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New Imperial Theory: Some preliminary notes

3 March 2015

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Come and read The Molinist at its new home!
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I commented in a previous post that the still-emergent field of New Imperial History, the ‘post-colonial turn’ of imperial history, in which I can be said to work, was lacking a coherent critical theoretical framework of its own. Instead it must borrow bits and pieces here and there from other school of critical theory (such as critical race theory, the subject of the post) of greater or lesser applicability. Well, in the intervening months such a theory has yet to produce itself spontaneously. So, as I am currently working on a theory-heavy section of my dissertation, I felt inspired to lay out some of what I think are necessary elements of that new theoretical framework…

Continued at The Molinist.

Oppressing the Übermensch

28 January 2015

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As you’re likely aware from reading this blog, or possibly from following me on Twitter or Tumblr, I enjoy both critical theoretical analysis of texts and speculative fiction. I also enjoy submitting the one to the other, especially on questions of political ideologies inherent in or communicated by the text. This is basically how I unwind after a long day of working on my dissertation. [1] One of the reasons I love speculative fiction, be it science fiction or fantasy (is magical realism a genre of speculative fiction? I don’t really care for magical realism) is that the limitless range of possibilities of setting provide ample ground to explore the issues that define our own. The power to reshape the world around an idea is to power to raise a truly limitless number of mirrors to the world as it is and to interrogate those reflections. Unsurprisingly, then, speculative fiction often raises questions of social justice and oppression. Rightfully, the power of the pen is deployed to question the structures that hold some in bondage and keep others in privilege. Rightly but not always successfully. Intentions not being magical, even the best ones can’t guarantee a successful effort. One of the more common missteps (or perhaps stumbling blocks) is the thematic trope of the oppressed superhman: a minority of humans with superhman abilities who are marginalised and/or oppressed by the the mass of regular people. This is a familiar enough trope, explored across a wide variety of media and through a number of narrative lenses: from genetically engineered superhumans in Star Trek: The Next Generation to subterranean-humanoid-monsters-as-queer-metaphor in Clive Barkers Nightbreed. Despite its ubiquity, and presumed utility, however, the trope is fundamentally problematic as a way of exploring the issues and experienced of marginalised peoples and communities.

In order to better explore this trope and why it is both engaging and problematic we’ll first need to define it then examine it in action. First I’ll lay out some salient characteristics of the trope, then we can take a closer look at two of my favourite speculative fiction texts in which the oppression of a class of superhumans is a major or the major theme: X-Men and Dragon Age. [2] I’ll be peppering both textual analyses with links to the relevant wikis so that the interested can follow up on the specifics of each IP. Finally, I’ll build on those analyses by using them to illustrate the problematics and shortcomings of the trope…

Continued at The Molinist.

Problematic concepts

22 October 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Come and read The Molinist at its new home!
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The latest episode of Season 2 of Crash Course History examined the history and historiography of ‘the West,’ which readers will likely be familiar with as one of the more fundamental paradigms of historical self-understanding of those of us who speak European languages and live in the Americas, Australasia, and those portions of the European subcontinent that lie west of Ukraine. The more specific question under discussion is the ‘rise’ of the West: that is, how did it come about that the West dominates (for now…duh duh duh…ominous music) the rest of the world. Host John Green doesn’t attempt to answer the question, thankfully, but rather discusses various answers that have been proposed by historians other authors. I would like to propose a fairly simple answer: it does not. How so? Well, for the same reason that neither unicorns nor elves dominate the earth: ‘the West’ is not a coherent concept and its dominance or lack thereof is not a coherent proposition.

What, I ask you, is the West?

To watch the Crash Course video, read on, and comment, click here: Problematic concepts

Culture and Union

8 September 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist.
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This weekend, instead of working on that book review I keep promising, I found myself at The Burn, a former great house (I won’t even attempt to write the name of the former propieters of this country house because it has a [ʃ] sound in it and, this being Scotland, they probably spell that with a ‘y,’ or a consonant cluster, or the number 4, or something), now retreat centre for educational events, off in the Scottish countryside, nestled on the border of Aberdeenshire and Angus, in the charming little town of Edzell, very near the Highland Fault, for a conference. I’d been brought there on a training program on conference chairing, where the conference organisers paid to have some of Aberdeen’s history PhDs chair panels, to gain some experience in a more structured way than there is usually opportunity for, in this important-but-underplayed part of academic life. I chaired the very first panel, nominally on law but including a paper on early modern Genevans’ (before Geneva became a canton of the Swiss Federation) attitudes to the notion of union in light of commercial society, as well as papers on Polish-Lithuanian legal culture and the Scottish courts during the Cromwellian commonwealth. My more senior colleagues presenting papers all praised my performance but I think my favourite comment received was that my chairing was “disciplined,” since this was simultaneously the most honest and most euphemistic praise I think I’ve ever received.

The conference, as you can likely guess from the title of the post and my own research activities, was on the culture of early modern political unions…

Continued at The Molinist.

At Least No One Asks Where They’re From

8 July 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist.
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Warning: This piece contains mild spoilers for both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire and the trilogies The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. I’ve tried to restrict them to world-building and characters but plot spoiliers may have slipped through my net.

Fantasy, of course, is all about white people. The proper fantasy subject matter, we all know, is mighty lords in stout keeps with absurdly-large swords and fantastically unlikely social structures, encased in medieval stasis. The natural sort of people for this setting are Brits, Vikings, maybe Spaniards (no one actually knows what a Spaniard looks like). Also popular are Brits coated in a thin pastiche of medieval Frenchness, based primarily on WWII-era stereotypes and a general sense that there is a book called The Romaun of the Rose and also chivalry. After all, who is Ursula K. Le Guin, even? But in this age of political correctness and reasonably interesting human drama, it’s probably best to include some black people.

But how can you convincingly add black people to what is, after all, essentially medieval Europe? Black people hadn’t been invented yet. They can’t just be running around, looking different, that obviously never happened and it would seriously strain any reasonable suspension of disbelief. Sure, your fantasy has immortal, subterranean elf-dwarf people; eugenicist Kantian horned giants; and talking tree people but black people?! A bridge too far. They’ll have to come from somewhere: a single country that can also provide some sexy exoticness when needed. And so was born The Country of Black People…

Continued on The Molinist.

Review: The Making of New World Slavery by Robin Blackburn

30 June 2014

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Cover of the Verso World History Series editionI’ve been known to overuse the word ‘magisterial,’ mostly because I like the sound of it, but this work comes closer than perhaps any I have ever read to deserving the title. This expansive study of Castilian (Blackburn refers to the Spanish but, of course, he meant Castilian), Portugese, Dutch, British, and French colonial imperialism and slavery in the New World, from the early days of the encomienda system in Castilian colonies like New Hispania to the rise and apex of the plantation economy to the Industrial Revolution and Anglo-French Wars of 1793-1815, is a thorough, multi-faceted exploration of the contexts and development of colonial slavery in the Americas.

Structurally, The Making of New World Slavery proceeds chronologically as well as geographically: each chapter moves forward in time, more or less, while also focussing on a particular European colonial state. Some back and forth is, of course, necessary to provide the proper context in each successive chapter but the overall thrust of the book is easy to follow. Blackburn divides his narrative into two broad sections, ‘The Selection of New World Slavery,’ where he explores how and why slavery on the plantation scale came to development, and ‘Slavery and Accumulation,’ where explores the economic engline of colonial slavery and its relationship to the metropole. Part one opens with the ‘Old World’ (that is, pre-colonial) history of European slavery, then moving into Portugal in Africa and the Atlantic, Castile in America, the momentous rise of Brazilian sugar, the Dutch West India Company’s war for Brazil, English colonialism, and French colonialism, closing with a discussion of the emergence of specifically racial slavery and the plantation system which it sustained. This first section, which is the longer of the two, has something of a feel of a survey course to it: Blackburn runs through a vast amount of social, economic, and intellectual history in the course of only a few hundred pages, though without feeling rushed or condensed. Section two, ‘Slavery and Accumulation,’ is the more technical of the two, where The Making of New World Slavery becomes more explicitly a work of economic history. Here chapters on the place of colonial slavery in the 18th century boom, the sugar islands, slavery on the South and Central American mainland, and slavery as primitive accumulation explore the role of slave in the emerging economies of the European colonial powers and what role it played in the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Despite the heavy focus on the economics of slavery, divergences are also made into social and intellectual considerations…

Continued at The Molinist.

Rights & Wrongs PtIII: Grotius and the Racialisation of Slavery

11 June 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist.
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This is part three of a three part series.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps inevitably, the conflict between slave economics and rights becomes perhaps most acute in the very man credited with giving birth to the modern language of rights: Hugo Grotius. The Dutch Jurist Hugo Grotius is often considered the most important figure in 17th century intellectual history: the seculariser of natural law, father of social contract theory, originator of modern ideas of rights. While these ideas are wildly overstated, they certainly reflect the profound influence with Grotius had and continues to have. Grotius’s though in slavery was likewise influence, not present a coherent theory on the topic, as it is never a topic which he explores explicitly or at length. Rather, in true humanistic style, Grotius, adorned with more citations and references than any reasonable human being could possibly deem necessary, or helpful, flits lightly between Roman war slavery, Aristotelian natural slavery, and Molinist voluntary slavery, alighting on each as it suits his rhetorical end at the moment…

Continued at The Molinist

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