Dystopic geographies of empire.

Author:Rajaram, Prem Kumar
Position:Viewpoint essay

Through an economy of contemporary colonial power, this article examines the twin tropes of discipline and aesthetic representation in order to trace the intimate effects of contemporary colonial power on bodies placed in spaces of exception. KEYWORDS: colonial present; colonized bodies; geographies of dysutopia; spaces of exception


In this article I sketch the nature of the economy of what I call contemporary colonial power. I investigate how this power is exercised through twin tropes of discipline and aesthetic representation and argue that the economy of contemporary colonial power is to be traced to its intimate effects on bodies placed in what may, with some qualification, be called spaces of exception.

The article begins with a brief analysis of the structure of colonial power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I suggest that this power was centered on discourses of normalization that discipline bodies and render them governable subjects. The next section develops the idea of the body as the exemplary site for the coming into formation of political forces, making structures of power visible. I then move on to account for the structure of colonial power in contemporary times, locating it genealogically to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonialism, before investigating the exercise of colonial power in common ways in two ostensibly distinct spaces: Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Semenyih immigration detention camp in Malaysia. I explain colonial power as a process of ordering space and its inhabitants and temporality, suggesting that the nature of colonial power may be understood best in how it becomes fleshed out on the bodies of those most marginal. Thus I attempt to account for a form of power that is both general, in its operative spacing procedures, and specific, in the particularities of its impacts on different types of marginalized people in different spaces.

The Economy of Colonial Power

Though varying in its specific form across space, European colonial power of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was, broadly speaking, structured by two related strategies of power. One was the structuring or ordering of space through epistemic appropriation and ontological hierarchization, where the colony became a known and delimited space through techniques of mapping, archiving in museums, and census taking. The end result of this imaginative and generative processes was a "totalizing classificatory grid," (1) a flexible semantic structure that not only provided the stable base against which identity, phenomena, and experience in the colony could be understood but also signified the static temporality of the colony (which was perhaps the defining element of colonialism). The force of the classificatory grid lay in its capacity to orient the future, through active (and contested) processes of maintaining and justifying the present in reference to (often codified) memories of the past and of custom or tradition. (2) These temporalizing processes ran hand in glove with spacing processes, where the boundaries and limits of the colonial space were drawn and redrawn at a variety of scales.

A number of scholars show that European colonialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may be read in terms of a heterogeneous discourse of normalization, where an unruly space is transformed or is always undergoing a process of transformation into an orderly dominion populated by more or less knowable identities. (3) The discourses of normalization whereby normal forms of living within the gridded colony are identified and policed are representational practices. Such representational practices evoke complex structures of affect and aesthetics: The known dominion is essentially an imagined one. The discipline of organization is in a relation to the spectacle of representation. The organization of lives and living in the colony signify a greater and enveloping abstraction: that of a more or less metaphysical "framework." (4)

The representation of bodies and identities on an orderly grid harks to an absent conceptual frame--in the colony, perhaps notions of "progress, reason, law, discipline, history, colonial authority and order." (5) This order is the form of the colony, taken now as an aesthetic creation or landscape--a form that orders and enables the content. It is the framework that instantiates a way of thinking about the self and its relation to the past, the present, and the future (and to how each of these concepts is articulated); in short, it is the framework--of order, reason, progress, or what have you--that provides an arena of secure predictability. The power of the colonial order is not to be studied solely in its effects (docile and knowable bodies) but in what the sum of organized bodies represent (a particular European or Western mode of thinking about the self, its relation to external reality, and the extent to which the principles of order can be discerned in an external reality). This is thus the hierarchy and the dystopia. The systematic completeness of the Western Cartesian mind, able to grasp and desirous of grasping the ordering structures of external realities, presumes and is founded on its opposite--the irregular and disorderly non-European mind: "When we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable." (6)

The organization of the colony and the colonized body should not, I argue, be understood solely as a decentered force to be studied in its effects: It should be associated also with a series of enabling frameworks whose specific form changes over space and time. These point then to fluid hegemonic processes and ideologies. Such hegemonic processes and ideologies give hierarchy; they denote the premodern or the primitive (essentially, they enable the translation of recognized "cultural" differences between peoples into a series of value judgments on the relative worth of other, non-Western, lives). It is important to note that such hegemonic processes are neither purely discursive, in a limited sense, nor unrelated to a material base--a material base, of relations of production, of the production and promulgation of military force, that enacted and was fed by systematic processes of colonial exploitation based on the conceptualization of land and people as economic goods.

Such hegemonic processes and/or ideologies are founded upon and cyclically enable the continual identification of dystopia and dystopic space. It is inherent in the identification of spaces of order that spaces of dystopia are presumed. It is inherent in the promise of the modern utopia of progress that some are confined to the imaginary waiting room of history. (7) Dystopia enables and vindicates the gridding of colonial space.

Dystopic imaginations are fundamentally aesthetic forms of knowing. The aesthetic process of knowing, following the Frankfurt school and particularly Theodor Adorno, is imbued with affect: with a volatile and perhaps sensuous investment of the self with and against its other. (8) A dystopic imagination of the colony, where the native and his space is understood in terms of lack, imagines a relation of power centered on extremes. Colonization may be read as a process that reduces the colonized to a subhumanity, thus setting up a teleology or vision of progress and change through a civilizing mission. It is important to read and trace the contours of colonial power from those disciplinary processes that create the colonial state down to "the intimacies of human bodies." (9) If the process of colonization as disciplinary procedure may be understood as a gradual process of creating a governable space, and if that process hinges on a dystopic imagination of the space as lack and its inhabitants as occupying a lower niche on an evolutionary scale of humanity, then the point at which the brutality underpinning representations of a civil order of colonialism becomes evident is in bodies.

Colonized Bodies

For Michel Foucault (in Allen Feldman's reading), the body serves as "an exemplary site for the coming together of political forces and constitutes a formation of domination, a place where power is ordered and a topos where that ordering attains a certain visibility, a collective resonance and publicness." (10) The colonized body is the base point at which colonial power as disciplinary mechanism and aesthetic spectacle becomes evident.

The colonized body is subject to processes of humiliation, recreation, and exhibition--complex outcomes of power ultimately inadequately contained by the twin tropes of discipline and aesthetic representation that I have chosen. The colonized body, at once subject to improvement and extermination, to civilizing missions, and to brutalization, is perhaps the site were multiple aspects of the economy of colonial power become evident. On the other side, the body of the colonizer was similarly subject to processes of transformation: Those bodies were at once hypermasculine and physically fragile (in the intemperate colony)--at certain times and places highly militarized, at other times and places bureaucratized; (11) sometimes they were frigid and chaste, at other times hyper-sexualized, and, indeed, also brutalized. (12)

Patricia Hayes, tracing the life of an amateur ethnographer and administrator in Ovamboland (in contemporary Namibia), "Cocky" Hahn, notes that in this official's modus operandi there was a disturbing mix of ethnographic knowledge-gathering about the natives in his area and frequent recourse to violence. (13) This violence was not always an obvious disciplinary measure; Hahn's violence was informal, spontaneous, and gendered, directed at female servants in his household. Hayes suggests that Hahn's violence is a method of space-clearing: a literal kick in the genitals of a native woman servant...

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