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  • After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation
  • Edward C. Moulton
After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation. Edited by Antoinette Burton. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. 369 pp. $89.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

This is an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking collection of twenty-one essays (including the invaluable introduction by the editor) that debate the adequacy or limitations of the "modern, Western, Euro-American nation" (p. 1) as an analytical category for the study of history and culture. This questioning of the hitherto widely accepted idea of the centrality of the nation-state, as Burton acknowledges, owes much to the development of postcolonial studies and its new and discerning investigations into the nature of colonial hegemony. However, Burton does not appear to see herself as an integral [End Page 110] part of that school of studies. Rather, she evidently, and with good reason given her scholarly contributions, sees herself as an exponent of a new subfield of studies concerning "the imperial turn." Helpfully, for those who may not be immersed in the latest theoretical developments in this area, she defined "the imperial turn" as "the accelerated attention to the impact of histories of imperialism on metropolitan societies in the wake of decolonization . . . racial struggle and feminism in the last quarter century" (p. 2). While acknowledging the interrelationship between this subfield and postcolonialism, she does not tend to see the two as "coterminous" (p. 9). Indeed, her object in providing the intellectual and organizational drive to create this collection of original essays is to stimulate debate and thinking about the limitations of traditional national histories and to further explore and critique the interconnectedness of empire, nation, colony, race, and gender as the world moves into an era of increasing globalization. This also involves reshaping the nature of history writing itself to give it more of an international, interdisciplinary flavor and contemporary relevance.

The volume is divided into three parts, the first of which is titled "Nations, Empires, Disciplines: Thinking beyond the Boundaries" and is intentionally Anglocentric in focus. This is logical because Britain was so pivotal as an empire, and its experience in the aftermath of decolonization can be illustrative of what happened to other Western nations. Furthermore, India and Indo-British relations during the time of empire are central to much of the historiography of both postcolonialism and "the imperial turn," and Burton's own scholarship focuses primarily on the influence of the Indian periphery on the metropolis of Britain during the imperial era. The six essays in this first section provide insightful commentaries from different disciplinary perspectives on recent scholarly writings on empire and nation and questions ways of thinking, writing, and teaching about these subjects. Not all authors agree on the downgrading of emphasis on the nation. For example, Tony Ballantyne, writing about South Asia, emphasizes the centrality of the nation-state in subaltern studies, the importance of horizontal linkages between British colonies as well as vertical connections with the metropolis, and the need to reread the archive in the light of the complex web of colonial knowledge. Second, Ann Curthoys, writing on Australia, stresses that national history there is relatively new and full of vitality. She welcomes this development and recognizes the merit of opening up historical analysis to outside cultural and historical influences so long as it does not jeopardize national history.

Part 2, titled "Fortresses and Frontiers: Beyond and Within," contains [End Page 111] six essays, three of which form a counterpoint to the earlier focus on Britain, taking the discussion of empire and nation to an examination of the experiences of France, Germany, and Spain. To my mind, the most significant of these three essays is that in which Josep M. Fradera, a distinguished Spanish historian, responds to questions concerning Spanish colonial historiography. He argues convincingly that traditional Northern European capitalist and Protestant interpretations of "Spanish and Catholic backwardness" (p. 163) and exceptional brutality toward its colonial subjects were based largely on prejudice and misunderstanding. There is soundness, as well, in his further contention that Spanish imperialism, which began internally with the colonization of the Iberian Peninsula in the thirteenth century and...


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