Publication Date

October 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Post Type

American Historical Review

The October 2012 issue of the American Historical Review should be in members’ mailboxes and available online soon. It contains articles on the Enlightenment from a global perspective, on the first agricultural “green revolution” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and on the influence of existentialism on Arab culture in the mid-20th century.

There is also an AHR Forum, “Law and Empire in Global Perspective,” consisting of three essays plus an introduction. Three featured reviews are 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 “Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique,” Sebastian Conrad recasts the history of Enlightenment as a history of global conjunctures. In this way, he argues, we can recognize the transnational generation of Enlightenment ideas in the late 18th century, when debates spanned the Atlantic and beyond and involved a multitude of authors and contributors. This continued to be true for the 19th century, when “Enlightenment” was invoked by social actors throughout Asia. Conrad insists that this long history of the Enlightenment should not be reduced to a history of European origins and subsequent dissemination. Instead, he argues that claims to Enlightenment were literally co-produced by historical actors from a variety of locations in their attempt to think globally and to come to terms with the challenges of an integrating world. By thus rethinking the spatiality and temporality of the global Enlightenment, he invites us to de-center debates about Enlightenment universalism.

Many scholars consider the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—with its heavy reliance on petrochemical fertilizers—to be the first human alteration of the global nitrogen cycle during the modern era. In “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930,” Edward D. Melillo argues that in fact there was an earlier Green Revolution, which lasted from the 1840s to the 1930s and involved more than 100,000 debt peons from around the Pacific world. These workers extracted hundreds of millions of tons of nitrogen-rich guano and sodium nitrate from Peru and Chile for export to the United States and Europe. This redistribution of nitrogen from South America to farms in the Northern Hemisphere facilitated a departure from organic “closed systems” of farming, where nitrogen is cycled among soil, plants, animals, and people at the local scale, toward “open,” energy-intensive approaches to agriculture. A comprehensive understanding of this First Green Revolution fuses two emerging research areas, global environmental history and transnational labor history. It also offers a new understanding of the roles that labor systems and resources in the Pacific world played in global agricultural transitions.

In “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization,” Yoav Di-Capua looks at the emergence of Arab existentialism as a major category of Arab thought. In the context of decolonization, he tells us, a group of Arab intellectuals adapted the ideas of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre to their own cultural and political needs, with the result that an entirely new Middle Eastern intellectual tradition was born. Di-Capua argues that Arab existentialism was not the result of a weak “borrowing” or “adaptation” of European ideas to Third World realities, but rather a nuanced, complex, and at times contradictory phenomenon. In helping to create a new intellectual space, this multilayered, multifocal intellectual system offered a new philosophical framework for reinventing the Arab self. It gave rise to an assertive Third World Arab intelligentsia and played an important role in the forging of extra-regional alliances with the global front against imperialism.

The AHR Forum

The AHR Forum in this issue, “Law and Empire in Global Perspective,” offers legal case studies from three different sites: early-19th-century Chile, colonial India later in the century, and countries under U.S. occupation in Central America and the Caribbean in the early 20th century. In an article-length introduction, Lauren Benton points out that an appreciation of the historical richness of examining law in an imperial context is only relatively recent. These studies, however, are a sign that the field of law and empire has indeed arrived. Each article illustrates, in different ways and with somewhat different outcomes, that “jurisdictional conflict [is] a dimension of legal politics.” And they do this in the context of comparative, global, and imperial histories. Benton concludes, “In joining a wider effort to make sense of historically occurring attempts to reconcile the tensions between the promise of legitimate structures of authority and the perpetuation of conflict within and across politics, the articles contribute to understandings of a new composite subject: legal politics, empire, and world history.”

In the first article in the forum, “Muslim or Christian? Family Quarrels and Religious Diagnosis in a Colonial Court,” Nandini Chatterjee notes that scholars have begun to delve into how state-sanctioned systems of knowledge about non-European societies and legal traditions were internalized by the colonized themselves. Her article examines a single, protracted legal dispute over familial and property entitlements in colonial India, in which claims over a child and an ancestral estate ultimately depended on clear identification of the religious, and corresponding legal, status of the litigants. She reconstructs multiple and conflicting narratives of selfhood and belonging constructed by the protagonists, narratives that both embraced and subverted a range of colonial legal categories. A microhistorical study, made possible by the availability of detailed case records, this article charts the particular emotional and material positioning of the protagonists in an attempt to explain their legal and representational strategies in terms of the emotional, material, and moral dynamics of family formation.

In “The Paternal Obligation to Provide: Political Familialism in Early-Nineteenth-Century Chile,” Sarah C. Chambers digs beneath the familial metaphors in proclamations and newspapers from the era of Chile’s independence from Spain in order to explore how negotiations between Chileans and officials of the emerging national state influenced various aspects of family law and policy. She finds that a central tenet of medieval Castilian law—the parental (especially paternal) obligation to provide for dependent family members, whether born within or out of wedlock—arose in archival jurisdictions as diverse as the confiscation and subsequent use of loyalist property and pensions for the widows and orphans of military officers, as well as lawsuits between family members over maintenance allowances. Chilean authorities asserted their legitimacy by acting as father figures who could ensure both the welfare and the unity of the national family. Chilean judges likewise adjudicated paternity and support disputes in ways that emphasized paternal responsibility until civil code reform in 1857. The case of Chile suggests that an approach that holistically considers broad understandings of the common welfare as expressed by historical actors themselves promises to reveal new insights into the ties between family and nation-state formation.

In “The Irony of Legal Pluralism in U.S. Occupations,” Alan McPherson notes that historians of U.S. military occupations in Latin America and the Caribbean have often focused their attention on guerrilla movements of resistance while largely neglecting peaceful urban movements. As an example of the latter, he looks at a form of resistance through courts that occupiers did not originally intend to control. As occupations dragged on, subject people found in the legal system one of the few avenues for retribution against the injustices heaped upon them by occupations. By examining several cases in Nicaragua (occupied 1912–1933), Haiti (1915–1934), and the Dominican Republic (1916–1924) with fresh evidence from a handful of countries, McPherson argues that occupied peoples in fact were able to seize control of the process of justice in their own courts in order to strike back at occupiers in a variety of ways, both direct and indirect. His article contributes to a sociolegal history that emphasizes not the traditional constitutional issues of legal pluralism but grittier struggles over resources, power, and cultural identity. It also adds texture to our knowledge of U.S. empire and the unevenness of imperial rule.

AHR News

With this issue we welcome several new members to the Board of Editors:David A. Bell, Timothy Brook, Greg Grandin, Susan Juster, Emily Rosenberg, and Carol Symes. Since July, they have been hard at work reviewing manuscripts and generally serving as an advisory council for the ongoing work of the AHR.

This issue also signals another new development: it is the first to be published by Oxford University Press, our new publishing partner. Making such a change is never an easy decision, but we believe that Oxford has the technological expertise and marketing experience to ensure both our continued scholarly excellence and our financial well-being. With their help, we hope to be able to introduce some innovative new features for readers of the AHR.

Robert A. Schneider (Indiana Univ.) is the editor of theAmerican Historical Review.

October 2012 AHRHassan Jouni, Coffee Shop in Beirut / Café trottoir à Beyrouth. Oil on canvas, 50 x 80 cm. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Image ©

Around the world, well beyond Paris, coffee shops and cafés have long been a favorite gathering place for intellectuals and philosophers. In “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization,” Yoav Di-Capua tells the little-known story of a group of Arab intellectuals who took the ideas of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre and adapted them to their own cultural and political needs during decolonization, thereby devising an entirely new Middle Eastern intellectual tradition. By the early 1960s, he writes, Arab culture was dominated by the language, assumptions, and politics of existentialism, which was viewed as a way to connect with the global culture of resistance. Yet less than a decade later, after Sartre had publicly expressed a pro-Zionist position, Arab existentialism abruptly fell from grace. The lesson of this episode for historians, Di-Capua tells us, is that decolonization, nation-state-making, and Cold War struggles cannot be artificially separated from their transnational intellectual context.

The October 2012 issue of the American Historical Review should be in members' mailboxes and available online soon. It contains articles on the Enlightenment from a global perspective, on the first agricultural "green revolution" in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and on the influence of existentialism on Arab culture in the mid-20th century.

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