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Infrastructures of Race

Infrastructures of Race
Concentration and Biopolitics in Colonial Mexico

With case studies that link practices of concentration to the emergence of new racial categories, this groundbreaking book convincingly argues that race was a product of, rather than a starting point for, the spatial politics of colonial rule in Latin America.

Series: Border Hispanisms

May 2017
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
232 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 8 b&w photos |

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.


2018 Latin American Studies Association Mexico Humanities Book Award

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Before the Camp
  • Chapter 1. Congregation: Urbanization and the Construction of the Indian
  • Chapter 2. Enclosure: The Architecture of Mestizo Conversion
  • Chapter 3. Segregation: Sovereignty, Economy, and the Problem with Mixture
  • Chapter 4. Collection: Imperial Botany and Racialized Life
  • Epilogue. Primitive Racialization
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Ann Arbor, MichiganNemser is an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan.



Before the Camp

Race is traditionally thought about in terms of people, but ultimately (and originally) its politics becomes comprehensible only when it is contemplated in territorial terms: race is always, more or less explicitly, the racialization of space, the naturalization of segregation.

joshua lund, the mestizo state

On February 10, 1896, a shipcarryingthe Spanish Captain-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau docked at the port of Havana, where it was received with enthusiastic applause by crowds loyal to the Spanish empire. Cuban insurgents had declared independence from Spain the previous year and taken control of much of the countryside. Within a week of his arrival, General Weyler issued what would become an infamous decree, ordering civilians living in the rural areas of the eastern part of the island to report to the nearest city with a garrison of Spanish troops within eight days. There they would be housed and protected from what Weyler later called the “Black insurgent gangs” (negradas insurrectas) in towns newly ringed with barbed wire and defensive trenches.1 Soldiers would then comb the countryside, destroying everything that had been left behind. Anyone who refused to comply would be considered an insurgent and summarily treated as such. Soon the same order was applied to the rest of the island. Between 1896 and 1898, Weyler’s policy of reconcentración uprooted half a million civilians, and the starvation and disease it precipitated were responsible for the death of more than 100,000, about 10 percent of the total Cuban population at the time. Casualties were so high that there was nowhere to bury the dead, and contemporary photographs capture mountains of bones piling up in the island’s cemeteries.2

Weyler’s camps failed to win the war for Spain, but in a way they succeeded far beyond his expectations. For many scholars, from historians to philosophers, this episode in Spanish colonial history marks the birth of the concentration camp.3 From there, it was rapidly adopted and deployed by other colonizing powers around the world before circling back to Europe. Weyler himself observed in his war memoir that the British and Americans who had voiced the strongest criticisms of his policies in Cuba later copied his model for their own use in the Transvaal and the Philippines.4 The early years of the camp are thus entangled with its Spanish and, especially, colonial roots. In his enormously infl uential book Homo Sacer (1998), the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests, in one of only a handful of references to European colonialism, that what is most important about the early “campos de concentraciones [sic] created by the Spanish in Cuba” is that through them “a state of emergency linked to a colonial war is extended to an entire civil population.”5 Yet these accounts also raise an important question. If (Spanish) colonialism was the camp’s condition of possibility, why would it have emerged only at the end of a long colonial project that had already endured over four centuries?

Infrastructures of Race answers this question by tracing a genealogy of concentration back to the early decades of Spain’s colonization of the Americas. Rather than some nefarious deus ex machina descending from the rafters to rescue Spain’s dying imperial project, concentration had long served as one of the primary techniques of colonial governance in the Americas. The sixteenth-century conquistadors carried with them a Renaissance conception of the world that viewed the social order as intimately tied to the spatial order. Over the centuries that followed, the colonial authorities repeatedly returned to the promise of collecting and organizing human and nonhuman objects within architectural and urban space as the key to effective governance and a well-ordered population. When General Weyler deployed the campo de reconcentración in 1896, then, he was not inventing something new but drawing on a dense repertoire of forms and practices of concentration that had been developed and deployed under colonial rule since the sixteenth century.

From early on, the concentration of bodies was also intimately tied to a politics of race. As Joshua Lund sets out in the epigraph, race is as much a question of space as it is a question of people and populations. Space is the grid of intelligibility that gives race its form and makes it legible, even thinkable. As a literary critic, Lund is interested in the contributions of the Mexican literary tradition to the process of racialization in modern Mexico, which is rooted in the division of material resources as supported by the deployment of institutional violence. Race is everywhere in this corpus, he writes, “from Lizardi’s El Periquillo Sarniento onward.”6 Though initially published just before political independence, this serial novel often stands in for some of the earliest glimmers of the emergent Mexican nation. But the intersecting politics of race and space do not begin with the project of national formation. It was during the colonial period that many of the operative categories that show up in the texts examined by Lund, from “Indian” to “Mestizo” and beyond, first began to be elaborated.7

Consider the Indian. This category is unquestionably central to the way race is conceptualized in many parts of Latin America today, not only because of the large indigenous population in countries like Mexico but also because the Indian is always already implied in the conventional discourse of mestizaje (racial mixing), which generally presumes a mixture of European and indigenous ancestry. As we all are well aware, this label is based on a geographic mistake— a confused Christopher Columbus was certain that he had reached Asia, when in fact he was still halfway around the world in what today, also as a result of his profligate naming practices, we call the Caribbean. The label was also a mistake in that it lumped together enormous human diversity into a single, homogeneous category. But the fact that it was a mistake did not prevent it from becoming naturalized. What makes it possible for an error of such magnitude to endure over so many centuries, even through revolutions based precisely on the rejection of those who first applied the name? How does it come to be not only institutionally codified but also subjectively lived? Through what mechanisms, in other words, does racial ascription produce material effects?

Today it is no longer controversial to discuss race in terms of “social construction.” The social construction framework initially emerged as a response to the long-dominant assumption that racial difference was primarily rooted in real, biological variation. Measured in terms of its diffusion in both the academy and popular culture, this response has been quite successful. But social constructionism can obscure as much as it clarifies. At times, for example, it appears to cast race as illusory, operating strictly at the level of representation. Other versions either implicitly or explicitly distinguish between two levels or instances, in which a discursive or ideological veil is draped over some preexisting, objective base. While critically analyzing and highlighting the constructed character of positive or negative meanings that may be attached to particular identities, this approach still takes for granted the fact of “difference” itself as a “natural” foundation onto which representations are, more or less accurately, grafted. In this way, racism is reduced once again to an epistemic error, based on ignorance or prejudice. Antiracist practice thus turns to correcting these representations, better aligning them with the objects they seek to represent, and affirming these identities and the difference they embody.

This book lays out a different argument. At the outset, I assume that race is not reducible to any prior or preexisting identity. It is not a starting point but an end product, the result of a process called racialization. The racialization processes that began with the Spanish colonial project were routed through a politics of space. That is, not only did race become thinkable in the colonial context primarily through spatial disciplines like natural history, cartography, and urban planning, but racialization took place in part through physical interventions in the landscape. These colonial infrastructures constituted the material conditions of possibility for colonial rule, but they also, I argue, enabled the emergence and consolidation of racial categories through both ascription and subjectifi cation. Specifi cally, infrastructure projects organized around the concentration of human and nonhuman objects created new proximities that allowed “groupness” as such to emerge. What Lund calls “the naturalization of segregation” requires a racially ordered space, and that space had to be built before it could be forgotten.

Rather than investigate the surfaces of colonial formations of difference—how contemporaries perceived identity, how bodies were marked, how otherness was represented—this book turns instead to what I call the infrastructures of race, or the material systems that enable racial categories to be thought, ascribed, and lived, as well as the systems of domination and accumulation these categories make possible as a result. I use the word infrastructure in two overlapping senses. First, what often goes unexamined in theories of racialization are precisely the material dimensions of these processes, the concrete forms into which they congeal and the things on which they depend. Drawing on new scholarship on infrastructure in fields like anthropology, history, and geography, I argue that racialization in colonial Mexico was made possible in part by the construction of more or less durable structures like roads, walls, ditches, buildings, boundaries, and towns, into which both human and nonhuman objects were concentrated. These interventions wove together and organized colonial territory and facilitated the composition of differentiated groups that, over time, became naturalized. While concentration is most commonly associated with confinement, it also depends on and makes possible certain forms of mobility. In colonial Mexico, the people and things that were targeted for concentration had to be displaced from one site to another, and these relocations activated new fl ows of people, commodities, and ideas across local, regional, and transoceanic networks. In this way, concentration combined both confi nement and circulation.

Second, without disavowing the negotiability of colonial hierarchies, this book foregrounds the limits of human agency and explores racialization as a structural component of colonial domination and global capitalism. In other words, I suggest that race itself may operate as a sort of infrastructure, a sociotechnical relation that enables the ongoing functioning of specific machineries of extraction and accumulation. While infrastructure is conventionally viewed in terms of physical objects, theorists of infrastructure in the global South have advanced a notion of “people as infrastructure” that extends to the productive and reproductive effects of systems of social relations.8 By analyzing race in terms of the “work” it does rather than the form in which it appears, this approach foregrounds historical continuities over ruptures.9 Global capitalism was thus forged not only through violence and destruction—what Karl Marx describes as “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force”—but also through affirmative forms of power that produced new social relations and racialized subjectivities. The history of primitive accumulation “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fi re,” then, but also in bricks and paving stones, categories and classifi cations.10

Paradigms of Race

In admittedly broad strokes, there are currently two major paradigms for addressing the question of race in colonial Latin America. The first is the decolonial paradigm, which has recently become infl uential among scholars in a wide variety of disciplines, although less so among historians. This critical work turns on the concept of the “coloniality of power” (colonialidad del poder), first elaborated by the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano in the early 1990s. Coloniality refers to the Eurocentric matrix of power that constitutes, in the words of Walter Mignolo, the “darker side” of modernity. The modern/colonial world was inaugurated with the conquest and colonization of the Americas, but it did not end with political independence. According to Quijano, it was organized along two intersecting axes. The first was the construction and naturalization of the idea of race as a “mental category of modernity.” Initially race emerged through the distinction between colonizers and colonized, but it soon came to rest on “supposed differential biological structures.” Over time, color gradually came to stand in as emblematic of racial identity. In this way, race constituted not only a tool of social classification but also a mechanism of domination, such that different identities were inscribed within social hierarchies. The second axis was the formation of a new mode of economic relations capable of articulating multiple forms of labor control into a single world system. Slavery, serfdom, and wage labor were for the fi rst time bound together by production for the world market. Thus, for Quijano, capitalism is defined not by the hegemony of wage labor but by the articulation of variegated relations of production within a single totality.11

At the intersection of these historical processes was the colonization of the Americas. It was there, argues Quijano, that for the fi rst time “a systematic racial division of labor was imposed”: Indians were transformed into serfs, Blacks into slaves, and Spaniards into wage laborers and independent commodity producers. In this way, the “inferior” races were associated with unwaged labor, while the “superior” race, and indeed whiteness itself, was linked with the wage—as well as with institutional power within the colonial administration. As European colonization expanded, moreover, the colonial matrix of power was extended to other parts of the globe, and in every case “each form of labor control was associated with a particular race.”12

Although this approach aims to provide an account of the colonial construction of race that is both epistemic and material, it nevertheless leaves us with a number of unresolved questions. It is true, for example, that Indians had to perform forced labor, but by the middle of the sixteenth century this labor, though forced, still had to be remunerated with a wage—a low wage, certainly, but a wage nonetheless. And what of those who were racialized as neither Indians nor Spaniards but as Mestizos? Here Quijano is not clear. At times he seems to suggest that Mestizos were slotted into the general pool of the unwaged along with Indians and Blacks (“the unpaid labor of Indians, blacks, and mestizos”), while elsewhere he implies their incorporation into the wage (“in the eighteenth century . . . an extensive and important social stratum of mestizos . . . began to participate in the same offices and activities as nonnoble Iberians”).13 Is the argument that a shift took place between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, such that Mestizos were initially excluded from the wage but later brought into the fold of salaried whiteness? If so, what accounts for this change? In many ways, the confusion seems to be built into the model itself, since there were simply not enough rungs on the economic ladder to correspond to the racial classifications that had emerged by that time.14 In general, this static model cannot account for how racial ascription takes place or why the racialized meanings it produces change over time. At the same time, the material aspect of coloniality has tended to drop out of the picture, especially as the concept has been taken up by other scholars.

This shift away from materialism is especially notable given the chain of theoretical debates on questions of development and the nation in Latin America out of which it emerged. Quijano’s theoretical points of reference were, in the first place, Marxist thought, above all that of the Peruvian thinker José Carlos Mariátegui, whose foundational text Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928) engaged critical questions around the legacy of Spanish colonialism, the “problem” of the Indian, and the centrality of land; second, debates about “internal colonialism” within newly independent nations, as formulated by Pablo González Casanova and others in the 1960s and 1970s; third, concurrent debates about Latin American dependency and dependency theory; and fi nally, world-systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein.15 Coloniality is clearly marked by all of these debates, yet at the same time constitutes a break or departure from the political economic logic in which they were framed. For Quijano and others, coloniality is primarily a matter of epistemology. As such, modernity replaces capitalism as the operative analytical category, with Eurocentric knowledge now constituting the object of decolonization or “delinking.”16 Importantly, this shift from capitalism to modernity coincided with a historical moment in which Marxism seemed to have entered into terminal crisis.

Over the last two decades, in parallel to the concept of coloniality, a second, historiographical paradigm has emerged. In this vein, many scholars have begun to reconsider the operations of race and racial classifications in colonial Latin America. Situated for the most part within the discipline of history, this literature initially appeared in response to an important body of scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s that tended to treat race as if it had a constant, transhistorical, and therefore relatively transparent meaning. A telltale sign of these assumptions was the uncritical treatment of colonial census data; the “caste versus class” debate, which sought to demonstrate the primacy of one category or the other, proceeded largely on the basis of statistical measures drawn from such sources.17

Taking on such assumptions as anachronistic, recent historiography has called into question the applicability of modern notions of race in the colonial period. Among many other topics, scholars have examined the experience of identity among elite and subaltern populations; questioned the extent to which racial difference in fact served to divide heterogeneous plebeian populations; reconsidered racial imagery from the eighteenth century, disaggregating often compelling visual representations from the reality of social control; traced the transatlantic reconfiguration of late medieval Iberian notions of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), largely rooted in discourses of Jewish and Muslim identity, as they came to configure the racial hierarchy of the so-called sociedad de castas (society of castes) in the Americas; and highlighted how gendered assumptions about colonized populations and the sexual economy of reproduction contributed to early modern understandings of blood and heritability. It is now clear that the colonial matrix of identity was organized around not only phenotypical markers like skin color but also numerous other considerations, including ancestry, legitimacy, honor, language, religion, and other cultural practices. Moreover, colonial populations were not straightforwardly subjected to racial control: they continuously and strategically rejected, modified, and appropriated these categories for their own purposes. These and other important contributions have historicized the social meanings of difference in the early modern period and clarified the dynamics of identification and contestation as they played out in everyday life.18

Although valuable for their rich empirical detail, many of these accounts employ a theory of race that suffers from two signifi cant analytical weaknesses. On one hand, some scholars have adopted a periodizing framework that turns on a historical break between colonial (early modern? premodern?) notions of difference and their “modern” reformulations, which generally coincide with the time of political independence in the nineteenth century. According to this view, difference in colonial Latin America should be understood as “cultural” (or perhaps “socioracial”) and therefore fluid. Only in the “modern” period does it become truly “racial,” meaning “biological” and fi xed.19 Yet this argument takes at face value the language of nineteenth-century race scientists without acknowledging the complexities of racial thought even during that period—it is, as the medievalist David Nirenberg observes, to remain “bedeviled by the fi ction of true race.”20 Especially in the case of Latin America, for example, dominant theories of race in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries drew more heavily on Lamarck than Mendel, and as a result the belief that environment plays an active role in producing heritable traits was common.21 More generally, the distinction between a colonial idea of difference resting on culture (often referred to as casta) and a “modern” idea of race resting on biology obscures the ongoing importance of culture as well as other factors like class, genealogy, geography, and religion in more contemporary racial formations. In the end, this periodization imposes an equally anachronistic reading of “modern” race as the one it attempts to resolve for its colonial counterpart.22

On the other hand, the emphasis on the fl uidity of identity in colonial Latin America has resulted at times in a tendency to downplay the structural character of race. By privileging descriptions of difference and highlighting what could be called the micropolitics of race, such as the elements individuals looked to as signs of identity or the practices they adopted as tools of self-fashioning, some scholars lose track of domination. This is not to say, of course, that identities were entirely fixed or that negotiation did not take place. But no system of domination is absolute, and the exception, as they say, may also prove the rule. Generally speaking, tribute was in fact collected, forced labor was in fact performed, and innumerable people were in fact made to die, as we will see, before their time. These forms of coercion were distributed in large part on the basis of race.

While I draw on certain elements of each paradigm, then, this book lays out a new approach to race in colonial Latin America by shifting from epistemology to materiality, and from difference to domination. From this perspective, race no longer appears primarily as an attribute or property of a particular body but as an effect of the material practices of power. In departing from a descriptive approach to race, I am following a recent move by contemporary theorists of ongoing racism in the wake of what Howard Winant calls the “racial break” of the post–World War II era. If race and racism continue to structure the world system today—and there can be no doubt that they do—they cannot be reduced to the domain of biology or skin color, since these frameworks have largely (though by no means entirely) receded under the hegemony of liberal and neoliberal multiculturalism.23 In the era of what some theorists have called “neo-racism” and others “color-blind racism,” categories such as class, culture, nationality, gender, and sexuality are not only co-constitutive with but indeed can be mobilized to stand in for race.24

For the purposes of my argument here, what is especially striking about these formulations is how resonant they are with the early modern categories of difference that the historiographical paradigm has worked so hard to isolate. If it does make sense to talk about a strictly biological regime of racial truth, and I am not convinced that it does, then it would have to be consigned to an exceptional period, bookended on either side by the primacy of what are otherwise relatively continuous “stigmata of otherness.”25 What we are left with is a reversal of the key claim of the historiographical approach—there is, if anything, more resonance between the mechanisms of racial domination of the present moment and those of the early modern period, not less. In my view, it is precisely these through-lines to which scholars and critics, especially those interested in antiracist praxis, must attend.

Critical race theory has elaborated more flexible accounts of race that can acknowledge changes at the level of its signs—what properly “counts” as racial—without ignoring important continuities at the level of domination. Such an analysis must go beyond epistemology. According to Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s infl uential “racial formation” framework, race acquires meaning through a sociohistorical process of struggle between multiple racial projects, which serve as a hinge between cultural representation and social structure. In other words, these projects articulate “an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics” with “an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines.”26 Put somewhat crudely, we might say that racial projects do the ideological work of linking the economic base to the cultural superstructure. This is a valuable account of racial domination that is simultaneously constructivist and materialist, grounded on the processes of accumulation and redistribution that contribute to the construction and dismantling of racial groupings. Yet by focusing on the distribution of already existing resources, this model not only seems more appropriate for assessing the contemporary struggles of social movements vis-à-vis what Omi and Winant call the racial state, but more importantly cannot capture the full extent of the materiality of race, because it leaves out the constitutive role of violence.

From this perspective, the materiality of race would have to be framed not only in relation to resource competition but also and crucially as a concrete relation to death. In making this claim, I am drawing on the work of critics like Nikhil Pal Singh and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, whose assessments of the violent machineries of racialization, though rooted in the contemporary United States, have helped me conceptualize the mechanisms by which this process both conceptually and materially inscribes race onto bodies in other contexts as well. “The racialization of the world,” writes Singh, “has helped to create and re-create ‘caesuras’ in human populations at both the national and global scales that have been crucial to the political management of populations. . . . To understand this, we need to recognize the technology of race as something more than skin color or biophysical essence, but precisely as those historic repertoires and cultural, spatial, and signifying systems that stigmatize and depreciate one form of humanity for the purposes of another’s health, development, safety, profit, and pleasure.” Similarly, for Gilmore, racism should be understood bluntly as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Race is thus the result of a system of domination that, vampirelike, extracts the life of some in order to make others live better.27

Framing race and racism in terms of the uneven distribution of vulnerability is helpful for three reasons. First, it invites us to consider race broadly. These formulations do not attach race to a limited set of signs, for example, but refer instead to the production of “forms of humanity” and “differentiated groups.” Although this work is historically and geographically specifi c, then, it opens the door to comparative spatial or temporal approaches to race that are attentive to both continuities and disjunctures. Second, it pushes racial analysis away from the sphere of difference and toward a relation of domination. If race is a matter of making some people die more in order to make others live better, then it has to be read through specifi c repertoires of material practices. Antiracism can no longer be a question simply or primarily of affirming and celebrating those forms of difference that have traditionally been looked down on, as some forms of identity politics would have it. Third, Singh and Gilmore frame the violence of racialization in terms of not only the production of differentiated groups but also the difference between what is or has been, on one hand, and what could be or could have been, on the other—not death but premature death. This is a slow violence that adds up over time, by which the conditions of the everyday conspire to make life always just a little bit more constrained. It is a violence against actual bodies, to be sure, but also against their potential, against what might otherwise be. Premature death is thus an open question, an invitation to imagine a world beyond racial domination.28

What does not enter into the framework proposed by both Singh and Gilmore, and what an analysis of Spanish colonialism contributes to this discussion, is the flip side of vulnerability. If the roots of modern biopolitics are found in the Christian pastorate, as the following section suggests, then we also have to be attentive to the structures of care that shaped the practices of colonial governance. Spanish colonialism, as José Rabasa reminds us, was predicated not only on the hate speech of conquest but also on the “love speech” of peaceful colonization, evangelization, and protection.29 Both discourses involve racial ideologies and give rise to racializing projects of ascription and subjectification. In colonial Mexico, the production of group-differentiated vulnerability—that is, the process of racialization—generated forms of disposability as well as paternalistic care, premised simultaneously on conversion and extraction. These were two expressions of a single modality of power, to which I now turn.

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.30

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.”31

Although Foucault’s work is almost entirely centered on Europe, as many critics have observed, this is one of the few points where he addresses the question of colonialism explicitly: “Racism fi rst develops with colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide.” To the extent that it is subsequently transferred to Europe, racism serves as a paradigmatic example of the “boomerang effect” by which material practices of power tested in the course of colonization are returned to and deployed in the metropole.32 Taking this argument seriously means considering the biopolitical formations that began to emerge prior to the nineteenth century, and certainly prior to the rise of the paradigmatic biopolitical state in Nazi Germany.33 Indeed, Foucault seems to acknowledge as much. “I am certainly not saying that racism was invented at this time,” he writes in reference to the nineteenth century. “It had already been in existence for a very long time. But I think it functioned elsewhere.”34 This colonial “elsewhere” is the specter that haunts Foucault’s work.

Yet space seems to disappear from Foucault’s work at almost exactly the moment that the biopolitics of population emerges. Admittedly, he is somewhat ambiguous here as well. His 1977–1978 lecture course, Security, Territory, Population, begins by considering the material ways in which sovereign power, discipline, and bio politics have historically organized urban space. Yet territory quickly drops out of his analysis. By the fourth lecture—the famous “governmentality” lecture that would be popularized in English long before the publication of the full course—the initial conceptual organization has been recast, the category of “territory” replaced with that of “government.” The logic of this move registers clearly in Foucault’s pivotal reading of Machiavelli, in which he argues that sovereignty operates primarily over territory and only secondarily over the people who inhabit it: “The territory really is the fundamental element both of Machiavelli’s principality and of the juridical sovereignty of the sovereign as defined by philosophers or legal theorists.” In contrast, “government in no way refers to territory. One governs things.” Like the pastoral power from which they emerge, governmental techniques are thus increasingly exercised over a flocklike web of relations. Although Foucault attempts to give nuance to this historical formulation, just as he affirms that the emergence of positive forms of discipline and biopolitics did not mean the supersession of the negative modality of sovereign power, he does not return to the subject of territory in his lectures.35

One reason Giorgio Agamben’s rereading of Foucault is helpful here is precisely that it returns to the question of space. Drawing on the work of the political theorist Carl Schmitt, Agamben lays out a metaphysical account of sovereignty that turns on the concept of the state of exception. In Political Theology (1922), Schmitt defi nes sovereignty on the basis of the capacity to decide on the exception, that is, to suspend the normal legal order. In this account, the state of exception is fundamentally a temporal category, although it is not necessarily temporary—in fact, Schmitt claims that the exception is always already embedded in the liberal constitutional order. Yet in his later work, primarily The Nomos of the Earth (1950), Schmitt begins to approach the question of sovereignty and the exception in spatial terms. There he argues that the international order that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was based on the consolidation of territorial states in Europe. The jus publicum Europaeum, in other words, made possible a “bracketing” of war between equivalent sovereigns. However, the production of this “internal” stability depended on the displacement of war to Europe’s constitutive outsides, namely colonial space. Deemed juridically empty, this space “beyond the line” became available for occupation and was constituted as a zone where the only law was force. The shift in the form of the exception from a temporal to a spatial category decenters the fi gure of the sovereign, whose capacity to decide on the suspension of the rule is so central in Schmitt’s earlier writings. In the sphere of imperial sovereignty, the decisionist paradigm is replaced by a depersonalized formation of sovereignty rooted in the ordering logic that gives the space of modernity its meaning.36

Agamben acknowledges Schmitt’s analysis of the space of exception and even attaches it to the New World, “which was identifi ed with the state of nature in which everything is possible.”37 Yet he does not follow through on the provocative implications of Schmitt’s thesis linking the sovereign exception to colonial space. This thread is only later taken up by Achille Mbembe in his important work on necropolitics. By foregrounding both racism and colonialism, Mbembe expands on the work of Foucault and Agamben and clarifies the spatial underpinnings of any biopolitical regime. A global distribution of those who must live and those who must die is always already at stake in the consolidation of a politics based on the management of life and death. Likening colonial space to the frontier, he writes that “the colonies are the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of juridical order can be suspended—the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of ‘civilization.’”38 The convergence of space and race, the colony and the savage, is the flip side of the jus publicum in Europe.

Mbembe is most helpful here for conceptualizing the relation between biopolitics and space because his analysis ultimately delineates the construction of colonial space as a historical process rather than an ontological determination. Colonization is not merely the occupation of space but also its radical reorganization. Referencing the late modern occupation of Palestine, he explains:

The writing of new spatial relations (territorialization) was, ultimately, tantamount to the production of boundaries and hierarchies, zones and enclaves; the subversion of existing property arrangements; the classification of people according to different categories; resource extraction; and, finally, the manufacturing of a large reservoir of cultural imaginaries. These imaginaries gave meaning to the enactment of differential rights to differing categories of people for different purposes within the same space; in brief, the exercise of sovereignty. Space was therefore the raw material of sovereignty and the violence it carried with it.39

What does “the writing of new spatial relations” look like? How— through which mechanisms—is space territorialized? Beyond conquest and military occupation, beyond the production and circulation of representations (travel writing, cartography, and so on), and beyond legal procedures and sovereign decisions, the production of territory must also, if not primarily, be understood as a process that intervenes in and shapes the landscape in material ways. Mbembe examines, for example, a number of specific techniques used by the Israeli state to “splinter” Palestinian space. A great deal of the everyday violence of occupation is aimed at dismantling infrastructures— tearing up roads and airport runways, demolishing electric grids, destroying waste disposal systems, and so on. But occupation also has a productive dimension, which includes the construction of strategic walls as well as Jewish-only roads, bridges, and tunnels that produce a three-dimensional network integrating settlements in the occupied territories into Israel proper. In other words, the territorialization of colonial space is fundamentally a question of infrastructure.40

Located at the intersection of space and materiality, infrastructure refers to the material conditions of possibility for the circulation of people, things, and knowledge. Although infrastructure has long been an object of technical study, over the last two decades the concept has begun to receive critical attention in a growing number of other fields, including anthropology, history, and geography.41 This new scholarship has generated a number of important insights regarding infrastructure’s peculiar character. For one thing, there is the issue of visibility. What distinguishes infrastructure from technology is its tendency to become normalized and fade from view, operating just “beneath” (infra) the surface of the phenomenal world while facilitating the operations on which that world depends. Through this assemblage of pipes, tubes, cables, wires, and tunnels fl ow the energy, water, waste, and data that enable, shape, and regulate the practices of modern social existence. Thus the commonplace that infrastructure becomes visible only when it fails—these enabling conditions abruptly acquire an immediate and inescapable presence precisely because of their absence.42

Additionally, infrastructure is a relational concept. What appears as infrastructure—what disappears from view—necessarily does so in relation to specific subject positions or practices. What constitutes infrastructure for some, facilitating their circulation through space, may constitute an obstacle or object of attention for others. The anthropologist Susan Leigh Star points to the example of a person in a wheelchair, for whom “the stairs and doorjamb in front of a building are not seamless subtenders of use, but barriers.” Similarly, for the indigenous laborers forced to perform the dirty and dangerous work of cleaning out Mexico City’s canals, as discussed in chapter 3, these hydraulic systems were far from invisible. This differential experience of infrastructure also becomes apparent with regard to formation of communities. Infrastructures are learned, and the habitual practices that congeal around them are themselves constructive of collective norms. If familiarity can generate a shared sense of belonging to a community of users, engaging with unfamiliar infrastructures can yield the unsettling sense of being out of place.43

To be clear, infrastructure can serve not only as a signal of identity or belonging—not knowing how to use a particular system immediately marks one as an outsider—but also as a condition of possibility for the emergence of groupness as such, engendering social relations and structures of feeling. Reflecting on Benedict Anderson’s formulation of the nation as an “imagined community,” the archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen observes that what is often left out or minimized in accounts of social construction are precisely the things on which this process depends—among them infrastructural things, like “print machines, newspapers, telephone and railroad lines, roads, coastal steamers, geological surveys, post offices, national museums, stamps, maps, trigonometric points, border fences, and custom points.” When this scholarship does look at things, it largely reads them in terms of representation, as symbolic of underlying meanings. In contrast, Olsen calls for a turn to “the brigades of nonhuman actors that constitute the very condition of the possibility for such large-scale social institutions to be imagined, implemented, reproduced, and remembered.”44 By shaping social relations and facilitating the consolidation of groups, infrastructure becomes a material foundation that sets in motion, guides, and sustains processes such as the formation of national identities and, as I argue here, racialization.

What is the relation, then, between infrastructure and determination? One of the major debates within twentieth-century Marxism concerned the nature of the link between the economic “base,” or mode of production, and the diverse set of political and cultural products viewed as “superstructure.”45 Marx’s views were far more complex than is often assumed, but the point is that architectural metaphors served to organize a social imaginary on the basis of an array of objects that were understood as either supportive or supported, either determining or determined. From the late nineteenth century on, “infrastructure” began to appear in French Marxist literature as a “somewhat incorrect” translation of the German word basis originally employed by Marx.46 This metaphorical usage, however, fl at-tens infrastructure’s ambiguous character. By binding people, things, and knowledge into territorialized systems of production and circulation, infrastructure is both the condensation of an ideological project and a participant in the realization of that project. In other words, what we might call “actually existing infrastructures” are imagined, designed, and constructed by people and at the same time confi gure the field of possible actions and potential dispositions for human and nonhuman objects.47

In his infl uential study The Production of Space, fi rst published in French in 1974, the geographer Henri Lefebvre turns precisely to the colonial Latin American city in order to reframe the schematic division between base and superstructure. In general terms, he argues, space is not an empty container or neutral platform on which social processes are straightforwardly staged, but itself a product of historically contingent social processes. Spanish colonization in particular transformed American space through an array of specifi c interventions. Yet the colonial city, Lefebvre insists, should be understood as not only an “artificial product” but also an “instrument of production,” since it constituted part of a project aimed at facilitating new modes of extraction: “A superstructure foreign to the original space serves as a political means of introducing a social and economic structure in such a way that it may gain a foothold and indeed establish its ‘base’ in a particular locality.” Certain material forms— roads, churches, ports, facades—are thus simultaneously superstructural and infrastructural insofar as they both express and enable relations of domination and accumulation.48

This duality partly explains why infrastructures, as the anthropologist Brian Larkin notes, are so “conceptually unruly.”49 If infrastructures are simultaneously produced and productive, determined and determining, critics must attend both to the processes through which they are deployed and to those that unfold as a result, as well as to their vulnerability to decay or collapse and their capacity to endure over time. This is an especially important consideration for colonial Latin American studies, since recent scholarship on infrastructure tends to privilege a limited concept of modernity rooted (as with much of the historiography on race) in the nineteenth century. No doubt this is a period characterized by post-Enlightenment liberalism, which linked circulation to progress, and by the emergence of the first large technical systems, including telegraph cables and shipping canals. But as with any periodization, this move generates certain exclusions. By the second half of the sixteenth century, for example, an assemblage of colonial infrastructures—including not only the gridded cities examined by Lefebvre but also ports and roads, way stations for llama and mule trains, dams, canals, water reservoirs for mining and metal production, and systems of standardization, among many others—was already beginning to weave Spain’s American territories into a globalized world.50 The point here is not to quibble about chronology but to highlight a structural tendency embedded in infrastructure’s material form. Infrastructure does not emerge out of nowhere but tends to cohere around the accretions that precede it. “It wrestles with the inertia of the installed base and inherits strengths and limitations from that base,” writes Star. “Optical fibers run along old railroad lines.”51 If this is in fact a tendency of infrastructure in general, perhaps the large-scale technical systems of nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernity that so dazzle contemporary scholars should not be detached from the historical foundations on which they rest. To repurpose Marx’s famous dictum, these infrastructural pasts weigh like a nightmare on the circulation of the present.52 They are a powerful reminder that certain material structures and practices can endure the vicissitudes of history and politics. And if race itself has an infrastructural function, it may continue to operate in this way as well.

This book is divided into four chapters that proceed in loosely chronological order, from the beginning to the end of the colonial period, and together trace a genealogy of concentration in colonial Mexico. Each chapter examines a paradigmatic case of concentration located at a specific junction of form and practice, architecture and technique—centralized towns (congregación), disciplinary institutions (recogimiento), segregated districts (separación), and general collections (colección). These cases are by no means exhaustive, nor are they intended to chart a narrative of superseding stages, such that congregation is replaced by enclosure, which in turn is followed by segregation and finally collection. Instead, the projects should be read as scaffolded, either explicitly or implicitly referring to, drawing from, building on, and reactivating those that came before them in the face of the contradictions generated by colonial rule. Moreover, these episodes capture a shift or expansion at the level of scale or complexity with regard to their racial effects, from the foundational categories of Indian and Mestizo in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to the emergent theories of mestizaje and (racialized) life from the end of the seventeenth through the beginning of the nineteenth. The book thus attends to the always incomplete yet nevertheless productive techniques by which colonial institutions sought to know and manage the populations under their authority and in doing so effectively racialized them.

Chapter 1 examines the policy of congregación, or congregation, as implemented during the first century of colonial rule in Mexico. The colonial authorities saw the “dispersion” of indigenous communities as one of the main obstacles to effective evangelization and extraction. As the violence of the conquest, forced labor, and disease took a massive toll on the indigenous population, the “emptiness” that had been projected onto colonial space began to acquire a material character. The response of the colonial state, supported by missionaries such as Toribio de Benavente (better known as Motolinía), Diego Valadés, and Gerónimo de Mendieta, was to resettle indigenous communities into centralized, orderly towns under the authorities’ watchful gaze. Laid out along a regular, orthogonal grid and inserted into regional and global markets, the congregation facilitated Christianization and the extraction of tribute and labor. But it also produced the infrastructural ground for the consolidation of the “Indian” as a meaningful category of identity. It was not only the violence of the conquest and the pillaging of the conquistadors that characterized the process of primitive accumulation, then, but also a series of productive interventions that reconfigured colonial space and racialized the bodies that inhabited it.

If the Indian was characterized by dispersion, the Mestizo emerged as a figure of unregulated and unproductive circulation. Chapter 2 turns to this racialization process by analyzing the practice of recogimiento, or enclosure, as developed at the Mexico City–based Colegio de San Juan de Letrán, which was established in the middle of the sixteenth century. This was a moment in which the project of evangelization was entering into crisis. Part of the problem was the difficulty that Spanish priests had in mastering the subtleties of indigenous languages and cultural practices; this obstacle was what the Colegio sought to overcome, by gathering up vagabond/Mestizo boys who were purportedly “lost” in the countryside and subjecting them to a highly regulated set of disciplinary practices rooted in a specifi c architectural space. Deemed reliably Christian owing to the infl uence of their Spanish fathers, and fluent in indigenous languages owing to their indigenous mothers, these children appeared as potential missionaries par excellence, far more effective than even the most highly trained Spaniard. Yet by the end of the century this project had collapsed under its own weight, and royal orders prohibited the ordination of Mestizo priests throughout the Americas. Enclosure could turn these children into workers and husbands, but it could not entirely erase the threat of heresy from the newly constituted Mestizo body.

Whereas the first two chapters highlight the productive work of colonial infrastructures of concentration, chapter 3 approaches the same question from the opposite direction: what happens when racial infrastructures fail? On June 8, 1692, in the context of widespread food shortages, a massive riot in the center of Mexico City left shops looted, government buildings destroyed, and the royal palace in smoldering ruins. Many colonial elites blamed the violence on drunken Indians and pointed specifically to the internal migration of the indigenous population to the city center, or traza, designated a non-Indian space, from the surrounding districts to which they were supposed to be consigned. In response, the viceroy enlisted a group of letrados (lettered elites), including the Creole polymath Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and the priests of the city’s Indian parishes, like the Franciscan friar Agustín de Vetancurt, to develop a policy of separación, or segregation, that would shore up the racial order and thereby secure colonial rule. Everyone supported segregation, but segregation meant different things to different people. Some hoped to rescue the category of the Spaniard, while others were more invested in maintaining its Indian counterpart. In each case, however, what appeared on the other side of this line of demarcation was what contemporaries had begun to call the “Plebe.” Defined by “mixture” and formally identical to the Mestizo according to the conventional theory of mestizaje today, this monstrous collective body emerges as the excess or residue of infrastructural collapse.

Finally, chapter 4 shows how concentration became a science. If active resistance had limited or undermined the viability of earlier concentration projects, other forms of life might prove more manage-able—and no less tied to the question of race. This chapter examines the paradigmatic form of concentration during the eighteenth century: the colección, or general collection. Specifically, it examines the rise of imperial botany and the establishment of a botanical garden in Mexico City, which emerged as an extension of but also in contrast to its metropolitan counterpart in Madrid. Drawing on the work of Enlightenment scientists like Casimiro Gómez Ortega, Vicente Cervantes, and Alexander von Humboldt, the chapter contrasts the spatial politics of imperial botany on both sides of the Atlantic. While the Madrid garden sought to adopt new technologies like greenhouses to facilitate the acclimatization and commercialization of plants from the colonies, the Mexico City garden took advantage of the topography of Chapultepec Hill, which contained, according to its advocates, all of the diverse microclimates found in New Spain. As a result, it seemed to allow for the concentration of the totality of colonial plant life. This increasingly calculated approach to the environment and its relation to living beings, moreover, engendered reflections on human differentiation and race. If Foucault famously argues that the concept of “life” emerged from the science of comparative anatomy developed on European dissection tables, this chapter posits an alternative colonial narrative focused on the rise of a new science of racialized life in Humboldt’s plant geography, based in part on his visits to the botanical gardens of the Spanish empire. There has never been a transcendent concept of life—it is always already racialized from the historical moment at which it begins to appear.

Concentration thus neither began nor ended with General Weyler’s reconcentration camps. The dense repertoire of forms and practices of concentration that had developed over the course of four centuries of Spanish rule in colonial Mexico specifically and Latin America more generally converged not only in the camps of late colonial Cuba but also in multiple forms deployed by the Mexican state since political independence. In the epilogue, I examine the recuperation of these colonial techniques in contemporary Mexico. From the aldeas vietnamitas (Vietnamese villages) in the state of Guerrero during the “dirty war” of the 1970s to the twenty-fi rst-century ciudades rurales sustentables (sustainable rural cities) deployed in the states of Chiapas and Puebla, the Mexican state continues to govern through the spatial politics of concentration. A counterinsurgency framework, extrapolating from the experience of the nineteenth-century reconcentration camp, can only partially explain these projects. It is the racialized discourse of vulnerability—the combination of disposability and care—that continues to characterize concentration today.


“A rich history of how race was conceptualized and materially inscribed in colonial Mexico—and a pleasure to read. The book’s contributions are manifold, and it will be in conversation with other books in the field, while expanding the discussions with which the colonial period can engage.”
Ivonne del Valle, University of California, Berkeley

“Nemser’s work will be widely read and discussed both within and outside Latin American history and cultural studies. It combines meticulous research, erudition, theoretical dexterity, and a formal elegance that allows readers to enter and engage directly with the colonial genealogy of modern biopolitics.”
John D. Blanco, University of California, San Diego, author of Frontier Constitutions: Christianity and Colonial Empire in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines