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In the April Issue of the American Historical Review

Alex Lichtenstein, April 2016

The April issue of the AHR includes five full-length articles, ranging from the 16th-century Atlantic world to late socialist East Berlin. The issue also contains five featured reviews and our regular book review section.

The issue opens with a methodological essay by Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast.” Putnam considers the often-unrecognized consequences of the transnational and digital turns on historians’ research practices. Increasing digitization of primary and secondary sources, as well as dramatic improvements in searchability and access, have radically changed historians’ approach to research. More specifically, digitization has reduced the role of deep local knowledge and archival digging as a prerequisite to discovery. Indeed, using the power of keyword searches, we can now find information without ever visiting a physical archive. Yet this shift in the digitization and availability of sources has inspired remarkably little reflection about its impacts on individual projects or collective trends. For example, what are its implications for research into the supranational past? How does digital access to sources relate to the current boom in transnational topics and approaches? This essay chronicles the new kinds of scholarship made possible by technological transformations. At the same time, it recalls the benefits of conducting research in an analog world involving physical border crossings. As Putnam asks, what are the intellectual and political costs of accessing sources digitally?

Four traditional empirical articles follow Putnam’s methodological essay. In “Sugar Machines: Picturing Industrialized Slavery,” John E. Crowley shows how throughout the Atlantic world, from the mid-16th to the mid-19th century, visual representations of sugar plantations favored machinery over enslaved workforces. European artists presented the production of sugar as technologically progressive and simultaneously minimized its crucial conjunction with slave labor. The sugar mill, with its vertical three-roller mills and trains of evaporative vats, became a synecdoche of the most intensive and expansive industry in the early modern world. Crowley argues that a major historiographic debate—whether the dependence on slave labor made the production of sugar economically regressive—has simply ignored the abundant visual evidence on the issue. As a humanitarian abolitionist movement mobilized in late 18th-century Britain, its images emphasized the abuse of slaves as individuals but overlooked the plantation setting. In contrast, artistic clients of anti-abolitionist patrons responded with picturesque landscapes showing slave plantations as tranquil manorial communities with intensive productive technology. Similarly, planters in mid-19th-century Cuba visually advertised their global economic aspirations with hypertechnological images of factories requiring only minuscule inputs of enslaved labor. The visual showcasing of sugar’s technology suggests how easily Europeans could be distracted from concerns about the millions of enslaved people in their colonies.

The next article shifts attention from the Atlantic world to Eurasia, conjoining microhistory and global history. In “Maidservants’ Tales: Narrating Domestic and Global History in Eurasia, 1600–1900,” Amy Stanley recounts the story of a 19th-century Japanese maidservant in local and global registers. The maidservant, Tsuneno, is not an obvious protagonist for a global history—she never manufactured a product for export, conversed with a foreign person, wore imported cloth, or traveled beyond the shogun’s realm. Yet Stanley contends that her experience of urban migration, service work, and marriage resembled those of other women across Eurasia in the years between 1600 and 1900. Situating Tsuneno’s mundane story in both local and global frames, Stanley challenges microhistorical approaches by considering how questions of agency might be answered with reference to transnational and long-term trends as well as close attention to intimate contexts. In many ways, this article suggests that the digital approach to transnational scholarship described by Putnam in her article can, in fact, be pursued through more old-fashioned research strategies. Stanley also shows how attention to overlooked historical actors challenges the periodization and spatial imagination of global history. Collectively, maidservants’ tales do not show us a world divided between “Europe” and “Asia,” or a sudden break that occurred with the Industrial Revolution, but rather a continuous “early modern” era that converged across Eurasia and lasted well into the 19th century.

Céline Carayon's “The Gesture-Speech of Mankind” returns us to the Western Hemisphere. In this article, Carayon brings together two distinct moments of encounter between Western and indigenous practices of sign language in an effort to disentangle faulty interpretive assumptions and to reveal new, better-historicized connections. Starting in the late 15th century, European explorers and settlers across the Americas came into contact with indigenous modes of nonverbal communication. This first encounter between the sign systems of Europe and America was less defined by misunderstandings than has previously been suggested, and can fruitfully be connected with the later “rediscovery” of western Plains Indians’ sign languages by ethnologists starting in the late 1890s. Carayon argues that these scholars’ investigations have had a misleading effect on our understanding of both Indian and Western sign systems, by initiating assumptions about their origins in speech incapacity and their resemblance to the sign language of deaf communities. Neither of these, Carayon argues, were presuppositions during earlier encounters, when sign languages were more accurately conceptualized in conjunction with rhetoric and eloquence. By undermining this paradigm, she shows that the Western intellectual history of sign language was significantly shaped by encounters with American indigenous nonverbal systems. By bridging temporal and disciplinary boundaries, and by integrating Atlantic, global, and longue durée lines of inquiry, this article helps reframe traditional debates about the colonial “clash of cultures,” orality and literacy, and cultural/linguistic misunderstandings in early America.

The April issue’s final article, by Anne­marie Sammartino, is “Mass Housing, Late Modernism, and the Forging of Community in New York City and East Berlin, 1965–1989.” Sammartino offers a detailed comparison of the histories of Co-op City in New York City and Marzahn in Berlin—mass housing projects constructed in the late 1960s and late 1970s, respectively. Her article explores the intentions of urban planners and the experiences of the communities’ residents in these two very different societies. She challenges the standard narrative of urban modernism, which considers its demise to be linked to the growth of new urbanist critiques of the 1960s. Instead, Sammartino argues that both capitalist and socialist models of urban modernism proved flexible enough to respond to this challenge with developments like Co-op City and Marzahn. Both projects, she maintains, were more thoughtful about the nature and meaning of urban community than their modernist predecessors in the immediate postwar period. Sammartino concludes that late modernist ideas about urban community could, in fact, offer an antidote to American-style consumerism and imagine new modes of urban social interaction and living. This approach to urban modernism, she suggests, provided a connective thread across the Iron Curtain in the middle decades of the Cold War.

Finally, the April issue introduces a new feature, “Digital Primary Sources,” designed to provide a useful tool for navigating the enormous universe of digitized material and “born digital” sources of interest to historians. This section, found in the journal’s back pages, serves as a preliminary guide to selected online collections of primary sources. Over time, a comprehensive online listing compiled jointly by the AHA and Indiana University, and built from the recommendations of our editors, staff, and readers, will be made available. Check historians.org/digital-primary-sources for updates.

Alex Lichtenstein is associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington and interim editor of the American Historical Review.


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