In the April Issue of the American Historical Review
Robert A. Schneider, April 2017
The April 2017 issue of the American Historical Review includes an AHR Forum that focuses on a digital project that uses novel mapping techniques to track 18th- and early 19th-century British architects on the “Grand Tour” in Italy. There are also articles on suicide in early Latin America, biopolitics in Saudi Arabia, and the mobilization of young people in Japanese-occupied Taiwan during the Second World War. An extensive book review section follows our six featured reviews. “In Back Issues” calls readers’ attention to issues from 100, 75, and 50 years ago.
In “Fatal Differences: Suicide, Race, and Forced Labor in the Americas,” Marc A. Hertzman examines the relationship between race and suicide in the Western Hemisphere. He shows how ideas about suicide helped generate and reinforce multiple forms of racial difference, and how colonial ideas survived—often in new forms—long after independence and the abolition of slavery. The extant historiography on suicide emphasizes moral, religious, and medico-legal responses to self-destruction. It pays less attention to race or to the brutal fact, widely acknowledged (though rarely discussed in depth) by scholars of slavery, that forced servitude also made suicide a quintessentially economic issue—a threat to planters’ and traders’ bottom lines. As slavery and forced labor became part of dominant global value systems that determined who counted as human, Hertzman argues, the choice to end one’s own life became a means for making that determination. Eventually, exceptional stories of heroic suicide by native or black martyrs became part of national narratives. That process, however, depended on the decoupling of self-destruction and economic production—acts once seen as threats to colonial foundations turned into stories of sacrifice and national birth. Over time, and despite significant changes, suicide continued to function as a durable marker of racial differentiation.
A concern with “bare life” is also the theme of “Governing the Living and the Dead: Mecca and the Emergence of the Saudi Biopolitical State” by John M. Willis. Between 1924 and 1925, the armies of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. al-Sa‘ud captured the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, consequently assuming the responsibility of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Although the religious significance of these events has long been recognized, their importance to the emergence of modern government in what became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not received the same recognition. Willis contends that the management of the pilgrimage was critical to the articulation of a new form of government that took as its object life itself, or what Michel Foucault called biopolitics. With the annual influx of thousands of pilgrims from across the globe, the Saudi authorities erected a public health administration to tend to the pilgrims’ physical needs while simultaneously creating a religious administration that saw to their spiritual health. The result was the emergence of an understanding of life in its physical and spiritual capacities that could be actively governed by the state.
From state authorities’ concern with a population’s health and well-being, the issue moves to a different set of concerns in a very different context. In “Between ‘Rural Youth’ and Empire: Social and Emotional Dynamics of Youth Mobilization in the Countryside of Colonial Taiwan under Japan’s Total War,” Sayaka Chatani takes us deep into a little-known chapter related to the Second World War. Between 1937 and 1945, hundreds of thousands of (especially rural) young men in colonial Taiwan embraced Japanese imperial nationalism and even sought to become volunteer soldiers. There was, in fact, a “volunteer fever” across the island, an aspect of the frantic ideological mobilization of Japan’s wartime empire. By examining the grassroots process of imperial youth mobilization in the Taiwanese countryside, Chatani explains the social and emotional mechanisms of ideological indoctrination. She argues that Taiwan’s case is analytically useful because while Japan’s wartime mobilization was comparable to that of other totalitarian regimes, its colonial setting allows historians to trace the rapidly changing nature of state-society interactions. In explaining the processes and results of ideological indoctrination, Chatani emphasizes the centrality of social contexts, tensions, and relationships, including collective emotions generated within them. This approach, Chatani concludes, expands the scope of “everyday history” and opens up new terrain in studies of totalitarian mobilization.
The AHR Forum, “Digital History: Mapping the Republic of Letters,” begins with an introductory essay collectively authored by Dan Edelstein, Paula Findlen, Giovanna Ceserani, Caroline Winterer, and Nicole Coleman. In “Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project,” they introduce the larger project—Mapping the Republic of Letters at Stanford University—out of which this forum grew. For the past nine years, the authors, along with other scholars, have been exploring the limits and possibilities of computation and visualization for studying early modern correspondence whose massive and dispersed character has long challenged students. They were guided by several questions: Beyond cliometrics, what new ways of discovery and analysis do today’s Big Data offer? What can we learn by visualizing the archives and databases that are increasingly accessible and viewable online? What might the next research steps be, as linked data rapidly develops further possibilities? In a variety of case studies focusing on metadata (in the letters of Locke, Kircher, Franklin, and Voltaire and the journeys of the Grand Tour), they experimented with visualizations to produce maps of the known and unknown quantities in their datasets, and to represent intellectual, cultural, and geographical boundaries. As part of the process, they engaged in collaborative authorship and worked with designers and programmers to create Palladio, an open-access suite of visualization tools specifically for humanities scholars.
The featured article in this forum demonstrates an example of the fruits of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. In “British Travelers in Eighteenth-Century Italy: The Grand Tour and the Profession of Architecture,” Giovanna Ceserani, Giorgio Caviglia, Nicole Coleman, Thea De Armond, Sarah Murray, and Molly Taylor-Poleskey draw on a dynamic digital database of 18th-century British travelers in Italy. They offer a case study focused on British architects to demonstrate the potential of digital resources for historical research. Based on the entries in John Ingamells’s A Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers in Italy, 1701–1800 (1997)—which covers the itineraries and lives of more than 5,000 travelers—their project adds a new richness and granularity to the understanding of the Grand Tour, an extended tour of Europe undertaken by British aristocrats as part of their education. The authors show what these tours actually consisted of and what they did for British architects in Italy and beyond. The article depicts patterns of places visited, of funding, and of social and professional gains and interactions, and thus shows a history of architecture that goes beyond the influence of Italian architectural models on British thought and design. This approach to the Grand Tour reveals the transformation of “architecture” from a gentlemanly passion and artisanal craft into a modern profession and discipline. By indicating some of the ways in which the Grand Tour served this transformation, the authors also suggest the broader promise of the Grand Tour Project’s digital approach for scholars of various interests.
In “Reading the Grand Tour at a Distance: Archives and Datasets in Digital History,” Jason M. Kelly takes the essay by Ceserani et al. as a point of departure from which to examine the limits and potentials of digital history, especially as it relates to the construction of archives and digital datasets. Through a critical reading of the sources used to create the Grand Tour Project, he shows how datasets can both hide and embody hierarchies of power. Comparing the Grand Tour Project to other digital projects currently in production, such as Itinera and Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, Kelly offers suggestions for alternative readings of the Grand Tour narrative. He concludes by summarizing a series of challenges faced by historians as they contemplate best practices for creating and maintaining digital datasets in the 21st century.
In 1926, Ibn al-Sa‘ud ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. al-Sa‘ud ordered his forces to destroy the Baqi‘ and Mu‘alla cemeteries in Medina and Mecca. The destruction at al-Baqi‘ caused particular anguish among Muslims around the world because of the many descendants and companions of the Prophet who were buried there. For years, based on the belief that the dead could hear the prayers and entreaties of the faithful, the tombs had been objects of veneration and devotion during the annual Hajj to Mecca. Their demolition marked the onset of a new type of politics that did not allow the commingling of the living and the dead. The holy cities had been captured by Ibn al-Sa‘ud the previous year in his quest for control of western Arabia. As a result, his government was now responsible for managing the Hajj. The religious significance of this pilgrimage is well known, but in “Governing the Living and the Dead: Mecca and the Emergence of the Saudi Biopolitical State,” John M. Willis demonstrates the important role it played in the development of a modern form of government in what became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By tending to both the physical and the spiritual health of the pilgrims, the Saudi authorities articulated a new form of sovereignty that was intimately concerned with life and death. The result was the emergence of an understanding of life in its physical and spiritual capacities that could be actively governed by the state. The Baqi‘ Cemetery in Medina with a view of the Prophet’s Mosque, 2015. iStock.com/Mawardi Bahar.
Robert A. Schneider is professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington and interim editor of the American Historical Review.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.