The Intimacies of Four Continents

The Intimacies of Four Continents

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 10 illustrations Published: June 2015

Author: Lisa Lowe

American Studies, History > World History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In this uniquely interdisciplinary work, Lisa Lowe examines the relationships between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries, exploring the links between colonialism, slavery, imperial trades and Western liberalism. Reading across archives, canons, and continents, Lowe connects the liberal narrative of freedom overcoming slavery to the expansion of Anglo-American empire, observing that abstract promises of freedom often obscure their embeddedness within colonial conditions. Race and social difference, Lowe contends, are enduring remainders of colonial processes through which “the human” is universalized and “freed” by liberal forms, while the peoples who create the conditions of possibility for that freedom are assimilated or forgotten. Analyzing the archive of liberalism alongside the colonial state archives from which it has been separated, Lowe offers new methods for interpreting the past, examining events well documented in archives, and those matters absent, whether actively suppressed or merely deemed insignificant. Lowe invents a mode of reading intimately, which defies accepted national boundaries and disrupts given chronologies, complicating our conceptions of history, politics, economics, and culture, and ultimately, knowledge itself.


"This is a challenging book, which should be read by all those interested in the history of capitalism and the formation of the social sciences. ...There is much to enjoy in each of these chapters, especially, the dialectical interweaving of liberal conceptions and their negation, and the careful delineation of context and claim. Ultimately, however, the book is a dissection of liberalism and its fractured and fracturing presence in the modern world." — John Holmwood, Theory, Culture & Society

"Lisa Lowe’s ambitious new book is a reminder of the deft footwork now required of anyone attempting to negotiate this tricky terrain. In The Intimacies of Four Continents she aligns herself with postcolonial scholars like Ann Laura Stoler, Antoinette Burton, or Nayan Shah who have each provided a distinctive take on how ‘the “intimate” sphere of sexual, reproductive, or household relations’ served as ‘a site of empire’.” — David Glover, New Formations

"... a persuasive account of how the abstract promises of abolition, emancipation, free wage labor, and free trade did not contradict colonial rule and slavery but rather accommodated them."  — Betty Joseph, American Historical Review

"[An] important asset to anyone interested in not just themes of colonialism, labour, trade, and slavery, and of Chinese Canadian prairie history respectively, but also critical methodologies—of how to read intimately for relations between people and communities and in relation across time and space—in order to grasp the possibilities of knowing that lie among what has been assumed unknowable, erased, or forgotten." — Stephanie Fung, Canadian Literature

"Among the many fascinating contributions of the book, I found one of the most arresting to be Lowe’s suggestion in her voluminous discursive footnotes that contemporary neoliberalism, with its emphasis on 'human capital' around the world, needs to be linked with its prehistory of racialized commodification of people. For that insight alone, Lowe’s panoramic study is more than worth reading." — Samuel Moyn, Canadian Journal of History

"Reading The Intimacies of Four Continents will change the way we look at global (and national) histories forever." — Etsuko Taketani, Journal of American History

"The Intimacies of Four Continents will undoubtedly remain a touchstone text for those working...and struggling against those operations that continue to pronounce colonial divisions of humanity at once globally and in their local, regional, and differential instantiations." — Hossein Ayazi, Qui Parle

"In The Intimacies of Four Continents, Lowe proposes 'intimate reading' to overcome the division of knowledge at the heart of empire....Lowe follows [W.E.B.] Du Bois’s and [C.L.R.] James’s insights to intertwine slavery and indenture in the history of European liberalism." — Kaneesha Cherelle Parsard, American Quarterly

"[A] work crucial for thinking not only about the history of modernity and empire but also about our enduring and decisive enterprise as readers." — Harrod J Suarez, MELUS

"Lowe’s interdisciplinary inquiry covers plenty of ground, touching on literature, religion, politics, and economics, and more importantly making connections between disparate entities previously unlinked. Abounding with deep and patient research, Intimacies brings the readers new wonders on virtually every page, whether discussion of Chinese merchants in Trinidad or a chronicle of the ill-fated Sierra Leone Resettlement of 1787–91."
  — Adam Nemmers, Women's Studies

"[A]n incisive critique of the intrinsic connection between settler colonialism in the Americas, the evolution of enlightened liberal humanism simultaneously with the transatlantic slave trade, and the eventual replacement of enslaved Africans by an indentured labor force from China and India in the Caribbean Basin. In five chapters Lowe convincingly argues via a creative and contrapuntal reading of a wide array of sources and artifacts ranging from slave narratives to chintz cotton, and from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to the opium trade, that the ideal of an enlightened, free, and informed individual citizen was created on the backs of and contingent upon the creation and enslavement of racial ‘others.’" — Marion C. Rohrleitner, Pacific Historical Review

"[T]he intellectual paradigm shaping The Intimacies of Four Continents works well, and as an extended essay in critical theory it makes for a thought-provoking and plausible intervention." — Paul Giles, American Literary History

"Lowe’s study is notable for its innovative amalgamating of colonialism, the African slave trade, and Asian indentured labor to probe the ethical ambiguity of liberal ideas." — Lance Bertelsen, Modern Philology

"The Intimacies of Four Continents is an unprecedented work of literary, social, and political inquiry. Lisa Lowe patiently interweaves disparate global histories of economic and racial subjection and in the process opens up a new future for comparative literary studies both more critical and capacious. At stake in Lowe's analysis is not only a rethinking of the relation between the political and the aesthetic, but also the very ideas of culture and universality that has come to dominate academic thought." — Judith Butler, author of Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

"Lowe combines a sustained and critical interrogation of some key archival, literary, and philosophical texts with a probing analysis of the entangled histories of settler-colonialism, African slave trade, and trade in Asian goods and peoples in the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The outcome is nothing short of a world-history of liberal thought that pays unwavering attention to the coercive and discriminatory practices that make such thought possible. This is 'history of the present' in the best sense of that expression; it troubles our most familiar and intimate assumptions. A serious and remarkable achievement." — Dipesh Charkrabarty, coeditor of Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lisa Lowe is Samuel Knight Professor of American Studies at Yale University . She is the author of Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics and the coeditor of The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
1. The Intimacies of Four Continents 1

2. Autobiography Out of Empire 43

3. A Fetishism of Colonial Commodities 73

4. The Ruses of Liberty 101

5. Freedoms Yet to Come 135

Acknowledgments 177

Notes 181

References 269

Index  305
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Finalist Mention, 2016 John Hope Franklin Award

Winner, 2018 Nicolás Guillén Outstanding Book Award, presented by the Caribbean Philosophical Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5875-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5863-3
Publicity material