From the News column of the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
What's in the October AHR?
Robert A. Schneider, October 2011
The October 2011 issue of the American Historical Review should be in members' mailboxes by the end of this month. In it they will find five articles, all of which deal with global, transnational, or crosscultural historical experiences. The issue also has three featured reviews, followed by our usual extensive book review section. "In Back Issues" draws attention to articles and features in the AHR from 100, 75, and 50 years ago.
In "Charter State Collapse in Southeast Asia, ca. 1250–1400, as a Problem in Regional and World History," Victor Lieberman confronts a question that has never been adequately addressed. Although all the principal states of mainland Southeast Asia disintegrated between approximately 1250 and 1400, historians have yet to consider why those polities, which had little contact with one another, collapsed in the same period. Even less can we explain why these disturbances coincided with severe political and social crises in Western Europe, Russia, China, and South Asia. Lieberman argues that these apparent coincidences reflected the manifold dislocating effects, in diverse local combinations, of two to three centuries of sustained demographic and commercial expansion, which in turn drew in part on the agriculturally propitious climatic phase of ca. 900–1250, known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly. In the late 13th and 14th centuries, in one Eurasian region after another, the shift from the Medieval Climate Anomaly to the far less beneficent Little Ice Age helped to aggravate mounting, but hitherto manageable, political and economic strains to the point of total rupture. Not only does this analysis demonstrate the advantages of crosscontinental perspectives in enriching local research, it also shows that as early as 1250 Eurasia was a reasonably coherent ecumene, not merely in terms of external linkages, but also of internal dynamics. By helping to identify influences and processes that transcended local context, the marginality of regions such as Southeast Asia—usually considered a barrier to inclusion in global history—thus becomes an asset to global analysis.
From this global perspective, we turn to a microhistorical context. In "Lying Together: The Imperial Implications of Cross-Cultural Untruths," Joshua Piker focuses on "the intimate, ordinary, local processes by which early modern peoples came together." His case involves a shadowy Native American figure, a Creek Indian known as Acorn Whistler. For reasons that Piker explores, both Native Americans and the British found it convenient to share a set of lies about Acorn Whistler. Although he was executed in 1752 for leading a war party that killed five Cherokees, leaders of both the Creeks and the British were complicit in concocting an identity for him as "a very great Man" and the like, despite the fact that he acted contrary to the interests of both parties. With this story, the author explores the processes by which Native Americans and Europeans mutually constructed empire. The essay demonstrates not simply that historians have overstated European and Native power, but also—and more significantly—that the fragility of power in the early-modern era allowed intimately intertwined local narratives to shape international affairs. Making sense of such a situation, Piker argues, requires a microhistory of empire, a methodology focused on both the ordinary local processes by which early-modern peoples interacted and the international implications of the transformative and translocal conversations that ensued. Crosscultural lies, in short, help reveal operating principles that shaped the imperial system.
"Anticolonial Homelands across the Indian Ocean: The Politics of the Indian Diaspora in Kenya, ca. 1930–1950," by Sana Aiyar, explores the emergence of anticolonial nationalism in Kenya in the 1930s and 1940s from the perspective of the South Asian diaspora that traversed the Indian Ocean. It examines the ideas arising from this uprooted community to show the extent to which the political postures of the diaspora were shaped by events taking place in both India and Kenya, thus arguing that "homeland" and "hostland" were never really separate. The article underscores the deeply complex, and at times contradictory, manifestations of diasporic consciousness by examining the politics of a community whose divergent religious, racial, regional, national, and class-based identities were echoed by those who represented them in the public political sphere. Previous histories of Indian nationalism have been limited to anticolonialism voiced within the territorial boundaries of South Asia, while works on Kenyan nationalism have focused mainly on African challenges to European settlers and the colonial administration in East Africa. Diaspora communities have been excised from these histories because they are assumed to be politically marginal. By highlighting the extraterritorial and interracial resonances of anticolonial nationalism articulated by Indians across the Indian Ocean, this essay presents a new understanding of diaspora. Moving beyond Jewish and African models of diasporas as communities living in exile with a desire but inability to return to their homelands, here the diasporic experience is situated in a transnational context, connecting "homelands" and "hostlands," whose politics transcends boundaries of race and nation without effacing them.
In "The Persistence of Transnational Organizing: The Case of the Homophile Movement," Leila J. Rupp examines the International Committee for Sexual Equality, founded in Amsterdam in 1951, which served as the center of a transnational movement fighting for equal rights for homosexuals in the inhospitable environment of Cold War Europe. Bringing together national homophile organizations in Northern and Western Europe and the United States, the organization created a transnational network, elaborated a homophile identity that crossed nationality, and fought for the rights of sexual minorities. In these ways, it linked transnational activism in the interwar period to the emergence of the contemporary global gay and lesbian movement, keeping alive the habit of working across national borders. Rupp's account sheds new light on relationships among national homophile groups, undermines the notion of the 1950s as a dark decade of isolation and repression, and points to the longue durée of activism around sexual identity. The case of the homophile movement suggests the utility of the sociological concept of "abeyance structures" for exploring the persistence of transnational activism in other movements that may seem to have discontinuous histories.
Finally, in a review essay titled "Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison," Mary Gibson surveys the globalization of prison history since the turn of the 21st century by focusing on new books about Vietnam, Africa, China, Japan, and Peru. Having originated in Europe and the United States, prisons became the dominant mode of punishment through cross-cultural interaction that makes them truly global institutions. Historiographical interest turned to prisons in 1975 with the publication of Michel Foucault's landmark work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, which challenged the traditional Whig interpretation of the prison as a humane institution of reform. Instead, Foucault and other "revisionist" historians argued that prisons replaced corporal punishment with a more insidious type of discipline typical of the "carceral continuum" of modern society. During the 1980s and 1990s, historians of Europe and the United States both embraced and critiqued the revisionist paradigm. More recently, the focus has shifted to the non-Western world, where the "birth of the prison" occurred in the context of colonialism and imperialism. Rupp argues that new works on Africa, Asia, and Latin America complicate the Foucauldian paradigm by emphasizing the centrality of race and prisoner agency to the theory and practice of punishment.
The December issue of the AHR will include articles on early piracy in the Indian Ocean, family and gender in the British Empire, and slavery and freedom in nineteenth-century Japan; a review essay on imperial histories of the United States; and an AHR Conversation on the theme "Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information."
With this issue I return as editor after a yearlong sabbatical. I am extremely grateful for the efficient and creative work of Konstantin Dierks and Sarah Knott, who served as Acting Editors in my absence.
Robert Schneider (Indiana Univ.) is the editor of the American Historical Review.
Between 1830 and 1930, more than a million migrants from India arrived in the British colonies to work as indentured laborers. After their indenture ended, many of them chose to remain in their new hostlands, where they were joined by traders, government employees, and other professionals from India. In “Anticolonial Homelands across the Indian Ocean: The Politics of the Indian Diaspora in Kenya, ca. 1930–1950,” Sana Aiyar looks at the role of Indian immigrants in the history of anticolonial nationalism in Kenya, demonstrating the need for a new framework for analyzing diasporas that is not determined entirely by involuntary exile and the inability to return to the homeland. Our cover features the work of Sharwari Tilloo, who has produced a series of African-style masks depicting the many moods and faces of India inspired by the patterns and colors of traditional Indian saris. Photograph by Sharwari Tilloo.