Re: Colonialism as the big b

Anthro Students (Anthro.Students@ANTHROPOLOGY.SU.EDU.AU)
Tue, 7 Feb 1995 19:54:07 -0500

Matt Tomaso 8/2/95 1:47 AM wrote

>Recent social theory dealing with colonialism has suggested that the
>colonial moment generates everything from socially bounded ethnicities >and
>racism to the nation state. That is, by implication, none of these things
>are seen to have been possible prior to colonialism - at least not in the
>forms seen today. While I recognize that the theorization of such
>categories of abstraction must be a task directed at their present
>and that anthropologists are not privy to the ideological realms of
>prehistory, and I also recognize the obvious need to understand
>and its productions, the archaeologist in me is bothered by the folowing
>notions which appear to be implicit in the logic of several social
>anthropological treatments of colonialism:>

>1. Colonialism appears to refer to European colonialism within the last
>years only. It is no longer possible to imagine the Inca or Romans, for
>example, as colonialists.>

>2. The new theoretical definition of ethnicity appears to be something
>- a bounded social unit with an internally recognized name and a shared
>coherent set of expressions, symbols, etc, which differentiate it from
>others. Incidentally, this definition is enough to convince me that the
>thing in question never existed and never will. I always thought
that >th
>biggest and most ethnocentric problem in Barth's definitions were his >uses
>of social boundaries, now I see that I was wrong and what we really >needed
>(in order to theorize ethnicity out of existence) were even more rigid
>boundaries. Some would also like to make colonialism part and parcel of
>this definition - thus avoiding the problem of prehistoric ethnicity

>3. Racism did not exist prior to colonialism. What a wonderful world it>
must have been. Take note J.J. Rousseau! I guess my interpretation of th>e
bi>ble must be way off then.

>I'd really like to discuss these issues or the texts involved with
>who has the time and inclination. despite my generally disrespectful
>attitude I try to have an open mind and would really appreciate some >open



I must say I think you are grossly mischaracterising the debate about
colonialism here. It would have been good if you could have given some cits
as to where you drew your views from. Having said this, yours is not in any
sense an incomprehensible response and one that has certainly been brought
up before.

I'd draw the problem down to the old chestnut (to start with) of the
universal and the particular. Colonial theory as it's mostly found today is
concerned with primarily particular colonialisms. That is, coming out of
decon, pomo, etc postcolonialism as theory is primarily driven by a certain
brand of relativistic particularism. This is to say that the ancient Romans
were not neccessarily not colonial, but they were a particular form of
colonial. Whether or not it is justifiable or indeed useful to reduce the
particular forms of Roman and New World societies into a generalised or
universal form of colonialism is then what is at issue. The same goes for
racism, I think there are very good arguments to state that there are very
important even conclusive differences between the historical specificity of
American racism, and slavery in Athens. Thus it is not that rascism did not
exist but that a particular racism did not exist. Whether it is feasable to
posit a category of universal racism from here is then under negotiation.

With regards to your comments on ethnicity, I think you point to fascinating
and vital issue.

Your discussion of ethnicity makes the simply error of not making a
distinction between ethnicity as a percieved, natural, category and
ethnicity as a transformative, creative and negotiated process. I think this
is part of the future of anthropology and the core of the resistance to R
Johnsons suggestions. Anthropology has historicalally revolved around the
interpretation (scientific or otherwise) of percieved natural categories of
ethnicity, perhaps (and this is my view) it should be working towards a
greater understanding of culture as not simply recieved and percieved (here
I am dramatically characterising anthropology, it's not intended as a
condemnation) but as creative, shifting, and tranformative.

I hope this quick repost is some sort of a contribution to a discussion.


John Cook