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This article constitutes a critique of abstraction as an analytic tool. The argument advances the idea that formalizing practices are indexical; that is, the way abstractions are realized necessarily incorporates features of the context in which they are produced. The expression formalizing practices refers to a series of actions or operations that make quantification, rationalization, and standardization possible. Entailed in all these procedures is an attempt to select and isolate features that exemplify a specific phenomenon or social process, or in the case of standardization, that stipulate its contours and dimensions. These features are presumed to be immanent from the start, but in fact, formal representations are carefully crafted, finely tuned instruments. In order to clarify these practices, I delineate three phases of their construction: the conceptual phrase, the choice of analytic strategy, and the specification of its formal representation. In other words, this approach suggests the value of examining formalizing projects as crucibles where cultural assumptions and practical reasoning are condensed into formulae. These ideas are explored in relation to the use of time and motion studies employed in early socialist Hungary to determine the new socialist wage system. While a decidedly local story, the implications of the analysis are much broader. The possibility of adopting this approach to the study of other formalizing practices, such as algorithmic systems and digital databases, is suggested. The analysis also raises questions about the commensurability of long-held concepts in social theory.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, a frequent claim among speakers of local Chinese languages (called fangyan in Chinese) is that their native languages preserve the language of antiquity better than the Beijing-based national language, Mandarin. This paper explores the origin of these claims and probes their significance in the making of the Han ethnoracial collective identity. I argue that claims of linguistic proximity to the imagined ancient origins of Chinese civilization represent a form of “hegemonic Han-ness”—an idealized form of the Han collective identity that was both internally hegemonic, in that it was meant to supersede other expressions of Han-ness, and externally hegemonic, in that it was meant to uphold the superiority of the Han people over other ethnoracial groups. From Zhang Taiyan, whose work provided a model for drawing linguistic connections between contemporary local languages and the language spoken at the dawn of Chinese civilization, to local gazetteer authors, who used linguistic data to prove their mother tongues directly had preserved the language of antiquity without being adulterated by the languages of non-Han peoples, this paper explores how various groups drew upon the cultural power of an idealized Han-centered past to challenge the authority afforded to the national language by the state.
At the turn of the twentieth century, most of the world’s pearls were extracted from rich oyster and coral reefs on the northern Indian Ocean rim. This paper returns to the sites of extraction, studying imperial maps made from 1889–1925 to delineate oyster reefs on the seafloor. Building from the submarine up, I draw on environmental, animal, and history of science studies to explore the work of mapping oceanic, animate space. Attending to the role of divers, whose labor was required to make the seafloor visible, and the lifecycles of oysters, which changed over time, I argue that the seafloor represents a kind of unruly terrain, out of both the reach and control of imperial authorities. The paper’s final section meditates on reading humans as part of Indian Ocean landscapes and the possibilities this offers for further comparative, transnational work in a materialist vein.
The rumors of Brazil’s mineral riches reaching London and Vienna in the first half of the nineteenth century, started by enslaved Africans mining clandestinely in unexplored regions and later through geological surveys by mining engineers from the Habsburg Empire, prompted aspirations to wealth which circulated fluidly in the transatlantic context. This article examines the distinct but convergent agencies of garimpeiros, enslaved miners and prospectors, and of Habsburgian mining engineers in the territorialization process of Minas Gerais during the nineteenth-century expansion of global capitalism. It analyses the degree of connectivity and cooperation across British and Habsburgian imperial spaces in Brazilian mining ventures, focusing on the case of the mining engineer Virgil von Helmreichen, who arrived in Minas Gerais in 1836, under contract to the British-financed Imperial Brazilian Mining Association. The Habsburgian expert elite of which Helmreichen was a part played a crucial role in the expansion of the commodity frontier in this region, providing proficient knowledge in mining and geology. This expert community collaborated with the logistics networks of British free-trade imperialism and the Brazilian slave system inherited from the colonial period. The territorialization of Minas Gerais shows the global dynamics at play between British interests in the discovery of new mines, the need to produce expert knowledge at the local level, and the Brazilian government’s desire to control the hinterland region and profit from its mineral wealth.
Police and Strikes in Colonial and Postcolonial Bureaucracies
Contemporary debates on policing trace the rise of “law and order” populism and police militarization to colonial histories and imperial boomerang effects. In a time marked by the renewed imperative “to decolonize,” however, few studies examine what decolonizing policing did or could look like in practice. This article draws on oral history narratives of Jamaican police officers to recover their ideas about transforming the colonial Jamaica Constabulary Force in the 1970s. Born out of black power mobilizations and under a democratic socialist government (1972–1980), police decolonization was viewed as part of broader transformative effort to rid the country of colonial inheritances in economics, culture, and politics. Jamaican policemen, radicalized since the early twentieth century, then began revising their social mandate and ask who the police should serve and protect. Ultimately, due to internal contradictions and external pressures, the experiment failed, giving rise to police populism and increased violence against black men and women in the ghettos. The episode reveals how populism emerges out of a failure of emancipatory campaigns and how radical critique can turn into ideological justification. It also highlights the need to distinguish between diverse, contradictory, and overlapping demands to decolonize societies and institutions today.
In January 1909, the students of the Azhar, the Islamic world’s most prestigious university, went on strike. Protesting recent curricular and administrative changes introduced by the Egyptian Khedive, they demanded increased material support and asserted the university’s right to govern itself. After several weeks of demonstrations that drew thousands of supporters into the streets of Cairo, the Khedive suspended the reforms that first caused the Azharis to walk out. Oddly, this remarkable mobilization has nearly vanished into obscurity. Drawing on reporting from the Egyptian press and intelligence memoranda from the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, this article argues that the apparent incongruity of Azharis on strike was no mistake. Their willful rejection of ascribed categories helps to explain both why this movement of unionized seminarians speaking a language of self-government proved so striking for contemporary supporters and critics alike and why this event has slipped through the cracks of a historiography still framed by those very categories. Long forgotten in histories of both nationalism and organized labor, the Azhar strike represented a pivotal moment in the emergence of mass politics in Egypt. In invoking “union,” the Azharis engaged in multiple, overlapping acts of comparison. Inspired by the modular repertoires of militant labor, they simultaneously hailed the constitutional revolution of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress as a model for political transformation. Rooted in a self-conscious critique of colonial comparativism, their struggle thereby furnished new materials with which to elaborate a telescopic series of anti-colonial solidarities that were themselves fundamentally comparative.
Recent transitional justice scholarship has explored the role of emotions during periods of political transition. Scholars have taken negative emotions as both legitimate responses to past crimes and as supports to the pursuit of justice in the present. This paper argues that feelings circulate across a wide array of individuals, things, and processes that often sit apart from the formal, judicial spaces of transitional justice. To make this argument, I consider the Tunisian campaign Manich Msamah (I Do Not Forgive) and its articulation of an affect of unforgiveness in resistance to the proposed Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law. Formed in 2015, the campaign came about in response to the law and efforts, under the pretext of “reconciliation,” to return to public life figures from the repressive regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Drawing on affect theory, I argue that unforgiveness was stuck to particular individuals (figures from the old regime and circulated between a community of unforgiving activists), things (public spaces, posters, T-shirts and the ephemera of protest) and processes (accountability and substantive forms of justice). I argue that an affect of unforgiveness thus aided activists not only in their resistance to state-led reconciliation but also helped imagine alternative paths to justice in Tunisia.
Before the 1915 Genocide of Ottoman Armenians, the region of Van, in contemporary southeastern Turkey, held hundreds of active Armenian churches and monasteries. After the destruction of the Armenian community, these ruined structures took on new afterlives as they became part of the evolving environments and communities around them. These ruined spaces play a role in the everyday lives of the people who live among them and shape their historical understandings and relationships with the local history and geography. I interrogate the afterlives of one abandoned monastery and examine how local Kurds imagine, narrate, and enact the politics of the past and the present through that space of material ruin. I demonstrate how the history of the Armenian Genocide and ongoing state violence against the Kurdish community are intricately linked, highlight the continuation of violence over the past century, and deconstruct notions of ahistorical victims and perpetrators. This article builds on a critical approach to ruins as it traces how histories of destruction and spaces of material ruin are revisited and reinterpreted by those whose lives continue to be shaped by processes of ruination. It demonstrates how ruins created through violent histories become spaces for articulating alternative senses of history and crafting possible futures.
Scholars of state classification practices have long interrogated how official legal categories are constructed. This paper analyzes the construction of “victimhood” in Colombia as a feat that required negotiation among international human rights organizations, local civil society actors, and politicians across the partisan spectrum. The Victims’ Law of 2011, which sought to provide widespread reparations to victims of the civil conflict, originated from the concerns of the human rights community, yet the deliberation process leading up to the law’s passage reveals the extent to which elite historical narratives of the conflict unduly narrowed the universe of eligible victims. Using archival evidence from congressional debates from 2007 to 2011, this paper argues that the broad conception of victimhood originally inherited from United Nations guidelines came to be constrained by disproportionate influence from politicians’ personal understandings of conflict history, shaped by anecdote and the selective use of historical evidence. These rationales interacted with budgetary constraints to ultimately restrict the victim category according to negotiated temporal boundaries of the conflict.