- Decentering Empire: Britain, India and the Transcolonial World ed. by Durba Ghosh and Dane Kennedy
How should British imperial history be written in an age of globalization and anglo-imperial war? The editors of this collection, Durba Ghosh and Dane Kennedy, suggest that not only do older models of imperial history demonstrably fail us, but even the newer imperial history has its methodological limits for capturing the complexities of the global history of the British empire. The essays collected here aim for “an ecumenical approach” that “exposes the cross-colonial, multivalent nature of the relationship between ruler and ruled” (1); that engages comparative questions beyond predictable dichotomies of core-periphery; and above all, that decenters the British empire in the context of global histories tout court. These are compelling aspirations, especially as they are carried out through what is essentially a festschrift for Thomas Metcalf, professor emeritus from Berkeley and long an important voice in British imperial and South Asian historiographies. The collection largely succeeds at these tasks, even as it raises important and still-to-be-answered questions about the fate of imperial histories in the current conjuncture.
The introduction to Decentering Empire is a bracing overview of major trends in the field, deriving largely but not exclusively from the work of Metcalf and other leading South Asian scholars. Ghosh and Kennedy diagnose a number of methodological impasses faced by scholars of empire, most interestingly the apparent incommensurability of cultural and material analyses for historicizing the uneven character of imperial power, the fugitive agency of indigenous peoples, and the transnational networks of all kinds of restless subjects. While most of the essays that follow are not expressly concerned with these questions, they engage them implicitly by plotting their research findings on a variety of geographical and interpretive grids. Most distinctive among these are Kevin Grant’s piece on fasting across the empire (in which he produces a genealogy of a form of political protest whose origins are less significant for him that its modes of travel through England, Ireland and India); David Gilmartin’s essay on the cross-fertilization of ideas about immigration in India; and Egypt and Kennedy’s own work on tropical neurasthenia, theories of which were no respecters of colonial boundaries. Anne Keary’s essay on the portability of origin stories in Tahiti, the American northwest and eastern Australia is also promising in this regard, premised as it is not on a dichotomous comparative model but on a genuinely multi-sited conception of how colonial knowledges were produced and circulated.
The editors must needs realize that decentering empire means decentering India, though the challenges of doing so in the context of an Anglo-American academy in which South Asian history is among the most deeply entrenched of the “area studies” concentrations are considerable. Not surprisingly, India takes up more space than any other ex-colonial region in the collection – in part of course because Metcalfe’s own work has been focused there, and thus the volume showcases several generations of his students. To be sure, some of the most accomplished pieces are those focused on India: Rachel Sturman’s research on marriage, Ghosh’s on Bengali terrorism and Lisa Trivedi’s on imperial/colonial publics represent the best new work going on at the intersection of South Asian studies and British imperial history. But in terms of answering the call for new models of transnationality that the introduction to the volume lays out, the result across the collection as a whole is uneven, and the enduring centrality of India is partly accountable for this. While a number of authors reference intra-colonial connections and borrowings, as many offer fairly geographically-bounded accounts of colonial revenue, medical professionalization, swadeshi, photography, and freemasonry. In his lively essay on the latter, for example, Vahid Fozdar gestures briefly toward the “global linkages” (123–24) of lodge culture, but this is effectively a story of Indian “brotherhood” with some fleeting metropolitan Britain and US referents. Such maneuvers reveal the very real difficulties of re-imagining imperial history...