- Infrastructures of Race: Concentration and Biopolitics in Colonial Mexico by Daniel Nemser
Daniel Nemser’s groundbreaking and beautifully written monograph centers on how racialized social orders in colonial Mexico were inherently linked to spatial order. The study is a powerful intervention into the “coloniality of power” literature. Aníbal Quijano rightly emphasized that a racialized labor schema became naturalized in the colonial world, but this reading tends to suggest that race was a static, pinpointable “thing” that was the starting point of colonial order. In Infrastructures of Race, race is the endpoint of a process always poised to begin anew. Yes, we know that race is linked to power, but how did ideas and experiences of race come to be, Nemser asks, and through what mechanisms and for what reasons did they change? Infrastructures of Race answers these questions by taking the reader down a road little explored in studies of colonial race: through the analysis of material systems—infrastructures—that would have made such ascriptions possible, namely the “roads, walls, ditches, buildings, boundaries and towns, into which both human and nonhuman subjects were concentrated” (5). Instead of viewing race primarily as an attribute (as does most of the literature), Nemser insists that race is also “an effect of the material practices of power” (9); that is, the focus here is less on how ideas of difference played out and more about how materiality created the means of domination.
Infrastructures of Race is divided into four chapters, each of which tracks shifts in ongoing processes of racialization and the material regimes upon which they depend. The first and second chapters address how the Spanish Crown and Catholic church physically removed and resettled bodies—collected them—as a strategy of governance during the sixteenth century. Both chapters deftly demonstrate how subjectivities were produced vis-à-vis [End Page 113] infrastructures, in this case the figures of the “Indian” and the “Mestizo.” The first chapter, “Congregation: Urbanization and the Construction of the Indian,” looks at how the spatial organization of certain peoples was a hinderance to evangelization and tribute/labor extraction, and how Euro-criollos deemed resettlement into centralized, manageable, and monitorable spaces the appropriate solution. The violent dispossession of Indigenous lands and the forced removal and resettlement of Indigenous peoples (often with peoples of different ethno-spatial origins) in colonial Mexico has received surprisingly little attention. In this chapter, Nemser provides the most thorough and nuanced analysis of congregation to date, arguing that the very category of “Indian” and related “qualities, capacities, and obligations” (2) was articulated and solidified through the process of congregation.
Having established that the figure of the “Indian” was born of a slippery bundle of ideological premises and spatial and institutional practices, the second chapter, “Enclosure: The Architecture of Mestizo Conversion,” shows how the “Mestizo” came to be in similar fashion. This chapter addresses the practices of recogimiento, literally rounding up and enclosing young mestizo bodies and minds within the walls of the Colegio de San Juan Letrán in order to produce a new creature that could successfully mimic hispanidad while retaining enough “Indio” to be able to assist in the evangelization project. The third chapter, “Segregation: Sovereignty, Economy, and the Problem with Mixture,” moves to the end of the seventeenth century to show how European criollos understood the 1692 riot in Mexico City as the failure of earlier practices of concentration. Yet they still turned to segregation, in the form of a Spanish-only traza, as a protectionary measure that would safely cocoon them from a terrifying, undifferentiated, and undesirable mass of bodies that were becoming more populous than the elite.
The fourth chapter, “Collection: Imperial Botany and Racialized Life,” rounds out the book’s focus on the role of concentration in ongoing processes of colonial racialization. This chapter seems at first out of sync with the others as it discusses the collection and organization of plant life, not people. But imperial botany of the eighteenth century is actually the ideal case study...