- Introduction:Empires in the Eighteenth Century
Predictions of the death of postcolonial theory and empire studies have been rife for about twenty years, crystallized in a roundtable in PMLA in 2007 titled "The End of Postcolonial Theory?"1 Data on what articles readers of the electronic form of this journal are downloading, however, indicate that what Jean-Francois Bayart pejoratively called the "carnaval académique" of postcolonial studies goes on.2 For example, Ramesh Mallipeddi's postcolonial essay "Spectacle, Spectatorship, and Sympathy in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko" (ECS 45.4, Summer 2012) was by far the most downloaded article from this journal on Project Muse in 2017. The article had over 800 "clicks"—almost twice as many as the second most popular essay last year, Nicholas Hudson's "From 'Nation' to 'Race': The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought" (ECS 29.3, Spring 1996), which itself engaged with postcolonial theory's concern for the construction of identity.
That these are older articles (one six years and the other twenty-two), before the deaths of postcolonial luminaries such as my dissertation director Srinivas Aravamudan, does not so much suggest that recent content has not also held appeal. Rather, the continuing popularity of these and other articles on similar topics demonstrate that readers crave engagement with analyses of empire and are sometimes reaching further back to find it. But not always. Indeed, ECS 50.1 (Fall 2016), an issue that featured commemorative essays on the work of Aravamundan, ranks among the top five issues of the journal downloaded in 2017, part of a distinguished cluster of issues that also features one (ECS 50.3, Spring 2017) dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. While this data does not indicate that our readers are [End Page 1] exclusively interested in colonialism and related issues—the next most viewed essays during 2017 were about the French Revolution, feminist approaches to Eliza Haywood's Fantomina, and the Enlightenment Anthropocene—it does tell us that research into race and imperialism is central to our readership.
One explanation for this fact might be that the top three institutions downloading articles in 2017 were outside of the United States: the University of Toronto (1364 "clicks"), Cambridge (618), and Oxford (577). While this proves that Eighteenth-Century Studies is a premier international journal (though none of the top twenty-five downloading institutions was in a non-Anglophone country), it also may indicate an appreciation for the international and cosmopolitan nature of the histories of empires that postcolonialism provides. This is not to say that this "market" data should influence "thought" (in Brett Levinson's formulation) and what we publish.3 But through it we should be able to discern how both people within the field and those outside it who are interested in the eighteenth-century origins of empires use the journal. If we were to let the data tell us what to print, it would be, like the metrics on enrollments and other issues now being used at universities, a case of the tail wagging the dog rather than the other way around. This practice lacks leadership and drowns out diversity of thought in the name of the commodification of students. In short, if we did that we would be like the news media, creating content based on what they know their audiences are watching and reading rather than coming up with new ideas of their own; we would follow rather than lead. We are in the Humanities, and are not a branch of the media; our books and articles about the past teach people to be critical readers of it.
This special issue on Empire, initially planned by the previous editorship of Steven Pincus and Amy Dunagin, therefore comes at a serendipitous time for the journal's new editors and for the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) itself as we contemplate submissions. In the little more than a year of the University of New Hampshire's management of the journal, we have seen submissions ranging from architectural history, gardening history, literary celebrity, musicology, contemporary descriptions of ballet...