Burbank and Cooper take on the ambitious project of overviewing Empires in World History by engaging myriad cultural and geographic contexts from ancient times to the present day. In doing so, the authors implicitly weave the titular, overarching themes of power and politics through the necessarily self-contained, though interconnected, millieux they cover. Burbank and Cooper’s approach brings up questions of feasibility, clarity and structure. Though universal history may be philosophically sound, how do historians contend with issues of narrative coherency and the (mis)application of Eurocentric historiographic models to the non-European past? [Is there such thing as a non-European past? Is there such thing as an exclusively European past?] Burbank and Cooper’s long durée necessitates an almost comparative approach that lends itself to an argument about a (universal?) human tendency towards exploitation and domination.
"Zhou Tiehai, 'There Came a Mr. Solomon to China' (1994)." Surface. Accessed February 27, 2018. http://www.surfacemag.com/events/art-and-china-after-1989-theater-of-the-world.
In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said engages the universalizing pretensions of Western epistemology. Citing C. L. R. James, he engages the interplay between assimilationist and nativist sentiments in movements for liberation and decolonization (246) – the question of whether historical figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture internalized Enlightenment ideals too readily (his “fatal flaw”) or appropriated them to suit his own needs and subvert European dominion by situating himself within its scheme. Such issues parallel current historiographical debates – how scholars may (mis)apply Eurocentric frameworks or forge their own by recovering indigenous worldviews. Said cites Chinua Achebe – “The work of the Western writer is automatically informed by universality. It is only others who must strain to achieve it” (277).
At the risk of engaging teleologies, I am interested in revisiting the notion of hybridity as (dare I say) an inevitable state of being with which postcolonial activists and intellectuals must contend. Of course, “all culture is hybrid” (317); but, we must consider the power dynamics that differentiate mixture versus “possession, appropriation, and power” (335). Take, for instance the character of Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. To assert or reappropriate his significance, his agency and identity in a vacuum, does not allow us to trace the intellectual lineage that produced him.
People of color have long appropriated the white man’s language and ideologies to wield against him. In The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James performs the ultimate balancing act of narrative construction – seamlessly weaving together individual agency and environmental influence – “great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make” (x). Like a ripple effect, James, as a scholar, enacts the same historiographic reparations as his revolutionary predecessors. Figures such as Toussaint L'Ouverture adopted, elevated, and best embodied the French revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality better than his European counterparts (198). James, operating with a European historiographic model and utilizing the colonizer language-cum-lingua franca of English, subverts white epistemologies from within.
Written on the precipice of World War II, James not only concedes the implications of his own context as a historian in the preface, but draws explicit parallels between Black spectatorship on the margins, observing the white man’s conflicts and decline throughout history – “[Toussaint] and his brother slaves only watched their masters destroy one another, as Africans watched them in 1914-1918, and will watch them again before long” (82). The historiography itself is an act of gazing backwards, approximating events and experiences using language and ideas not of the same time or place. Euro/Americentrism and anachronism both obscure the connection between what Michel-Rolph Trouillot would refer to as historicity 1 and 2 (what happened and what is said to have happened). In this way, modern conceptions of Blackness cannot necessarily be compared to those of late eighteenth-century Haiti. How do historians capture and convey these unfamiliar contexts?