Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination

Peer Reviewed


The May 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology is a special issue edited by Ann Laura Stoler focused on “imperial debris.” “This is not a turn to ruins as memorialized and large-scale monumental ‘leftovers’ or relics,” Stoler writes in her introductory essay, “but rather to what people are ‘left with’: to what remains, to the aftershocks of empire, to the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities, and things. Such effects reside in the corroded hollows of landscapes, in the gutted infrastructures of segregated cityscapes and in the microecologies of matter and mind.”

In expanding conceptions of ruins and eschewing any romanticization of them or their empires, Stoler hopes to interlink postcolonial studies with analyses and concerns about urban decay, environmental degradation, industrial pollution, and “racialized unemployment.” She also hopes to highlight how some people and places are more susceptible to ruin than others. “Modernity and capitalism can account for the left aside, but not where people are left, what they are left with, and what means they have to deal with what remains,” writes Stoler.

Editorial Footnotes

Other essays in this special issue are Nancy Hunt's "An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition", Valentine E. Daniel's "The Coolie", John Collins's ""But What if I Should Need to Defecate in Your Neighborhood, Madame?": Empire, Redemption, and the "Tradition of the Oppressed" in a Brazilian World Heritage Site", Karolina Szmagalska-Follis's "Repossession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland", and Joseph Masco's ""Survival is Your Business": Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America".

Essays in previous issues of Cultural Anthropology have analyzed postcolonialism from numerous angles. See, for example, Danny Hoffman’s essay “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2007), Liam Buckley’s “Objects of Love and Decay: Colonial Photographs in a Postcolonial Archive” (2005), and Ana Maria Alonso’s “Conforming Disconformity: “Mestizaje,” Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism” (2004).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays that theorize how the past operates in and shapes the present, and future possibilities. See, for example, Rosalind Shaw’s “Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone” (2007), Carole McGranahan’s “Truth, Fear, and Lies: Exile Politics and Arrested Histories of the Tibetan Resistance” (2005), and Casey Blake’s “The Usable Past, the Contemporary Past, and the Civic Past: Memory in Contemporary America” (1999).

About the Author

Ann Laura Stoler is the Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.

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