Semicoloniality, Agency and Occupation

The Bogor Botanical Gardens was officially established by the Dutch East Indies Government on May 17, 1817, which became an important part in the history of science in Indonesia. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Race and the Education of Desire (1995), Ann Laura Stoler writes about the central role of the construction of race and empires in the formation of European sexualities. She rearticulates Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976-1984) in light of the knowledge gathered by post-colonial studies. Following his breadcrumbs and extending his conceptual frame, systemic racism is injected into the orbit of Foucault’s notion of biopolitical governmentality. Stoller writes, “the micromanagement of the individual body and the macrosurveillance of the body politic—and the circuits of control between them—that linked the fate of the two.” She calls this discrimination, the “encasement of a disciplinary power” stemming from the policing of the individual subject within a state power. My response is one that begs a closer examination of the details that led to Stoler reassessment of traditional separations within colonies and its microphysical rules of the metropolis and the domestic space. Her discomforting examination of colonial policies in the Dutch East Indies, indeed mobilizes Focault’s notion of surveillance of sexuality as a technological control par excellence. But how might we scale Stoler’s study with other forms and experiences of colonialism? She outlines some of the epistemological issues in the beginning of her essay (141) and her responses reconfigures our understanding of the symbiotic relationship of racism colonialism: “not a colonial reflex but the very making of Europeans.” Indeed, legal records prove that the V.O.C. prevented white Dutch women entry into East Indies for fear of miscegenation and as a result also legislated the lower status of indigenous women who cohabited with the white male bureaucrats. The question at the heart of Tani Barlow’s article titled “Debates over Colonial Modernity in East Asia and Another Alternative” is also epistemological. It looks back on historiography in the early 1990s around the time Ann Stoler published her book. Barlow frames a discussion of “colonial modernity” and the limits of modernization theory through an examination of the mise en abyme of commodity advertisement. Barlow notes how the emancipated, sexualized Chinese woman figure has been tied to commodity use for convenience and an indication of modernity. The compelling critical maneuver enriches our understanding of how representations and pictorialization work as aspirational endeavors that presage the forms of “thought or reason” that emerge on the surface of sociology or social life. Ultimately, outlining the ontological status of the sexualized body also illuminates the imbrication of racism and colonization. Similar to Stoler, Barlow makes a case for how women’s flesh gained modernist, historical significance. Such patterned discursive incitements show us how the colonies troubled Victorian morality. In critical parlance, these are also “stimulations that facilitated the penetration of social and self-disciplinary regimes” into the intimacies of modern life.