The Colonial Administration of Bodies and Space in Colonized Java



In this conversation, recorded on August 11, 2014, we talk about colonialism in Java, the administrative management of sexuality and its potential offspring, as well as “thick lines” and the architecture of the colonial house as a spatial apparatus bearing strong influences on the control of colonial roles and behaviors.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: You are currently working on a political conceptual lexicon related to colonialism with some colleagues of yours, to whom you ask to write about one particular concept. Could you introduce that project to us?

ANN LAURA STOLER: Yes. Well, it’s a project that I’m particularly passionate about. It is one that in many ways is a culmination of what I’ve been doing for some 20-30 years, because my early work on colonialism and colonial archives really revolved around thinking about categories: about the movement of categories, racial categories, how colonial authorities used those categories, the violence of those categories, the ways in which they both cornered people and sought to shape the social topography of the colonies — as people refused them at the same time. But to talk about categories is to talk also about concepts. Pursuing the politics of concepts or categories implicates the two. I’ve been working for some time on a project called “Fieldwork in Philosophy,” which is a way of thinking about the conceptual work we bring to what we do as students of critical social inquiry and how we might broaden the terrain and locations of conceptual labor, and recognize the conceptual labor that is already being done in so many other domains, outside the constricted space of philosophy proper.

The political concepts project, though, is very much a collaborative one that began when I had the good fortune to meet the philosopher Adi Ophir who was in Israel at that time, and is now at Brown University. He ran a lively seminar in Tel Aviv with his students on political concepts. Taking part in the project briefly, learning more about it and, excited by how much it dovetailed with my own concerns, I immediately imagined it becoming something that could include a broader range of scholars. In the year that followed, I signed the boycott which meant, as you know, that I would not work with the support of Israeli institutions. But it did not mean that I could not work with Adi. We came up, some five years ago, with the idea that we should start a journal online, a platform for an ongoing lexicon that took as its mandate that it would be always in formation. The principle was and remains vital: that no lexical entry is the definitive one but rather something that can be transformed by whoever writes and thinks it differently again. But it’s a lexicon, and it’s a political lexicon, because it endeavors to do two things: one, it invites contributors to look at political concepts that are familiar, “self-evidently” political and in the world as such, be that “freedom,” “liberty,” or “violence” and asks them to think and work with them again. But its second task is the one that I find even more compelling and that for me speaks to my own intellectual and political trajectory out of feminism, Marxism, and colonial governance: this second venture is to explore and examine terms that are not immediately considered either concepts or political and to show how they work as both, as organizing and animating perception and practice. These are political concepts that might be considered subjacent concepts in wait that might have realized or potential political valence but that are not actually designated as political at all. But, as we track and trace them, we find them to be doing an enormous amount of political work. The third feature of our venture is to hold an annual working conference in which those attending present their well-honed or incipient formulations and all present press on them to do more!

I find this format enabling and generative. I chose for my first political concept, the noun “colony.” We know “colonialism” and “imperialism” and “empire” are political concepts but colony does not have that status: it seems to sit there in this benign way as a noun. What I tried to do was track the itinerary — the historical etymology, but really the political logic — that underwrites ‘colony’ in of its multivalent manifestations over the last 150 years. What emerged, and this was really not my original intent, were all these references to “colonies agricoles,” agricultural colonies for abandoned and delinquent children in nineteenth century France, and within the same documents references and comparisons to penal colonies, settler colonies, military colonies,and labor camps. These were more than just homonyms or an accidental use of the same word. I found them historically tethered in all sorts of ways by the logic that underwrote such enclosures and containments and by the kinds of populations placed in them.

But even more striking was how much the very ambiguity and slippage in the use of the term pointed to a substitutability with the term, “camp” not as a contrasting term, but as a replacement. Such settled enclosures and containments sometimes have been used also as military camps and could be transformed back to colonies of settlers. Over some ten years — I’ve sought to track both inside the colonial archive but, much more importantly, outside the formal colonial archive proper — what I call “the political matrix of colony and camp,” to ask what brings them together and makes them substitutable. Such a venture helps us rethink the limits of what Michel Foucault included in his “archipel carcéral” (the “carceral archipelago”). I’ve tried to press on those limits to argue that, analytically and politically, we can’t just think of the “carceral archipelago,” as defined in Discipline and Punish, as one that expands across Europe through its social institutions and outside of the institutions of confinement; rather of a carceral archipelago of empire that combines multiple political projects as it joins up these different forms of camp, encampment, and colony. Not synthetic in the sense that they all come together at the same points, but more as a sprawling, visible and invisible apparatus that works on material and psychic space at the same time, a network of governing forms of cure, coercion and punitive order that produce boundaries and protocols of security that align.

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Dutch families, their native servants and their houses in Java (1897, 1921, 1924, 1937). / Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

LL: Let’s now address the question of the administration of sexuality and family within the colonial society, in particular in colonial Java. I would like to hear you speak about how a state comes to decide, for example, what is a legitimate birth or an illegitimate birth — which is a terminology we hear a lot but somehow we don’t always think about the absurdity of it. What is an illegitimate birth, and how is the relationship between those two populations being organized?

ALS: A first place to start, when we talk about the management of sexuality, might be to dispel the notion that we’re talking about a panoptic state surveilling the bedroom. There is an empire of the night and of the day and they are deeply contingent and intrusive, but the “administration of sexuality” as you put it entails a much more subtle set of pressures that are placed upon people in the routines and restricted spaces they inhabit. Legal rulings can do that overtly or obliquely. It’s never just about the management of sexuality alone but expands out across a morally construed normalized notion of what is respectable, what is endowed with a constricted notion of “civility” and what is not. When we confront a colonial archive that stipulates (sometimes in sotto voce) what sexual relations are condemned or condoned, we are immediately cast on the terrain of citizen and subject and the legal stipulations (paternity) that confers the former status. Political status is on the line. These were issues debated and rehashed in the Dutch East Indies for a good hundred years because the consequences were tremendous. Whether the children of European men who bedded with (but did not marry) “inlander” (native) women would be brought into the fold of being white, or more frequently, whether they would be designated as illegitimate and native because paternity was not unrecognized by their European fathers — this was by design. And whether they would become the future “patricides” of the colony and their European fathers or the domesticated underclass of a white middle class were issues that haunted the racial politics of empire. The questions proliferated to other domains: would and should they be given the welfare benefits of paupered whites or denied the right to even make those claims. The question of legitimacy was a way of cordoning off these categories of persons without using the word “race.” Race underwrote these systems at the same time that colonial officials, could and did open their opinion papers with a requisite and familiar first line: “I’m against racism, but we must keep these boundaries clear.” Colonial censuses did not recognize “mixed-blood” as a legal category, but used other criteria (language proficiency, residence, schooling) to make that cut.

LL: From what I understand from your work, colonialism’s racialized categorization of bodies is as much a behavioral one as a biological one. Both of these dimensions need to be considered.

ALS: Absolutely. This is a point that readers of my work seem to miss, avoid, or ignore. It’s curious because I’ve been making the point for some twenty five years: that race has never been biologically fixed, determined, defined by physiology alone. There remains a tenacious assumption that “real” racism, hard racism in its colonial variant was biological and that “our” brand of racism in the postcolonial world is a more nuanced cultural one. I’m not sure how many times I’ve insisted that this a myopic notion and a self-serving one — to assume that contemporary forms are less viciously damaging, less embodied, and less consequential.

Racisms are encrusted in cultural accoutrements, competencies, sensibilities, as well as in the flesh. Whether a child chose to sit on their haunches rather than a chair, whether a child would speak in Javanese rather than to Dutch, what foods they craved, the quarters in which their parents lived — each of these opens to an affective evaluation and an affective economy that distributed senses of belonging and differential assessments of human kinds.

One of the most striking examples of how much one’s feeling figured in marking colonial distinctions appeared in a late 19th-century legal document to which I’m sure I’ve referred too many times in part because it marks that enigma of belonging that refuses transparency: eligibility for European equivalence was to be measured by how much one felt “at home” in a European milieu and decidebly not at home in a native one. Imagine the criteria, who assessed it, and how it was defined. What is written into such a measure? What is the space you need to be surrounded by? Who needs to be closest to you? With no reference to race, the exclusions are clear. To not appreciate how sentiment was marshalled is to misconstrue the durable forms of racisms now, to bypass how much the sensorial and the affective secured and continue to secure discriminations in which the differentiation of human kinds is lively at work.

But that’s only one example; should we look at those who could enter the highly ranked civil service, local knowledge was never enough. In fact, having too much local knowledge directly through the channel of knowing about Java would not give you access. You needed to return to Europe, and learn how to “know” Java. One might think that an Indo mixed-blood population might serve as the mediators between colonizers and colonized. But no, they were suspect from the start as were those Europeans born in the Indies. Being and acting as a European took the training and cultivation of certain sensibilities and dispositions, a carefully honed distance and set of ready categories for distinguishing social kinds.

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Dutch colonial houses in Java (circa 1897). / Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

LL: So far we have talked about a hypothetical métis (interacial) child, and wondering about what would make this child a citizen, but it’s also a gendered problem because, so far, we’ve assumed it would be a European man having a child with a native woman. But if it would be a European woman having a child with a native man, this is a whole other problem. Questions of gender are deeply involved in this process.

ALS: There is simply no way to talk about colonial racial formations without talking about their gendered inflections.

LL: That makes me think about something I read in your work as well: the particular care in which asymmetric legislation regarding rape has been established.

ALS: A rape-infested-white imagery and imaginary and a refusal to call the sexual predation by a European man on a native woman by its name is a distorted asymmetry that pervades colonial governance — the embodied manifestation of what Stuart Hall might have called the “structure of [racial] dominance” — the rule, not the exception.

LL: You mentioned that some cases were directed at servants, for example. In a given colonizer family, the servant had a very specific role in a house, and the architectural aspect of it is important as well in how a “rape” would be legally define the servant being in the wrong room at the wrong time.

ALS: Or even on the doorstep of a bedroom at the wrong time. Transgression has lots of coordinates that hinge on intimacies that are part of servitude or condemnation. For the real “hardship allowance” of white privilege in the colonies was precisely to have access to one’s servants on one’s own terms — true of slavery as Aristotle wrote and as historians of U.S. slavery have documented for a long time. So you could have a Javanese nursemaid for a Dutch child, but the manuals given to young white women before they left for Java was to make sure they got the rules right: to make sure a servant does not sleep with a child, and hold her too close, but rather next to the bed, or preferably just outside the room on the floor. The thresholds of intimacy carve out racial transgression at the same time as affective care is made into waged labor (a point Arlie Hochschild so powerfully made decades ago). The architecture of the houses was crucial, with elaborately choreographed plans for where domestic servants would be lodged, where they would enter, where they would leave, what spaces that they would inhabit.

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Dutch colonial houses in Java (circa 1905). / Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

LL: The corridor itself was born out of this kind of logic: to answer the need for a subspace within the house where the servants live while remaining invisible.

ALS: Yes. That’s so right because the corridor is also a powerful space in colonialism more generally — the so-called “security zone” in Israel-Palestine is a place where no one is safe for instance. Corridors can be narrow or thick and not always secured by barbed wire.

LL: I usually call that “the thickness of the line.”

ALS: That’s just the point: the thickness of the line, Actually in the work I’ve been doing on “interior frontiers” — a concept Etienne Balibar borrows and amplifies from Johann Fichte (1808) — a frontier and a border are never a line.

LL: The only tool that architects use is the line, but lines have no thickness, by definition. However, the way they materialize within architecture involves a thickness. You find this ambiguous space which has not been considered diagrammatically, because you cannot think of the thickness of the line through its geometrical definition that makes such a thickness a strict impossibility.

ALS: That’s so good to think with, Léopold. I’m always thinking about the thickness of the line. I’ve never heard that expression before, but that’s exactly what most of my work has been about. That thickness of the line that is no longer a line is where interstitial populations get trapped, and these liminal sites of racial belonging get shuffled and remade. It’s not like the line is drawn and we know who’s white and who’s not. That line is malleable and moveable. But I also think that’s one of the key features of imperial formations themselves. The imaginary of a line that separates France and the Netherlands is misguided for thinking about how imperial formations distinguish themselves and actually work. Imperial demarcations have really not been based on lines at all but rather on degrees of gradated rights and sovereignties, and emptied out spaces (not empty ones) that could be shifted and changed. I was looking at this text in one of the books that you edited, The Funambulist Papers (Vol. 1), a chapter written by Mariabruna Fabrizi and Fosco Lucarelli, “Nothing to Hide,” in which they ask, “what if contemporary existential violence linked to (first world) immaterial work exploitation is no longer perpetrated through physical borders, but also […] through the deliberate blurring of markings, limits, lines?” My new book, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Duke University Press, 2016) works precisely through the implications of starting with that blur rather than the fiction of a line, with blurred distinctions serving as a strategic apparatus at a particular moment as a response to an urgency that requires new forms of command and control.

LL: When reading your work one also see how holistic this administrative blurring is. I often go back to this powerful sentence written by Frantz Fanon saying that it’s not just about whatever touches the land; it’s about breathing, it’s atmospheric we might say. In the atmosphere, we get this non-sharp aspect of things as well.

ALS: Yes, that’s precisely why I try to move us to sensibilities, to the illegibilities about how to be, what is ‘enough’ of a demonstration of one’s appropriateness — or not enough

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Dutch colonial houses in Java (circa 1920). / Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

LL: Let’s go back to your book, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power, and to the idea of architecture in this atmospheric realm. Children are an important part of this book and, as we mentioned earlier, it’s not just about knowing if the métis child would be a citizen of the European environment, but also how the colonial administration fears the way children born to two European parents could be influenced and does everything to preserve the whiteness of the child. You say that the colonial architects were interested in instruction, education, schools, housing. We were talking about the places within the house that are dedicated to servants, but it seems that this same logic determines how the neighborhoods of a city are organized as well.

ALS: One might call these calibrations and calculations part of the meaty epidemiology of race. Colonial agents and architects were sophisticated purveyors of fear: contagions, contaminations, “matter out of place” (as Mary Douglas would say), were part of their practice and vocabulary.

Concerns about “milieu” and “surrounding” turn us back to the atmosphere again: debates about the proper age to begin honing a child’s attachments are instructive, twelve years of old was too late, for some kindergarten was as well. “No,” they would say. “We’d better go back to the nursemaids. We’d better go back to whose nursing practices, whose milk.” Notions of contamination underwrite these concerns, but contamination by what? By the milk, the appeal of the taste, the desire for that smell and the lilt of that voice? What emissions are at risk of seducing the infant here? The fact that these were debates, not among a small, marginal group in the colonies. but debates that were articulated by the minister of colonies and the king — about nursery schools, about kindergartens, about breastfeeding — should alert us to whatever we imagine we understand about the political, whatever we imagine we understand of where political management and political logics take place, and how much they’re embodied.

These are not of concern because of feminist or critical theory, but because these moments, these practices, these relations were implicated in the technologies of rule and how early things could go “wrong,” producing Europeans who were improperly aligned. But fears of subversion came in so many other forms — such as the fear that those who were not “really white” would try to pass by wearing the right clothes without being the “the real thing.” The French fretted over “fraudulent recognitions,” the Dutch over “fabricated Europeans” — concerns that made a mockery of the “civilizing mission” of both: for the moment Javanese or Vietnamese women and men displayed ways of verbalizing, vocalizing, articulating what their rights might be in a European idiom (or more so not in one!) that became a danger and called for more vigilant “order.”

LL: I’m really interested in hearing more about this tentativeness in the way the colonial state seems to work. It’s experimenting all the time. We often think of the political colonial organization in a virtual “perfection,” when, in reality, it seems to always try to adjust itself and go back and try again. If we talk about contemporary examples, we can see how the Israeli government and army are practicing such experiments on the people of Gaza; in particular, how they created a complete dependency in terms of resources, food, electricity, water, and fuel, and how there is always an attempt to determine what the absolute bare minimum can be to avoid being responsible of humanitarian disaster.

ALS: There is a calculated and negotiated balancing act being done there. But what it also leads to is an anxious, anticipatory temporality. One of the things about installing regimes of security — and it’s a truism to say it now because we have so much work on the subject — is how much insecurity it produces rather than security. But it also produces, an iterative turn to a conditional tense in which one is always anticipating: what if we gave them too much of X? Then they would use it the wrong way. So it’s a constantly recuperative and recursive project, in part why I talk about a recursive history in Duress. It’s not a history that repeats itself, but rather a folding back, and turning back to examine what might have been done better or differently, partially adopted and adapted models of what could and should now be done.

But the rewriting of history is also at work here in the remaking of narratives that imply sequence and causality — and that in turn require pre-emptive measures for security and control. The “lessons of empire” that we saw so boldly articulated after 9/ll, have long been part of the modeling of imperial governance, not recent insights or inventions. In Race and the Education of Desire, Along the Archival Grain, and in Duress, this notion of discourses, practices, and policies that fold back upon themselves emerges as both a diacritic of imperial formations, and methodologically as an opening to how they work. In Duress, I argue that Foucault was not after simply a conception of rupture and continuity, but a more challenging understanding of how something is drawn from the past in pieces — turned, reused, amplified, transformed — and becomes part of the new regime of security in itself.

Transcription by Amrit Trewn / Find the audio version of this conversation online in “The Colonial Administration of Bodies and Space” at the podcast section of