Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Edited by Ann Laura Stoler. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. Paperback, 365 pp. ISBN 978-0822353614.

Archaeologists who work on the “contemporary world”—the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—will resonate with Imperial Debris. Editor Ann Laura Stoler reflexively introduces the volume and its novel concepts; she and the chapter contributors employ the tools of history, anthropology, and culture studies to address imperial aftermaths. The work’s three thematic sections contain four previously published papers (from Cultural Anthropology 2008) and five new essays on cases from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Imperial Debris exposes the genealogies of “rot” in contexts where individuals, communities, and environments suffer(ed) from disproportionate power. As agents, people in such settings continue to struggle to make lives in disenchanting circumstances.

Traces of empire’s stain tend to collect at knots where times and affect unite. Such “ruins,” as broadly construed, mutate against the past as passed by. “Ruins” are “symptom and substance of history’s destructive force” and of “the ‘fragility’ of capitalist culture” (ix). As chapters in Imperial Debris demonstrate, dilapidated inner-city Detroit, abandoned nuclear shelters from the Cold War, and Indian villages submerged by dammed rivers constitute traces of encounters with “the imperial.” From debris, Stoler and her collaborators seek “rot” and the “ruination” made (20): troubling evidence of past and ongoing human relations that refuses a timeframe (think also of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s work).

“Rot” often finds meaning in less spectacular forms where “the imperial” left a seemingly indestructible mark with toxicity and a vague ill-ease (2) (although not necessarily in material form). For Stoler, “tangibility” is a central concept, but in a way that may be unfamiliar to some archaeologists:

If the “tangible” most commonly refers to that which is substantial and “capable of being touched,” it equally refers to that which is substantial and capable of being perceived. One way to parse what motivates this venture [the volume] might be its effort to identify new ways to discern and define what constitutes the tangibilities of colonial pasts and imperial presence. (5)

Studies of imperial corrosion up to the present facilitate vantage points from which to view “ruination” as an act, a cause, and a condition (11). As Stoler argues in convincing fashion, “rot” can help historians and anthropologists write contemporary histories from harms where “the imperial” persists and finds new ways to degrade landscapes and to further persecute and disillusion people.

It would be easy to be sympathetic to the communities and situations portrayed in Imperial Debris. However, Stoler suggests that academics shirk the “melancholic gaze” (9) of nostalgic pasts and dystopian futures. Pity for struggling people only “nourish[es] imperial sensibilities of destruction and the redemptive satisfaction of chronicling loss” (14). Rather, Stoler and her colleagues aspire to make alternative histories of “ruination” and to examine how “ruination” “weighs on the future” (9, 27). Stoler’s sentiments echo recent commentaries by archaeologists Denis Byrne, Rodney Harrison, and Ken Sassaman, who respectively articulate that archaeologies of social injustice offer possible “interventions against alternative futures” (Sassaman’s phrase). Thus, the cases that comprise Imperial Debris are not the end of a story about pasts, but the beginning of stories about people—the living residues of imperial power—and their possible alternative futures.

Human vulnerability is a key theme in Imperial Debris. The authors tend to document more than the vulnerabilities of struggling communities who expend effort to become less entangled, to overcome exploitation, and to make something new of alienating circumstances. The vulnerabilities of scholars, too, underlie the volume’s compelling chapters. Transformed histories, a goal of the authors, find possibility in research produced by “vulnerable” historians (to borrow from anthropologist Ruth Behar’s influential phrase). Narratives about “ruination,” then, are “not about a gaze [on pasts, circumstances of inequity, and suffering], but a vantage point on one” (12). In other words, “archaeologies” (literal and figurative) of “ruination” require vulnerable scholars who recognize that “ruins draw on residual pasts to make claims on futures” (21).

There is genuine humanity in all of the substantive essays. A brief review of select chapters cannot do them justice. Chapters by Nancy Rose Hunt, E. Valentine Daniel, and Greg Grandin comprise the first of three sections in Imperial Debris, introducing readers to “Decompositions of Matter and Mind” through independent cases in Central Africa, Sri Lanka, and the United States. The following sections, respectively titled “Living in Ruins: Degradations and Regenerations” and “Anticipating the Imperial Future,” elaborate cases from South Africa, Brazil, Palestine, Paraguay, and India, in addition to a further example from the United States.

Hunt’s chapter, the lead substantive essay, sets the tone for the chapters that follow. She discusses the rape of Congolese women and girls during modern conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hunt explains that such violence originated with the Belgian colonial rush for rubber, a key raw material. She powerfully submits, “The absence of historicization [about rape and violence] within today’s humanitarianism suggests something important about ruination and forgetting, about missed opportunities to work with ‘toxic’ imperial debris in producing effective, urgent histories” (40). With laser-like focus, Hunt’s chapter demonstrates that dislocations from home, abjection, and anguish tend to endure and repeat in a horrific cycle at imperial knots. Sensory registers—those beyond “seeing” (for Hunt, the acoustic)—offer opportunities to grasp unsayable/silenced pasts and the “somatization” of violence at places through time (44).

Valentine Daniel, writing about Tamil plantation workers, captures well Tamil expressions and the lingering aftermaths of British colonial rule in South Asia. Plantation culture wreaked havoc on Tamil “coolies” in Sri Lanka. The author suggests that historians and anthropologists consider poetry as a more appropriate form than prose to express painful truths that appear “distant or secondary” (68). Said differently, prose is inadequate for the purposes of the Tamil community and Daniel. The Tamil poems recorded by Daniel are remarkable and enlightening, and bear similarities in their emotional gravity with the prose in Mahasweta Devi’s stories. Rather than usurping local agency and concealing Tamil pain, Daniel enables Tamil reckonings of violence.

Writing about Detroit and Henry Ford, Greg Grandin notes that photographic “ruin porn” of dilapidated Detroit “aestheticizes” urban impoverishment. The producers and consumers of urban decay in photos do not seek the origin for Detroit’s impoverishment. Images like these conceal such pasts and the city’s early, anti-industrial movements (116–117). Thereby, “the imperial” and its lingering “rot” go unquestioned and capitalism escapes critique, an indirect valorization of industrialism and its outcomes. As Grandin details, Henry Ford exported such an industrial regimen to the Brazilian Amazon at a settlement named Fordlandia. The outcome—like a similar mission described in the movie Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog (about a failed attempt to build an opera house in the Amazon)—stands as the failure of a dream recognized as a nightmare in its “ruins.”

In sections two and three of Imperial Debris, contributors address modern changes and continuities to impacted communities and landscapes. With skill, essayists characterize the way people perceive “imperial futures.” Sharad Chari, for example, addresses segregation and urban life in Durban, South Africa. Chari asks: How do people “interrogate their ruination” in the present and how do scholars do so without reproducing “elite fantasies of subaltern autonomy” (135), as if underrepresented people are a single, self-contained story? The author first emphasizes the aspects of governance that endure in post-apartheid South Africa: biopolitics that enable the continued segregation and exploitation of the South African majority. Yet, “ruins” of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements are “potent instruments” (157) with which Durbanites challenge urban squalor, inhumane labor demands, and poor standards of public health.

Archaeologists of the contemporary world will find Chapters 7 and 9 of Imperial Debris particularly stimulating and useful. Gastón Gordillo masterfully describes the legacies of Gran Chaco, a region of lowland South America centered on present-day Paraguay. As the author asserts, the representation of it as a human “void” results from its position at the intersection of the empire’s territory, on the one hand, and the “process of deterritorialization” on the other (228). Drawing from Gilles Deleuze, Gordillo depicts the region as “the overflowing of the territory by the event” of anti-imperial insurgencies (228). Today, tension persists between the ghostly presence of “ruins” as evidence of past connections in space and time and the evocation of rupture in fragile “ruins” (238 and 246). Such tensions, among others, mark Gran Chaco as a locale of political maneuver and debate among present actors (states included) who grapple with imperial legacies.

In the final chapter of Imperial Debris, Vyjayanthi Roa addresses “development” and a case of salvage archaeology. The Srisailam Megadam, a “development” initiative begun in southern India during recent decades, submerged scores of rural villages and displaced more than one hundred thousand residents. During the annual dry season, remnants of submerged villages (i.e. imperial debris) regularly reappear on the scarred landscape, spurring community memories of unfulfilled dreams and impacted futures, along the lines presented elsewhere as “expectations of modernity” (see the works of James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta, respectively). Simultaneous to the submersion of villages, salvage archaeology projects transplanted Hindu temple “ruins” to safety for national tourism.

Imperial Debris makes informed arguments and employs striking cases to great effect. The volume treats “ruins” and “ruination” at multiple scales, but equally engages people, affect, and expressions in contemporary times. With theoretical sophistication and thematic clarity, the authors capture troubling human experiences. This volume, alongside other recent publications in archaeology and heritage studies, will help to reorient why and how scholars come to terms with power and the past-present-future dynamic. Academics and students will see new concepts and arguments in Imperial Debris, a unique text that should find a central place in personal and public libraries.

New and grossly unequal, human entanglements that gained a perverse direction and momentum during imperial times motivated the overall character of the Anthropocene. Aware archaeologists and their intellectual affiliates must cast off the disciplinary somnambulism of a previous era. The past is no longer a distant collection of “facts;” it is part and parcel of all of time, including the present and future. Imperial Debris inspires a more developed and subtle understanding of the contemporary world by focusing attention on people and the genealogy of imperial “rot.”

Stoler’s volume expands the analytical scope of Postcolonial Studies and overcomes the limitation of foreshortened histories of present violence and human disenchantment. It is a guide to curating and chronicling loss as an intervention against imperial futures. This superb collection will be valued in Africa, Asia, and the Americas among communities who make their lives in imperial debris.

Jonathan Walz
Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, USA
[email protected]

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