Author Archives: Timothy Burke

Michael de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun

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Why did I get this book?

Embarrassment at having not read it while reading a discussion between historians about important scholarship.

Having liked de Certeau’s other writing.

Need to prepare for my spring course next year that’s an oddball approach to building a canon of historical scholarship.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes. The preface alone is worth the price of admission.

Great, great example of what the “anthropological turn” did for historical scholarship. I wonder in fact if anyone has properly historicized that turn? I can think of a few people who’ve written about it, including David William Cohen, but it seems almost a better or richer way to think about what gets glossed as the “cultural turn”.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

Could make a great book to throw into the mix in an Honors seminar on witchcraft, possession, etc, or to put alongside Africanist books to complicate how students read.

Should include it in Building Canons course.

Preface fits with some of what I’m writing in both Free Agency and Rituals of Sovereignty in terms of a general view of the discipline and methodology.

I would LOVE to teach Ch. 12 in a course on the Archive as idea and practice.


“Normally, strange things circulate discreetly below our streets. But a crisis will suffice for them to rise up, as if swollen by flood waters, pushing aside manhole covers, invading the cellars, then spreading through the towns. It always comes as a surprise when the nocturnal erupts into broad daylight. What it reveals is an underground existence, an inner resistance that has never been broken…Is this the outbreak of something new, or the repetition of a past? The historian never knows which. For mythologies reappear, providing the eruption of strangeness with forms of expression prepared in advance, as it were, for that sudden inundation.” p. 1

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

I think it’s a good book on historical methodology as well–students at all levels might be able to get a sense of how research informs analysis and vice-versa, though that would take some pedagogical attention to how to read it.

Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World

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Why did I get this book?

Primarily it seemed another interesting work making the argument that decolonization in Africa did not necessarily narrowly dovetail into nationalist constructions of sovereignty as the singular and only possible outcome. Crucial for Free Agency Ch. 6.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes. Very smart, very challenging, profoundly useful both theoretically and at the level of the specific histories the book recounts.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

I could imagine using it in a few classes–the Honors seminar, possibly, if I switched in a few years to a corpus of nationalist or decolonizing texts. Maybe a course on decolonization or the global Cold War.

I will certainly be using it in both Free Agency and Rituals of Sovereignty.

Strikes me as an important “canonical” book that Africanists generally will come to know and cite within a very few years.


“They [Cesaire, Senghor, et al] attempted to transcend conventional oppositions between realism and utopianism, materialism and idealism, objectivity and subjectivity, positivism and rationalism, singularity and universality, culture and humanity. The resulting conceptions of poetic knowledge, concrete humanism, rooted universalism and situated cosmopolitanism now appear remarkably contemporary. Their insights, long treated as outmoded, do not only speak to people interested in black critical thought, anticolonialism, decolonization and French Africa and the Antilles. They also warrante the attention of those on the left now attempting to rethink democracy, solidarity and pluralism beyond the limitations of methodological nationalism and the impasses of certain currents of postcolonial and poststructuralist theory”. p. 3

“This conception of gratitude concedes too much at the outset–to Europe as wealthy benefactor and to a liberal conception of private property. For if modernity was a global process its concepts are a common legacy that already belong to all humanity: they are not Europe’s to give.” p. 11

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

One interesting thing is that it seems important to Wilder, Cooper and many others to locate an actually-existing alternative in African societies or among African, pan-African or diasporic intellectuals in the 1950s-1960s as a political rejoinder to the present. E.g., rather than Mamdani, who simply says: here is how we must resolve out the structural problems created by colonialism, Wilder et al feel it’s very important to say that the alternatives were actually thought of and possible.

What Wilder calls humanism or situated universalism is a bit of what I’m thinking of as vernacular liberalism–about what a ‘free’ society actually was in the aspirations or practices of African individuals and what it could be.

Very nice opening move on reclaiming universalism, etc. as not-parochially European. Aims straight at Chakrabarty and I think does so with great clarity.

One question it leaves hanging for me is what I mean to think about with “vernacular liberalism”, which is the extent to which these kinds of humanisms had any circulatory power beyond the master texts and key authors who occupy much of Wilder’s attention. This is almost an old-fashioned kind of intellectual history and theoretical analysis, which again makes sense if Wilder is looking to find a political imagination that’s actually situated in history that had a counterfactual or alternative understanding of decolonization’s possibilities.

I’m not sure Wilder recognizes what the limit condition on using the finely calibrated vision that he attributes to Cesaire, Senghor etc., which is precisely that it is so finely calibrated. Look in the quote above about how precisely he attributes the needle-threading here, as if anything that falls too much to one side or the other of liberalism, humanism, nationalism, etc. is tainted. Maybe this is really the problem with the contemporary left: it is not robust enough, it is too fragile–postcolonial and postmodern theory has produced a kind of fastidiousness in the political imaginary, a sense that all possible articulations of politics are notable first for their complicity in something. But that’s one of the things you can discover I think by re-reading this moment–there is not such a fastidiousness, not a sense of weariness and entrapment.

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Nairobi Heat

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Why did I get this book?

My colleague Carina Yervasi got me thinking a few years back about my perception that African literature and film tended to have a kind of didactic, formalist and stilted quality, for all that I liked some of the work that I thought of in those terms. She mentioned that there was lots of good mystery and thriller writing across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, and not just local market/pulp literature. This was one of the books I picked up to try and get a sense of this kind of work.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes, almost too much so. Meaning that the book reads to me almost like a conscious attempt to write against the didactic, written-for-the-West quality of older African literature (the author is now a professor at Cornell University), so it feels a bit like it is that interesting space that is not quite a genre work but wants to productively use genre conventions. Strong sense of indebtedness to Walter Mosley in that sense.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

Could use it in my Africa Travellers/Travellers to Africa course if I teach it again. Wish I had used it this last year, in fact.

If I ever teach a course in histories of crime, policing, smuggling, shadow economies, etc. in Africa/British Empire/comparative, it might be fun to use it.

Obviously belongs in any listing of recent thriller/detective work set in Africa and/or by Africans. Might make a very interesting book to be read alongside something like Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, etc: white authors trying to use Africa as a backdrop for thrillers/detective stories.


“If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught.”

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

There’s something about the voice of the main character that doesn’t quite ring right to me, maybe because there’s a kind of odd unsituatedness about his actual work as a cop, and also because there is still the odd hint of the didactic in the way that characters announce and reflect on their sociologies and cultural locations in a way that’s too diagrammatic. But also just it’s really too on the nose or generic at points–the character thinks stuff like “This tea is amazing!” in a way that feels lacking in craft or sharply observed. I wonder if the second book is better in this sense?

Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging

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Why did I get this book?

1. Really like Geschiere’s other work.
2. Helps for thinking about sovereignty and the legacies of indirect rule/decentralization in my current writing.
3. Good model for comparative analysis of Africa and Europe.
4. Thought it might be good to teach.
5. Timely on migration–even more since written.
6. Helps potentially with a critique of romantic conceptualizations of indigenous rights.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes: great for unpacking indigeneity and authocthony, and their relationship to current structures of globalization, citizenship and migration.

No: way harder to teach to undergraduates than I thought. (Used it in Honors seminar, a real struggle). Very erudite, densely referential. Would be a great book for a graduate seminar in multiple respects, and not just in African Studies.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

1. Should use “Decentralization and Belonging” for Free Agency 6.
2. Treatment of the idea of the “stranger” is useful for lectures in West African history. Chapter Four.
3. Epilogue would be useful in some contexts of discussion of migration, citizenship, etc. in comparative or Africanist conversations.
4. Bibliography is good on Africanist theories of the state up to 2008 or so.


“So the soil does not speak for itself. This is why it is important to historicize notions like autochthony with their naturalizing implications. The ‘global conjucture of belonging’ brought a return of highly localized preoccupations, as the flip side of intensifying processes of globalization.” p. 223

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

I’m not sure where this leaves us. E.g., I think anthropologists and historians in 2008 already knew that indigeneity was mostly empirically untrue and often ethically dubious. Geschiere helps a bit with laying out the specific cultural and political histories that have given it power, but if anything since 2008 the authority of invocations of indigeneity and authenticity have accelerated, especially in progressive discourses in social media. God help the incautious intellectual who steps naively into some of those conversations to tell people that their sense of authentic experience of locality and belonging is a construction that has potentially “predatory” effects that are invisibly tied to the destructive impact of globalization. There are ways in which the very worked-out political and analytic terrain of the 1990s and 2000s that this book arises out of have very quickly been shoved aside by the very phenomena that Geschiere is analyzing.

Forming Habits

So, I found this hard to keep up, which is evident if you check the date on this entry and the last one.

I’m going to take another stab at this, and make it less complicated. Part of the problem is that the actual notes I take on readings are more informal and private than I found it comfortable to share as a public transcript of note-taking, but trying to make them more formal and creditable to my sense of scholarly decorum made my practices of notation burdensome. My note-taking for research projects will continue in the formats I presently use (I’m working with Notability right now, but I am weighing whether to continue with that or not.) My note-taking here I will try to use as a way to go over my backlog of unread books and articles, and so make it more a matter of “summary notes” that I might use to jog my memory or mentally bookmark a reading for later specific uses. We will see. If I can keep it up and turn this into a habit, I will make an effort to draw more attention to this blog.

Scott and Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors

David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Primarily interested in two essays in this volume: Scott’s “The Tragic Sensibility of Talal Asad”, which connects to Scott’s general ideas about interpreting colonialism as tragedy, and more urgently Jon E. Wilson’s “Subjects and Agents in the History of Imperialism and Resistance”, which assesses Asad’s arguments about agency.

Notes are on Wilson’s “Subjects and Agents”.

Jon E. Wilson, “Subjects and Agents in the History of Imperialism and Resistance”, pp. 180-205.

“One of the most powerful elements of Talal Asad’s work over the last decade or so has been his genealogical critique of the ‘modern’ use of the category of agency. Asad places the concept of agency at the center of the modern intellectual landscape he terms ‘secularism’…[secularism] is a conceptual enviroment that presupposes certain ways of defining how religion, ethics, the nation and politics relate to each other.” p. 180

“Within these discourses, agency is never a clear-cut category. Its functioning relies on the operation of rules of inclusion and exclusion, tensions and contradictions that articulate and sustain the power differential between the West and the non-European world.” p. 180

“Over the last twenty years the category of agency has become centrally important to the way in which historians and anthropologists write about the relationship between Europe and the non-European world. When it was intially invoked by historians and others…the concept was used to challenge the elitist assumption that the poor and marginalized are merely passive victims of elite oppression. Progressive historians argued that subaltern peoples were self-determining historical agents who challenged, resisted and attempted to liberate themselves from the oppressive social and political structures they inhabited. The assumption that subalterns were autonomous, self-activating agents whose history was ‘their own’ required the historian to challenge teleological narratives that saw the peasant or worker as the passive subject of a process directed from elsewhere (by, for instance, abstract socio-economic forces, the colonial region, or politically conscious elite politicians.)” p. 181

Very nice summary of subalternist use of agency!

“Yet, as a number of scholars have noted, the desire to discover agency is itself part of precisely such a Eurocentric narrative of historical change. The assertion of subaltern agency is one component of a modern style of reasoning that posits the autonomous, self-determining human subject (whether that subject is the individual person or collective group) as the beginning and end points in a process of global social transformation. It is the product of a form of secular political commitment that asserts that emancipation only occurs when human beings are freed from the social and political structures that prevent them from leading fulfilled, self-determining lives–whether liberation takes the form of a liberal democratic state or a socialist society. In order to resist ‘colonial and nationalist discursive hegemonies’ a history that attempts to free subalterns from ‘the will of a the colonial and national elite’ needs to pose the autonomy of the subaltern’s consciousness by invoking a category of agency produced by the kind of Eurocentric story about global emancipation that the subaltern critique was initially designed to overturn.” p. 182

This is a good description of where postcolonial theory found itself on this and many other issues, and why I think poco theory was and still is a kind of frustrating dead end–“futilitarian”. For the following reasons:

a) this line of critique is subject to endless recursion–it’s arguably only Eurocentrism that would produce a critique of a critique of a critique etc.

b) it assumes, as so many glosses of Orientalism/Eurocentrism do, that the Eurocentric story was created only by the agency of Western domination in the first place, e.g., it’s a kind of “auteur theory” of modernity. If instead this sort of political imagination is the product of all sorts of relational and dialogic moments, then it’s not solely the product of or instrument of Western domination.

c) The phobia here of universalism both as objective and as phenomenon is crippling, perhaps intentionally–here is where I think nationalism and nationalist visions of sovereignty enter in the picture, even when some of the poco critics are expressly anti-nationalist on paper–the invocation of particularity and specificity against the universal, the counterfactual of postcolonial theory (“what we would have been but for”) is always particularist and inevitably also like a singularity–something that one cannot look inside. What this gets the critic out of is having to say what’s wrong with universalist (even Eurocentric universalist) conceptions of politics, personhood, etc. To me the way out remains to think of fomulations like agency as sociopolitical/intersubjective technologies. Which doesn’t absolve them of history and power any more than it does penicillin, but it suggests that to deny penicillin in order to achieve sovereignty/autonomy/authenticity is the extreme move that it is (and again with the recursion: is the Eurocentric imagination of what the ‘customary’ or ‘traditional’ entail, the subtraction of modernity to some kind of remainder).

“In South Asian studis in particular, as a result of the theoretical difficulties that agency poses, forms of history-writing that depend upon its explicit use have been quietly abandoned.” p. 182

“Even if the category of agency is no longer invoked quite as often as it once was, it remains an implicit component within many aspects of historical research. In the following pages, I suggest that the work of Talal Asad provides a set of tools that historians and others can use to prise apart the rather limiting terms of an old debate about agency–a debate whose aftereffects nonetheless continue to linger in the historiography of the non-European world…Asad challenges the tendency of historians and anthorpologists to conflate subjectivity and agenacy. Asad notes that scholars tend to assume that an analysis of subjective consciousness is adequate to explain the agentive power human beings have in the world. But, as he puts it, “the structres of possible actions…are logically independent of the consciousness of actors.’ Asad asks us to separate conscious subjectivity from agentive power.” p. 183 Quotes from Genealogies of Religion.

“The landholder’s way of understanding the world, his or her sense of self, was defined by idioms of authority that did not always include the vast majority of his or her subjects or tenants. The landholding self was constituted in languages about kinship and lineage, about status and substance, which involved a dialogue with peers in civic bodies such as the eka-jai (community council) and in royal courts of one sort or another, not only with tenants and subjects of a signficantly lower social status. Nonetheless, these elitist idioms of self-constitution were undermined by the practical recognition that the landholder’s authority could only be upheld in practice by maintaining a dialogic relationship with his or her subjects. The landhold would offer peasants concessions sufficient to prevent rebellion or mass migration, but would employ other means to retain that role when they were able to…an analysis that concentrates on the autonomous consciousness of either of these groups is unable to explain the events or the unequal power relations that occurred.” p. 187

“An examination of the thoughts and deeds of British officials shows that they took for granted their ability to act autonomously to a far greater degree than the other groups we have looked at…” p. 187

“In order to maintain their authority–to avoid the possibility of a rebellion and secure a continuing revenue stream–the colonial regime reinvented itself on a regular basis. In doing so, it also transformed the language it used to legitimate its own authority.” p. 188-189

“One needs to go beyond this [Asad’s distinction between agency as action and consciousness/subjectivity] and show how a historical process…cannot be explained with reference to any coherent agentive subject, whether conscious or not. This is the case for two reasons. First of all, the historical process that produces particular events (e.g., ‘the rebellion’) occurs as the consequence of a process of interaction between subjects (whether conscious nor not) who are constituted in different ways, each with their own conscious and unconscious tendencies and trajectories. The agency that produced the rebellion and its repression did not exist inherently in one of those forces (such as ‘capitalism’, the revenue-maximizing logic of the colonial regime, the consciousness of peasants, demographics, or whatever), but rather in a set of power-relations that flowed between them in their interaction. Secondly, the way the subjects that participated in these events were constituted was itself the product of the contingent historical relationship between the different forces I am speaking of.” p. 189

“Searching for agency consists simply in the identification of characteristics in the thought or conduct of the insurgent subject that differe from those perceived in other modes of practice or consciousness. These characteristics are then imputed to a transcendent subject that retains those characteristics throughout the historical process. The solution is not for historians to look for different kinds of subjects, but to question the link between subjectivity and agency in its entirety.” p. 194

I think this is very useful for my “vernacular liberalism” argument in the sovereignty chapter of Spiders and Captives–e.g., I can call action to preserve the bifurcations of indirect rule a case of “vernacular liberalism” without having to posit a liberal subjectivity–an essentialized kind of individual.

“The word ‘agency’ is a surrogate for the term ‘power’–the capacity to act, affect, or influence something else. Historians who search for agency, whether the agency of the colonial official or the subaltern peasant, believe that power is possessed by the particular individual or collective subject. Different subjects possess different levels of power…The fact of rebellion–of a conscious, premeditated mode of defiance–is evidence of peasants’ power over the world they inhabit, even though its suppression is proof that their power was opposed by a stronger force.” p.194

Again very clarifying: my argument about agency in Zimbabwe is thus fundamentally that because agency is so visible in the idiosyncratic and everyday, that is evidence of just how partial and feeble the power of colonialism really was–despite its own proclamations of totality, which postcolonial theory has largely endorsed or underscored. Totality is most visible in the actions (and subjectivity) of those most incorporated into the colonial order, but that’s not where we look to document colonial totality–we look to chiefs, peasants, etc., where it is much less evident in agency.

“Power possesses strategies and tactics, moves in particular directions, and even has certain intentions, but these are never firmly attached to particular subjects”. p. 195–Foucault is being used here as theoretical guide, but this strikes more at the kind of actor-network theory that functions in Timothy Mitchell’s work and other STS scholarship–things & systems as agents

E.g., both Wilson and Asad here are striving to describe imperialism as forces, as the movement of power, but not as the moves of masterful subject-agents on a chessboard

“Connolly’s point is that if we could live more easily with contingency and inhabit a world in which all instances of human suffering did not need to be attributed to determinate, responsible agents, we could avoid the resentful attribution of evil to the other. But being at ease with contingency involves a radical epistemological shift and a vigorous critique of the secular foundations of political action. Fundamentally, it requires us to disconnect subjectivity and identity from agency. It involves a refusal to attribute all activity–good and bad–to coherent subjects, whether ourselves or another.” p. 203

I suppose what I want to do is attribute activity to coherent subjects, but not agency–e.g., to decouple “actions that change or maintain the structural status quo” from “things that individual people do”. To remain humane in our understandings of people, we need to keep the latter full of “coherent subjects”; but we need a radical schism between how the humane landscape of individual doings relates to “actions”.

“A life as both a critic and activist is possible, but it cannot exist within a single institutional and intellectual site…If we are to take seriously the assumption that the objects of our historical and anthropological inquiry have multiple identities and perform many different roles, we should apply this insight to our own lives.” p. 205

Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow

Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers. 2009.

“By and large, the states of sub-Sarahan Africa are failures. Of course, not all of them are failed states where disorder and violence are rampant. And, of course, there is variation among them, with some showing greater concern for their citizens’ welfare than others. Most of them, however, have not brought about or facilitated much economic or human development for their populations since independence. Often, they have caused their people much havoc, misery, uncertainty and fear. With some exceptions, African states have been, mildly or acutely, the enemies of Africans. Parasitic or predatory, they suck resources out of their societies. At the same time, weak and dysfunctional, many of them are unable or unwilling to sustainably provide the rule of law, safety and basic property rights that have, since Hobbest, justified the very existence of states in the modern world.” p. 1

“Yet, there is a paradoxical feature of Africa’s weak states that has received much less attention: they will not go away. For all their catastrophic failures, weak African states are still around. With the partial exception of Somalia, state collapse has yet to lead to state distintegration on the continent.” p. 1

This looks different just a few years later, I think.

“Although decline and failure take place in all sorts of organizations, what is puzzling about Africa is the lack of sanction for failure. How can African states get away with their lousy performance? Why do they endure? How can these oppressive and exploitative, yet otherwise decrepit structures remain broadly unchallenged in their territories or their fundamental existence as states? How can they simultaneously display decay and stability, weakness and resilience? These are the paradoxes this book addresses.” p. 3

From patron-client relations/neopatrimonialism to ‘territorial nationalism’: Englebert suggests this made sense up to the economic collapse of the late 1970s (the postcolonial state as redistributionist) but stopped making sense afterwards. But I think he’s coming at this from political science and thus the notion that the reproduction of the state needs to be explained in terms of some form of rational choice–a proposition that if it didn’t, the state’s victims would not comply with or would resist the state’s intrusions, that there’s a prediction of secession/revolution/etc. that’s not being met.

Here I think he really does not account for the degree to which the state’s weakness is already satisfying some of those rational expectations, if they truly exist, that the desire for a strong state that Englebert presumes should exist is not what many local actors want. This is pretty much how I want to approach the reproduction of indirect rule & tradition/modernity in my own work–not as a legacy that people are helpless to escape (Mamdani) but as a project they actively reproduce in order to keep the state weak.

Englebert is looking to the exogeny of the African state to explain some of this–this is an elaboration of Cooper’s “gatekeeper state” concept.

“One can count Africa’s wars of secession on one’s fingers”. p. 16

Here I think Englebert is using formalism (wars of secession) to categorize something as rare when in fact if you think more widely African states that have regions which are very nearly functionally autonomous are pretty common. Indeed, both regions and even particular communities or districts. The idea that the DRC *or* Congo-Brazzaville have only had two “wars of secession” in the early 1960s is kind of silly. Even in 2009, he could have listed the first round of the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, the war in Northern Uganda, the conflicts in eastern Congo, Central/North Mozambique, etc. Since 2009, quite a few more.

Analysis of Chad is fairly telling–“continuous warfare among armed groups from poorly integrated communities” doesn’t count as “wars of secession” because the combatants don’t have a formal ideological demand for secession. Same for Cote d’Ivoire. I think this is mistaking what groups say they want for what they in fact get through armed action–essentially wanting to resolve them into groups with clear objectives (capture of the state, political transformation, secession) when I don’t think any of those formalisms really describe either the active intentionality or effective impact. Landau’s rethinking of 18th-19th C. state formation in southern Africa (or Ellis and Richards on Liberia and Sierra Leone) might help get past this need to ‘read out’ what’s going on in terms of formal ideologies of the state. As Englebert says, “Cultural theories are only somewhat more enlightening”. p. 23 –only somewhat more for him because again he’s treating them like hypotheses that predict action rather than vocabularies that describe it.

Fundamental argument is that sovereignty in Africa is externally driven. I think that’s fine, up to a point, but it begs the question of whether there are other kinds of authority and territoriality that are struggling to emerge.

Robert Jackson, Sovereignty

Robert Jackson, Sovereignty

Good clean overview of concept and the history of sovereignty.

“Today sovereignty is a global system of authority. It extends across all the religions, civilizations, languages, cultures, ethnic and racial groupings, and other communities and collectivities into which humanity is divided. The sovereign states system is the only global system of authority that has ever existed. It was once possible for many people, indeed millions, to live outside the jurisdiction of sovereign states. That is no longer possible. There is no inhabited territory anywhere on the planet that is outside…The weight of this now universal fact of human affairs is not always fully appreciated.” p.x

“Sovereignty is not originally or primarily an abstract idea fashioned by philosophers and other theoreticians and then applied in practice. It is an expedient idea worked out by kings and other rulers and their representatives and agents in response to the novel circumstances of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. The political arrangements and legal practices of sovereignty came first, the academic theories later.” p. xi

“Sovereignty in the twentieth and twentie=first centuries is still recognizably the same basic idea that it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” p. 2

“[various premodern non-Western examples] operated with notions of suzerainty and not sovereignty. They strove to hold sway over diverse territories and populations, usually with the aim of extracting tribute. Their Weltanschauungen, and also that of Rome, was hierarchical and not horizontal, and they were on top. Precolonial populations of North and South America, hinterlands of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Islands knew little or nothing of sovereignty as understood in this study. They were subjected to it by European conquerors and colonists from whom they also got the idea to demand it for themselves: colonialism provoking anti-colonialism based on the doctrine of self-determination.” p. 7

“A sovereign state can be defined as an authority that is supreme in relation to all other authorities in the same territorial jurisdiction, and that is independent of all foreign authorities.” p. 10

“Sovereignty is a form of authority, and not a kind of power (Oakeshott 1975), but sovereignty can easily be construed and interpreted as irresistable or compelling power…Power and authority are closely related ideas, but their relation is a contingent or conditional relation, with power under the hood or bonnet of the car and authority in the driver’s seat. Authority commands, power executes.” p. 14

“A government’s capability and capacity cannot confer authority upon it.” p. 15 e.g., sovereignty exists whether or not the sovereign executes the authority it confers well or fully–“a goverment may be sovereign but may not be very powerful.” p. 16

“Sovereignty presupposes that there are no limits on the authorized exercise of state power at any point within a sovereign’s jurisdiction. If there were limits, the source of those limits would be the sovereign. Sovereigns have no superior. They answer to nobody else.”p. 17

“Sovereignty offers no way around the problem of power; nor does any other arrangement of authority. All that one can hope for is that those who have access to the state apparatus of power wield it responsibly and prudently. No constitution can guarantee they will. We have arrived at the inherent and insurmountable problem of power in human affairs, to which there is no fully satisfactory solution…”p. 19

“Sovereignty can also be employed to do different–sometimes very different–political things. English (later British) rulers used sovereignty to separate themselves from Latin Christendom. Then they used it to build an empire that eventually encircled the globe. Then they used it to decolonize their empire and thereby created a multitude of new, locally sovereign states in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Then they turned around and used their sovereignty to become part of the European Union and to participate in its common affairs.” p. 22

Jackson continues to hammer on the point that sovereignty at its origins is a simultaneously political and legal doctrine, and that seems somewhat crucial to why it is now so incapable of address both some legal/rules-driven issues (rights, because rights-enforcement is a matter of power, not authority, but also because rights discourse comes with an embedded sense that this is the one thing over which the sovereign does not have authority even as the legal framing insists that the sovereign has all authority) and also why sovereignty cannot be used to imagine or understand conditions where it simply isn’t really what’s going on–Somalia and Syria are right now not really sovereignties but sovereign states have to act as if they are–as if they are sovereignties which for some reason happen to have trouble wielding power.

“That argument in favour of freedom of rulers to set their own political course and determine the means necessary to reach their goal was, to most Christian authorities at the time, a sanction of blasphemous and criminal conduct…But Machiavelli believed that in a world of flawed people one could not count on their best behaviour. Rulers were no less subject to human imperfection than other people. Yet their responsibility to give protection, to provide stability and order, was greater, indeed far greater than that of other people. That they ought to trust each other blindly or even implicitly would be a policy that could only end in disaster when that trust was betrayed, as must be expected sooner or later.” p. 43

“Thus, in the relations of sovereign states to each other, Westphalia overthrew the practices of imperialism…The story outside of Europe followed a different and older course.In the reltions of European states to political authorities in the rest of the world Westphalia initially reiterated and reinforced a doctrine of the superiority of Christian cum European civilization, the moral inequality of peoples, the right of intervention, the right of conquest, and ultimately the right of colonization. The old medieval boundary between Christendom and the non-Christian world…was redefined yet again, now as a line between the civilized European cum Western world and the not yet fully or properly civilized rest of the world. Only much later, in the mid-twentieth century, did Westphalia becaome a universal idea of a global society of sovereign states…”p. 67

“European imperialists understandably preferred a legal title to territory, rather than the uncertainty of holding it by force in competition with each other. They consequently were inclined to recognize each other’ mpires, according to the principle of reciprocity, while not recognizing most non-European political authorities. They arrived at the latter position after a period of uncertainty when their power was insufficient to impose their political will on resisting indigenous governments outside of Europe.” p. 73

Sovereignty in this sense seems rather like the other great political-legal invention, the corporation: a structure that prohibits short-term uncertainty or improvisation, that makes certain relations non-contingent, that creates a constrained landscape for power or agency. Gives me some oblique ideas about what it might mean to create even more long-term, non-contingent arrangements of power/authority?

“How can the people be answerable and accountable if they are creatures and instruments of political elites? How are political elites kept in harness as servants of the people if the latter cannot act on their own, and if opinions can be put in their mouth by those same elites? This is the problem of populism. It is also the problem of totalitarian democracy…Similar questions were raised in the late eighteenth century by the American Federalists, who placed their political faith in civil liberties and constitutional constraints. Those answers proved to be only partly satisfactory. There are no entirely satisfactory answers of which I am aware…Sovereign authority and power has to be in somebody’s hands. It cannot be in the hands of everybody.” p. 82

“These European overseas territories were from teh beginning divorced from any idea of popular sovereignty, and that divorce had a long-term consequence. That was the eventual independence of territories which had been expediently acquired to serve imperial interests, and whose resident indigenous populations had been mobilized for those purposes. Those populations were rarely, if ever, conceived as a people or nation, either actual or potential, that would qualify for self-determination some day.” p. 106

“State sovereignty will come to an end when people are no longer prepared to underwrite the doctrine that every political community must possess a government that is both superior to all other authorities in the country, and independent of all foreign governments. At some time in the future, probably later rather than sooner, state sovereignty will be abandoned and replaced by a different arrangement of political and legal authority on the planet…there is no end in sight early in the twenty-first century.” p. 113

“There is a belief that sovereign states are an enemy of human rights, and that the construction of a world community which reises above the sovereign states system is necessary to emancipate humankind. An examination of historical and legal evidence suggests, to the contrary, that human rights protection depends heavily upon the capability of sovereign states and the respnsibility of their governments. Human rights or natural rights, to use the older term, were conceived by people who understood the state as an organization for safeguarding civil society…Where human rights are protected the people involved are more likely to be living inside sovereign states that are worthy of the name.”p. 114

This is incredibly relevant to the current work I’m doing. I know that I disagree on some level with what Jackson is arguing, but I can see that my own argument is going to need to be much, much smarter to be able to keep pace with the clear, clean way he sets out to make this point.

“An individual may be said to have a human right to protection, but that will not be of much practical value without a protector. If human rights were generally respected, such organized means would be unnecessary. Regrettably that has not been the case in the past, nor is it the case today…Merely by acknowledging that we ought to respect such rights, as a moral duty, is not sufficient to generate respect.”p . 119

“A fundamental and recurrent paradox of sovereign states is that they contain within themselves the potential for bringing about both human flourishing and human suffering. The sovereign state is a human organization, and as such it cannot be expected to escape from human frailties and failings.” p. 121

I think this might one prong of a possible critical response to Jackson’s account: the sovereign state is also a thing–a machine, a structure, an apparatus, a blind trust invented to reduce uncertainty and contingency in political and military relations. So like many institutions, it also acts in ways that are not “simply” human nor reducible to the kinds of moral flaws (and virtues) that humans possess in their day-to-day social relations.

“Even granting the regrettable truth of the persistent if not permanent humanitarian problem posed by the temptation, corruption and abuse of state power, there is no proven alternative to state soveriegnty as a political and legal arrangement for pvoding the best assurance of human safety, freedom and dignity–at least there is none of which I am aware. Human beings have flourished to the greatest extent yet known to history when they live under the authority of reliable and responsible sovereign states.” p. 122

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

I remember hearing an early presentation version of this at some point, and then reading it somewhat distractedly the year it came out. At least at that time, it struck me as taking the sort of futilitarian position on knowledge that I saw in Timothy Mitchell’s Egypt book and going one step further–that the West and colonialism were so fundamentally impossible to unknow that the best we could do was to know about the violence of their imposition of systems of knowing. I will be curious on this reading to see if my memory is wrong.

On an initial reading, I do find that my memory is wrong–I think this must have been what Prakash himself said about the argument in the book when I heard him give a talk about it. It’s certainly an interpretation you could offer–ultimately he’s using his historical argument to say that you can’t call “Hindu science” a science, and that in some ways you can’t really understand precolonial systems of Hindu knowledge production for what they were in and of themselves because even an interest in that is inflected through colonialism. But the book is a quite careful intellectual and social history first, an epistemological meditation second.

“To the British, India was an ideal locus for science: it provided rich diversity that could be mined for knowledge and, as a colony, offered the possibility for an unhindered pursuit of science.” p. 21

“If one aim of colonial pedagogy was to instruct peasants by exhibiting their own products and knowledge organized and authorized by the science of classification, its other aim was to render manifest the principle of function so that it could be applied to improve production.” p. 23

“As the colonial discourse assembled and staged India as an object of the sciences of naming and function, it also created a place for what it sought to appropriate; indigenous artifacts and ‘tribes and races’ emerged in their native particularity as objects of scientific discourse.” p. 26

“If performance mixed science with magical spectacle, it also enhanced the importance of visuality. Museums confronted observers with an orderly organization of fossils, rocks, minerals, bones, vegetation, coins, sculptures, and manuscripts. Exhibitions, on the other hand, offered a feast to the Indian eye. Depending on the scale, no effort was spared to produce an attractive spectacle: ceremonial arches, palatial structures, military bands, lakes, fountains bathed in colored lights, food stalls, wrestling competitions, pony races and regional theater–all combined to impress the public eye and draw it to agricultural products, manufactured goods, machines, scientific invetions, and new methods of working and living.” p. 33

“As colonial conditions turned the staging of science into a wondrous spectacle, a space opened for the subjectivity and agency of the Western-educated indigenous elite. Trained in Western schools and colleges, and employed in colonial bureaucracy and modern professions, this elite acquired a visible presence in principal Indian cities and towns by the late nineteenth century. In a sense, their emergence was attributable to the colonila project of re-forming Indian subjects.” p. 34

“To advance universal claims for a people stigmatized as metaphysical and out of touch with modernity was an act of enormous imagination and ambition. Precisely such a far-reaching project came into view in late-nineteenth-century British India as the Hindu intelligentsia began to identify a body of scientific knowledge in particular Indian texts and tradition. Denying that science was alien to India, they argued with remarkable ingenuity and deep cultural learning that the ancient Hindus had originated scientific knowledge, and that this justified the modern existence of Indians as a people.” p. 86

“As important as it is to recognize the far-reaching implications of the idea of Hindu science, we should not read it too quickly as an expression of the organicity and atavism of nationalism. The enduringly powerful identification of Hindu traditions with India’s cultural texture was rooted in the colonial predicment of Hindu intellectuals. While the West was enabled by its global expansion to assert the universality of its reason in spite of its particularity, the colonized were denied this privilege; their historical fate was to assert the autonomy and universality of their culture in the domain of the nation.” p. 89

Prakash is quite clear that this is not in some arbitrary sense an “invented tradition”–that there was some very sophisticated reading of Vedic knowledge by Hindu intellectuals in the early 20th Century to make the claim that there was a Hindu universality–it’s more that Prakash wants to point out that a “universality” is itself fundamentally part of modernity’s imagination, that this involves finding in the Hindu past something that could not in that sense have been there. But that surely goes just as much for the West–which is often what Foucault and others are getting at–the West looks backward into “itself” and invents something that wasn’t really there even as it empties out the possibility of understanding what was “really” there without having to reference the West’s invention of itself.

Ray’s History of Hindu Chemistry: “not a work of nationalist cheerleading, but a work of immense sophistication and erudiction that assessed the achievements of Hindu alchemy from the point of view of modern experiments and observations. Rayt never claimed that Hindu alchemy was an experimental science, but only that its development in India was owed to indigenous sources, not to Greek influence, as European Orientalists were wont to believe.” p. 102

“What are we to make of the unmistakable sense of ruin and desolation that the fabricated remembrance of the past produced? Could the Hindu past serve as the culture of the modern nation without producing a searing sense of loss?” p. 106

“The passionate belief in the existence of an indigenous tradition of science was no mere fantasy. As Indian intellectuals demonstrated with patient and persuasive scholarly studies and argued with passion and conviction, scientific thought was not alien to the subcontinent’s traditions.” p. 228

“With the vital sign of modernity–science–lodged in the ‘inner’ fiber of the nation, India could be modern without being Western.” p. 231

“Colonial rule saw itself as an agent of bringing the timeless ‘native’ into the present, into the time of History. Nationalism shared this agenda. It, too, thought that India had to be awakened from its slumber and live a full lif ein the modern world; and science and technology were alluring because they would help India catch up with the West. Sharing an intimate relationship, colonialism and nationalism constituted India in a time that is at once different from that of the West and from that of India’s traditions. From this arises the specific trajectory of Indian modernity” p. 233

“Neither community nor modernity appear in themselves, nor have they ever done so. If Hindu majoritarianism cannot pass as the resurgence of the authentic tradition, neither can the secular nation be defended as the pure domain of rationality and modernity.” p. 237

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

In many ways a more detailed history of the rise of state centralization and absolutism, one that goes beyond simply asserting that this was done as a command exercise, or for nakedly functional reasons. Soll instead argues that much of this had to do with Colbert’s own form of encyclopedism, and that the private or secret world of information was conceptually intertwined with the invention of the 17th & 18th Century public sphere. I find this a really smart reading of many things besides Colbert and the French state.

“Colbert sought to become a scholar of state learning: not simply a bureaucrat but an expert.” p. 7

“There are reasons tht intellectual and cultural historians have not studied the intellectual history of the state….Studies of the public sphere focus on journalism, clandestine literature, and printing; as well as sites of sociability, such as academies and the Republic of Letters, public and private communication networks, art markets, salons, learned societies, Masonic lodges, societies, coffeehouses and lending libraries. These social and cultural phenomena are often used as ilustrations of a bourgeois opposition and counterbalance to arbitrary, secretive absolute monarchy”. p. 10

Yes, but it’s also that I think we take the state as not having a “culture”, or if it does, as if its culture does not need investigation–much as we take the actuality of “capital” as sometimes uninteresting unless/until it is simultaneous with bourgeois life.

“Philip II was the first hands-on bureaucrat king of a massive empire and certainly the forerunner of his Bourbon heirs in France. His information system was so vast, so intricate, and in some cases so efficient that even the Venetian ambadssador sent his relazioni back to Venice via Spanish royal messenger posts. Yet this Planet King, on whose empire the sun never set, was never a traveler, but rather inhabited his own virtual world, enclosed in the halls of his monastery palace, the Escorial, which he filled wit mountains of dispatches and reports.” p.20

Interesting use of the concept of virtual world–as sequestered/enclosed/unreal.

“Old Italian mercantile, administrative culture had fostered humanism, and it was steeped in an ethic of technical expertise…[but]as humanist traditions evolved, they had less and less mercantile content. What had been a merchant and bureaucratic-inspired tradition of learning became increasingly literary and scientific and humanist philologists translated ancient texts and copied their content. Humanist political theory became grounded in ancient history and legal scholarship. Yet at the very moment that Tacitist humanists claimed that statecraft cold be learned through classical ethics and history, it became increasingly clear that these forms of political learning were not sufficient for managing a large, industrial, colonial and militarized state.” p. 52

Very interesting material on double-entry bookkeeping and on the technological establishment of archives. Ch. 4

Ch. 5–creation of “informers”, e.g, bureaucratic workers who were trained both to provision information back to Colbert and to carry his will or ideas out to provincial actors. “He transformed their function from provincial tax collectors, into professional observers, statistic-takers and, as Anette Smedley-Weill calls them, ‘informers’. The intendants were trained observers whom Colbert told to take notes only on what they had seen with their own eyes, and not rely on the accounts of others.” p. 70

Great use of Colbert’s system for training his son as a way to reveal both the empirical content of his system and Colbert’s authorial imagination of the system, Ch. 6.

“For Colbert, governing was about writing clearly and organizing writing into easy-to-use notebooks. The evolving humanist culture of the commonplace notebook and the Jesuit schools, along with mercantile book keeping, now became the basis of governmental pedagogy.” p. 89

“The former English chancellor and inventor of the experimental method, Francis Bacon had suggested that the sort of information collected by scholars, scientists, bureaucrats and industrialists could be formalized within the state itself. Bacon envisioned the state as a center of research and collection, which constantly acquired new information by discovery and experiment. Like Thomas Hobbes, Bacon believed that the monarch should rule over knowledge. What Bacon envisioned was not simply formal, university learning of a library, but rather a state-controlled depot of information of all sorts, constantly renewed, and potentially secret, which gave the state the monopoly on the information of politics, trade and science.” p. 97

“Colbert had no time for the formalities of the Republic of Letters, such as openness and the ethics of information exchange. His collecting techniques both disregarded the integrity of individual collections and were devoid of ethics in acquisition. Indeed, he offered to buy the Wolfenbuttel Library outright…He bought other entire collections for the Royal Library, 10,000 books at a time.” p. 102

“While Colbert’s library and research facilities produced knowledge and appeared to be practical, they also created constraints on Colbert’s government. One of the most revealing elements of Colbert’s policy archive are the files concerning colonial enterprises….while he certainly kept his large colonial administrative correspondence, he did not integrate it into his archival system for daily government. This undermined his ability to effectively manage his Canadian policy” p. 113

“The fact that Colbert mixed the worlds of state administration and scholarship so closely makes it hard to define exactly what he created. Were his intendants and agents bureaucrats in a modern sense? Or were they subservient versions of the humanist secretaries that had filled the ranks of papal and Italian administrations since the late Middle Ages? What becomes clear is that Colbert was creating a new sort of agent loyal only to the state. He actively trained information managers who could find, copy, catalog, and bring him documentation as he needed it for his day-to-day affairs. In other agents, he sought scholars to teach him how better to handle the historical material he used for government.” p. 120

“More than anything, however, was remained of Colbert’s legacy was not a permanent state information system or even tradition. Rather, Colbertism should be defined as the idea that a large-scale state would need to centralize and harness encyclopedic knowledge to govern effectively, and that all knowledge, formal and practical, could be used together in one archival system to understand and master the material world.” p. 163