Customer Reviews: Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things
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on June 21, 2007
To bring her book to a close, Ann Stoler uses a Foucaldian shock-effect by presenting a "gynecological study" by a Dutch doctor at the end of the 19th century that mixes a quasi-pornographic presentation of Javanese women's naked bodies and genitalia with conventional counseling to European women on health and hygiene under the tropics. This striking example of "scientia sexualis", with its eroticization of colonial subjects and its marking of racial and social distances, could have played the role that Foucault ascribed to the Narrenschiff or ship of fools at the beginning of Madness and Civilization, or to Bentham's Panopticon in Discipline and Punish: a metaphor that condensates a whole argument and generates a vivid image that prepares the reader for the demonstration that follows.

Instead, Stoler writes her whole essay against the easy interpretations that one could draw from such a text: that power was always about sex, that colonial domination was a sublimated expression of frustrated desires in the West, and that the Orient was the stage where the repressed bourgeois self played its revenge. Such a view posits desire as a pre-cultural instinct or a as a set of norms that emerged fully constituted in the West. But as Foucault writes, "one should not think that desire is repressed, for the simple reason that the law is what constitutes desire and the lack on which it is predicated." Stoler adds that the imperial domain was where a good part of the education of modern desire took place.

The central argument of the book is that race and racism, as they were codified in the colonies, played a constitutive part in the making of the European bourgeois self. Consequently, we should not treat metropole and colonies as distinct analytical fields, but we should instead consider colonies as "laboratories of modernity", as testing grounds where Europe's bourgeois order was first modeled and experienced.

This claim has now become a central tenet in the field of post-colonial studies, and various authors have presented similar arguments. As Stoler notes, "Sidney Mintz has suggested that the disciplinary strategies of large-scale industrial production may have been worked out in the colonies before they were tried out in European contexts. Timothy Mitchell has placed the panopticon, that supreme model institution of disciplinary power, as a colonial invention that first appeared in the Ottoman Empire, not Northern Europe. French policies on urban planning were certainly experimented with in Paris and Toulouse, but as both Gwendolyn Wright and Paul Rabinow have each so artfully shown, probably in Rabat and Haiphong first."

Note the use of the qualifiers "suggest" and "probably". Unfortunately, the empirical evidence sustaining the thesis of "colonies as testing grounds" is suggestive at best. As the author confesses, "whether the Indies was central to the construction of nineteenth-century Dutch bourgeois culture is still difficult to affirm given the compartmentalization of Dutch historiography." In other words, more work is needed, and Stoler defers to later the proof of the argument on which her essay is based.

If the proposition that colonies played a role in shaping modernity sounds plausible and deserves further enquiry, the claim that liberalism was racist at its core sounds utterly preposterous. This is however the interpretation that Stoler draws from Foucault, or more precisely from a series of lectures that the French philosopher gave in 1976 and that were still unpublished at the time the author wrote her essay. Foucault's argument is more genealogical than historical and evolves around the history of the Norman conquest of Saxon England, or the Trojan and Germanic myths of France's origins. The idea is that the discourse on class that pits one social group against the other derives from an earlier discourse on race, and not the other way around. In other words, racism emerged "not as the ideological reaction of those threatened by the universalistic principles of the modern liberal state, but as a foundational fiction within it."

This discourse on "the dark side of the Enlightenment" is by now familiar and indeed gained credence at the time the 200th anniversary of the French revolution was celebrated. But I simply don't buy it. I wish that Ann Stoler, who writes beautifully and develops a nuanced analysis of Foucault's work, would have critiqued that argument instead of taking it as a starting point.
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on March 20, 2007
Drawing on the extensive postcolonial studies of the 1990's, Stoler critiques Foucault (and Freud) by making the startlingly obvious observation that neither in their respective theories of sexuality recognized one suspect member of the bourgeois family: the servant (and that servant's breathren in the colonies). She writes that "[w]ithin this racialized economy of sex, European women and men won respectability (especially within the colonies) by steering their desires to legitimate paternity and intensive maternal care, to family and conjugal love; it was only poor whites, Indies-born Europeans, mixed-bloods and natives who...focused too much on sex. To be truly European was to cultivate bourgeois self in which familial and national obligations were the priority and sex was held in check--not by silencing the discussion of sex, but by parcelling out demonstrations of excess to different social groups and thereby gradually exorcising its proximal effects."

Missing from her study, and that of post-colonial studies generally, was the manner in which this discourse was recuperated following the Second World War. Today, far from being held in check, the world is increasingly understood psychosexually as bourgeois households come to identify, albeit from a distance and mediated by the commodities they purchase, with those whom they perceive as 'dangerous.'
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