Zainab Bahrani Abstract

The Biopolitics of Collecting: empires of Mesopotamia

Zainab Bahrani
Columbia University, New York

Since the 1980s much of the focus of collecting studies has been on trajectories of objects and their careers within contexts of imperial domination and displays. This paper offers an alternative interpretive frame for the analysis of collecting as imperial practice by opening it up beyond the explorations of commodities and material objects, exoticism and cultural capital. Instead, it calls for thinking about collecting as a biopolitical technique, and makes the explicit theoretical claim that imperial collecting practices can be understood along the lines of biopolitics. As its historical case studies, the paper explains practices of collecting in the Neo Assyrian and Babylonian empires of Mesopotamia, and the Persian Achaemenid Empire that followed them. These ancient practices, the best and most extensively recorded in antiquity, bring to light the vital connection between bodies and things, people, objects and places as relations that are both operational for and inscribed within the techniques of sovereign power. Rather than thinking of them as exceptional practices limited to the ancient past, we might consider if they might be recognised as constitutive of collecting and its systems of movement and exhibition.