Laura Doyle


Dear Colleagues,

This abstract is drawn from the opening pages of the book I’m completing, provisionally titled The Inter-Imperial Condition. I will adapt some version of these pp for my contribution to the collection. At this stage, it’s for conference circulation only. I look forward to our conversations!  Laura

Between States

[from the Introduction to The Inter-Imperial Condition]

Vying empires have defined the conditions of life on earth for millennia, and for millennia persons and communities have endured, subverted, and maneuvered among empires. Each empire has been shaped by others, and a community suffering under one empire is often affected by the others. Underlying all of these situations is the existential condition of relationality itself.

For, like persons, polities form relationally. Both persons and polities form in contingent relation to other persons and polities; none has a singular, a priori independence to revive or defend. We might recall that a state’s claim to sovereignty must be recognized by other states to exist or have force. Moreover, most empires, nations, kingdoms, and villages depend materially on trade, a relational condition. Even an embargo expresses a negative relation.

Humans and states originate within this relational condition—as is clear when we recall, as so few theories do, that a person’s physical survival depends from birth on another person who brings sustenance from the material world. Both states and persons emerge within a volatile, uneven, and fundamental relationality in which each survives by necessary relations of care or alliance that are interwoven with microphysical and macropolitical relations of coercion and domination. Persons and states are born plural, in other words—they are co-produced and thereafter co-formed, despite all disavowals to the contrary.

Dialectics begin here. That is, as I will argue in my current book-in-progress, they begin with this radical and historical interdependence that is strenuous, and often precarious or dangerous. 1 These relations are always already structured by political histories embedded in material habitats, bodies, and institutions. G.W.F.

Hegel’s “lord and bondsman” arrive late on this scene. When Hegel positions their engagement as the original intersubjective moment, much gets erased in one stroke.2 For his story of labor has no women in it (of a piece with his denigration of non-European peoples). Yet without women’s labors as well as men’s, there is neither lord or bondsman in the first place. Alternatively, to include women in these struggles is to begin to craft a sound philosophy of relationality grounded in historical conditions. This is not to say that the primal scene begins with innocent mother and child. Relationality is not purely benevolent; it has no pure origin. We could say that it rests on a foundational practice of feeding, clothing, and harboring, yet these may be enacted amid stinging blows, or comforting embraces, or vacillating swerves between them. These dynamics are repeated among adults and between communities. We sometimes call them international relations.

Born into this historical world of mutual, unevenly structured, and volatile relationality, we survive by way of necessary relations of care pressured by conditions of coercion and domination. Our life on earth might be described not strictly as competitive engagement over scarce resources but rather as a “microphysics” of contingent survival and inter-positionality that we undertake with-and-against others at both micro- and macro-levels. These relations take the form of multi-lateral engagements among persons, states, and other material “forces.”3 As I will outline at more length in the book’s introduction, these dynamics continuously transform all participants, even as their patterns accrue over time into material and ideological conditions that shape future interactions. I sometimes refer to this dialectical model as horizonal, meaning that it considers the full 360 degree “horizon” of multiple, simultaneous, cumulative interactions.4

The book develops a dialectical theory of political economy and culture centered on this condition of radical relationality, tracing its historical formations within the structures of imperial co-formations.5 Although other thinkers have occasionally used the term inter-imperial–Hobson and Lenin understood the field of vying empires as a key early twentieth-century phenomenon–I develop it as a geopolitical and philosophical concept for analysis of long-historical dialectics. In my usage, inter-imperiality names a sedimented, geopolitical field of being created by the long-historical, violent patterns of plural, interacting empires and by interacting persons moving between and against empires. The “inter” of inter-imperiality thus refers to relations among empires and to relations among those caught between empires. In thinking through the inter-imperial and existential co-formations of states, economies, cultures, and persons over a longue durée, I hope to offer what Alker and Biersteker once called an “integrated dialectical theory.” 6 With the benefit of the last several decades of feminist-intersectional theory, I enfold some of the backstories missing in their account, which are colonial, gendered, race-d, class-ed, and embodied. Drawing on the central feminist insight that states regulate the sexuality and labors of women so as to control the reproduction and production of states–including a polity’s racialized class hierarchies–I consider gender pivotal in the inter-imperial field of relations. This pivot operates at the core of many of the literary texts analyze in the book, though not always intentionally on the author’s part.

Within this dialectical history, discourses of sovereignty take on a different cast, with implications for the use of this term among current critical theorists. Insofar as the notion of sovereignty assumes an originary condition of autonomy, it carries forward a certain romance, often a gendered romance, with the idea that subjects, states, and kin communities exist a priori, before messy dependencies and mixings. There are practical, sometimes urgent reasons for embracing a strategic concept of sovereignty, as with similar uses of a strategic essentialism. Yet it remains true that these pragmatic discourses risk reinscribing the politics they contest. Claims to empowerment through discourses of sovereignty thus sometimes continue to express, I’ll suggest, what Pradip Kumar Datta has called “imperial subjectivity,” whose investments, he argues, have affected postcolonial visions as well as colonial projects.7 That is, past imperial attachments have sometimes shaped liberatory nationalist movements, in which activists (most often men) rally around “their” “civilization,” celebrating it as superior to and stronger than that of the colonizer, in the process often eclipsing the coerced labors of women and racialized workers. Such is the psychic force of an inter-imperial unconscious fed by gendered dreams of “strong” autonomy.

By contrast with notions of autonomy, sovereignty, or radical freedom, when we think in terms of radical relationality, keeping in mind what Judith Butler calls precarity, we may analyze the crimes of states, capitalists, sovereigns, and persons in terms of their disavowals of this relationality rather than in terms of their crimes against originary, autonomous, sovereign states or persons. We might then conclude, in a variation on Jean-Paul Sartre, that this disavowal of relation constitutes bad faith, and we might consider it the fundamental violence. We would then need to follow Simone de Beauvoir to acknowledge the historically gendered beginnings of both relationality and bad faith. We would likewise need to enfold insights from intersectional theory that pinpoint the utter interdependence of racial, class, religious, and gender formations, installed at the very site of birth and care-taking. And doing so we would move more readily past the still- persisting binaries of self and other, as well as theories of “the” subject or “the” state. We could then rethink existential freedom not as “freedom from” or “for” anything, but as the difficult burden of acting within this not-yet-wholly-determined terrain, of making ethical choices as we navigate within this fraught interdependence. Finally, we might then speak not strictly in terms of respect for sovereignties or individuals, but also of respect for conditions of relationality. The guiding ethical principle would be a refusal to do violence against that primal yet difficult envelopment, which Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the flesh of the world. 8

This book’s dialectical theory of inter-imperiality rests on ground-breaking studies of economies, states, and cultures outside Europe and before its rise, undertaken by a range of humanists and social scientists. This scholarship allows us to flesh out the set of relations that have given us that historical package—and threat–of networked, systemic relations often called modernity. These studies challenge the very concept of modernity, however, if by modernity we designate a distinctive historical period originating with the expansion of northern European power and influence outside of Europe. For the data uncover “modernizing” material, political, economic, and cultural formations during so-called medieval periods in Afro-Eurasia and the Americas. They establish that northwestern Europeans were confronted with these sophisticated systems via Mediterranean, African, and meso-American empires and scrambled in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to emulate and retool them, as they sought trade and standing in the larger geopolitical economy. They did not invent the modernizing project, much less the institutions, technologies, and finance practices that supported it.

Drawing on this evidence, I argue first that it reveals that these world systems and economies have developed specifically through the competitive, warring interactions among empires and through the maneuvers (variously shrewd, resistant, creative, competitive, and peaceful) of those living among them. Second I propose that attention to these forces deepens our conception of the political-material terms of our relationality. That is, the historiography clarifies the inter-imperial positionality of historical actors, which by now, in the twenty-first century, includes all of us to some extent. This position “between” imperial states has for many centuries entailed strategic, often creative maneuvering in a field of complex relations.

Literary and other arts have been a key mode of navigation in the inter-imperial field, offering instruments of intervention, accommodation, dissent, and reflection. Literature operates both as a primary, structural element of political economy and as a mediating superstructural or “psychological” element. The book highlights the ways that literary and other arts at once arise from and dissent from the world’s imperial economies; and in turn have become reservoirs of a sedimented political consciousness—that is, an inter-imperial political unconscious, to adapt Fredric Jameson’s term.9 My analysis tracks both the direct entanglement of artists and intellectuals in empire building—for instance, as palace architects, temple sculptors, court poets, or manuscript translators—and their indirect, sometimes subversive interventions, whether through quietly coded imagery or openly displayed graffiti, manifestos, and parodies. Across this spectrum, authors and texts typically evince an ambiguous mixture of attachment to imperial worlds and alienation from those worlds, sentiments also shaped by gendered subjectivities.

In these discussions of aesthetics, I hope to clarify their importance for social-science scholars of political economy and also open new angles of vision forhumanists linking aesthetics and political economy. In particular, as Theodor Adorno clarified, artistic forms often self-reflexively hold up and re-enact, in a “negative” dialectical engagement, the very processes and limit-conditions that have produced them.10 In these ways, the arts have intervened pointedly and actively, working to heighten (if not critique) audiences’ consciousness about the aesthetic forms that mediate or define their relations to the world. They call audiences to notice the social or political stylizing of our being-in-the-world. They thereby dramatize the audiences’ entanglements, including those of members of the critical intelligentsia working in institutions whose forms were long ago co-created by interacting states, as the book describes in Chapters One and Two.

I also turn in this book to literature, specifically, because in both oral and written forms it often dramatizes the nuances of relational dynamics, closely naming the bodily “microphysics” of intersubjective exchange, including what Sara Suleri has called “colonial intimacies.”11 That is, works of literature often delineate the everyday yet subtle dynamics of power—the body as world-system node and circuit, to use Antoinette Burton’s formulation–capturing these more acutely than do historical documents, sociological data, or theory. Literature thus enables a close-grained exploration of what sociologists call the agent-structure relation, for example. The “evidence” literature offers is not a factual “representation” of history (for it typically stray from facts), but it is rather a laying-bare of the forms and dynamics of our lives. Or to put it another way, literature renames and renarrates the terms of our relationality. Literature thereby creates a perceiving space in which readers and listeners may, at least inwardly, loosen attachments to the powers that be and to the terms of relationality those powers decree. In one parlance we might say literary texts disperse a certain mindfulness about attachments and disavowals. In another parlance we might say they hold out materials for a philosophy of history.

1 My thinking about relationality is indebted to decades of feminist and intersectional political philosophy, reaching from Gayle Rubin, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua to Seyla Benhabib, Gayatri Spivak, Drucilla Cornell, Carole Boyce Davies, Judith Butler, and many others.

2 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 111-119.

3 Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (Vintage Books, 2011). “Microphysics” Foucault’s word in Discipline and Punish.“Being-with-and-against’ is a variation on Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “being-with” Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009). “Forces” is one of Hegel’s key terms, which I enfold here to foreground the political thrust embedded in his discussions of force (Hegel 1977: 79-103).

4 For earlier formulations of this concept of horizonal dialectics, see

Laura Doyle, “Toward a Philosophy of Transnationalism,” Journal of Transnational American Studies 1, no. 1 (2009). And Laura Doyle, “Colonial Encounters,” A Handbook of Modernisms, eds. Peter Brooker, Andrzej Gasiorek, Deborah Parsons, and Andrew Thacker (Oxford University Press, 2010).

5 See J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1902), and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline (New York: International Publishers, 1939). More recently, scholars such as A. G. Hopkins, “Rethinking Decolonization,” Past & Present 200, no. 1 (2008), 211–247, and Tarak Barkawi, “Empire and Order in International Relations and Security Studies,” The International Studies Encyclopedia 3 (2010) 330 have used the term inter-imperial occasionally, though they focus on recent history.

6 Hayward R. Alker and Thomas J. Biersteker, “The Dialectic of World Order: Notes for a Future Archeologist of International Savoir Faire,” International Studies Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1984) 121-142. 7 Pradip Kumar Datta, “The Interlocking Worlds of the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa/India.” South African Historical Journal 57, no. 1 (2007) 35–59.

8 Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard University Press, 2015). and Judith Butler, “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics,” AIBR 4, no. 3, (2009). Also see Butler on Arendt and sovereignty in Sovereignty in Ruins: A Politics of Crisis , eds. George Edmindson and Laus Mladek (Duke University Press, 2017). For Sartre, see Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (1948), Part 1 Ch 2. For de Beauvoir, see Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Parshley (1952). and Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Frechtman (1948). For Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and Invisible (Northwestern University Press, 1968).

9 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Cornell University Press, 1981).

  • Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
  • See Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish for term microphysics. See Sara Suleri, “The Rhetoric of English India” (University of Chicago Press, 1992) on colonial intimacy.

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

My research tends to survey the terrain of relationships within which literature gets created. I’ve felt an urgency to investigate the engagements, especially across racial, gender, cultural, and geographical lines, that produce the themes and genres of literature. How does that field of relations with its long-historical energies shape what’s performed or written?  And how do these creations in their turn reinforce, reimagine, or redirect the histories that have produced them?

Currently, as reflected in this conference and in my current project (The Inter-Imperial Condition), I’m interested in taking fuller stock of layered, interacting imperial legacies, including those that predate Europe’s rise.  This project entails noticing how, in any one period and also accruing over millennia, life has been shaped by multiple interacting empires.  Literary traditions evince these conditions of production; and recent authors have retooled these traditions as they navigate in the contemporary inter-imperial world.  In this context, I’m committed to understanding authors as historical actors whose imaginative work has dialectical effects in the world.

Provisional Sketch of Essay:

I’m brooding on a possible essay in which the translation of texts or artifacts plays a central part, serving to reveal the dialectical workings of art and aesthetics in (de)colonial politics.  This might include attention to the long history of imperial translation projects. I’m quite interested in considering a collaborative essay.  For instance I’d be interested in working with someone who has a specialty in a global south or far eastern political economy and language, possibly combining their expertise with a literary, translation, and/or inter-imperial orientation.