# HISTORY /// The Desired Colonized Body: Foucault and Race by Ann Laura Stoler


Race and the Education of Desire (Duke University Press, 1995) by Ann Laura Stoler constitutes an articulation of Michel Foucault‘s 1976-1984 History of Sexuality with the knowledge gathered by post-colonial studies. As Stoler recognizes herself in the book’s epilogue, we always ‘blame’ Foucault for not having make his work exhaustive (see my own past blame!), but it belongs to us to construct works after his own. In the specific case of this book, Stoler starts by considering what Foucault has written and said about colonialism and racism, which is not as prominent in his work as other notions have been (like pasteurism or governmentality).

The essence of Foucault’s work on sexuality is that we tend too often to have a reading of the normative processes at work in sex based on the idea that sexuality is being repressed. This reading can be partially explained by the importance of Sigmund Freud’s work that favors such interpretation. Foucault, on the other hand, sees in sexuality a biopolitical governmentality at work and the expression of various relationships of power as recalls Stoler in the beginning of her book:

For Foucault, sexuality is not opposed to and subversive power. On the contrary, sexuality is a “dense transfer point: of power, charged with “instrumentality” (HS:103). Thus, “far from being repressed in [nineteenth-century] society [sexuality] was constantly aroused” (HS:148). […] At the heart of his enquiry are neither sexual practices nor the moral codes that have given rise to them. Foucault’s questions are of a very different order. Why has there been such a protracted search for the “truth” about sex? Why should an identification and assessment of our real and hidden selves be sought in our sexual desires, fantasies, and behavior? […]
His answer is one that reconceives both the notion of power and how sexuality is tied to it. For Foucault, the history of sexuality is defined, not as a Freudian account of Victorian prudery would have it, by injunctions against talk about sex and specific sexual couplings in the bourgeois family, but by patterned discursive incitements and stimulations that facilitated the penetration of social and self-disciplinary regimes into the most intimate of modern life.  (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, 3.)

Foucault traces a distinct discourse of sexuality appearing in the early eighteenth century and a “completely new technology of sex” by its end (HS:116). This new technology expanded along the three axes of pedagogy, medicine, and demography that “made sex not only a secular concern but a concern of the state as well….sex became a matter that required the social body as a whole, and virtually all of its individuals to place themselves under surveillance.” When “sex became a police matter” (HS:24), the administrative concerns of the state became riveted not on a “people, but on a ‘population’ as an economic and political problem.” It is that moment when governments began to enumerate “legitimate and illegitimate births,” frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation…the effects of unmarried life or of the prohibitions” (HS:25). This “policing of sex” was not a matter of enforcing a “taboo” so much as it was an apparatus for the “ordered maximization of collective and individual forces” (HS:24-25). (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, 39.)

The regime of biopolitics discussed at length on this blog consists in the administrative management of bodies’ life. It therefore implies that the mechanisms that (re)produce life are being under tight control. Foucault goes as far as evoking this control as a technological one that organize the monitoring of behaviors and associations in the domain of sexuality. Despite Foucault’s relative silence about it, one can indeed recognize that the colonial condition that fully unfolds itself through the absoluteness of administration, might present itself as the paradigm of such biopolitics of sexuality, whether it organizes the demographics and behaviors of the colonized society. Stoler thus evokes the policies undertook by the Dutch colonial authorities in the East Indies (now Indonesia) as a quintessential example of such control:

The self-affirmation of white, middle-class colonials thus embodied a set of fundamental tensions between a culture of whiteness that cordoned itself off from the native world and a set of domestic arrangements and class distinctions among Europeans that produced cultural hybridities and sympathies that repeatedly transgressed these distinctions. The family, as Foucault warns us, should not be seen as a haven from the sexualities of a dangerous outside world, but as the site of their production. Colonial authorities knew it only too well. They were obsessed with moral, sexual, and racial affronts to European identity in Indische households, but also in “full-blooded” Dutch homes. Housekeeping guides, medical manuals, and pedagogic journals produced in the nineteenth-century Indies and the Netherlands reiterated such dangers in many forms. Nor should it be surprising that this barrage of advice on contaminations intensifies as germ theory develops and biomedicine begins its triumphs. (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, 112.)

The colonial state exacerbates many racial and social relations within current Western societies. Each body is recognized as either colonizer or colonized. This  binary scheme does not mean that normative processes are not at work in the colonial condition; what it manifests is the existence of two legislation applied to two types of recognizable bodies, where two different sets of normative processes are operative. Sexuality brings however a certain complexity in this binary scheme as many bodies emerged through interracial relationships, thus creating hybrids that, according to Stoler, were attributed an ambiguous status. This métissage, despite the colonial relationship of power that triggered it, is interesting as it produces bodies — and therefore lives — that cannot be systematically categorized within the colonial binary scheme. It is easy to understand that such (reproductive) interracial relationships were therefore not encouraged by the administrative authorities, hence the emphasis on racist biological discourses. It is interesting to learn for example that the colonial bodies living on the colonized land were regarded as inferior by the colonial bodies living on European land, as the former are in potential (sexual) contact with the colonized bodies by the latter. There is thus the development of an internal set of hierarchies that corresponds to the normative processes evoked above. Similarly, colonialism creates a hierarchy of proletariat that Chris Marker does not miss to observe in Le Joli Mai (1962): “the lowest proletariat in a colonizing country always has a sub-proletariat from the colonized country.”

Nowadays, most colonized nations have liberated themselves from colonialism, and many of the colonized bodies’ progeny are now living on European land. The normative processes at work are applied in the same way for all bodies, separating them all by a different degree to the norm, and placing them into categories accordingly. The biopolitical organization of sexuality described by Foucault is still operating, but rather than being designed by a form of colonial state, it is now developed by capitalism for which commodity and sexuality are entangled to form what Beatriz Preciado calls pharmaco-pornographic society. (see past article).

2 Comments on “# HISTORY /// The Desired Colonized Body: Foucault and Race by Ann Laura Stoler

  1. Pingback: The Funambulist on Stoler, Foucault and Race | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: # HISTORY /// Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”: The Figure of the Colonized Body | The Funambulist


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