Review of “The Scripts of Alberto Pollera, an Italian Officer in Colonial Eritrea”

Sorgoni, Barbara. 2007. “The scripts of Alberto Pollera, an Italian officer in colonial Eritrea: administration, ethnography, and gender” In Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European imperialism, and the politics of knowledge. Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (eds). 285-308 pp.

By Myriam Tardif


This chapter, by Barbara Sorgoni, addresses Italian colonialism in Oriental Africa that lasted approximately 50 years. The author tries to demonstrate the need to acknowledge the links between ‘professional’, i.e. academic, anthropology and colonial power. She argues that the distinction we make between professional and pre-professional anthropology obscures the continuity between ethnographic genres and the relation that anthropology had to the different colonial administration. Anthropologists should take an historical move, in her opinion, by accounting for the extra-academic and extra-disciplinary influences on the constitution of the discipline. One of the way that could be done is by uncovering the homology between colonial and academic discursive patterns, such as proto-relativism or proto-functionalism. She constructs her argument in two parts. First, the importance of examining the links between administrative practices and professional anthropology, characterized by a division of labor of the production of ethnographic data. Second, to understand the creation process of discontinuous ethnic identities on the part of administrators and ethnographers.

She does it by examining the public and private life of Alberto Pollera, an Italian colonial administrator and civil judge that lived in Eritrea for about 20 years or more. In his writing, Pollera recognize the fact that his ethnographic knowledge and descriptive style, a ‘deeper knowledge’ gained through years of living amongst the “indigenous population”, was reflected in his administrative practice. He opposed strongly physical violence, but couldn’t see the violent nature of the civilizing mission, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm, in which he was taking part. In fact, he was very clear that this deeper knowledge of the native customs and ‘traditions’ should be used to enhance management and control techniques of the population that were colonized by the Italian Empire. One of the consequence of such “better and more humane, because softer” disciplinary techniques was to essentialize differences and to reinforce the segregation between two groups ‘on the field’. Another exemple of that, is the manipulation (or construction) of ‘traditions’ to reproduce relations of power. When dealing with gender issues, the fact that he mirrored the Italian (patriarchal) vision of justice, just reproduced and reinforced some kinds of power over others (those of the elder, rather than those of the women). We could say similar things on this point, like the application of racial laws that were reinforcing white supremacy and the evolutionist paradigm of the fascist Italian state. Hence, we can say that even if his work was not acknowledge by academics, it still had a profound impact ‘on the field’.

Sorgoni points to the complex nature of the articulation of Pollera’s personality and the fascist nature of the Italian colonial context, by underlying the hybrid nature of the colonial texts he was producing. In fact, there seems to be many contradictions between what Pollera was writing publicly and how he behaved in the private. Was he took under an impossible double-bind, by being in an inter-ractial union, and having had children, and being at the same time under the umbrella of a fascist regime that was forbidding such unions because of racist laws.

Two questions that needs to be addressed concerning this is; would it have been different if Pollera had been a professional anthropologist? How and why? It is also interesting to reflect on political role or impact of “relativism” today and of relation between the academic political economy to its historical context. What does it mean that we are so prompt to excuse behaviors of people in the past and we still use today a similar form of the “proto-relativistic” rhetoric, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm? Based on these questions, we had very interesting discussions in class that I will try briefly to sum up here.

First of all, like Bourdieu is doing in the sphere of academic production and reproduction (1988), it is interesting to look at how we create standards of professionalism; what makes it an amateur or a professional practice? Hence, a similar division of labor necessarily influences the type of anthropology being made, because of its relation to what is being studied. Your understanding will be different if you get your data from books that from long-term relationship with people, one of the reason explaining this being issues of translations. Of language, yes, but also of meta-communication (how do you interpret the data in the books without the proper context?). We can after that question the standards of ‘professional ethics’. In the context of the Imperial university (Chatterjee and Maira, 2014), who does the ethics protects? Is it to protect the integrity of participant, with regard to the politics of representation, or is it rather to protect the institution from legal pursuit? And how does national ethos influences those different degrees and standards of professionalization? Is there only one anthropology, in the continuation of the liberal project of a global and deterritorialized world, or is there still multiple anthropology that are in fact bracketed by the politics of the imperial border? To answer this question, one could draw from the implication of doing anthropology from within the fascist Italian empire, but it seems much more easier to understand the relation of anthropology to its context when it is in the past. How do we understand the relation of anthropology to the American empire, in relation to the ‘war on terror’ or to the transition toward ‘police states’, linked to the neoliberalization of everything. And this ties back to my second question relating to relativism and its link to current anthropology. I’ll finish my text today with a last question; is relativism a product of the colonial encounter?



Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Chatterjee, Piya and Sunaina Maira (Eds). 2014. The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


The Reproduction of Anthropology

REVIEW : Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Homo Academicus. Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit. 317p.


Bourdieu is interested in this book by constructing a reflexive analysis of the reproduction of domination and of symbolic violence into the field of university. He based his analysis on empirical observation of the May 1968’s crisis and of 20 years of participation in the field. His exercise is then one of ‘objectification’ of the familiar, where his goal is to understand the symbolic class struggles of agents in the university (including himself; he wants to classify the classifier), determined by their habitus.

If his model is true, then who am I? Am I predicable, is my ‘destiny’ predestinated? Or is he trying to create a comprehensive system – with him at the center – of something intrinsically unknowable (here I don’t talk about the academia, but the reproduction of power)? Don’t get me wrong, his reflexive analysis and his attempt of objectifying empirical realities is impressive and contributes in great and diverse ways to the academic knowledge of academic praxis and of the reproduction of power and domination. However, if every agent is the product of its position in the field, at what extent Homo Academicus (1984) a product of his? It becomes quickly circular. This is the challenge of every research project when you do start by accepting the fact that every research project is the product of someone and is not just ‘out there’. My concern is not really about the veracity of his argument, but rather in the possibilities of application of his model (because this is what he is arguing for). Can everything fit into this web of significance that he is constructing, and at what extent? Can we transform every meaningful experiences and processes that one encounter in her life into an indicator? And where does conversations, reflections, friendship or trauma fits? How can we explain those who behave contrary to what they were supposed to? Can we even explain or objectify everything by creating complex concepts of it? Are there questions without answers? Those are few of the question marks that I’m left with after reading Bourdieu’s book.

Nevertheless, many concepts or analysis echoed with my embodied experience of navigating through academia. One of the most interesting to me, and at the same time conflicting, is the way he draws on the relation between individuals and structures. The important for him is not empirical individuals. The question is not ‘who’s who’ or who is the villain and who is the ‘good guy’ in the story. It is much more interesting to understand the structures of power and different relations that ties together epistemic agent, meaning the person characterized by their social position and role in the larger frame. That is why Homo Academicus is not the personal tale of Bourdieu’s path towards academia – although in some context that tale would have been interesting too. In that way, it removes agency as we know it from the individual, but also the responsibility and the idea of benevolence. Meaning that even if some individual have good will or good intention, it will still not be sufficient to change the shape of social relations of power in the field. That is powerful. It doesn’t mean that individual have no agency, but that we have to understand it as the range of potentialities of action inside a certain web of constraints and relations (that is, not much).

How does Homo Academicus relates to the production of knowledge in anthropology? Well, according to Bourdieu, a lot of what fuels the reproduction of the body and of symbolic power is based on aspirations, hopes and expectations. That is, the hope to gain or to maintain a certain position in the field. That implies that you vow a certain recognition to the institution; let’s say in this context to the discipline of anthropology itself, represented by a body of ‘professor emeritus’ and of great scholars. You will have to struggle in the field to gain the necessary cultural (or political) capital to be able to rise into the ranking list (calculated by quantitative indicator, like citation indexes, etc.). That means that teachers and scholars will potentially be incline to go for self-censorship, either in publications or while teaching. Like Bourdieu presented with the example of the May 1968’s crisis (chapter 4), to preserve the body of the field, sometimes it is necessary to enlarge it; but you have to do it while still conserving the body. Meaning, we want more student in anthropology, hence we will present it as an essential discipline who contributed greatly to society, but we can’t alter its content too much as to dissipate it. The result of that, is obligatory classes that are supposed to represent the core of the discipline that are focused on the ‘by-hearth’ learning of dead racist and evolutionist theorist (our great Fathers!), with still ‘cultural eras’ classes and (in some department, like at Université de Montréal) a mystic bow to the four disciplines (archeology, bio-anthropology, linguistics and ethnology). There is a weird relation between fundamentalism and modernism (exemplified by Bourdieu with the Picard vs. Barthes debate (149)), where just like in the liberal social contract one is expected to kill his Father, but then you are supposed to create a new contract with your ‘siblings’. This leads us to questioning the possibilities of critique inside the field; are the new scholar interested in ‘changing the system’ or to secure their own position? How could they secure a position in the field if there were no more field? “Il n’y a pas de maître sans maître”[1] (127), meaning that you couldn’t become great if no one greater was there to recognize (authorize) your position.

Do we really need anthropology? And if yes, why? Is the maintenance of anthropology as a discipline more important to empirical individual (to secure their position in the different fields of power and their jobs (or aspirational career)) or could it really be used or benefits to a greater good (and which) ?

Then again, to conserve the body, a lot of energy will be spent in rejecting bodies from it. The greater moment of purification will mostly happen in the first year of the BA in anthropology (what I am saying? The greater moment of purification happen before the end of high school. Quebec is the province in Canada with the highest rate of students leaving high school without a degree. The rate of student obtaining their high school degree by cohort is between 65 and 75%[2]). No question that University is an institution that is reproducing an ‘elite’. But on what motives are we ejecting student from the reproduction of the discipline anthropology? Bourdieu would say that we base our judgment not only on the contribution or the quality of the ideas of a student, but on the student as a “personne totale”[3], hence on his ethos and hexos. The reproduction of domination and symbolic violence is therefore not to be understood as a mechanic system supported by rational agents, but rather as “des agents socialisés qui, quoique biologiquement individués, sont dotés de dispositions transindividuelles, donc portés à engendrer des pratiques objectivement orchestrées et plus ou moins adaptées aux exigences objectives (…) »[4] (195-196). Meaning that the reproduction of domination is historically situated and reproduce the exclusion of certain types of bodies on axis of structural and systemic oppression such as sexism, racism, ableism and classism.


[1] « There is no master without a master », my own translation.

[2] « Diplomation et qualification au secondaire » In Statistiques : Ministère de l’éducation, de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche. Gouvernement du Québec, 2015. Accessed March 16th 2015:

[3] « total self/total person », my own translation.

[4] « (…) socialized agent, that may be biologically individuated, but that are possessing transindividual dispositions, hence, that are inclined to produce practices that are objectively orchestrated and more or less adapted to the objective requirement (…)”, my own translation.

Review of Gumbs’ “Nobody Mean More”

Alexis Pauline Gumbs. 2014. “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity”. In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 237-259). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

In this chapter, Gumbs offers us a beautifully written discussion on the politics of solidarity from within the imperial university. She uses a palimpsestic approach to do so, hence mixing the form and the content to demonstrate the links between poetry, solidarity and the critical discourses on becoming and relating as decolonizing tools. A palimpsest is an old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced by a new one. Hence, I think that what Gumbs means when she says she is using a palimpsestic approach, is the fact that she uses archives of writings of Audre Lordre and June Jordan, both very important black feminists form the 60s/80s decades, to make a link between the possible analogies of both these experiences and contemporary issues (and analogies, there are!). She is then trying to think about what it means to be, or to become, nobody in a university whose purpose is to produce assimilated bodies consenting to empire. This is not an argument that she is making, but rather an observation, based on the requirements one has to fulfill in order to climb the hierarchical stair of the academy, but also the transformations one as to go through in order to fit in those spaces. We can talk of a phenomenological process of discipline, à la Foucault (2014), where one is shaped and is shaping others relationally. She argues that Lordre and Jordan’s teaching was queer because “it interrupted the reproduction of existing norms for a new population of students perceived as deviant to the city and to higher education. They practiced what Glissant would call a “counterpoetic” approach, using spaces designed in service of the colonial project to protest that same project, with varying levels of success” (242). In that way, they refused to contribute to the policing and management of the postindustrial underclass, when they were hired specifically to teach them English composition, or rather composition in the sense of moulding those “new bodies” entering en masse higher education and colleges in order to assimilate and participate in the imperial society, “the lettered city” (Rama 1996).

In order to contextualise the work of Lordre and Jordan, Gumbs frames their experiences in the wider context of population control (or racial management, as we read earlier in Pulido’s chapter) that happened simultaneously through the education system and the prison industrial complex (including police brutality). Why? Because the racialized population in New York, for example, where “not at all composed” (243) and related to the state through protests and education. Hence, to order the disorder, the administration of the city created an open admission policy that changed the demographic of the schools (even the Police School, leading to the employement of Lordre), but also of the prisons. Because “integration” in the imperial society or schools does not come without a cost. And more often than not, it comes with police brutality (and other kinds of policing and disciplining) in order to impose the public ecology to the “deviant bodies”.

Gumbs discusses different specific event or experiences where the poetry of both teacher created space for new pedagogy and for anti-imperialist solidarity work. I sadly will not have the space to write about all of them, but I would like to underline one part. It is the murder of 10 years olds Clifford Glover, in 1973 in Queen, by Thomas Shea, a white police officer  who shot him in the back while saying in his radio “Die you little motherfucker” (245). Shea was later acquitted in his trial. That story (nearly made me cry) led her to write the poem Power and to reflect on police brutality, loyalties and relations, when she herself teaches in the school that formed Shea. But “what is composition in the face of genocide?” (246), says Gumbs. A powerful answer will come from Lordre’s solidarity work during the Grenada’s US invasion. Gumbs reflects on it in a very inspiring way : “It does mean recognizing when we are nobody and when we are somebody in relationship to imperialism” (251), because relations of (and to) power are incredibly complex.

Gumbs is calling for dialogic discourses of the construction of race, where she privileges “becoming black” vs. “being black”, because it acknowledges the process and distances itself from the discourses of purity and of an “official narrative” (255). That opens for a politics of accountability of black women to Lebanese and Palestinian in front of US imperialism and colonialization, because “Becoming Palestinian is an acknowledgement of the fact that the discourse through which racially different groups of people become expendable is a discourse with a shared precondition” (255). It also opens the door to Jordan’s creation of Black English classes when she argues that the act of poetry can “produce the people” (253) and (try) to overcome centuries of traumas and structural violences.

Their proposition is to work toward the creation of new ways of relating, not mediated through object, but rather through poetic and magic, being able to create a “we” and to moving toward home, as in a collective transformation of being and relating. What does that mean for anthropologists today? Like I said in my previous review of Oparah on this website, it means that we have to transform ourselves in “negative workers” (Schepper-Hughes 1995), but also that we actively (materially and discursively) challenges the relations of power in which we are embedded, by being race, sex and class traitors. As Ignatiev (1997) once put it, “the point is not to interpret whiteness, but to abolish it”.  That doesn’t mean to be able to “check our privileges” or to police ourselves into the politically correct way of writing and speaking. This discussion is not meant to gain more social capital by gaining activist, ally or purity points, but like Gumps argues it is “to enable the becoming of the world we want to share” (251). Concretely that means inventing new ways of being, of becoming and of relating to (interpersonally and structurally), but also to oneself. For scholars and anthropologists, it also means creating knowledge production tools that are accountable and reflexive. This is not an easy path, it takes time, and implies a lot of pain, hard work and discomforts – and we are not even sure of potential results -, but I do believe that the path is worth it since alongside it we may learn and experience incredible adventures and friendships.

Work Cited

Foucault, Michel. 2014 [1975]. Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de La Prison. Paris : Gallimard.

Ignatiev, Noel. 1997. “The Point is not to Interpret Whiteness but to Abolish it”. Cambridge: Race Traitor – Journal of the New Abolitionism.

Pulido, Laura. 2014. “Faculty Governance at the University of Southern California”. In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp.148-165). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Rama, Angel. 1996. The Lettered City. Durham: Duke University Press.

Schepper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The primacy of the ethical: proposition for a militant anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3). 409-420

Review “Challenging Complicity” In The Imperial University

Oparah, Julia C. 2014. « Challenging Complicity: The Neoliberal university and the Prison-Industrial Complex » In Chatterjee, Piya and Maira, Sunaina (Eds.), The Imperial University. (Pp.99-121) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Julia C. Oparah, a feminist activist and a professor at the Ethnic Studies department of the Mills College (and also a member of the collective Critical Resistance), is arguing in this chapter that a symbiotic relation has arisen between the academy and the prison-industrial complex. She is calling for anti-imperialist scholars to pay greater attention to the challenges and complicities of this alliance, in order to “work toward the abolition of the academic-military-prison-industrial complex” (99).

She begins by stating 4 ways in which carceral dependency ties university to the political economy of prisons. First, When universities receives money that are linked to the prison-industrial complex, it benefits all the institution, not just the department to which it was given. Second, the role of US higher education in spreading the mass incarceration model across the globe, as a result of (cultural and material) imperialism. Then, the legitimization of state killing and violence as a rationale in front of threat, with “retributive justice” in wars, which reframes dissent as crime and prison as servicing the empire. Finally, “universities and colleges educate a global knowledge elite who will become the “prison wardens” – literally and metaphorically- of the nonuniversitied majority and produce technological advances that permit the use of incarceration on a massive scale as a solution to the social ills and unrest caused by the globalization of capital and military repression worldwide” (108). Obviously, enrollment in the academia is not a protection and if you revolt or critique, your privileges will be revoked and you will too enter the “criminal class” (let’s just think about the 4500 students, teachers and others who were arrested during the Quebec’s 2012 student strike. Their trials are just beginning now.) She adds that schools and prisons are mutually reinforcing by the culture of discipline, surveillance, and presence of army recruiters in schools that often results in a “school-to-prison” (109) or “school-to-war” pipelines for young people of color in US.

Finally, she analyses the academic-prison-industrial complex by presenting 4 functions that creates a mutually reinforcing relationship between higher education and mass incarceration. A) Universities often have investments in the prison system, hence more prisoners mean more profits for shareholders. The corporatization of the academia embeds it to the political economy – because of their relations with private services that also works in the prison systems (like Sodexho that are well-known in the Quebec’s cafeterias).  B) Universities produces an educated work-force for the prison-industrial complex. C) Prisons are often used as a source of data for universities and academic research, whereas prisoners are still very much used as objects of research and experiments rather than being the subjects of their own narratives. D) Universities are a major (re)producer of the carceral logic (by producing knowledge that legitimizes penal technologies or tries to make it more “humane”), hence academics may not be just complicit with, but are also sometimes a very constitutive part of it (even if overlooked).

If I hadn’t been sick last friday, I was to ask in class two questions that are great topic of discussions amongst scholars. First, what should be the role of the scholar? Is it enough to produce knowledge or should we acknowledge that scholars are not “outside of the world” and then that they should take action in it. But then, an action towards what? Participating in the context of our ethnographic research or actively engaging in the transnational/international/larger global political context (I don’t think this is an either/or question)? What does it mean? How do we avoid an interventionist approach putting the scholar in the “savior” spotlight to rather take the position of the “negative worker” (Schepper-Hughes 1995) in order to, as Oparah suggests it, confront the complicities of academia with systems capitalizing on the incarceration and surveillance of racialized of marginalized populations. Second, there is now a great popularity with the idea of a collaborative anthropology. Working with the people… but its methods or ethics are not thoroughly defined. With whom shall we collaborate and at what end? If we frame the research designs or our project with collaboration, where does it stop? Collaborating with our participants, with activists… but what about the FBI? Or in the context of the prison-industrial complex, what if we are already collaborating with a structure that is at the same time working to incarcerate a part of the people with whom we work? How do we challenge complicities and collaboration? Should we stay blind to this reality to keep the scholar privileges that may be helpful elsewhere, but then, what will be the ethical value of this work?

Towards a post-carceral academy and the abolitionist movement

Following this idea, Oparah is calling for a post-carceral academy and the abolition of the academic-military-prison-industrial complex. But, she says, the solution is not just the production of more radical knowledge, since after all knowledge is just another commodity. Her position, coming from an abolitionist perspective, is to challenge the materiality of the militarization and the prisonification of the academia (meaning, not just confronting ideas, but political stands, divestments, challenging some collaborations, etc.), which involves also the confrontation of the corporatization of the academia and its links with the neoliberal economy (well represented in Quebec by the political project of the “austerity measures” and budget cuts in the public services). That asks for a) a material collaboration with insurgent/activists and community organizers, b) an anti-racist democratization of higher education and c) the use of our scholar privilege for radical collective transformation.

Those are very interesting propositions, and I hope they can materialize, but it is easier to say than to do. For example, a major social strike movement against neoliberal measures and the “austerity project” is currently under organization in Quebec, but Concordia is very slow in following the movement. Especially when our student association – SAGSA – refuses to hold political general assembly or that the administration refuses to send an invitation to the anti-austerity Concordia Teach-in (2-7 February) to the department (

Ps. For those interested by Oparah’s proposition, please attend the events of the Month against Prison in Montreal (until feb. 7th) to meet other abolitionist activists:



Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The primacy of the ethical: proposition for a militant anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3). 409-420