People tend to assume the origins of contemporary events, alliances and disagreements belong to the recent if not the immediate past. Recent news articles highlight with surprise the Arabicization of Islamic practice in South Asia – most prominently with respect to the murder of several bloggers in Bangladesh. But India has a long history of intellectual contact with the Arab world. The Madrasa Saulatia in Mecca was set up by an Indian Muslim Rahmatullah Kairanwi – a key protagonist in Seema Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (2015) – as a “centre for embracive reformist Islam with a strong Indic tradition.” It remains a major scholarly hub, retaining intellectual contact with Sunni Muslim seminaries all over the world. It’s own orientation now can be described as a purist intellectual tradition of Islam. For example, it receives patronage “from the Abd-al Wahab impacted Saudi ruling house,” even as – Alavi is quick to remind us of this – its scholarly tradition stands in stark contrast to the violence that is often perpetrated in the name of Wahabi Islam. In this respect, Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism is a fundamentally revisionist text that works through the category of the individual and of the nation. She draws out the history of how a modern vision of Islamic universal selfhood was articulated in the mid-nineteenth century: the processes that connected Indic reformist strands in Islam with Hamidian notions of modernity centred on jurisprudence. In her account, cities such as Cairo thus appear as more than just a site that elucidated anti-British nationalism. Importantly, the book foregrounds how modern histories of South Asia limit key protagonists in this larger global story to the territorial bounds of modern India, even as the records of imperial Britain show how they negotiated trans-imperial identities across South Asia and the Ottoman empire. Continue reading A Muslim Cosmopolis, Or, the Individual and the Nation in Global History: An Interview with Seema Alavi
Religious freedom is back in the news. Just last week, the State Department released its report on religious freedom for 2017. Speaking at its unveiling, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged solidarity with a diverse group of persecuted religious groups: Iranian Baha’is and Christians, Chinese Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslims, Saudi Arabian Shia Muslims, and Turkish non-Sunni Muslims, among others. Government officials did not miss the opportunity to extol the US’s “long, strong tradition” of promoting religious freedom abroad.
No sooner than these announcements were made, reporters began pointing out the gap between rhetoric and reality. In a series of blistering questions, journalists underscored inconsistencies in the administration’s stated prioritization of persecuted Christian refugees; the restrictions on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries; the politicization and selectivity of its interventions; and the absence of any self-reflexivity, particularly in relation to spikes in hate crimes directed at American Muslims. China promptly followed suit, questioning America’s moral authority on religious freedom amid white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville.
The history of America’s interest in religious freedom abroad is the focus of Dr. Anna Su’s first book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (2016). As Su shows, the US has a long history of intervening in countries on behalf of religious freedom. Su tracks the development of official government policies toward religious freedom: first as part of its “civilizing mission” in the Philippines from 1898, then in the democratization of Japan after World War II, and finally through the championing of human rights in Iraq and elsewhere. Working at the intersection of history and law, Su is currently Associate Professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. She previously earned an SJD from Harvard Law School, and worked as a law clerk for the Philippine Supreme Court and a consultant to the Philippine government negotiating panel with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Su presented at the Harvard International & Global History Seminar earlier this year. While she was in town, the Foundation caught up with Su to discuss the shifting valences of religious freedom and American empire, as well as the benefits and dangers of watching historical films starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Prostitution may be considered the world’s oldest profession, but its practice and regulation has been far from fixed throughout history. As Dr. Liat Kozma explores in her most recent book, Global Women, Colonial Ports: Prostitution in the Interwar Middle East (2017), state-regulated prostitution in the Middle East—and the lives of prostitutes themselves—was directly influenced by major global shifts following World War I. These shifts included the transition from Ottoman to French and British colonial rule in the Middle East, as well as the ongoing processes of industrialization, urbanization, and large-scale migration set in motion in the nineteenth century.
Exploring prostitution through the regional lens of the Mediterranean—rather than through a political lens like that of a single nation or empire—Kozma innovatively dissects the many layers of state-regulated prostitution and the involvement of global and local institutions. From Casablanca to Beirut, Alexandria to Haifa, people, practices, germs, and attitudes toward prostitution and sexual practices migrated and spread during the interwar period.
Importantly, this story of the internationalization of prostitution regulation is far from one of top-down colonial policy-making. It involved a complex web of interactions and knowledge-sharing between individuals at every level, including actors from the newly created League of Nations, who sought to monitor traffic in women and children; colonial officials who shared policies maintaining racial boundaries between populations; local feminists, abolitionists, and medical doctors who wrote and debated about how to best prevent the spread of venereal disease; and individual prostitutes and brothel keepers who migrated to different cities in search of employment opportunities. As Kozma puts it, “the drunken sailor affected international policies on clinics that treated venereal disease, and international conventions affected the availability of care in his port of call.”
Kozma’s narrative telescopes in and out, between the local and the global; between the individual brothel keeper in Port Said and the League of Nations meetings in Geneva; between the syphilitic soldier and the history of Salvarsan. In doing so, Kozma sketches out a new model for writing global history—one that connects the dots between social history, women’s and feminist history, and Middle Eastern history.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Kozma, a senior lecturer in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We talked about her research process for the book and her main findings about prostitution in the interwar period. We also discussed some of the broader challenges of writing a social and gendered history of a global phenomenon, the exciting potential of multi-archival research, and her recent work in bridging the divide between academic and non-academic audiences through social history.
Human rights are facing perhaps their greatest challenge yet. After a failed military coup in July last year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led a purge of the country’s central institutions. A much-contested referendum in April only expanded Erdoğan’s stranglehold on the government. Over a similar timeframe, Erdoğan’s Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, has spearheaded a devastatingly brutal antidrug campaign, sanctioning the extra-judicial killing of thousands of suspected drug users and sellers. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has imprisoned members of the political opposition, arrested human rights activists, and outlawed many aid organizations. Meanwhile, the United States—traditionally considered human right’s earliest and greatest champion—has seen the election of President Donald Trump. According to a tally compiled by Amnesty International, in just one hundred days in office, Trump threatened human rights in at least as many ways.
Viewed from today’s perspective, it might seem like it’s only recently that the US has ceded global leadership on human rights. But, as Dr. Steven L. B. Jensen shows in his book The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (2016), the history of human rights was never simply a story of American or Western hegemony. Moving the locus of study to Jamaica, Ghana, the Philippines, Liberia and beyond, Jensen argues that human rights were as shaped from within the Global South as they were from without. In Jensen’s words, actors from the Global South “gave a master class in international human rights diplomacy to both the Eastern and the Western actors.”
Many scholars struggle to connect with non-academic audiences. In his work and in his writings, Jensen straddles the border between academia and international policymaking with comparative ease. Currently a researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Jensen is the author and editor of multiple books and articles. Prior to completing his PhD at the University of Copenhagen, he worked in international development: first at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Southern Africa, and later for the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva. His PhD thesis was published as The Making of International Human Rights last year. Since then, he’s been on something of a roll. Most recently, his book received the Human Rights Best Book Award and the Chadwick Alger Prize for the best book on international organization from the International Studies Association.
The Toynbee Prize Foundation was lucky enough to chat with Jensen during a recent visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jensen was in town to attend a workshop on socioeconomic rights convened by Professors Samuel Moyn and Charles Walton at Harvard Law School. Jensen spoke about human rights’ origins in the Global South, how exactly he came to be known as the “Jamaica guy,” and what the future holds for human rights scholarship.
It’s a good time to be a populist. Across the world, populism has made significant strides. Sanctimonious populism coupled with ironclad convictions seems to be the staple diet of contemporary politics. The emergence of right-wing populism, nationalism and anti-Muslim politics is not confined to Europe but is manifest in other regions as well. Likewise, illiberal nationalism is not exclusive to Muslim-majority states but is also evident in India in the form of the chauvinistic Hindutva movement–the Hindu nationalist ideology.
A concatenation of factors—including the threat of terrorism and anxiety over a massive wave of immigrants from the Middle East, combined with the strong belief in the inefficacy of the EU—has provided a fertile environment for right-wing populists in Europe. In India, the Hindu nationalist project has, since its inception, aspired toward sociocultural homogenization and claims that Hindu culture and religion form the nucleus of India. This project of political Hindutva is more than a century old and has undergone several different phases. Meanwhile in the United States, there has been a gradual increase in xenophobic and chauvinistic nationalism.
Armed with moral rectitude as well as certitude, populists in Europe seek to speak for the ‘general will’ of the people and to protect what they perceive as their western heritage. This nostalgic populism lays emphasis on protecting certain ways of life in Europe and displays hostility towards Jews, immigration, and Islam. In the United States, its equivalent is Trumpism: a cocktail of xenophobic nationalism and demagoguery. Populists are also wont to use democratic institutions to gain power and curtail civil liberties. After assuming power through democratic mechanisms, Hindu nationalists, for example, have attempted to weaken or obstruct aspects of democracy such as freedom of expression.
In addition to propagating antipluralism, populist actors also seek to portray themselves as victims. Majorities act like mistreated minorities. For the Hindutva, the abiding tolerance of Hindus is only matched by the egregious ravages of Muslim rule in India, victimizing Hindus for centuries. For Vivekananda, the paterfamilias of the Hindutva project of the nineteenth century, there was no room for weakness in the process of nation building. Hindus had to shed their effeminate nature, which figured as a prominent bugbear, and become virile and strong. The ignominy of being a slave nation could only be countervailed by an idolatrous devotion to all things masculine.
The totalitarian politics of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe left a strong imprint of antitotalitarianism on European political institutions. The architects of post-war Europe strongly distrusted the idea of popular sovereignty. Hence, parliaments were gradually emasculated and checks and balances robustly strengthened. In short, distrust in unrestrained and untrammeled popular sovereignty was part of the foundations of post-war European politics. The obverse to this is that a political order based on wariness toward popular sovereignty is always vulnerable to populists speaking against a system that appears to be contrived against popular participation.
Until recently, many scholars assumed that nationalism would taper off and that the hold of religion would slacken. Both of these assumptions have been vehemently disproven in the Indian context. The tumultuous relationship between Muslims and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has to do with Hindutva. Though BJP came into existence only in 1980, its intellectual and doctrinal antecedents can be traced back to the nineteenth century. The intellectual history of the Hindutva ideologies forms the focus for the eclectic and prescient oeuvre of Jyotirmaya Sharma, professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. Sharma historicizes the actualization of a bunch of inchoate and exclusionary ideas into the most politically successful undertaking in modern history—the Hindu nationalist project and, by extension, the BJP.
The Hindu nationalist project seeks to portray Hindu civilization as indigenous to India and to depict an intimate and indissoluble relationship between Hindu culture and Indian territory. This project of ossified identities is only matched by the Hindutva’s cultural philistinism. In its effort to reshape the educational system and curricula, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) seeks to interpret history in such a way that it seeks to equate the decline of Hindu society with the coming of Islam to India.
The Hindutva movement also harps on perceived historical grievances and seeks to redress them by mobilizing the serried ranks of RSS and its ancillary organizations. A prevalent trope in the Hindutva enterprise is that of Muslim dogmatism on the one hand and the assimilative and tolerant Hindu civilization on the other, which is also seen as part of a continuous struggle in which the Hindus are perennial victims and Muslims the archetypal aggressors. Tolerance is deemed as an innate quality of Hinduism and Hindus by extension are steadfastly beholden to toleration. It follows that any conflict or discord must have come from outside, since tolerance was essential to Hindu civilization.
There is also a tendency to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. The former is perceived to be tolerant, plural, eclectic and all-encompassing while the latter is depicted as a distorted and aberrant manifestation of Hinduism. Sharma’s work throws out this distinction, while showing that there is more to Hindutva than periodical outbursts of unremitting intolerance. For the Hindu nationalists, issues of identity and nationalism are inevitably entwined. The nation is, in turn, the ultimate fruition of Hindu aspirations.
Sharma’s book A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism shows how in the nineteenth century, the religious vocabulary was transformed into a rigid and monochromatic version of Hinduism which left little scope for diversity of opinion or ritual. Myths and legends were excised, and any local manifestations were treated as deviations.
Jyotirmaya Sharma is professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. His recent publications include Cosmic Love and Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda and the Restatement of Religion (Harper Collins, 2013), A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism (Yale University Press, 2013), Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism (Harper Collins, 2015); and Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India (Penguin/Viking, 2007). An edited volume titled Grounding Morality: Freedom, Knowledge and the Plurality of Cultures (co-edited with A. Raghuramaraju) was published by Routledge in 2010.
–Nagothu Naresh Kumar
Where does “Europe” stop, and where does the world outside Europe begin? It’s a question that’s engaged inhabitants of the peninsula of the great world continent for centuries, if also one that has assumed newly tragic dimensions as refugees from Balkan states, refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa test their chances in crossing the seas, boarding the trains, and hopping the fences that separate Europe from an ostensibly more dangerous, more cruel, and more hungry outside world. Seemingly freed of its old morally burdensome entanglements in its African, Asian and Caribbean colonies, a reformed, European Union-ized Continent faces the challenges of how it wants to interact with the world of former colonies, mandates, and other possessions that it once ruled and still, of course, holds a dominant trading relationship with.
Can history contextualize some of these debates? The work of Dr. Anne-Isabelle Richard, currently an Assistant Professor at the Institute for History at Leiden University, The Netherlands and the latest guest to the Global History Forum, unambiguously demonstrates that it can. In her work, Richard seeks to show how many of the activists in European countries – in particular France and the Netherlands, countries with big empires and interested both in European integration and the politics of colonialism – juggled the two projects of Europeanism and relations with its colonies throughout the twentieth century.
Moving beyond just a narrow diplomatic history focus, Richard’s work mines both state and non-state archives to show how an army of diplomats, pressure groups, anti-colonialists, socialists, and bureaucrats in international organizations such as the League of Nations represented part of a broader, decades long-conversation about the relationship between “Europe” as an ideological and institutional project, on the one hand, and colonial empire on the other. One part of her broader research agenda, this work – the fruits of her PhD at Cambridge University, a Fulbright Scholarship at Yale, and time as a Max Weber Post-Doctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy – is currently being revised by Dr. Richard to become a book.
Recently, one of the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Editors-at-Large, Columbia History Department PhD Candidate Lotte Houwink ten Cate, had the chance to sit down with Dr. Richard to discuss the latter’s ongoing work and her observations on the fields of European and international history today.
Meeting in Leiden, Richard’s current home base, the two engaged in a rich conversation, reproduced below.
Comparing the shifting fortunes of Russia and China over the last fifty years, one cannot but be struck by the dramatic reversal in the two countries’ fates. In 1967, the Soviet Union was in the midst of a massive military buildup that would eventually enable it to reach superiority in conventional arms and parity in nuclear arms with the United States. The Prague Spring was a year away, and in spite of earlier interventions in Hungary, socialism in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed prestige among intellectuals in the West. The Soviet economy grew at a respectable five percent annually or so. China, meanwhile, was still reeling from the effects of the Great Leap Forward when, in 1966, Mao Zedong plunged the country into the Cultural Revolution. Millions of people were persecuted, and China’s leadership nearly triggered a war with the USSR following clashes over islands in Northeast Eurasia.
Today, the two countries present quite a different story. True, since Vladimir Putin was named, then elected, President in 2000, Russia’s economy year after year until the global recession of 2008-09. And having prevented the collapse of a Middle Eastern client in Syria, not to mention Russian influence in European and American elections, Putin can present himself as a confident paladin of Russian power in the world. Yet these triumphs were built only upon the ruins of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in December 1991. And Russia today has to deal not only with the United States, but also a rising People’s Republic of China whose economy is nearly an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s. Even on a per-capita-basis, Russians are only approximately 10% wealthier than their Chinese counterparts.
Reviewing this reversal, those contemplating the decline (and subsequent revival) of Russian state power might point to 1989 as the crucial turning point. In the summer of that year, the PRC’s government imposed martial law as student protesters swarmed Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party declared the protests “counter-revolutionary” and launched a massive crackdown that resulted in perhaps thousands of deaths. Communist Party control over China—albeit now promoting “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—remained intact, as it does today.
In Eastern Europe, however, the Soviet General Secretary’s refusal to use Soviet military force to put down mass protests in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and elsewhere led to the collapse of satellite regimes won at the cost of 26,000,000 lives. And whereas Chinese economic reforms strengthened the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, soon, in the Soviet Union itself, Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms contributed to the centrifugal dissolution of the world’s largest land country into fifteen successor states.
Could things have gone differently? Could the Soviets have reformed their economy into something along the lines of the Chinese success story? Could there have been a Soviet Tiananmen Square scenario that would have prevented Boris Yeltsin from coming to power, and thus averted what Vladimir Putin dubs the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”? It’s a huge question—and also one that our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Christopher Miller (the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale) takes on in his recent book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
Using sources in Russian and Chinese and exploiting underutilized Soviet archives, Miller’s work challenges the conventional wisdom about the great Soviet-Chinese counterfactual. Far from ignorant of Deng Xiaoping’s reinvention of Chinese socialism, Mikhail Gorbachev and the advisors around him were well aware of how the Chinese were transforming their economy. While some criticized the Chinese for abandoning socialism altogether, Gorbachev and his team consciously sought to imitiate Chinese reforms throughout the 1980s. It wasn’t for a lack of awareness or effort that would-be Soviet reformers failed to match Deng Xiaoping’s results. Rather, Miller suggests, the answer to the failure of Soviet economic reforms lies in the political economy of interest groups in the late Soviet Union. Indeed, it was precisely because large lobbies in the military, the oil and gas industry, and collective farms refused reforms that a Soviet Tiananmen would have been impossible in content if not in form. Even had the coup planners who briefly seized power from Gorbachev in August 1991, there was no way they could have imposed the austerity measures on Russians that Deng imposed on Chinese, for such cuts would have meant cutting into their own bloated budgets.
In short, Miller’s work offers not only a tight empirical reconstruction of key events in the history of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, but also offers a new vista on the political economy of Russia and China as they emerged from that annus horribilus (for the regimes, if not tens of millions of Europeans) of 1989. In order to discuss some of the issues raised by The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Miller to discuss his road to writing the book, some of the results of his research, as well as his ongoing research agenda. Continue reading
Is Christianity in danger of disappearing? Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, Christianity in Europe has often been seen as in decline, with the most recent surveys indicating that scarcely more than half of EU citizens believe in any God at all. Many Christian communities in the Middle East, such as the Assyrians, have been displaced through the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian Civil War, and the emergence of ISIS. The Eastern Orthodox Church, freed in its Russian incarnation from decades of Communist rule, shows strong signs of growth in Europe. However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the displacement of Russians means, increasingly, that Orthodoxy’s southern frontiers end thousands of miles further north than they did a century-and-a-half ago.
In fact, Christianity in the world is in no danger of vanishing. The percentage of Christians as a part of world population is nearly the same as it was a century ago. What is changing, however, is the face of Christianity, as both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations see more and more of their congregations be composed of Latin American, African, and Asian populations. Pope Francis is the first Pope from Latin America, while Brazil constitutes the single largest Catholic country. There are almost as many Catholics in Nigeria as there are in Germany. There are perhaps tens million of Chinese affiliated with official state-sponsored Protestant organizations in that country, but the proliferation of unofficial “house churches” means that there could be up to 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics living in the People’s Republic of China. This, in turn, would make China the fourth-largest Protestant country after only the USA, Nigeria, and Brazil.
Demographic changes like these are bound to bring about conversations about theology and dogma. To take the example of the Anglican Church, bishops from the “global South” have boycotted conferences on the grounds that North American churches are too lenient on the ordination of homosexual bishops and their blessing of same-sex marriage. Conversely, many theological conservatives who approved of Joseph Ratzinger have expressed concern over the stress that Pope Francis has placed on issues such as global warming, consumerism, and US-Cuba relations (his more traditional views on matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage notwithstanding). As nations whose entry into Christendom is inescapably entangled with European imperialism come to occupy greater prominence, the question of how “North-South” relations will affect Christianity cannot but occupy the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike.
Our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Albert Wu, offers perspectives on these question in his recent book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, published with Yale University Press.
In his book, Wu (an assistant professor at the American University of Paris) explores how German Protestant and Catholic missionaries engaged with China during the late Qing period and during the Republican period. At the heart of the book stands a paradox. At the start of the period in question, German missionaries viewed Chinese Confucianism as backwards and a crucial hindrance to China’s conversion and, more broadly, modernization. Yet by the 1930s and 1940s, German Christians viewed Confucianism as a crucial ally of Christianity in China. They insisted that a synthesis of Confucianism with Christianity constituted not heresy but rather only common sense. Wu’s book explains this paradox of how Germans “struggled to make a religion with universal claims adopt particular forms” and “how a global religion should assume local guise.”
As many Christians on both sides of the North-South (not to mention European Muslims in search of a “European Islam”) debate these questions, Wu’s book provides useful historical perspective. Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Wu to discuss From Christ to Confucius as well as Wu’s ongoing research agenda. Continue reading
The American Civil War decisively showed the world how thoroughly America dominated cotton production. From Berar in Western India, to the fields of Egypt and German Togoland, pockets of cotton production suddenly expanded, even as this cotton was derided for not being as fine, or the correct length, for the spinning machines in Europe’s factories. German imperial ambitions coloured their interest in American cotton production and strategies for its replication in German Togo. It also drove their incorporation of the Polish periphery into Prussia and sugar beet cultivation by labour gangs of Polish migrant workers to rival British sugar production in the Caribbean. What connected these projects in Germany and German Togo to the American New South was the need to manage racially dominated labour for complex and large-scale production processes.
Andrew Zimmerman’s book Alabama in Africa draws together the disparate threads, and often surprising intersections in a global history of how capitalism produces transnational forms of labour expropriation; a globalization of the ideology and practices of oppression across nations and global regions. Alongside, he shows also how sociology emerged as a discipline in Germany that buttressed the claims and concerns of the imperialist German nation-state. In America, the influential Chicago School of Sociology under the German trained sociologist Robert E. Park became the institutional framework for a new objectification of African American migrants from the New South to Chicago. The transnational exportation of “the Negro problem” of the New South undergirded the emergence of specific forms of labour and its control globally; and this in turn produced a global humanitarian discourse through which the Global South emerged as an object of policy. Continue reading
Tools like GPS and Google Maps are so embedded in most people’s lives today that they can hardly seem worth remarking upon. Want to get from “Work” to “Home”? Simply open up the preset path into your smartphone, and the app of your choice will be glad to show you—or rather, a large blue dot—its path through the maze of streets, subway junctions, and bus lines that separate you from home.
Few people, in 2016 at least, would think about using an actual paper map to navigate from A to B. Most of the information about the other parts of your city beyond your path home are simply irrelevant to you at that particular moment, and what matters most is the accuracy of your GPS-reliant device as it guides you and the blue dot home. Not least from the perspective of the directionally challenged, the advent of GPS and similar devices just seems like the latest chapter in a history of ever-improving (because ever more accurate) mapping technologies that allow users to track moving points in space.
But as our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, William Rankin, shows in his recently published book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, such a Whiggish account of modern mapping is itself far from accurate. It may be true that mapping accuracy improved over the course of the twentieth century. But such an obvious statement fails to say anything about the kinds of geographic knowledge that were produced over the same period. It also overlooks the story of how the kinds of tools used to generate said cartographical knowledge changed over the twentieth century.
If we accept the GPS beacons embedded in our smartphones—or guided missiles—as the exponent of “progress,” we risk overlooking how differently (and not just “better”) GPS’s relationship to territory and space is from those of earlier world-mapping technologies. After the Map seeks to provide, then, not just a technical history of different mapping tools over the twentieth century. It provides an analysis of how shifts in tools engendered shifts in what Rankin dubs geo-epistemology: “not just what is known about the earth, but how it is known— and how it is used.”
The story that Rankin, an Assistant Professor of History at Yale University, explores in After the Map (published with the University of Chicago Press) is thus a crucial intervention into more macro debates among historians about the importance of territory and territoriality throughout the twentieth century. It is a story of how printed maps on paper—once the sine qua non of military operations, with some fifty maps printed per British and American soldier during the 1940s—became less and less relevant in the face of new coordinate systems, radionavigation, and ultimately GPS over the course of the century. It is, in short, a story that encourages readers to go from thinking about maps merely as illustrations, or tools of centralizing political authority, to seeing them as a crucial tool through which makers and users were rethinking the meaning of concepts like territory and sovereignty. In order to discuss some of these questions, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently spoke with Rankin about After the Map.