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“The Devil's Handwriting”: Precolonial Discourse, Ethnographic Acuity, and Cross-Identification in German Colonialism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2003

George Steinmetz
University of Michigan
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A polarization has emerged in the field of colonial studies. On the one hand, many writers describe colonialism as a direct, inexorable product of Orientalist or precolonial racial discourse and pay little attention to “social” phenomena such as capitalism, the state, and social class. Other analysts assume that cultural discourse is the product of supposedly more foundational economic or material factors. Historians in the second group explain colonial policies in terms of imperialist economic and political interests, strategies of resistance and collaboration among the colonized, precolonial social structures in the periphery, or other “quasi-objective” phenomena. Both schools tend to ignore the role of properly psychic processes in the constitution of colonial regimes, although this has been the focus of Homi Bhabha's psychoanalytic interventions in (post)colonial theory (1994). The lack of integration of materialist, culturalist, and psychoanalytic approaches in the colonial literature echoes broader oppositions that structure the human sciences today.The essays in Steinmetz (1999) exemplify some attempts to overcome the artificial separation between culturalism and materialism in studies of the state. Landmark theoretical interventions that reintegrate the social and cultural levels include Bourdieu (1977), Bhaskar (1979), and Laclau and Mouffe (1985). The need for a reintegration of the psychic into social theory has been argued forcefully by Zizek (1989, 1991) and Elliott (2000).

Research Article
© 2003 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History


The phrase “the devil's handwriting” is from the title of the memoirs of Paul Rohrbach, Um des Teufels Handschrift (literally “Of the Devil's Handwriting”; 1953). Rohrbach was a key figure in post-1904 German Southwest African politics and a prolific German colonial propagandist. His title referred to the Treaty of Versailles, however, and not to precolonial racial discourse. Rohrbach found the phrase in George Kennan's lectures on American diplomacy (1951:63).