In this issue authors address the question of how putatively universal rules—imperial dictates, state laws, economic regimes, and consequential categories of social life like “religion,” “the market” and “indigeneity”—are translated into local vernaculars and adapted to local sites and singular needs. The process is rarely without friction, resistance, cost, or contest. To take a hydraulic metaphor, the essays offer a comparative viscosity of the force and limits of
flow. When standardizing classifications infill regional uses and users, what sorts of detours, dams, floods, and muddied waters follow? What new springs irrupt?
Theories have histories and spatial locations. Certain foci of anthropological or historical reflection are, unsurprisingly, beholden to specific regions: spirit possession and postcolonialism gathered in relation to Africa, and India; revolution, to France, the U.S., Haiti, and Russia; territoriality and spatial semiotics to indigenous groups of the Americas or Australia; “ethnic nationalism,” to Germany and Eastern Europe; creolization and transculturation, to the Caribbean. These geo-theoretical productions inflect and act recursively on and in the lives of social actors who inherit them in those sites, and who live in their sediment.
Class structures define and constrain but, other than as a heuristic or second-order analytic, they never stand free and apart. Class is practiced—activated and embedded in everyday acts, in bodies and words as well as in institutions and regimes of rule and exchange.
Thing theories, object-human recursion, and materiality already seem familiar and domesticated. All to the good, as it’s often not until the fickle winds of theoretical fashion shift that the most serious work can begin. We are still just scratching the surface in discerning and understanding the agencies or other capacities of things, and their limits—whether theorizing them, understanding their implications from different disciplinary perspectives, or documenting their configurations in the world. Many of this issue’s essays undertake the reckoning of things and the challenges they pose of value, risk, calculation, and commensurability. None of the essays are predictable, none follow well-worn paths.
In her essay, “The Price of Un/Freedom,” Tania Murray Li shows how contemporary oil palm plantation labor in Indonesia paradoxically reproduces, often under the rubric of market “freedom,” key features of Dutch colonial labor regimes. Labor regimes are the assemblages that set the conditions of work. They include materials, spaces, schedules, tools, food, conditions of social reproduction, and the rules of reward and punishment. Labor regimes establish the axes of freedom and “unfreedom,” which Li works out in careful ethnographic and historical detail from 1725 to the present. Too much freedom leaves labor overly mobile, and unprotected in terms of the conditions of social reproduction; too little freedom leaves stunted lives of indentured or contract labor, forms resembling slavery.
Knowledge is generated through comparison, setting things in relation to assess similarity and difference. Indeed, language itself works through comparison, as Saussure showed in lectures given in Geneva over a century ago, and very likely this is true of all human thought. While CSSH’s founding mandate is comparison, and every issue juxtaposes essays in a comparative frame (not least through the kind of editorial fiat represented in this Foreword), single articles that actually hazard a comparison between two or more entities are rare. Articles that both do this and simultaneously reflect on methods of comparison are even less common.
It was only two decades ago that scholars across multiple disciplines announced the demise of the nation-state, both empirically as the central institutional channel of power, and heuristically as an indispensable social science variable. How premature that now seems in the light of subsequent events including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the extension of U.S. state power to a network of clandestine torture camps; the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine; the recent “Brexit” vote and the rise of right-wing nationalist politics across Europe; the surge of state-based forces of cyber-espionage and warfare, and countless other examples. The essays in this issue are less about states per se than about their margins and interstices.