Daniel Nemser, Infrastructures of Race. Concentration and Biopolitics in Colonial Mexico, University of Texas Press, 2017.
See also radio interview with Daniel Nemser
Many scholars believe that the modern concentration camp was born during the Cuban war for independence when Spanish authorities ordered civilians living in rural areas to report to the nearest city with a garrison of Spanish troops. But the practice of spatial concentration—gathering people and things in specific ways, at specific places, and for specific purposes—has a history in Latin America that reaches back to the conquest. In this paradigm-setting book, Daniel Nemser argues that concentration projects, often tied to urbanization, laid an enduring, material groundwork, or infrastructure, for the emergence and consolidation of new forms of racial identity and theories of race.
Infrastructures of Race traces the use of concentration as a technique for colonial governance by examining four case studies from Mexico under Spanish rule: centralized towns, disciplinary institutions, segregated neighborhoods, and general collections. Nemser shows how the colonial state used concentration in its attempts to build a new spatial and social order, and he explains why the technique flourished in the colonies. Although the designs for concentration were sometimes contested and short-lived, Nemser demonstrates that they provided a material foundation for ongoing processes of racialization. This finding, which challenges conventional histories of race and mestizaje (racial mixing), promises to deepen our understanding of the way race emerges from spatial politics and techniques of population management.
Race and Biopolitics
Racialization as the politics of death cannot be detached from the biopolitics of life. According to the historical analysis that Michel Foucault first began to lay out in the mid-1970s, political modernity is characterized by the emergence of a new form of power, distinct from the sovereign power that had been dominant up to that point: “The right of sovereignty was the right to take life or let live. And then this new right is established: the right to make live and to let die.” Sovereign power, “the right to take life or let live,” is exercised by the sword. Faced with a given transgression of his law, the sovereign can decide to kill or not to kill, that is, to spare the life of the perpetrator. This is the full extent of the sovereign’s power—a negative power not over life but strictly over death. But beginning in the sixteenth century, at the “threshold of modernity,” a new form of power, borrowing and expanding on the techniques of the Christian pastorate, began to operate in conjunction with the emergence of modern capitalism. It did so first at the level of the individual, using discipline to optimize the body’s forces and integrate them effectively and efficiently into various processes of production, and later at the level of the population, intervening in abstract biological processes and rhythms in order to foster life and maximize vitality. In contrast to “taking life,” the negative capacity of sovereignty, the shift to “making live” captures the productive orientation of biopolitical forms of modern power.
But the rise of an affirmative biopolitics, deeply invested in the production of life, does not mean that the negative power of sovereignty over death declines, disappears, or becomes entirely obsolete. Although his depiction is conceptually enigmatic, Foucault suggests that this historical shift is marked by “overlappings, interactions, and echoes.” The biopolitical state never stops drawing on the techniques of sovereignty. This, importantly, is where racism comes into play. Knowledge is for cutting, as Foucault remarks elsewhere, and racism operates precisely in this way, by “introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die.” The ancient logic of warfare, by which one side confronts and must destroy another in order to survive in battle, is transformed into a new logic of biopower that operates on the basis of racial hierarchy, linking the elimination of inferior races with the improvement, optimization, and purifi cation of life in its most general sense. Death is deployed, in other words, in the interest of life: “massacres have become vital.”