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Colonial Knowledge, South Asian Historiography, and the Thought of the Eurasian Minority

This is the fifth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer and fall. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, the third by Robert Greene II, and the fourth by Gloria Yu.

This last piece is by contributing writer Brent Howitt Otto, a PhD student in History at UC Berkeley.

It is hard to overstate the contemporary and enduring impact of British colonialism on the Indian Subcontinent. Bernard Cohn compellingly argued that the British conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge, as much as it was of land, peoples and markets. By combining the disciplinary tools of history and anthropology, Cohn helped birth a generation of historiography that has examined how the discursive categories of religion, caste and community (approximate to ‘ethnicity’ in South Asian usage) were deeply molded and in some instances created by the bureaucratic attempts to rationalize and systematize the exercise of colonial power over diverse peoples (Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind). These colonial knowledge systems not only helped colonial officials to think about India and Indians but has subsequently affected how Indians of all classes, castes and religions came to think about themselves in relation to one another and to the state. The anti-colonial nationalism of the late British Raj, far from freeing India of colonial categories and divisions, demonstrated their enduring and deepening power.

When discontent with British rule began to ferment in various forms of nationalist organizing and mobilization in the late nineteenth century, a preoccupation among Indian minorities—Muslims, Untouchables, Sikhs, and even the relatively small community of Eurasians (later known as Anglo-Indians)—emerged, that swaraj (self-rule) or indeed Independence would ultimately create a tyranny of the majority. Would the British Raj simply be replaced by a Hindu Raj, in which minorities would lose their already tenuous position in politics and society?

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B. D. Ambedkar

Fear ran deepest among Muslims, who had been scapegoated by the British as the group responsible for the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. Their fears were not irrational, for the Indian National Congress, as the largest expression of the nationalist movement, struggled to appear as anything but a party of English-educated elite Hindus. Despite Gandhi’s exhortation of personal moral conversion to a universal regard for all people, his message came packaged in the iconic form and practice of a deeply religious Hindu ascetic. Gandhi famously disagreed with the desire of B. D. Ambedkar, a leader of the Untouchables, to abolish the caste ‘system’. Muslims and other minorities called for ‘separate electorates,’ protected seats and separate voting mechanisms to ensure minorities were represented.

In part to pacify the anxieties of minorities and in part to further a ‘divide and rule’ agenda to prolong colonial rule, the British responded with a series of Round Table Conferences from 1930-32 in which India’s minorities represented their views. This resulted in the Communal Award of separate electorates for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Depressed Classes (Scheduled Castes). Gandhi’s opposition rested on the principle that Separate Electorates would only impede unity and sow greater division, both in the movement to end British rule and the hope of a unified nation thereafter. Yet in the Poona Pact of September 1932 Gandhi acquiesced to Separate Electorates while coercing Ambedkar through a fast unto death to renounce them for Dalits.

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Mohammad Ali Jinnah

British colonial knowledge had constructed blunt categories of India’s minorities, which failed to acknowledge their internal diversity. Muslims included numerous sects, schools of jurisprudence, regions and languages. Eurasians were divided internally by region (north, south, Burma), occupation (railways, government services, private trade and industry), lineage (Portuguese, English, Dutch, French) and class. The same was true for other minorities, and yet the British insisted upon dealing with each group by recognizing an organization and its leader as the ‘sole spokesman’ for that ‘community’s’ interests. For Muslims it was Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman). For Eurasians (Anglo-Indians) it was the president of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, under the leadership of Sir Henry Gidney (1919-42) and Frank Anthony (1942 onward), which by no means could claim membership sufficient to represent the interests of a majority of Anglo-Indians.

Who is allowed to speak for the group? Which voices are suppressed or silenced? These are crucial questions for historians who seek to make an accurate reconstruction of the textures and contours of a group’s thinking over time, of their unity and disunity, internal dynamics, the ways they see themselves and others. Otherwise the scholar will only be able to conjure up an historical narrative that coheres with the sympathies of power, but gets no closer to representing the group on its own terms. The archive is often limited in what it can say, for it too is a construction of power: the editorial discretion of a newspaper, the policy and practice of record keeping and classification in an organization or a government, and the status and education implicit in any literary production. This has been a foremost concern and debate of Subaltern historiography in South Asia (see the journal Subaltern Studies and Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?“), and a motivating problem addressed by Anthro-History.

The scholarship on the mixed-race of colonial South Asia manifests some of these problems. Some histories have been written by important Anglo-Indian leaders and politicians, such as Herbert Alick Stark and Frank Anthony, constituting less an academic history than their own rhetorical attempt to shape Anglo-Indians’ view of themselves and of others’ views of Anglo-Indians. Indeed, these constitute primary sources that portray particular dominant, though not representative perspectives of the community. Even serious academic studies have erred by leaning too heavily on official sources to substantiate the community’s attitudes (e.g., Alison Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora) or by inordinate attachment to a social scientific theory such as “marginality” to explain the social position and self-consciousness of Anglo-Indians, at times entertaining untenable generalizations and ignorance of facts (See Noel P. Gist and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity, or Paul Fredrick Cressey, “The Anglo-Indians“). Other studies are too narrowly focused on Anglo-Indians of a particular place and time to include very much dialogue with the greater Anglo-Indian community or with other interlocutors such as the state (e.g., Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, In Search of a Homeland, or Robyn Andrews, Christmas in Calcutta).

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Uther Charlton-Stevens, Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia: Race, Boundary Making and Communal Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2018).

The new monograph by Uther Charlton-Stevens, Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia: Race, Boundary Making and Communal Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2018) is a deeply textured historical study of the Eurasian community over its lengthy history. Uninterested in presenting a uniform narrative, Charlton-Stevens digs deeply into diverse sources to show the various interlocutors that Anglo-Indians and their leaders had, and the often discordant opinions they took with respect to their own history, concepts of race, Indian nationalism, the colonial state, and plans for their post-colonial future. Anglo-Indians were neither univocal, nor insular. Views among Anglo-Indians were diverse and power over them was contested. Skillfully Charlton-Stevens traces these various crisscrossing strands that shows Anglo-Indians were embedded in a web of local, colonial and international discourses, and were interacting with and speaking about concepts as diverse and far reaching as notions of nation and national self-determination, Zionism, and eugenics. Although the community had a sole spokesman as far as government was concerned, the voices of dissenting and contesting positions were louder and clearer than prior scholarship has ever made out.

Charlton-Stevens refreshingly situates the question of Anglo-Indian identity in the crucial context of race and eugenical theories current from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. He explores in depth the writings of two Anglo-Indian figures who were not community leaders, yet had complex articulations of mixed race. Millicent Wilson of Bangalore wrote arguing that Anglo-Indians’ whiteness (and thus superiority) should be acknowledged on the supposed grounds of the dominance of white genes, and thus their predominance in mixed-race people. Wilson regarded Americans and Australians as exemplars of the success of whitening an admittedly hybrid race. In effect she argued against extreme theories of racial purity, while continuing to support a concept of a racial hierarchy that presumed the relative superiority of whiteness (Charlton-Stevens, 177–79, 194–96). Though seldom referenced in other studies on Anglo-Indians, Charlton-Stevens shows that Wilson’s work was read and responded to by Anglo-Indians, and that she engaged in disputes with Anglo-Indian leaders and critiqued those who promoted Anglo-Indians emigration from India. Though not conforming to the official positions of the Anglo-Indian Association, Wilson surely represents a strand of Anglo-Indian thinking on race.

Quite different from Wilson’s belief in a racial hierarchy into which she wanted to insinuate Anglo-Indians as ‘white,’ stand the writings of Anglo-Indian social scientist Cedric Dover. Contesting the alleged superiority of racial purity, Dover argued instead hybridization promoted genetic vigor. He predicted that mixed races would therefore define the future and spell the ultimate end of racial difference. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi eugenics of racial purity, while himself promoting the eugenics of genetic mixing. As for his own community of Anglo-Indians, Dover believed they should identify as ‘Eurasians,’ a more expansive category than ‘Anglo-Indian,’ and forge a pan-Eurasian solidarity with other Eurasians outside of British India. This view was largely at odds with the stated aims and positions of official leaders of the Community. While Dover’s book, which was most explicitly directed at Anglo-Indians, is noted in the historiography, Charlton-Stevens goes further to demonstrate the effects and resonances of Dover’s ideas and other works on Anglo-Indian discourse about themselves and their future. At the same time, by drawing on the work of Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) he shows how Dover saw through his academic work in the United States and the examples of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, a model of mixed-race success which supported his claims and which he recommended to Anglo-Indians (Charlton-Stevens, 191–96).

Then Charlton-Stevens carefully explores the numerous projects Anglo-Indians undertook as they prepared for a post-colonial future. Several schemes proposed for domestic colonial settlements—Abbott Mount (1920s), Whitefield (1882), McCluskigunge (1933) (Charlton-Stevens, 179–91). Others suggested overseas colonization—of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (in 1922–3 and 1946), or the creation of an “Eurasia” in the former German New Guinea with League of Nations support, an idea which surfaced in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s (196–206). The Anglo-Indian promoters of these projects envisioned a degree of self-sufficiency, “emancipation” from dependency and colonial oppression, a “national homeland”.  Through a close reading of correspondence, committee reports, organization records, and letters to the editor in Anglo-Indian and English-language church sponsored newspapers in India, Charlton-Stevens shows that these aims do not only have incidental resonance but direct connection with the larger international discourses on race, the post-World War I “balkanization” that came with ethnic or racial conceptions of nationality and national self-determination, and drew on foreign models such as the Zionist success in the Palestine Mandate. Finally, numerous other associations and individuals promoted emigration, contrary to the stated position of the All India Anglo-Indian Association to remain in India—especially in the two years between the end of World War II and Independence. This even included as unlikely a destination as Brazil: ideologically branded as “Mestizism,” its promoters believed that as a mixed-race Christian people they would be accepted in a largely mixed-race Christian country. Others mainly sought to settle elsewhere within the British Commonwealth.

These are but a few of the most significant contributions of Charlton-Stevens’ book, which I have selected because they break new ground by foregrounding that Anglo-Indians were diverse in their thought, despite being forced to accept a sole spokesman who at times was the target of considerable resistance. Moreover they engaged with broader Indian and international discourses. Charlton-Stevens achieved this textured treatment of the ideas of Anglo-Indians on their own terms by a close, broad and critical reading of the archive as well as (in parts not mentioned above) ethnographic work and oral history that highlights the value of non-textual sources to a thoroughgoing historic account that interrogates power, expects diversity, and eschews easy generalizations.

Brent Howitt Otto is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History.

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Excesses of the Eye and Histories of Pedagogy

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, and the third by Robert Greene II.

This fourth piece is by guest contributor Gloria Yu.

Whether a man is wise can be gathered from his eyes. So thought the Anglican bishop Joseph Hall in his 1608 two-volume collection of character sketches, Characters of Vertues and Vices. The wise man, Hall advised, “is eager to learn or to recognize everything but especially to know his strengths and weaknesses…His eyes never stay together, instead one stays at home and gazes upon himself and the other is directed towards the world…and whatever new things there are to see in it” (quoted in Whitmer, The Halle Orphanage, 77). The wise man’s eyes are the entry points of both self-knowledge and worldly knowledge, and their divergent gaze betrays his catholic curiosity (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Joseph Hall might find the eyes, more than the books, to be the prominent ‘accessory’ in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (1530s). While the left eye is directed outward, ‘towards the world’, the gaze of the right eye (our left) seems unfocused on what is directly before it. It is not a look that invites sustained eye contact with the viewer; rather, an apparent disinterestedness suggests that the man’s attention is elsewhere. The aimless stare is a marker of a gaze turned inward. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The eye plays a central role in two recent snapshots from the history of Western pedagogy that find it productive to ground the historical construction of norms for knowing in educational contexts. Kelly Joan Whitmer’s The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment (Chicago, 2015) examines the scientific ethos that permeated and vitalized the premier experimental Pietist educational enterprise of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke, 2015) offers a genealogy of contemporary obsessions with “data visualization,” their ontological and epistemological consequences, and the pedagogies that spurred them. Both works centralize the eye as the object of training and discipline. Both accounts trace the pedagogical principles behind the ways in which seeing must be learned, extending the functions of the visual apparatus beyond the role of passive reception into an active mode of evaluating and constructing. Seeing, in these histories, is imbued with cognitive powers so as to be near congruent with knowing itself. Considering these two works together prepares us to use the recurring motif of the trained eye as an opportunity for gauging future directions for histories of pedagogy.

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Kelly Joan Whitmer, The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2015).

Whitmer informs us that descriptions like the one above of the ‘character of the wise man’ were regularly incorporated into the curriculum at the Halle Orphanage’s schools for the purpose of training a particular way of seeing. The Orphanage’s founder, August Hermann Francke, believed these character sketches could “awaken” in children a love of virtue so that they might emulate the figures depicted. The end goal was the cultivation of an “inner eye,” or “the eye in people,” which Francke equated with prudent knowledge [Klugheit] and pious desires. Indeed, a pedagogy of seeing permeated Francke’s administration of the Orphanage. The training of the inner eye was based on the honing of an array of observational practices that engaged senses beyond just the visual. On one level, visual aids such as scientific instruments (e.g. the camera obscura, air pumps), wooden models, and color-coded maps cultivated tactile, spatial, and relational knowledge. In Francke’s correspondence with the mathematician Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, the microscope figures as a particularly apt tool for lessons in seeing since it enhanced understanding of the configuration of parts and wholes while also providing the opportunity to reflect on the faculty of seeing itself. Through observing how minute changes in light transformed one’s image of an object, one could discern the possibilities and limits of human perception. On another level, visual aids, like the models of the geocentric and heliocentric heavenly spheres specially commissioned for the Orphanage, enhanced cognition and yielded spiritual benefits by teaching students how to behold incompatible representations of the world and to reconcile them. The Orphanage taught a manner of “seeing all at once,” wherein the eye was considered a “conciliatory medium” that could aid in transcending interconfessional disagreements.

For Whitmer, seeing and the eye operate as metaphors for perception, understanding, and cognition writ large, at times even as the privileged site for accessing divine truths. Notable is her use of the singular. If it is through seeing in a broad sense (materially, affectively, cognitively) that we encounter the world and acquire knowledge of it, it is the eye that mediates this encounter. From the ancient origins of the evil eye, to Avicenna’s comparison of the eye to a mirror, to the early modern possibility that a wrong stare could compel an accusation of witchcraft, the eye—and not only in the Western tradition—has perhaps always been overdetermined. Its activity always transcends the physiological processes behind mere visual perception. It was after all in tempting Eve to take from the tree of knowledge that the serpent said, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5).

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Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

“Vision,” as Halpern notes, “is thus a term that multiples—visualization, visuality, visibilities” (24). Dexterity in handling the conceptual differences of this plurality allows Halpern to explain how, since the end of World War II, we have come to bestow such a capacious range of talents to our ocular organs. In the context of increasing computational and data scientific approaches in information management, architecture and design, and the cognitive sciences, Halpern argues, vision has taken on a highly technicized form, meditated by screens, data sets, and algorithms that fundamentally expand the epistemological prowess of perception. In particular, postwar cybernetics and design and urban planning curricula had a hand in transforming the ontology of vision. Cybernetics’s preoccupation with prediction, control, and crisis management foregrounded information storage and retrieval and, thus, transformed the eye into a filter and translator of sorts, selecting relevant information for storage within a constant flow based on algorithms for pattern recognition. Whereas the eye at the Halle Orphanage dwelled on contradictory images, the eye of twentieth-century cybernetics constantly made choices.

The works of these authors suggest the advantages of approaching questions central to intellectual history—concerning the transmission, unity, and cultural impact of ideas—from the perspective of histories of pedagogies. Analyzing pedagogy allows Halpern to trace how philosophical ideas were transformed into teachable principles and how a certain paradigm of vision was promulgated through the materiality of our media environments. In her narrative, industrial designers, drawing from cybernetics, developed an “education of vision” grounded in “algorithmic seeing” (93). Here, vision mimicked the activity of a pattern generator: rather than representing the world, this ‘new’ vision captured the multitude of ways something could possibly be seen. Vision was about scale and quantity, about producing as many representations and recombinations of the visual field as possible. No longer could any pedestrian see the world; one had to learn through credentialed training to be considered an “expert” in vision (94). The screen-filled “smart” city of Songdo, South Korea is an embodiment of this paradigm, where older ways of seeing lose out to a vision continually registering and ordering human and environmental metrics toward the goal of “perfect management and logistical organization of populations, services, and resources” (2, see fig. 2).

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Figure 2. The “smart” city Songdo, South Korea in the Incheon Free Economic Zone features “computers and sensors placed in every building and along roads to evaluate and adjust energy consumption.” Photo and description courtesy of Condé Nast Traveler.

Furthermore, histories of pedagogy, whether central to a project (as in Whitmer’s case) or part of a larger investigation measuring the scale of cultural transformation (as in Halpern’s), can answer questions that animate the intersection of history of knowledge, history of science, and historical epistemology. These fields have offered a robust vocabulary for interrogating the historical contingency of observation and objectivity; the historical, social, and cultural criteria for knowledge; and the methodological goals and tactics involved in fortifying scientific persona. Beside the fact that pedagogy is a science and set of practices specifically concerned with communicating knowledge, Whitmer and Halpern show that, in addition to articulating what it means to learn in certain moments and institutional contexts, pedagogical theories can contain latent or overt temporalities, subjectivities, and modes of vision that deepen our understanding of what in the past has made knowledge count as knowledge.

Yet, histories of pedagogies have even more fruits to bear. If earlier histories focused on matriculation rates, student body demographics, and the longevity of institutions, these two works prove future research capable of taking on the relationship between science and religion, the convergence and divergence of intellectual traditions, the crests and troughs in the history of humanism, and episodes in the centuries long contemplation of what it means to be human. Future research would follow precedent histories of pedagogy, not least the scholarship of our discussant, in treating sensitively the gaps between ideals of education and their execution, the slips between the social and political aims of education and their imperfect applications (Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe). That pedagogy is a tradition embedded in text, reliant on practices, and crucial to the scaffolding of intellectual traditions places the excavation of its pasts well within the purview of intellectual historians.

One last note on the eye. Mention of training the eye calls to mind the familiar narrative that forms of discipline often get inscribed on bodies. While this may be true, that there are multiple histories of pedagogy suggests the probability that we are trained in numerous contexts, at different times in our lives, and in potentially incompatible ways in how to see and how to know. It is possible, then, to become at once wise and childish, to become discerning in one way and docile in another. As to whether we are overwhelmingly determined by systems of power and whether there are multiple systems at play, I answer with an optimistic agnosticism that leaves open the question of the place of freedom. I rely on the vagueness of the term freedom here to underscore that the day-to-day exercises in learning may fail to yield desired results or, even when they do, may be useful in ways other than intended. For the researcher willing to question the Foucaultian schema that binds discipline with docility, the histories of pedagogy—of pedagogies with a range of reaches, in quiet pockets of Europe or in grander governmental programs—can be treated as an approach capable of accommodating histories of discipline that remains sensitive to the rough trajectories of learning. If the Panopticon’s surveilling gaze, both omnipresent and invisible, inspires the self-policing of behavior, how does the prisoner see when he looks back?

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Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Gloria Yu is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the history of psychology and the concept of the will in nineteenth-century Europe. She thanks David Delano, Elena Kempf, and Thomas White for their incisive comments on earlier drafts.

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The Radical African American Twentieth Century

This is the third in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng.

This third piece is by guest contributor Robert Greene II.

“Remember the ladies.” This is a line from Abigail Adams’ famous letter to her husband, John Adams, defending the idea of rights and equality for women. “Remember the ladies,” however, could easily also serve as the defining idea of modern African American intellectual history. Many historians of the African American intellectual tradition have taken great pains to emphasize the importance—indeed, the centrality—of African American women to that intellectual milieu. At the same time, other fundamental questions have been raised of not just who to privilege in this new turn in African American intellectual history, but what sources are appropriate for intellectual history. Finally, the ways in which the public remembers the past animates newer trends in African American intellectual history. In short, African American intellectual history’s recent historiographic turns offer much food for thought for all intellectual historians.

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August Meier, Negro Thought in America 1880–1915

The field of African American intellectual history has come a long way since the heyday of historians August Meier and Earlie E. Thorpe, both prominent in the then-nascent field of African American intellectual history in the 1960s. Meier’s Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 and Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans were both written in the 1960s and set the standard for African American intellectual history for decades to come. Both books were focused heavily on male intellectuals, however. As such they both set the standard for the field and, along with so much of African American history up until the late 1980s, left out the important voices of many African American women.

The rise of historians like Evelyn Higginbotham in the early 1990s ushered in new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender through American history. Her book Righteous Discontent (1992) and essay “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” (1992) both provided templates for how to easily meld women’s history and African American history into texts that became essential works of understanding the past through viewpoints and sources normally ignored by most male historians.

Today, the field of African American intellectual history has been influenced by the evolution of several related fields: African American women’s history and Black Power studies. Both fields have attempted to both overturn older assumptions about African American history and do so by focusing on previously marginalized sources and historical figures. Much of the recent historiographic trends in African American history—namely, a deeper understanding of Black Nationalism and its relationship to broader ideological trends in both Black America and the African Diaspora—would not have been possible without both a deeper understanding of the importance of gender to African American history, and a willingness to expand the definition of who are “important” intellectuals “worthy” of study.

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Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

In just the last year alone, numerous books about the intersection of Black Nationalism and gender have challenged earlier assumptions about the histories of both fields in relationship to African American history. Both Keisha Blain’s Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017) stretch the time period in which historians should understand the origins of Black Power—getting further away from just understanding the 1960s-era context and situating Black Power and larger Black Nationalist trends in a long era of resistance and struggle led and strategized by African American women.

Set the World on Fire follows up on other works about the Black Nationalism of the 1920s, arguing that it did not end with Marcus Garvey’s deportation from the United States in 1927. Instead, argues Blain, it was women such as his spouse Amy Jacques Garvey who kept Black Nationalist fervor alive across the United States. Meanwhile, Farmer’s book shows how the ideas of women associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s owe a great deal to the longer arc of radical black women’s history in the twentieth century—from the agitation of black women within the Communist left of the 1930s and stretching well into the 1970s and 1980s. For Farmer, the history of a radical black nationalism does not end with the collapse of the Black Panther Party in the late 1970s.

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Amy Jacques Garber, with her husband, Marcus Garvey.
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Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)

Meanwhile, other trends within African American intellectual history point to the utilization of previously ignored or forgotten sources to provide a deeper understanding of the past. Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (University Press of Florida, 2011) argues for diving deeper into relatively recent African American intellectual history to provide a fuller picture of the post-Civil Rights Movement era. For White, the African American think tank was an important ideological clearing house for not just African Americans, but the broader Left in the 1970s.

A third movement within the field is the study of African American history itself. Pero Dagbovie has led the way in this, writing several key works detailing the rise of African American history over a broad timespan. Works such as African American History Reconsidered (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and The Early Black History Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2007) detail not only historiographic trends in the field, but the ways in which the institutions necessary for the growth of African American history were born and nurtured against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation.

Finally, the importance of understanding memory to African American intellectual history has changed the way African American intellectual historians think about the intersection of ideas with public discourse. In reality, much of the understanding of “memory” by African American intellectual historians concerns forgetting by the vast public. Books such as Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History (Beacon Press, 2018) emphasizes how much of the American mainstream media—along with most politicians—have been complicit in hiding the deeper, more complicated histories of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.

African American intellectual history offers plenty of new opportunity for scholars interested in linking intellectual history to other sub-fields. African American activists and intellectuals never existed in a vacuum, whether geographic or ideological. They made alliances with a variety of groups and forces, all for the sake of freedom across the African diaspora. The new turns in African American intellectual history reflect this aspect of black history.

Robert Greene II is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. He studies American intellectual and political history since 1945 and is the book review editor for the Society of US Intellectual Historians.

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Writing Art in the Present Tense

This is the second in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. You can read the first piece, by Andrew Klumpp, here.

This second piece is by Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng.

Truism: All histories are subjective.

Truism: All historical narratives are the products of a series of choices and decisions–of evidence and argument, of style, emplotment, tone.

Truism: All narratives are representations.

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Douglas Crimp, Before Pictures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is obviously a work of memoir. It is–less obviously–also a work of history. Less obvious, because Before Pictures is so clearly grounded in the experience–in the mind and body–of a single person, Douglas Crimp, and so the work’s claims to truth and to knowledge remain, at least in our more conventional (or academic) ways of thinking about history, too narrow, too personal, too subjective. How do we leap from this single data point to broader deductions about a society and an age? Here we have one experience, one voice, one point of data — but can it be serialized, integrated into ever broader series of documents, or data points, until finally we come to a bird’s-eye view of the situation?

Crimp’s answer: maybe we do not. Maybe that leap is impossible–and undesirable. Maybe we acknowledge the limits of our ability to know.

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T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Since 1999’s Farewell to an Idea, T.J.Clark has grown increasingly increasingly skeptical of conventional art history, which Clark finds, on the one hand, hopelessly positivistic, shackled to dreams of objectivity and universalism, and on the other, excessively logocentric, more interested in text and context than in the artwork itself. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2008), Clark’s diaristic account of his encounter with two Poussin paintings at the Getty, marked a decisive turn toward a different mode of writing, one that emphasizes the experiential, subjective nature of all writing on art.

The practice of art history proceeds along two axes–the critical and the historical. The critical component occurs in the present tense–it is bound up with the historian’s experience of the work, and it harkens back to art history’s roots in connoisseurship, which emphasized that beholder’s critical judgment of a work’s quality. This turn (or return) to the subject and to experience is only partially a consequence of postmodernism. It carries with it a degree of faith in the integrity of both subject and experience, an insistence that by grounding narrative and argument in the personal, the private, the contingent–we can come up against something both material and real. Doubt must end somewhere. It ends with the touch of flesh and blood.

In that sense, in their recourse to the personal, the subjective, to the first-person experience, neither Clark nor Crimp are decisively breaking with the art historical tradition. Neither the insistence on the primacy of the object nor the turn towards a transparently subjective mode of writing are new. What, then, is new? The answer lies in the logic behind this emphasis on the subject’s relationship to the object, and the insistence that we–both writer and audience–remember that this relationship occurs in the present tense. Ontologically speaking, it is the only tense possible, as one material being confronts another — object to object, one might say, existing in the same temporal plane.

These two books, though very different in their interests and investments, share a certain common ethical and political grounding: they refuse transcendence. They take immanence as a basic condition of experience. There can be — there will be — no God’s eye dream of meta-vision, no fantasy of transcending the boundaries of space/time or of this material world. This commitment–to remaining immanent in this time, this world, fully contained and bounded by its material constraints–is both political and ethical. It grounds the writer in the present, and so the writer must remain both agent and participant in the now. Transcendence can also be a mode of escape, a turning away from the exigencies of the moment, a refusal of responsibilities, even of agency.

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Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, September 23, 1977. Photo courtesy of Artist’s Space.

This refusal of transcendence has different resonances for Clark and Crimp. For Crimp, it represents a kind of freedom, or liberation, from the burden of history–but of a specific kind of history. Before Pictures is ostensibly a memoir of Crimp’s life before “Pictures,” the 1977 Artists Space exhibition that launched Crimp’s career and also gave name to the “Pictures Generation.” In that sense, it is a personal bildungsroman (and closely follows the conventions of that genre). Before Pictures is also an intellectual history, an account of how Crimp moved away from the practice of conventional academic art history towards something more personal. And here, “Pictures” is not the inflection point. The “change of direction” is precipitated by his 1989 essay, “Mourning and Militancy.” This essay, “the final essay I published in October during my thirteen-year stint as an editor there,” was also “the first in which a personal experience formed the germ of the argument.” In an interview with Jarrett Earnest, Crimp described the two dialectical poles in Before Pictures as “autobiographical and critical.” This is the moment when the autobiographical and the critical come together. And it is also, in a way that would become important to the subsequent shape of Crimp’s career, the moment when Crimp’s two worlds–the gay world and the art world–are no longer separated. One self need not be alienated from the other self. It is also a re-imagining of the subject position of the writer, as both critic and historian. That subject is no longer imagined as one that conforms to the ideal subject of the liberal/capitalist regime, that of a heteronormative, white, bourgeois male.

“One thing I can say for certain,” Crimp wrote, in the final paragraph (echoing the denouement of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays), “When I wrote the Pictures catalogue essay, and even more when I rewrote it for October, I was convinced that with sufficient insight a critic could–even should–determine what was historically significant at a given moment and explain why. That conviction was a result of my intellectual formation as an art historian and aspiring art critic. Moreover, it was possible to believe such a thing then: the art scene as I experienced it from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true now, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then. In the meantime, coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts  me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it. No doubt that is why I respond to the reception of Pictures with ambivalence. It historicizes me.”

Note the final word here, the choice of the verb form, to historicize, over the noun. Note the resonance with historicism. Note Crimp’s ambivalence about submitting to this process, with all of its overtones of pastness, of being finished, of belonging to the past–and therefore being shut out of both present and future).

To be historicized is to become historical — and it comes with its own sense of triumph, as well as sadness. (For Crimp, who would become very involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s, this is a melancholic victory, won by virtue of having survived.) It also means submitting to historical representation, finding one’s self shorn of its particularities and slotted into a narrative–submitting, in other words, to being shaped, edited, and represented by another.

And this carries the danger of being re-inserted into tradition, being made to carry the burden of that grand history, when the point was to work oneself loose from it.

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Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim: 5. Joachim’s Dream, 1303–1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

“I am with Walter Benjamin in thinking the pretense of the historian to enter the lost mental world of a long-ago maker a hopeless fantasy,” Clark declared in a 2017 lecture on “Joachim’s Dream,” one of the episodes in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua. “In front of Joachim’s Dream, I don’t believe it can ever be me who time travels to the Trecento, on the contrary, it’s this stubborn fragment of an utterly unknowable past that brings, or refuses to bring, its now with it, into my present, putting my picture of pastness and continuity in doubt. I either own up to my naive claim on the work, the way the work answers or resists that claim, the way it suspends my usual pragmatic sense of history, or I settle for that far flight of historicist fancy called looking with a period eye.”

Crimp shares, with Clark, a radically constrained sense of the possibilities of making knowledge via conventional academic historical approaches. What any individual can really, truly know–what one can deduce from historical evidence–is narrow, straitened, far from the promise of universal history. While neither Clark nor Crimp is quite as radically skeptical as, say, Hayden White–who came to hold an unfavorable view of the relationship between professional historians/historiography and state ideologies and apparatuses–they share a sense of discontentment with the status quo of institutional historical practice. They share a discomfort with the profession’s conventions and structures, and Clark, at least, is also uncertain of its value (even while continuing to practice as an academic art historian, a disjunction between theory and practice highlighted by James A. van Dyke in his review of The Sight of Death).

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Clark closed The Sight of Death with a gloss on a Hugh MacDiarmid verse: “The present may be theirs,/but a’ the past and future’s oors.” MacDiarmid’s “bluster,” Clark argues, “at least has the virtue of pointing to what an antithesis to modern life will now have to be made from.”

And this is where Clark diverges from Crimp. For Clark sees, in the past, the tools for making the future–and poignantly, perhaps, for making the future revolution. Let me finish, then, with Clark’s own words. The antithesis to modern life “will have to live in the past–retrieving the second term in MacDiarmid’s last line will mean (will depend on) retrieving the first. It is never the present that dreams the future, for the present has no past life with which to to make the non-existent real.”

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Expanding Subjects, Race, and Global Contexts: Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom and Developments in the History of Religious Ideas

This is the first in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. Our goal is to engage with the diversity of ways that graduate students are approaching the History of Ideas across academic sub-fields. After the final commentary, Professor Anthony Grafton will add his thoughts to the conversation.

This first piece is by guest contributor Andrew Klumpp.

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Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom
The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2017).
Kiram II
Kiram II

Evangelists, statesmen, and academics once dominated many histories of religious ideas, but in Tisa Wenger’s recent Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (UNC Press, 2017), they are eclipsed. Figures like the Moros Muslim sultan Kiram II, black nationalist Marcus Garvey, archbishop of the Philippine Independent Church Gregorio Aglipay, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple Nobel Drew Ali, and the Native American Shaker prophet John Slocum take center-stage. Spanning the decades from the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War until WWII, this study weaves together diverse communities ranging from Filipino Muslims to Jewish immigrants, the Nation of Islam to practitioners of Native American traditions such as Peyote and the Ghost Dance. Although globetrotting in scope and diverse in its subjects, Religious Freedom’s persistent attention to how interpretations of religious freedom relied on the formative relationship between race, religion, and empire effectively ties the study together.

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Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2009).

Much like Wenger’s first book, We Have a Religion (UNC Press, 2009), which investigated the formation and use of the category of religion among Pueblo Indians, Religious Freedom focuses on a fundamental concept, in this case religious freedom, and explores its formation and re-formation by those outside of the halls of power in the United States. In doing so, it offers a fresh perspective on central questions about religious liberty, nation-states, and global empire. It also provides a window into engaging trends in how historians of religion and ideas approach their work and frame their questions.

Forged at the nexus of race, religion, and empire, religious freedom, Wenger argues, was not always universally beneficent. Consequently, when various communities invoked the ideal, winners and losers emerged. She convincingly demonstrates that white American Protestants, in particular, deployed the ideal of religious freedom to assert their supremacy and highlight the deficiencies of others.

Ghost Dance ca. 1900
Native American Ghost Dance, ca. 1900

In order to further these broader arguments, Religious Freedom explores contexts ranging from Muslim settlements in the Philippines to Native American reservations in the Dakotas. For example, perceived racial inferiority meant that Christianity served as a key civilizing force in the Philippines after the U.S. conquest of the islands. Nevertheless, this otherness also kept Filipino Catholic priests under the thumb of a Western bishop. Racial otherness also cast suspicion on Native American religious practices. Missionaries and government officials nursed a longstanding skepticism about Native American religious practices including Peyote, the Ghost Dance, and the Native American Shaker tradition, even when these traditions exhibited some of the trappings of Christianity.

Wenger also deftly reveals how some groups leveraged their religious identities to minimize perceived racial otherness and inferiority. American Jews in both the Reform and Orthodox communities tended to lean into their religious identities and minimize their racial and ethnic distinctiveness. By framing their differences as religious rather than racial or ethnic, Jews, as well as Catholics, wielded the language of religious freedom to secure a spot standing shoulder to shoulder with white American Protestants.

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Alice Fletcher speaking to Native Americans

Overall, Wenger’s book is remarkably successful. It explores an understudied chapter in the definition and deployment of religious freedom ideology and expands its study to a broad and engaging collection of individuals and communities. Nevertheless, Religious Freedom is, somewhat disappointingly, largely a story of men. Only a handful of women appear throughout the entire text. This is particularly unfortunate because of the tradition of exploring the relationship between gender, race, and civilization, yet this vein of inquiry remains underexplored. Some of this is due to the sources Wenger uses and the prominence of men in the military, government agencies, and religious leadership at the time. Nevertheless, a woman like Alice Fletcher—discussed as an example of the of the interplay between race, gender, and civilization in Louise Michele Newman’s White Women’s Rights (Oxford University Press, 1999)—was active in the Women’s National Indian Association, and women like Fletcher might provide valuable insight about this topic. In this way, Wenger’s work provides an excellent platform for future explorations of the role of women in discourses about religious freedom, race, and empire.

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Alice Fletcher speaking with Native Americans
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Archbishop Gregorio Aglipay

Taken on its own, Wenger’s work is excellent scholarship and a valuable contribution to the field, yet it also provides an enlightening lens through which to appreciate some of the trends in the history of ideas, particularly as it relates to those of us who study religious history in the United States. At the most fundamental level, Religious Freedom deftly balances many of the lessons learned from social and cultural history—notably its attention to minority communities and global contexts— while remaining decidedly a history of ideas. Wenger’s study looks beyond politicians, preachers, and government officials, and that significantly reorients her history. Men like William Howard Taft, the governor-general of the Philippines and future president, or W.E.B. Du Bois appear only briefly. The focus remains on the leaders and members of each of the religious communities she explores.

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Marcus Garvey

In doing so, Wenger offers her take on whose ideas contribute to intellectual history. Is the history of ideas primarily about those who wrote books, set policy, and preached sermons, or is it broader than that? Wenger unequivocally answers with the latter definition. To be sure, she does not discount men like Theodore Roosevelt or William James, yet her attention to Jewish immigrants and colonized Filipinos (both Catholic and Muslim), as well as Native Americans and African-American religious movements, tells a more complicated and robust story. Though government agents and prominent religious thinkers engaged with the ideal of religious freedom, this approach to the history of ideas does not privilege their voices. Wenger illumines an expansion in the subjects studied by those of us who work in the history of ideas by intentionally integrating previously overlooked voices.

The centrality of race and racial hierarchies to the history of religion, both in the United States and in a global context, is another significant historiographical theme that Wenger continues to develop. She joins a bevy of excellent scholarship that has emerged at this intersection of religion and race, such as J. Spencer Fluhman’s “A Peculiar People:” Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, Rebecca Goetz’s The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, and Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People. The history of religious ideas in the United States cannot be divorced from conversations about race. Wenger joins a growing chorus in making that point. As she argues in her book, race must be considered as a constitutive part of the development of religious ideals, not simply another factor to consider.

The consistent theme of the American empire also looms over this study. It forms a key part of Wenger’s argument and gestures toward another development in the history of religious ideas. Global contexts increasingly appear in the history of U.S. religion and religious ideas, even when focused on an “American ideal,” as Wenger’s title suggests. This study does just that, but it is not alone. For example, Cara Burnidge’s A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order or David Hollinger’s recent Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America are just two examples of works that touch on similar themes of empire, American religion, and global contexts. Religious Freedom not only emphasizes this growing theme but also furthers the argument that a global lens is necessary for understanding the history of religious ideas in the United States.

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A Midwestern sod house

The themes that Wenger highlights—diverse voices, race, and global contexts—also resonate in the prairies and farmsteads that populate my own work as a historian of religion in rural America during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In particular, her contention that global forces shaped far-flung communities rings true of the rural communities that I study. Increasingly in my own work, I find the tiny hamlets strewn across the Midwestern plains engaged with global forces and positioned themselves in order to benefit from them. Markets and commodities form the best-known examples of rural America’s place in a global network, yet I find that ideas flowed just as freely as crops, livestock, and other essential goods. For example, when rural communities rejected or embraced religious movements like the Social Gospel or Pentecostalism, they often drew upon their own self-conceptions of how their community fit into regional, national, and international contexts. Relatedly, these same networks allowed relatively homogenous rural communities to take part in discourses about race, revealing yet another central theme of this work that appears in my own. The international network that shaped, exchanged, and refined ideals of religious freedom did not pass over rural America.

A Dutch advertisement encouraging immigrants to settle in the rural Midwest

Religious Freedom is engaging, rich, and valuable scholarship on its own, but when placed within the field, it is also an instructive guide to themes that are shaping the scholarship about the history of religious ideas in the United States. It answers the question of whose ideas can become the subject of intellectual history by casting a wider net, in a way that resonates with my own efforts to introduce rural voices into the scholarly conversation. Ultimately, this excellent piece engages readers, integrates compelling new voices, and inspires others to do the same.

Andrew Klumpp is a Ph.D. candidate in American Religious History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. He holds degrees from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. His research explores how rural Midwestern communities engaged in nineteenth-century debates about religious liberty, racial strife and social reform.