Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Search for Sovereignty: A Review

In A Search For Sovereignty, Lauren Benton uses deep historical research to undo the sense of sovereignty and colonial empires many readers may have derived from theoretical discussions of 'modernity', 'coloniality', and such. The standard image--again, derived more from theoretical debates than careful engagement with the historical record--is that European empires increasingly controlled space rationally, as epitomized by the standardized geography of modern cartography. Furthermore, distinctions were drawn and maintained between rational European subjects and others who supposedly lacked rationality and thus could not be agents of the modern world. These vague generalizations are eroded by the evidence presented in A Search for Sovereignty. Rather than producing a homogeneous, smooth space, empire-builders are portrayed as having to improvise through a number of types of territories that confounded them--rivers, mountains, oceans, islands. In turn, efforts to define sovereignty in these ambiguous spaces produced opportunities for multiple agents to make contradictory claims about law and their rights. Far from producing a smooth space, one might instead picture a space that is more deeply and coherently produced near centers, and then becomes increasingly vague and contradictory (although claims made about the hinterlands were often ruled on in the centers, and redounded there). Even oceans, for example, were the site of contradiction between corridors which were relatively controlled and expanses where who could exert sovereignty was much less clear. The bulk of the text is given over to illustrating the contradictions of each of these spaces. Rivers are the sites of claims and counter-claims of treason, as actors near ports or further upriver attempt to use loyalty to the crown to undermine their rivals and assert their own autonomy. In oceans, pirates were actors who often asserted a relation to the law, claiming to act on behalf of various sovereigns. Islands, often used as penal colonies, were the site of the ambiguous development of martial law, as it was unclear whether non-prisoners residing on the islands (often soldiers) were subject to the arbitrary rules developed for prisoners, or what the rights of everyone were in relation to the rights developed in the states controlling the island. Mountains were imagined as places where less civilized people resided (although the historical development was much more contradictory-they were often refuges from oppression in the lower lands) and forms of indirect rule, involving inconsistent concepts of who (representatives of the colonies, or indigenous leaders) had jurisdiction over what. In all these cases, concepts of law and sovereignty only emerge from repeated contestations and claims by different actors. There was no palimpset of colonial law that could be imposed and stably reproduced. The different European powers picked up on and developed what each other was doing. Several of these chapters resonate with the present--most dramatically, the question of whether rights recognized elsewhere are nullified for island prisoners jumps out for its similarities to Guantanamo. Benton only makes the most passing reference to this continued parallel and her gentle hand is appreciated here(she also notes the parallels between questions of indirect rule and problems of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan--note the indeterminancy as to who has the right to hold those employed by the US (such as Blackwater mercenaries) responsible for crimes committed in Iraq. Piracy has of course also returned lately, although to date the Somalis have not attempted to use law to defend their actions).
I found the general pattern laid out in the book to be quite stimulating, and it shook up my (admittedly limited) framework for understanding these questions. However, each chapter tended to lapse into somewhat turgid prose as different cases and claims were laid out. I altogether lost track, for example, of the difference between the Grotian and Gentilian conceptions of the rule of the sea. In other words, this is one more academic book that could have really have used a more careful edit.
Benton eschews any simple directionality to the processes she describes. While many people writing about colonialism emphasize the exertion of power by Europeans and the resistance of various 'Others', she emphasizes that diverse actors tried to employ the law to strengthen their claims, and European classification of non-Europeans was not stable and already-known before the colonial process developed. Or to take another example, she disputes Peter Linebaugh's claim that pirates were resolute opponents of the states in the eighteenth century. Instead, pirates themselves often made legal claims in the name of various sovereigns to legitimize their actions. It is very useful to blur boundaries and complicate the picture in this way. In a sense, although this is fairly large scale history, moving across many continents and through several centuries, it parallels the anthropological insistence on the contradictory effects of power when it is localized and played out among a number of actors. However, as with this sort of anthropological work, Benton's book left me wondering why European empires achieved a stability of sorts that lasted for several centuries, and whether any sort of directionality to events can be identified. Is it possible to write grand narratives of colonial empires that do justice to the contradictory and ambiguous processes highlighted here?

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