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mpire is a “a way of life;” empire is “in the details” (Williams, 2006; Lutz, 2006). How do we make sense of such a pervasive thing? A recent collection edited by Carole McGranahan and John Collins takes up the “rhythms, sentiments, logics, and objects” of US empire, as they are apprehended ethnographically (2018: 4). At once a reckoning with empire as implicated in the production of anthropological knowledge about racialized others, and empire itself as an object of ethnographic study, Ethnographies of U.S. Empire argues against a narrow typology of imperial power, instead presenting scholarship from across places and modes of US empire. This volume includes contributions from scholars of settler colonialism and indigenous sovereignty, overseas and occupied territories, the trailing aftermaths of Cold War counterinsurgency, military bases and militarized places, and emerging modes of imperial power—both domestic and foreign—post-9/11. The purpose is to “show the sinew, the tissue of connection” by bringing together bodies of scholarship usually kept separate (p. 477). Engaging emerging, multidisciplinary conversations across anthropology, American studies, and postcolonial studies about how empire operates and endures, Ethnographies of U.S. Empire is a reflection both on empire and on ethnography. Together, the chapters make a case for ethnographic research as a way of studying empire, as a method that offers not a bounded or concise definition of what makes an empire, but rather an expansive sense of how people live with and within the imperial present.
This book is part of a renewed scholarly interest in American empire, one that transits through anthropology, American Studies, history and geography. The return of empire might be read as a reaction to rising global fascism and populist violence, but this is a book about liberalism. The texts gathered here remind us that the imperial project transcends partisan politics. Read alongside work that approaches empires as a thing that might be defined—Daniel Immerwahr recently argued, for example, that empire is characterized by the occupation of territory (2019)—this book instead invites attunement to the multiple forces and experiences of life in empire. The authors ask that we avoid telling the story of empire as a totalizing abstraction—a thing that uniformly flattens—and instead attend to the “fractures and disjunctive ways” in which people materially live and experience empire (Bryan, in this volume, p. 352). This volume draws from scholars of postcolonialism and coloniality; the book is dedicated to Fernando Coronil, anthropologist of the state and scholar of empire, and the cover—a meditation on Coronil’s FBI file—is by his daughter, the artist Andrea Coronil. Ethnographic attention to empire challenges normative ideas about how domination is sustained, and highlights lessons from postcolonial studies: we may deeply desire the very things that harm us; violence may persist long after formal war’s end. Ethnography refuses the neat separation empire from other forms of power and invites us to consider empire as a project that relies on and reproduces racialized, gendered and classed violences.
In the first section, “Settlement, Sentiment, Sovereignty,” Jean Dennison unfolds empire as a structure of feeling that patterns and erodes relationships, interrupting modes of collective life and foreclosing sovereign imaginations of indigenous futures. In debates about the organization of indigenous resources and nation-building, Dennison argues that settler colonialism is not just about the elimination of indigenous people, but also about the production of distrust. Discussions of how to democratize access to the Osage Mineral Estate Trust–a national body that manages resources and disburses payments to a select group of Osage citizens–highlighted that, while settler colonial legal infrastructure may be remade, the affective aftermaths of such arrangements may persist. The colonial administration of Osage resources produced a distrust “so powerful that it worked as a political impediment to nation-building efforts.” (p. 44) Therefore, settler colonialism—as a genre of empire—is not just about extinguishing indigenous life but about “limiting the space available for other visions of an Osage future.” (p. 35)
Empire endures not only in structures of feeling but in bodily practice and play. Fa’anofo Lisaclaire Uperesa’s chapter “Colonialism by Any Other Name” is an ethnography of Samoans training for gridiron football in American Samoa, an “unincorporated territory.” The training of Samoans for American football, Uperesa argues, demonstrates how it is not just state violence that sustains empire, but also bodily practice in sport and in play. For Samoan players, football is multivalent: “at once a pedagogy of empire, a path of transnational mobility, a vehicle for community empowerment, a site of personal and collective expression, and a valued practice of self-fashioning.” (p. 131) Football recruits young Samoan men into a spectacular labor for empire, sending the most talented into lucrative, professional work in the metropole. Uperesa’s ethnographic research reminds us that colonialism is a mode of political domination that is deeply braided into the possibilities for the good life. Ethnography offers us a sense of how football players may be at once “docile bodies” and “empowered subjects,” navigating a sport that deals in both achievement and injury (p. 143).
In the fifth section, “Residue, Rumors, Remnants,” authors attend to empire as a force that organizes supposedly post-imperial worlds. In her study of the affective and material traces of landmines in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), Eleana Kim turns to ecologies of empire and the environmental aftermaths of the Korean War. Framed as sleeping peacekeepers, landmines animate an ecology of deterrence, maintaining a tenuous ceasefire with their “deadly liveliness and slow violence.” (p. 318) The detritus of war does not simply wound landscapes but shapes how future generations understand them: in the DMZ, narratives of “peace and life” and ecological revival attempt to place active, present and maiming landmines in the past. Crucially, the study of empire is not just about empire’s targets. In an ethnographic account of the aftermath of Iran-Contra in Nicaragua, Joe Bryan parses an uncanny encounter with a Miskito paramilitary ex-combatant who, unemployed since the war, offers his services as a mercenary in Iraq or Afghanistan. Chapters 16 and 14, on CIA operatives and the Tibetan guerrillas they trained and came to love; and about US veterans of the War on Terror, ask us to understand that the imperial project requires affective and bodily labor to sustain it.
If recent books like Immerwahr’s invite us to think of empire as an expression of national sovereignty, Ethnographies of U.S. Empire invites us to consider empire as a collaborative and transnational project that exceeds the bounds of formal occupation. In a section on “Temporality, Proximity, Dispersion,” Ju Hui Judy Han takes up Korean Evangelical missionaries as proxies of US empire, engaged in labors of faith at the nexus of Islamophobia, militarized humanitarianism and economic progress (p. 211). Korea must be located not only in terms of “subservience to American empire, but also in terms of its proximity to empire” (p.199). Through international mission work, missionaries attempt to bring a political theology of neoliberal capitalist development to places like Afghanistan. As such, they become willing—and ambitious—collaborators in US imperial projects. In a section on “Military Promises,” Erin Fitz-Henry offers an ethnographic account of life in and around the US Air Force base in Manta, Ecuador. Fitz-Henry explains that while this was the largest US Forward Operating Base in the Western Hemisphere, US airmen and many locals alike viewed the base as an Ecuadorian national project, alerting us that some imperial practices are “in fact fundamentally domestic to the countries in which they operate” (p. 271). In a section on “9/11, The War on Terror and the Return of Empire,” Darryl Li tracks the circulation of War on Terror prisoners through global carceral networks—immigration prisons, the detention center at Guantánamo, black sites, jails—to argue that empire is “often refracted through the sovereignty of other states, independent in name but enmeshed in relations of dependency” (p. 470). Attention to detainees who move through diverse juridical regimes and between different detention sites “takes seriously the suggestion that ‘empire is a moving target’” (p. 471).
The book also takes up possibilities for redress and repair in an imperial present. Soo Ah Kwon follows a group of Asian and Pacific Islander youth in Oakland as they organize to prevent the deportation of a Cambodian refugee who came to the US as a small child. As they diligently work through the democratic process to repeal an unjust law by appealing to their US congressperson, the young people come up against the failures of liberalism. Their organizing efforts force them to confront the limits of the law and the profound failures of imperial accountability; as they realize that the “neoliberal state is an imperial state” (p. 412). In a discussion of prosecution and thin reparations following the Mohawk occupation of sacred land in Canada, Audra Simpson asks: how can justice be rendered “in such a tight spot, where politics are predicated upon a disavowal and a simultaneous dispossession” (p. 74)? These dilemmas force us to reckon not just with the grinding and continuous violence of empire, but also with what Simpson calls the “cunning and masking language of reconciliation—a settler absolution” (p. 85). When empire organizes both structures of harm and liberal gestures of repair, true decolonization requires a reckoning with how empire is sustained in the present, through affective, material, juridical and political patterns and structures.
The work gathered in this volume highlights, albeit unevenly, that US empire is both a racial project and a settler project. As Ann Stoler writes, the collection is “an effort to capture how racism is folded through the contemporary history of the US” (p. 486). This volume gives us a sense of empire as both pervasive and specific, even though the connections between the different modes of empire assembled here—settler, counterinsurgent, military, capitalist—are, necessarily, blurred. Although the book includes few writers who explicitly seek to theorize the relation between space and power, it might be read as an extended meditation on scale: how geopolitics saturate intimate politics; how infrastructural violence comes to reside in bodies. This book complements an emerging canon on race and police power, in which policing is a kind of violence that exemplifies the translation of imperial power across scale. As Nikhil Pal Singh writes, it is the slippage between policing and war that sutures racist (and race-making) inner war with imperial outer war (2019: 67). As such, Ethnographies of U.S. Empire might be productively read alongside a growing literature on policing, empire, and war, such as Marisol LeBrón’s Policing Life and Death (2019) and Stuart Schrader’s Badges Without Borders (2019), which also seek to connect policing to imperial circuits of war and occupation.
This is a book about empire as a sprawling and plural project. It augments and ethnographically elaborates on the insight that, as Schrader succinctly puts it, “Empire is not a thing or a territory. Empire is a social relation.” This book makes a case for what ethnographies of empire may offer us: a sense of these social relations, a glimpse at how people inhabit and endure worlds saturated with imperial debris, and, hopefully, an analysis that might enable us to rework our imperial presents.
Immerwahr D (2019) How To Hide An Empire: A History of the Greater United States. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
LeBrón M (2019) Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland: University of California Press.
Lutz C (2006) Empire Is in the Details. American Ethnologist 33(4): 593–611.
Schrader S (2019) Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. Oakland: University of California Press.
Singh, NP (2019) Race and America’s Long War. Oakland: University of California Press.
Williams WA and Bacevich A (2006) Empire As A Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.
Emma Shaw Crane is a doctoral candidate in American Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. Her ethnographic research investigates the urban and suburban aftermaths of counterinsurgency in the Americas.