Miranda Spieler, "Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana" (Harvard UP, 2012)


In Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana (Harvard University Press, 2012), historian Miranda Spieler tells of the transformation of a slave plantation colony into a destination for metropolitan convicts in the eight decades following the French Revolution. Unlike the better-known case of British Australia, French Guiana failed to turn from penal colony to economically viable territory and today remains a sparsely populated overseas department of France. The cover photograph of a forested riverbank shrouded in mist evokes the continual disappearance of human settlement in Guiana. Spieler approaches this erasure not as a failure of French colonial policy, but rather as an expression and product of its design. Her book is a marvelous legal history that shows how the laws of empire shaped a colonial topography, relocated its inhabitants and played a decisive part in their ongoing destruction. In understanding laws and penal colonies as sites of experimentation, where new methods of subjugation and new subjectivities were produced, Spieler picks up Michel Foucault's seminal work of 1975, Discipline and Punish. Yet whereas Foucault saw the emergence of a disciplinary society in which the techniques of the prison were multiplied and scattered throughout society, Spieler insists on the importance of certain spaces, certain targets and certain laws. She insists on the importance of margins, of borders, of non-citizens and of the non-free. In short, she insists on the importance of colony and its imperial context in understanding the development of modern rights, laws and space. In this way, she makes a significant contribution not only to the history colonialism, but to central debates in social and critical theory. In recognition of this achievement her book won the George L. Mosse Prize for European intellectual history and the J. Russell Major Prize for French history, both of the American Historical Association.

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