Troubling the Empire: An Interview with Antoinette Burton

Prof. Antoinette Burton, Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, UIUC

The British Empire, in its various guises, remains a rich historiographical field. Over the course of the past forty years, imperial history has undergone a series of changes stemming from the cultural turn, postmodernism, and postcolonial studies. A central element of this has been to break away from the male-dominated approaches to the ‘Official Mind’, and incorporating gender, race, and class into our understanding of Empire. Professor Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been at the forefront of this change, as part of a wider group of scholars breaking down the insular boundaries of the field. Prof. Burton is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and its empire, with a specialty in colonial India and an ongoing interest in Australasia and Africa. She has written on topics ranging from feminism and colonialism to the relationship of empire to the nation and the world.

Throughout her career, Antoinette Burton has drawn our attention to the place of women in imperial movements in Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture 1865-1915 (UNC Press, 1994), the experiences of non-white subjects moving across the empire in At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (University of California Press, 1998), and the perpetual weakness of the empire itself in The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism (Oxford UP, 2015). These works, as well as her extensive list of further publications, have allowed us to understand the metropole and empire as co-constitutive, with bodies and ideas crossing imperial boundaries and breaking down previously held assumptions of insularity. Revealing the voices of marginalized groups has also stimulated a wide array of research into localized perceptions of empire.

In this interview, Burton discusses the origins of her interest in gender and the British Empire, and her transition to broader questions of British imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We also spoke about the pitfalls of studying the Empire in the current era of revisionism and imperial nostalgia, and how we as historians can combat the challenges raised by the amnesia surrounding colonial actions. Finally, we talked about how both collaborative projects and the field of World History can enrich our understanding of the British Empire, as well as the benefits of these approaches to early career researchers.

James Parker

Writing Global Ecological History ‘From Below’: An Interview with Gregory Cushman

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Greg Cushman, Associate Professor of International Environmental History, University of Kansas.  Photo: Brian Hamilton 

To further our understanding of the development of industrial capitalism over the past two centuries Greg Cushman claims, we need to write histories ‘from below,’ in two senses: first, we need to write histories that consider not just those who ‘invented the steam engine’, but those which trace the origins of the steam engine’s parts (material and intellectual) wherever across the globe that leads us – often far beyond the ‘Global North’. Second, we need to investigate our planetary history below the earth’s surface. Lithospheric history Cushman calls it. That entails researching the history of rock and mineral extraction from the lithosphere and tracking the movement, use, transformation and impact of those materials upon humanity and the earth’s environment over millennia. He also claims that it entails taking elemental history seriously, that is, historicising the relationship between humankind’s understanding of the extraction and application of a chemical element or compound upon the earth’s environment. These trajectories are big and bold and they challenge forms of disciplinary knowledge historians presume they should master, but they’re exactly the type of interdisciplinary lines of enquiry that Cushman has been pursuing since his days as a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin.

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