towards diffusion in order to integrate such a disparate collection. So the editors are forced to make descriptive statements of the lowest common denominator, such as ‘Imperial formations practice toleration and discrimination to different degrees’ (22). If no logics obtain besides processes of inclusion and exclusion—processes inherent in any society—little remains beyond banal generalizations in the book’s vaunted project of comparison.

The anti-essentialism of the methodology, in which “true” notions of definitions of empire are abandoned for attention to processes of the construction and protection of difference, does not help either. If “empire” is evacuated of meaning so that an apparently static concept is replaced by a focus on “layers of rule,” why resort to the concept “imperial formation”? Why not “hegemonic formation”? The nominalist logic of antiessentialism tends towards a pre-Kantian chaotic manifold. True, defining imperial formations a “concrete complex whole” comprising social, economic, cultural and political practices” (8) does make room for cultural history, but was extant scholarship really so blind to these practices?

In fact, imperial formations—hardly a new concept as a cursory database search reveals—seems to burst through open doors. The editors claim originality in attending to processes of incorporation and non-incorporation, “blurred sovereignty” and “deferred autonomy,” contingent interventions and governmentalities in various states of deferment or becoming that can persist after formal sovereignties have dissipated. Presumably that permits one to include the current US, which would be missed by nomenclature used by an older generation of diplomat-historians, such as Adam Watson—who were, one might add, all too aware of the limited and compromised imperial remit on the ground. They postulated gradations and styles of rule, ranging from empire, dominion, hegemony, and suzerainty to indirect rule, informal empire, and empire by invitation that are presumably too much concerned with ideologies and institutions, missing the Foucauldian focus on power’s dispersion and embodiment in discriminatory racial and gender orders. Of course, scholars like Lauren Benton, with their close attention to the unintended consequences of colonial law and litigation, have drawn attention to at least some of these aspects for years—as does Jane Burbank in her essay here on law and citizenship in imperial Russia. The introduction’s emphasis on demographic dislocation and spatial reconfiguration in imperial contexts is hardly new either when one considers the work of Donald Bloxham on what he calls “The Great Game of Genocide” in relation to the Eastern Question.

If Imperial Formations proposes to clarify conceptual confusion, it does not explicitly engage the relevant literatures and their “skewed templates” (7), preferring to remain within the confines of the new colonial historiography, with its sometime mannered turns of phrase. Does one really need to ask “How did ordinary people...

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