Cultures of the Colonial Encounter

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Spanning several centuries, colonialism imposed Euro-American domination over vast areas of the Earth and over three-quarters of its population. In addition to transforming the world economies and geographies, colonialism produced complex and traumatic cultural encounters between indigenous peoples and the newcomers. Contrary to the common representation of colonial cultural contact as a process that resulted in the univocal transformation of the indigenous world, this course will try to show that colonial encounters reshaped the structures of practice and the systems of knowledge of the colonized, as well as of the colonizers. This approach will enable us to discover the hidden vulnerability of colonial power. We will learn that in order to understand the complex phenomena of domination, resistance, and mutual cultural mimicry prompted by the colonial encounter, it is essential to treat—as Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper suggest—“metropole and colony in a single analytic field.” Through a series of readings, we will explore how Europeans’ engagements with the inhabitants of the overseas colonies resulted in complex and ambiguous cultural formations that reveal the contested, fragmentary, and anxious nature of colonial knowledge and power. In addition to challenging traditional frameworks that represented the empire through a hierarchical geography of center and periphery and depict colonial encounters through a simplistic narrative of cultural loss, this course will argue for the need to analyze local histories, particular sites, and connections. Ranging from accounts of the encounters between Spanish Catholics and Yucatec Maya, Dutch Calvinist missionaries and Indonesian highlanders, Northwest Coast Indians and Euro-Americans to the study of colonial photography in the Philippines during US rule, the transformations of the caste system in India during the British rule, and the dynamics of labor relations between white managers and Asian workers in a Sumatran rubber plantation during Dutch colonialism, the selected readings will offer concrete cases of colonial encounters. Drawing on visual documents, ethnographic and historical accounts, novels, and critical theory, students will explore how local bodies of scientific knowledge, moral and aesthetic philosophies, cultural theories of sexuality, language usages and ideologies, and social identities, as well as religious notions and practices, were transformed through the asymmetries of the colonial encounter. This ethnographic journey will help us understand that, while colonialism was a global system, the study of its local-specific modes of operation is key to avoid creating a unitary narrative for diverse experiences and realities. Unearthing the durability of colonial history in our contemporary world, this journey will also enable us to appreciate the importance of a critical study of colonialism for the understanding of how colonial pasts bear on people’s present lives and future options.