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Interview with Ann Laura Stoler

by Ann Laura Stoler, Martina Tazzioli and Oliver Belcher
5 Oct 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Border Struggles [12] | Commons

Oliver Belcher: We would like to hear your thoughts on the present state of postcolonial theory and criticism today. For a long time, postcolonial studies was an innovative force with a lot of energy and excitement around it, but towards the end of the 2000s, it seemed to have either lost steam or dispersed into a variety of “perspectives” (e.g., postcolonial science and technology studies, postcolonial feminism, film, literature, etc.), perhaps undermining any coherency. It seems to me one can trace a trajectory within postcolonial studies, from an early critical inquiry into the production of colonial and cultural categories and knowledge formations, largely inspired by the work of Edward Said and Michel Foucault, to a shift in orientation sometime in the 2000s, where we saw a rise in work focusing on the materiality of colonial practices. Your recent books Along the Archival Grain (2010) and Imperial Debris (2013), as well as others (e.g., Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts [2003]) come to mind. Do you sense that this turn to materialities and the dispersal into so many perspectives has anything to do with the blunted political power of contemporary postcolonial critique? That is, do you think the frantic pursuit of “agenda setting” work within academia has somehow diluted postcolonial theory and critique? Obviously, this is just my interpretation of things. I suppose I’m trying to wrap my head around why the politicized interrogation of colonial categories and knowledges seems to have run its course, and why focusing on materialities and affect seems ascendant? Why now, and what are the political effects?

Ann Laura Stoler: I actually don’t think that postcolonial theory has run its course, only some variants of it. If anything, the analytics we need to understand how colonial histories shape the present – are as pressingly in demand. One could argue that colonialisms have a durability and presence as charged sites of contestation and contemporary political debates in a more explicit way than ever before. It is true that some forms of what you call “postcolonial theory” seem predictable and spent, but I would argue that this is because they assume that we know what the articulation of colonial past and present looks like rather than taking that articulation as a difficult object of inquiry. The work I’ve been doing for the last decade has been an effort to dwell in this uncertain space, to question what remains, how it does so, and what are the tangible and intangible forms that this durability takes.

I was initiated into thinking hard about colonial governance and our need to think about it when I was writing my doctoral dissertation in Paris in 1978 on the history of multinational agribusiness and the strategies of labor control in North Sumatra, a region that had been a boom industry for tobacco, oil palm, rubber during the colonial period and that remained one long after.  I read Foucault’s Volonte du savoir (the History of Sexuality, vol 1; 1980) and Orientalism (1978) the same year. Both have informed in different ways what I have done over the last thirty years. Postcolonial studies, like so many initiatives when they are first cast, is no longer an identifiable intellectual and political space in the way it imagined itself after Orientalism was published. But I’m not sure that I agree, as you put it, that the turn to materialisms is symptomatic of a deflation of postcolonial critique and its political force. I think right from the get-go, some of the really critical political interventions of Said’s project wwere set aside. There were as I call them in my new book, “a politics of occlusions” from the start in the very separation of Orientalism from The Question of Palestine (1979) that was published a year later.

Belcher: So you feel like that happened right at the beginning?

Stoler: Yes, very early on. I see it in the comfort many took in dissecting Jane Eyre’s hidden colonial markings or those of Jane Austen, as if what Said had urged us to do was to level our political critique at the shadows of empire lodged in European canonical texts.  This was indeed part of the project but only one feature of it, an accessible illustration of the extent to which imperial dispositions pervade, as if benignly, the creative and intellectual world we inhabit so seamlessly. Said wanted us to do something more: namely to question a broader configuration of power relations that continues to pervade the present.  It’s a good time to remember that the force of his intervention spoke to and challenged us to identify this broader politics of knowledge that includes and must include U.S. investments and priorities in the Middle East and not least Israeli incursions on and dispossessions of Palestinians.

Belcher: Right.

Stoler:  And I think that over the years that broader agenda remained muted if not explicitly put aside. Having worked on colonialisms for so many years, it seems to me that we who work on the “colonial order (and disorder) of things” have assiduously missed the mark by taking South Asia as the prototypical case for treating imperial governance rather than, as I’ve argued for some time, the wide range of imperial sites in which more gradated and oblique forms of imperial control were operative.  Said’s book was only in part about French and British literature in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. It was as squarely about US imperialism, about the instrumental ways in which technologies and knowledge were being used. And at the center of that was Palestine, Israel, and US complicity, particularly US/Israel complicity in the tactical project that could create infrastructures of what their agents and architects called “security” and “counterinsurgency.” Ironically much of this work is being done but researchers who don’t think of themselves as “postcolonial” scholars.

But of course, “we” all know that the “post” was a critical stance not a temporal designation. Much of this never had to do with Said who distanced himself from “postcolonial” studies.  If you look at the first fifteen years after Orientalism was published, Palestine is absent. That has changed with a profusion of new work coming out now, a new “politics of comparison” if you will. That most of the edited volumes with canonical postcolonial essays rarely even mention Palestine was not an oversight but an elision of particular kinds of connectivities, something I argue at some length in the introduction to my forthcoming book, Duress: Concept-Work for our Times. And at issue is not just settler colonialism which has become the dominant idiom through which a much broader range of scholars can now relate to Israel’s colonial politics and write about it.

Belcher: What do you see behind this “resurgence” as you put it, which I would agree with. For example, in my own work, I focus on the material and technical valences at work in colonial violence, instead of merely on discursive “categories,” in the formal sense, since discourses, of course, are material. Do you have any thoughts on what is behind this resurgence in materialities and so-called “new materialisms?” I constantly find myself wondering if there is something more politically charged that is lost in the shift to materialities, namely a reification of the “human” by focusing precisely on what it is not. This is a self-critique of my own comfort zone. I’m not talking about Imperial Debris, where you have, I believe, trail-blazed a way we should be heading.

Stoler: Again, I don’t see the focus on “materialities” marking that shift. Palestine is speakable, Israel’s colonial policies are speakable in a way they had not been the case when Said was writing. Politically, the more marked set of issues that are coming up around Palestine, Israeli settler policy are providing a space for more people to think about what they were not even aware that they were unaware of earlier. Students are more interested in developing, or rather not sticking with, a conceptual vocabulary that is stale and convenient, but seeking to find new ways of understanding the malleability of imperial formations themselves. And it is not necessarily the answers that Hardt and Negri offered in Empire — an “old empire” with the small ‘e’ replacing a new Empire with a capital ‘E.’ I fear that when they wrote Empire, they held a very caricatured notion of what imperial governance once looked like –fixed, categorical, taxonomic in a way it was not in the past and is certainly no longer today.

Those earlier imperial forms had fungible parts, realigned and mobile.  The security regimes that we often see as new forms of imperial governance have a deep genealogy. What “security” means in scale and scope, what kinds of subjects it produces, how it produces an enemy –internal and external– were the obsession of nineteenth century colonial authorities. Reason and “déraison” collude and collide in the anticipatory politics of security. Reason is at issue but sentiments and sensibilities are being mobilized as well. I see this in your own work, already, Oliver. I teach a seminar on the politics of sentiment, and I can imagine giving your piece (Belcher 2014) to my students, and inviting them to map that landscape of affect that’s being played through and mobilized in counterinsurgency and “securitizing” measures.

Belcher: I agree with you that in the way I pose this question, it makes it look like “materiality” in itself is depoliticizing. And I think you are right that there is a politicization going on right now that is very acute. But, I guess I’m wondering, as an autobiographical note, what was behind this turning to materiality in your own work. I’ve been reading your work since I was an undergraduate. I guess I first read your work in 2001 when I took a course in the Anthropology Department at the University of Iowa with a new Assistant Professor named Adi Hastings on “Colonialism and Culture.” Two of the assigned books in that course were Nicholas Dirks’ book Colonialism and Culture (1992), and your book with Frederick Cooper on the Tensions of Empire (1997). So, those were the key texts in the course, aside from Said, Spivak, and the like. But, it seems like your earlier work focused much more on political economy and the question of colonial categories and Foucault’s analytical approach. But, your more recent work has focused much more on questions of affect.

Stoler: Well, I see these as organic moves, intimately imbricated. This is not a choice between political economy and affect but an effort to understand how relations of power and subjugation work. Racial formations are made up of political economies of inequality and a redistribution of affective states.  Imperial formations have never invested in fixities alone. What they depend upon are strategically activated fluidities, protean categories that could change, and be reallocated.  Much of the work I’ve done over the last two decades has been to put in question how dominance is realized and what is political as a subject of inquiry in its own right. It’s true that the trajectory of my work has shifted over the last decade, thinking first in 2000 with American historians about “the haunting” of empire in U.S. history, visiting and teaching in Palestine, teaching in a maximum security prison in upstate New York this Spring.  When I was first invited to do a presidential panel on the ‘Intimacies of Empire’ at the Organization of American Histories in 2000, I remember that U.S. feminist historian Linda Gordon among others said “We need your work in American studies” and my response was “Well, actually you don’t. Attention to domains of the intimate and bodily exposure are already there.” An edited volume, Haunted by Empire (2006), came out of that thinking together. What struck me at the time (and this was before 9/11) was that the U.S. was so often posed as an exception. It’s where I first questioned whether we shouldn’t be looking at things the other way around: not that the U.S. was an exception but that it was an imperial formation in one of its quintessential forms.  The move to what had been considered peripheral imperial zones, quasi-imperial zones made me question the very canon of colonial studies itself. It became increasingly clear to me that the U.S. could only be considered an exception is if you bracket the gradated, attenuated, expanded practices in which imperial formations invest. The surge in “empire talk” after 9/11, of the US. as a “benevolent,” “liberal” empire that might learn “lessons” from British imperial pursuits only strengthened my sense that we needed to rethink the categories to  which we have tried to make sense of  the past and therefore the present.

Belcher: Right.

Stoler: I first went to Israel and Palestine in 2007. Those that took me around were from a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who had turned against the policies of the Israeli state and formed an organization, “Breaking the Silence.”  The “security” wall was going up fast. Villages were carved in half, Palestine homes were on one side, their fields on another, swerved strategically to make increasing space for Israeli settlements. It was, to put it mildly, a shock of recognition, colonizing policy and practice in bold face, in a high-tech register, and in the flesh. As Derek Gregory has put it (a book I had not yet read at the time), it was of “the present.”

I’m often asked, as you have perhaps more obliquely, how and why I turned from Marx to Foucault. Marx continues to inform how I see the world but Foucault seemed to offer a different leverage on the very question Marx posed about how people are requisitioned, recruited, and coerced to capitalist systems of exploitation and subordination.  It was Marx who developed the notion of “subsumption” but Foucault who offered a way to trace the micro-sites in which people were subsumed and the varied forms that subsumption could take.

But it was not only Marx and Foucault who prompted the questions I sought to ask. Feminism mattered as much and is a crucial part of this story, underscored less than it should be. As a graduate student in the late l970s armed with the feminist mantra that the “person was political,” it was impossible for me not to ask about the gendered and body politics of colonial governance and not least because those who managed plantations and colonies saw the world too in that way; governor generals, ministers of the colonies, heads of different departments for inland security, all of those were concerned with attachments, affiliations family formation—these were security issues to them—about the management of sentiments and sex.

My early work was on multinationals, on the palm oil and rubber plantations in north Sumatra owned by Belgian, French, U.S. and Dutch companies whose labor policies constantly returned to family arrangements of those who worked on the estates, on calibrated prohibitions against marriage, depressed wages for women who worked on the estates (to keep them “available” for other body work) and the management of sex.

Martina Tazzioli: That leads to the second question, which is more related to Foucault. In your book Carnal Knowledge (2002), you criticize a practice of writing that takes place in a “comfort zone.” According to Foucault, a “politics of truth” should look critically at the effects of power related to and produced by certain knowledge regimes of truth. Yet, what seems to remain implicit in Foucault is a kind of subject able to question or carry out a “genealogy of the present” which remains very much within the Western tradition of parrhesia; that is, the kind of frank and fearless speech that can be traced back to Socrates and his “apology.” We realize this is a difficult question, but we wanted to ask whether the very mode of questioning in Foucault’s writings is a mode “inherent,” for lack of a better word, within the Western tradition? In other words, what does it mean to write today from a “discomfort zone?” Is it possible to build a new platform, so to speak, from which produce knowledge that forces us to think otherwise? I am intrigued by your critique of Foucault’s genealogical method, and would like your thoughts on what a radical, perhaps “non-genealogical” interrogation of the present could mean? In positive terms, what does a non-colonial knowledge mean or look like? Or is knowledge production always a vicious circle? These questions are important for us, insofar as this special issue takes border struggles as its theme, and our pursuit to think out of borders.

Stoler: Yes, so your question is about this very mode of questioning inherent, for a lack of a better word, within the “Western” tradition. In other words, today, what could it mean to write from a “discomfort zone.” Or, not from a discomfort zone, rather how one can create a zone of discomfort. I don’t think any of us ask directly “what makes me uncomfortable” – rather dis-ease comes with the struggle of thinking and writing, confronted with a vocabulary and set of concepts that we find in the process of thinking inadequate to their task.   At issue are the kinds of questions one thinks to pose, immediately calling into question what you imagine to be obvious, and the very categories on which you depend. Foucault’s ethics of discomfort keeps me vigilant. It continues to inform how I work. Parrhesia, the notion of truth as “fearless speech,” has at its core a demand and requirement: a courage to speak in a form and place which puts you at risk. I think that the question of what puts you at risk and why, particularly now with respect to Palestine and the boycott movement, and the various ways in which we are all implicated is important to pursue. Speaking out, and who has been called to task for doing so, is an issue in the academe right now as we know. It’s at once an intellectual and political issue and these two can never be disentangled.

Tazzioli: Yes, which leads to two other points for me. First, do you believe it possible to produce a noncolonial knowledge in a positive sense, after the critique of colonial knowledge? That is, how can we produce a sort of knowledge that is not simply a situated knowledge. Going beyond this specific production of anticolonial knowledge, what could it mean today to produce and put to work a noncolonial knowledge? And, my second question  relates to your discussion of Foucault and the questioning of our present in his writing on the Enlightenment. Is there not a kind of questioning of the subject that is at stake in Foucault’s project? Because for me, there is a radical questioning about contemporary reality, but what is partly at issue is the kind of subject, which is at bottom a philosophical issue, as in the case of parrhesia, and in the sense Foucault has when he speaks of a “philosophical subject.” So, how to question?  How to take his very radical theoretical and political perspective about our present, but combine it with what you are saying, combine it with a question of subjectivity and the subject that reflects upon and reflects the present?

Stoler: : Exegetical readings of Foucault are problematic.  Foucault extended an invitation to do something else with what he did than in the precise places he sought to go. His interest was in subjectivities and how they are formed. He had his own limits as I wrote almost twenty years ago in Race and the Education of Desire (1995). Still there is so much to be gained by staying close to the ways in which he troubles the very “ready-made syntheses” that concepts afford,  I don’t see this as a philosophical subject alone. I’ve been working for the last few years in thinking about what “fieldwork in philosophy” might look like. It’s a term that Austen used to describe what he saw as project for philosophy. Wittgenstein put it somewhat differently: in asking “how do we get the traction of “rough ground?” How do we not stay in a philosophy that is transcendental but in the messier space in which concept formation and subject formation occur?  “Fieldwork in philosophy” is a term Bourdieu used. But he went only so far. He was indeed an “engaged intellectual” but his “fieldwork in philosophy” never seemed to go far enough, for example, their remained a silent corridor around race in the making of the “Distinction” of the French bourgeoisie and middle-class.  Paul Rabinow called on the term and practice of “fieldwork in philosophy” but turned it to address, as any of us might, the projects in which he was engaged. I think there is a range of creative ways to exploit and pull upon this term and do our concept work. It is not for me and my generation to say what decolonized knowledge will look like and where it goes. How many conferences have I gone to that are about decolonizing knowledge and hardly broach the subject. It is about the way in which this next generation formulates who are the subjects who are writing about it, what are they in conversation with? It’s arrogant to imagine what to dictate from a certain position what these new forms should look like.

Just to look, for instance Oliver, on what you are drawing on, what brings you to draw on the work that you do. It’s in geography, but not limited to geography. You pull on Heidegger, you pull on Foucault, but then you do it in your own way. Is that it a decolonizing knowledge? Is it not for you, Martina? It takes so many forms, right? Is Oliver’s work “decolonizing knowledge” for you?

Tazzioli: I don’t know, in the sense that my point is not so much, “what is ‘decolonizing knowledge’?” Rather, my question is what does it mean in a positive way? What kind of production of knowledge, according to you, is at stake, not because there is someone who dictates the “new knowledge” or what the new knowledge “should be,” but what is in process, and eventually what can be produced, starting from that critique, a postcolonial critique?

Stoler: But, I don’t know what that postcolonial critique is. It’s a process and set of relations and thus must be a moving category, responsive to the present pressures and how they change. What is it for you?

Tazzioli: Okay, I am referring in a broader way to the fact that many authors, many scholars question the basic assumption on which Western political thought has been built. So, starting from that critique, then what does it mean not to reiterate some of these assumptions which, for me, partly remain. For instance, a counter-analyses about the production of subjectivity, and I am not referring specifically to your work, but to the work of many European scholars, so that it is very difficult to, in some way, liberate ourselves from those assumptions. Yes, they are implicit kinds of reasoning. All of these scholars question and criticize this colonial assumption, but then there is, for me, a specific kind of subject that is presupposed in this production.  For example, you mentioned Negri before. There seems to be a particular kind of Eurocentric view in what he proposes as a political subject.

Stoler: Well, maybe Martina, this is more a problem with political theory and its abstractions than the kind of grounded work about subject formation that an ethnographic sensibility affords. My students take subject formation as the very subject of their inquiry and work to develop projects and methods that precisely refuse in any a priori way to assume that the categories with which we work are indeed viable. Although I often find myself disavowing my ties to anthropology, in fact I am deeply impressed by the generation of students I now teach because they initiate and formulate their inquiries from other vantage points than European Enlightenment thought and ask what the political looks like on the ground to people, whether that be young people in Indonesia grappling with the history of Indonesia’s genocide in new ways and at the same time opening a new political space that they envision through media, through art, and through attunement to a multisensory world that’s theirs.  How do they reckon with that past and with their parents’ generation who refused and feared to speak about that past? And how do they carve out a future for themselves? I think Ranciére, in his own way, offers us something, because aesthetics offers another opening. But more so it radically doubts that we know what the political looks like before its emergence. And I encourage them to think about these issues when a ready, coherent way of articulating the political may not even yet be available to those who are struggling with it. What are the forms that it takes? We were so fixed in a notion of resistance and domination but such terms are perhaps more wooden that the practices that inform what people do and how they express their critiques. I think that we need to understand the conceptual formations that people themselves are formulating, what they seize upon to formulate a demand and make a claim.  I’m trying to provide my students with the tools to ask better questions, and not necessarily come up with solutions, to remain uncertain of what they imagine to know and how they know it. This is the very site of their ethnographic challenge. If you look at the work emerging, this is exactly what they are doing.  One of my students has been working on undetonated bombs in Lebanon. And instead of asking, how the pre-formed communities around the bomb respond to that presence, she asks how this epistemic object of these bombs in southern Lebanon, produce socialities, new relationships, political claims that are being made through the presence of that object there and then.  She poses an epistemic and political set of questions at the same time. That to me is an innovation and a more compelling way to ask about emergent political dispositions and new and urgent political questions.

Belcher: Thank you so much for your time, Ann.

Oliver Belcher, “Staging the Orient: Counterinsurgency Training Sites and the U.S. Military Imagination,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104.5: 1012-1029.

Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997).

Nicholas Dirks, Colonialism and Culture, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992).

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York, Vintage Press, 1980).

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, (New York, Vintage Books, 1979)

Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York, Vintage Books, 1978).

Ann Laura Stoler, ed. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Ann Laura Stoler, ed. Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

Ann Laura Stoler. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).

Ann Laura Stoler, Carole McGranahan, and Peter Perdue, eds. Imperial Formations, (Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research, 2007).

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Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and History at the New School for Social Research in New York City, New York. She is the Founding Director of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry, and her recent work includes Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (2013), Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense(2009); and Imperial Formations (2007).
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Martina Tazzioli has a PhD in Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. After being postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oulu, she is currently at University of Aix-Marseille, LAMES, LabexMed and Queen Mary, University of London. She is in the editorial board of the journal Materialifoucaultiani and she is the author of Spaces of Governmentality. Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and co-editor of Foucault and the History of our Present (2015) and of Spaces in Migration. Postcards of a Revolution, (2013). She is member of Materialifoucaultiani editorial board (
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Oliver Belcher is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the RELATE Centre of Excellence in the Department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland. His research brings together critical human geography and science and technology studies to explore war, visualization, experience, and technology. He completed his PhD, “The Afterlives of Counterinsurgency: Postcolonialism, Military Social Science, and Afghanistan, 2006-2013,” in Human Geography at University of British Columbia in 2013.
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