- Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History
Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, edited by Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, is a significant and erudite addition to the thriving field of global history. Let me make it very clear at the outset that my use of the expression "addition" does not carry any of the pejorative connotations often associated with the word. For this book is very far from being merely another additive collection of essays. It is an important pedagogical resource—in fact the editors have self-consciously pitched it as such. Furthermore, it marks a critical intervention in the constitution of the fields of global history and empire studies, respectively.
The editors make it clear in their introduction that the book has three goals, each of which (or sometimes all of them) marks the essays that make up the collection. The first is to bring together a series of articles that come under the rubric of world history. The discrete essays that make up the volume allow the reader to "take a global view of ostensibly local events, systems, and cultures and to reevaluate the histories of connection and rupture that have left their mark, in turn, on our contemporary condition." Second, the abiding theme of the book is a history of empire, which is "loosely" defined as "webs of trade, knowledge, migration, military power, and political intervention that allowed certain communities to assert their influence and sovereignty over other groups." Finally, the book is about bodies. To this reader it is this last, much more than the other two, that gives the collection its uniqueness and integrity in a field otherwise marked by considerable academic creativity but a noticeable barrenness when it comes to astute analyses of gender, sexuality, and the embodied subject.
It would be impossible within the brief space of this review to do justice to each one of the rich essays that make up this collection. Given the constraints of space, let me therefore make a few observations about the different themes and clusters that make up the book. Essays by Rosalind O. Hanlon, Emma Jinhua Teng, Julia Wells, Jennifer Morgan, and others make up the first section of the book, titled "Thresholds of Modernity." Covering an expansive chronological frame from roughly the fifteenth century until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the essays variously reflect on the theme of early modernity. Their contributions emphasize certain important differences between early modern empires' attitude toward the "body." [End Page 345] For example, Teng's essay on Taiwanese women shows how, unlike their European counterparts, the Chinese hypersexualized Taiwanese women and acknowledged matriarchal power only to then treat it as a sign of otherness and need for proper civility. The essays also collectively trace back certain ideas about gender roles to an early modern provenance. Hanlon's essay on Muhammad Khan Bangash provides a rich window into the courtly world of martial culture and the formation of male identities that allow us to question certain received notions about masculinity usually dated to the colonial period in India. Contributions by Mrinalini Sinha, Fiona Paisley, Elisa Camiscioli, and others in the section titled "Global Empires, Local Encounters" raise some thoughtful questions about the stretch of empire. For instance, while Sinha and Paisley demonstrate that there was growing concern (both in the settler and nonsettler colonial situation) about the protection of the female body, Camiscioli's analysis of pronatalist debates in France is an eye opener into the ways in which certain fe/male bodies that constituted France's colonial possessions (the Asian and African) were regarded as unacceptable. Or, just as the club provided a safe space for white civility, so also was there growing concern in early twentieth-century France to constitute the entire nation as a safe space for European whiteness. The last section of the book overlaps with the previous in terms of chronology, though the overall focus of the essays is more broadly...