durba ghosh on the imperial turn
The British imperial turn has been the product of many historiographical changes over the last century, and in the last several decades it has engaged other historiographical turns—the global, the postcolonial, and the archival. From the height of Britain’s empire in the late nineteenth century (then considered a “new imperialism”) to our current moment, imperial history in Britain has shifted from the study of the British Empire toward world and global history in which the structuring effects of European colonialism are accorded less centrality than they once were. In tracking tensions between liberal and Marxist historiographies on empire, disagreements between social and cultural historians, and differing views on the scale at which we should think about empires, we can see how one might write the histories of an imperial turn that goes global while being attentive to the states of exception to the norm that are produced from marginal, feminist, subaltern, and minority perspectives. While proponents of the imperial/postcolonial turn attempted to radically transform historical methodologies by engaging in close reading, questioning the symbolism of language, and exposing archival texts to deconstructive techniques, this move was strongly challenged by some imperial historians, who claimed that their methods were based wholly in archival research and empiricism rather than “theorizing.” One might look to feminist and queer studies approaches to reading archives as a kind of archival (re)turn that requires close reading of marginal perspectives as well as deep and thorough archival research.
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