- Imperial Formations
Ever since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of the humanities have paid increasing attention to the complex ways in which imperialism (as both material and ideational phenomenon) was tied to the formation [End Page 349] of modernity. As these scholars have shown, imperialism had a profound effect on the political, economic, and cultural endowments of colonizing individuals, the colonized population, and those who found themselves somewhere in between. Although most colonial empires have since collapsed, it is virtually impossible to make sense of the contemporary world without a deep historical understanding of this former age. As the editors of this volume propose, critically minded scholars also need a method that can reveal how former modes of imperial control have transmogrified and have been joined by newer forms of rule, especially after 9/11 (2001).
If modern imperialism produced its own structures of domination, so too did the scholarship that has analyzed this global phenomenon. Like other fields of knowledge, colonial studies has privileged and, some would contend, continues to privilege the experience of the Western world. As a corrective to this epistemological disparity, the editors of Imperial Formations cast their gaze beyond the prototype of the European liberal state, including in their empirical and theoretical purview European and non-European, capitalist and socialist, modern and early modern, colonial and noncolonial forms of imperialism. To provide coherence to this expansive list, the introduction proposes the notion of "imperial formations"—a critical analytic meant "to underscore not the inevitable rise and fall of Empires, but the active and contingent process of their making and unmaking" (p. 8). As various authors demonstrate, a central, albeit overlooked, dimension of this process involved transnational comparisons and interstate borrowings, the result of which produced different yet commensurate forms of control. Many of these ruling strategies relied on the erratic logic of exception and deferral, conferring only limited degrees of economic benefits and political rights to subordinated populations.
Comprising an ambitious set of case studies separated by time and space, Imperial Formations is divided into the three subsections, each of which corresponds to an analytic theme presented in the introduction. The first subsection, titled "The Production and Protection of Difference," builds on the idea that empires can derive their power not only by cordoning off and excluding indigenous communities from benefits enjoyed by their rulers, but also by producing localized structures that manage and incorporate cultural variations. For example, Ussama Makdisi's essay on missionary encounters in the Ottoman Arab world demonstrates that whereas U.S.-based Protestant proselytizers brought cultural conversion as their modus operandi, the sultan leaders of the Ottoman Empire chose religious tolerance and political self-autonomy as their preferred method for managing the subordinated Muslim elements [End Page 350] of their multiethnic polity. In the end, it is on the latter tendency, or what the editors refer to as the "accommodation of difference," that Makdisi and the authors of the other essays in the first section focus. Through an examination of what she calls the "imperial rights regime," Jane Burbank, for instance, demonstrates that Muscovy statecraft operated by assigning privileges and duties to a Eurasian empire comprising differentiated collectivities. A heterogeneous system of administrative strategies (rather than a uniform set of laws) allowed Russian leaders to incorporate this multiethnic polity into a hierarchical social order that outlived most of its modern rivals. For his part, Peter Perdue shows how the leaders of imperial China also relied, at least in part, on a "culturalist" (or accomodationist) logic that allowed subordinated peoples of the Asian continent to approach Sinitic "civilization" by submitting themselves to the orthodox norms of the center (p. 144). One lingering question that emerges from a synoptic reading of these essays (and which Adeeb Khalid puts into stark relief) is the defining nature of these projects as (early) modern, characteristic of a regional regime, or some combination of these factors. For Khalid, Soviet rule over Central Asia was...