April 26, 2010
By Robert A. Schneider, Editor, American Historical Review
The April 2010 issue of the American Historical Review is now available on-line at the University of Chicago Press webpage (AHA members should log in to access the full content of the April 2010 issue of the AHR online). The issue includes articles on the physicality of Martin Luther and suicide in colonial Africa, and an AHR Forum on aspects of political culture in South Asia. There are also five Featured Reviews along with our normal extensive book review section. There is also new section, introduced last year: “In Back Issues,” which calls attention to articles and features in the AHR 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago.
“Martin Luther’s Body: The ‘Stout Doctor’ and His Biographers, ” by Lyndal Roper, takes a fresh look at the great Reformer, focusing on the way depictions emphasizing his “monumentality” and his own relationship to his body informed the theology of Lutheranism. “This was a man whose body was fundamental to his personality,” she writes. Unlike saints and other pious figures, whose thinness illustrated their aversion or indifference to the temptations of the flesh, Luther’s stoutness was an unmistakable, and oft-depicted, feature of his iconographic representations. Roper focuses on more than Luther’s size but also explores the way Luther constantly referred to the body—and specifically his body—in his writings and pronouncements, especially in the famous Table Talk. In the course of her analysis, Roper takes issue with other commentators who have focused on Luther’s body, especially from a psychoanalytical perspective, and offers her own interpretation, which is also psychoanalytically informed. Rather than seeing his preoccupation with the body, especially its seamy side, as a character defect or neurosis, she proposes that Luther “offered a religious worldview that did not separate soul and body but incorporated a robust, redoubtable, and often mucky physicality.”
In "Suicide in Late Colonial Africa: The Evidence of Inquests from Nyasaland," Megan Vaughan acknowledges that that history of this phenomenon in Africa remains largely unwritten. In present-day Eastern and Southern Africa, however, suicide is now attracting significant attention from health professionals. Students of colonial Africa have argued that suicide rates on the continent were low, but the statistical basis for this assertion is quite narrow; and most studies of the subject seem to be based on the dubious assumption that African people rarely experienced guilt or depressive illness. Her article locates the study of suicide in Africa within this colonial intellectual history but also attempts to go beyond it, suggesting how a study of suicide might contribute to a deeper historical understanding of subjectivities in one region of colonial Africa. Using the records of inquests held on suicide cases in late colonial Nyasaland, Vaughan presents a study of the nature of suicide in that region and examines the role of the inquest in the history of suicide in Africa.
AHR Forum, “The State in South Asian History”
This Forum brings together three studies that provide different perspectives on the politics—political processes, political identities and political cultures—in India and Sri Lanka. In "Rule of Law, Rule of Life: Caste, Democracy and the Courts in India," David Gilmartin notes that while democracy links sovereignty to the idea of a unitary, sovereign people, it mobilizes the people’s voice through elections in ways that call forth the particularistic cultural divisions and conflicting interests that divide the people. His article examines the history of electoral democracy in India in the years after 1947 through the lens of this paradox. Taking as a central example the history of caste, which played a critical role in Indian elections even as the law technically barred divisive electoral appeals to caste as a corrupt electoral practice, he argues that India’s jurisprudence relating to caste and elections was directed toward sustaining a paradoxical relationship between the universal and the particular as a foundation for India’s democratic order. He traces this relationship through a close examination of court cases and judicial rhetoric focused on the role of caste in elections, and calls attention to the importance for the courts of an image of the Indian "people" modeled on conceptions of an Indian self constructed by opposed, yet inescapably linked, higher and lower parts.
In "Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration in the Advent of British Rule to Sri Lanka," Sujit Sivasundaram examines the history of the divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka, from a transnational perspective. He returns us to the key period which saw the fall of the last independent kingdom in the interior of the island, namely Kandy, and the emergence of wholesale British colonialism. The impact of this colonialism was to fashion from the flow of kings, traders, monks, and troops a kingdom of Kandy, as the British bound the island into a unit of governance, separate from South and Southeast Asia. In the process, the British exalted a sense of indigeneity which they applied to the Sinhalese, as seen in the repatriation to India of those they termed "Malabar," a term which later became Tamil. This sense of the Sinhala already existed within Kandy, but did not have the full import assigned to it by the British. By paying attention to the shifting placement of the island in the wider region, this article attempts to explain how ethnic differences were articulated out of the mutating connections of the local to the regional and global. This is especially evident in island spaces, which came under regimes of pre-colonial, colonial, and national state-making and where modernity brought disruptions to existing forms of cosmopolitanism.
Mithi Mukherjee’s "Transcending Identity: Gandhi, Nonviolence, and the Pursuit of a ’Different’ Freedom in Modern India" is a historical exploration into the Gandhian discourse of ”renunciative freedom” and how it differs from the western conceptions of political freedom. As opposed to western understandings, which are anchored in notions of national identity, nation state, individual rights, and private property, the Gandhian freedom had its origins in Indic—Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu—renunciative and non-identitarian traditions embodied, indeed, in the figure of the renouncer. In contrast to most historians who approach Gandhi as a unique, if not an odd figure in history, she shows that Gandhi was the culmination of a long line of other important thinkers in modern India who sought to negotiate the competing and conflicting claims of the two discourses of freedom, a project that had emerged as the central intellectual problem in colonial India. Remarkably, she claims, even as the notion of "difference" has become important for historians of modern India, particularly of the subaltern and postcolonial schools, it has not been extended to Gandhi, perhaps the most exemplary figure in this regard. Mukherjee suggests that this is because their notion of difference does not extend to the Indic intellectual and cultural traditions reflected in Gandhi.
In his comment, “‘History is Past Politics’? Archives, ‘Tainted Evidence,’ and the Return of the State,” Todd Shepard, who has written about decolonialization in Northern Africa, reads these three essays as moves back to politics and state-centered history among imperial and post-colonial historians. He notes that each of the articles approach their material from a transnational perspective, using this perspective to tease out differences and cross-currents in the political cultures they examine. Within this context, however, their return to state-centered histories, especially among historians and scholars of colonial and post-colonial societies, represents a significant departure. Shepard endorses this move, but he also calls attention to the snare of archives as constructed by national states and political institutions. We must, he concludes, ask ourselves ask “why sources are available and how their availability is organized.”
June’s issue will include articles on the place of food in colonial Jamestown and in Spanish America, on the history of language in Meiji Japan, and on the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It will also include an AHR Exchange on William Novak’s June 2008 article, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State.”