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An Inside Look at the June 2012 AHR

AHA Staff | Jun 25, 2012

June 2012 AHR coverThe June issue of the American Historical Review is now available, both online and in print. The June issue contains a stand-alone article on medical testing in early 20th-century Algeria and an AHR Forum on historiographical turns that consists of four essays and two comments. There are also two 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 “The International Politics of Vaccine Testing in Interwar Algiers,” Clifford Rosenberg examines a European debate over standards of scientific truth that resulted in a massive human experiment carried out in Algeria. The debate pitted one of Europe’s leading laboratory scientists, microbiologist Albert Calmette, against a group of statisticians gathered in 1928 by the newly founded League of Nations Health Committee, who had called into question the efficacy of Calmette’s new TB vaccine. In his response to the League, Calmette took advantage of connections overseas to run a fully randomized clinical trial with a control group in the Algiers Kasbah. The density of the patronage networks that Calmette mobilized suggests that colonies and quasi-colonial territories such as Algeria were not as isolated from metropolitan conflicts as most work on colonial “laboratories of modernity” has assumed. This experiment combined a backward-looking kind of power—a metropolitan mandarin taking advantage of national resources overseas—with a kind of medical modernism, in response to a newly powerful international agency. It created a triangular relationship between a major pharmaceutical company, international regulators in Geneva, and poor African test subjects, thereby anticipating some of the moral problems raised by AIDS research in contemporary Africa and Asia.

AHR Forum

The AHR Forum, “Historiographic ‘Turns’ in Critical Perspective,” looks at what several of the contributors call “turn talk”—a preoccupation with dramatic or decisive changes in historical understanding in the last 30 years. The best known of these are the cultural and linguistic turns proclaimed at the end of the 1980s, transformations in the theorizing and practice of history that both grew out of and critiqued the prevailing mode of social history. But subsequent turns have been announced with increasing alacrity—the transnational turn, the spatial turn, the moral turn, the emotional turn, and the digital turn, among others—suggesting that perhaps the concept itself has lost some of its heuristic value. The six contributors to the forum offer particular, and often personal, interpretations of the history of this historiography.

In “When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy,” Judith Surkis revisits the storied rise and fall of the “linguistic turn.” Tracing its emergence in a specific Euro-American historiographical context, she illustrates the difficulty of identifying a single coherent “turn.”. The term has come to describe a discipline-wide moment of methodological ferment in a way that both relegates it to the past and preempts contesting its implications and assumptions. Rather than endorse this hegemonic narrative, she attempts to both complicate and provincialize our understanding of “the turn.” Providing a genealogical counternarrative, Surkis restores a sense of what was at stake in the many debates in a variety of fields—European intellectual and social history, feminist history, and subaltern studies. She ultimately questions the usefulness of the concept of “turns” itself. “Turn talk” implies the supersession of one disciplinary trend by another, especially when understood as an attribute of a specific historiographical generation. While seeming to signal innovation and renewal, the spatio-temporal logic of a “turn” more often than not entails foreclosure. Surkis aims, instead, to keep multiple strains of historical critique open for the future.

Gary Wilder also emphasizes this theme of foreclosure in “From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns.” Indeed, he argues that the analytical openings created by the linguistic and cultural turns were foreclosed through a process of domestication whereby new “optics” gave way to routine research topics that reaffirmed traditional historiographical practices and assumptions. He argues that proponents of the turns themselves bear some responsibility for this development insofar as they framed the turns in terms of a new theoretical consensus, decisive transformations, and professional rapprochement following divisive discussion. Because the linguistic turn conflated positivistic social history with structural analysis more generally, and because it tended to restrict “theory” to poststructuralism, its advocates tended to marginalize critical social theory and history concerned with large-scale social processes. Wilder forcefully argues for the need both to recover the linguistic turn’s commitment to fundamental epistemological questioning and to reclaim for history Marxism’s concern with social formations and long-term transformations.

In “The Kids Are All Right: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” James W. Cook both acknowledges the importance of this historiographical development and interrogates its meaning. It is hard to escape “the cultural turn,” he notes, citing as evidence the fact that in Google Books alone, this phrase generates more than 100,000 hits, many of which refer to works of academic history. Like Surkis and Wilder, however, he questions its very nature and historicity. Above all, he seeks to explicate the broader patterns of recent “turn talk,” a fast-forming discourse that has increasingly come to define our broader sense of cultural history. But he also challenges turn talk’s larger assumptions. Indeed, his central contention is that much of this talk has made it harder to see the shifting contours of cultural history—how it has changed, the varied forms it has taken, and what it means to practice it now.

In “Another Set of Imperial Turns?Durba Ghosh identifies three moments of the recent British imperial turn’s engagement with other historiographical turns—the global, the postcolonial, and the archival. Instead of arguing that the imperial turn represents a revision of existing historical methods, her essay shows how the imperial turn is both the product and the source of other historiographical developments. Through a compressed and selective retelling of the history of British imperial history, she challenges scholars of the British Empire who have called for imperial history to be “detached and apolitical” or dispassionate. From the late 19th century to the present, histories of British imperialism were frequently generated during moments of colonial conquest or “new imperialisms.” Although there have been many disagreements over the last century, they are largely battles within a shared political project, that of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Rather than a singular or comprehensive method for imperial history, Ghosh’s essay calls for a continuation of scholarly work along these same lines of critique and engagement.

The two comments are contributions in their own right. In “Not Yet Far Enough,Julia Adeney Thomas submits each of the four essays to a critical reading, arguing especially with some of Surkis’s and Wilder’s claims and interpretations. But her comment, which is both critical and appreciative of the authors’ intellectual engagement, does not end with these historiographical issues. Indeed, she urges us to go beyond the concerns evoked by “turn talk” and confront the challenges of climate change and environmental crisis, which she discusses in the last pages of her comment. Calling for a “new materialism,” she urges, in a sense, a qualitatively different kind of turn, one that “will produce new questions, new objects of study, and new types of evidence beyond those developed through the social, linguistic, cultural, and imperial turns.”

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal takes a very different approach in “Generational Turns.” Positioning himself within a generational cohort that is just now coming of professional age, he notes that a generational self-consciousness seems to characterize the whole subject of turns, including the essays in the forum. Seizing upon this perspective, he surveys a number of dissertations by younger scholars, in part to “reexamine the balance between continuity and disjuncture in scholarly generations.” He finds that while many of the concerns central to the cultural and linguistic turns play a part in current thinking and practice, these are framed by a “pragmatic approach” illustrated by a renewed interest in the histories of communication, transportation, material culture and political economy.

With this issue, the terms of five members of the Board of Editors come to an end. We would like to thank Jonathan Brown, Paul Freedman, Jane Kamensky, Jeremy Popkin, and Ruth Rogaski for their service over the last three years. In addition, William Novak has had to resign. Their successors will be announced in the October issue.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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