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Dane_Kennedy.jpgAn interview with Dane Kennedy by Stephen Jackson [1]  

Dane Kennedy is Elmer Louis Keyser Professor of History at The George Washington University. He has published extensively on the history and historiography of the British Empire, and recently served as President of the NACBS. He agreed to an interview with the British and Irish Studies Intelligencer to discuss recent trends in the field of British Imperial History. 

 

1) You recently suggested that contemporary events have dramatically shaped both scholarly and public conversations on the history of the British Empire.[2] What responsibility do professional historians have to utilize our specialized forms of knowledge to inform the public understanding of empire?

The questions we ask about the past invariably echo our current concerns.  In this respect professional historians are engaged for better or for worse in public conversations that involve moral and political issues.  For worse if that engagement leads to categorical pronouncements about the ‘lessons of history’.  But for better when we challenge unexamined assumptions about the past’s relationship to the present and provide a deeper, richer understanding of that relationship.  What I tried to suggest in my JBS essay is (1) that the renewed interest in British imperial history since the 1980s has been spurred by contemporaneous forces and events that have preoccupied the public at large; (2) that these preoccupations have both been informed by Britain’s imperial past and have themselves informed how that past is viewed and its meaning interpreted; and (3) that those of us who are professional historians of the British empire need to be sensitive to this dialogue between the past and the present, contribute to it responsibly, and challenge deceptive claims about the past.  How do we do this?  By doing what historians do best: analyze evidence, contextualize it, expose its complexities and nuances, and, at the same time, seek out the distinguishing patterns and processes that help to explain change over time.  Let me stress that I’m not suggesting we can provide objective ‘truth’ about the past.  But we do possess a shared set of disciplinary tools and critical skills that allow us to distinguish legitimate claims about the past from those that are deliberately distorted to advance current agendas.

 

2) Elsewhere in the article, you called on professional historians to be more aware of how their own subjectivities shape their work.  In what ways has this awareness affected your own understanding of the British Empire? How would the field look differently if historians approached their research in this way?

It so happens these are questions that Antoinette Burton and I have asked ourselves, along with fifteen other historians who work on various aspects of British imperial history, for a forthcoming volume we’ve co-edited, How Empire Shaped Us (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2016).  We invited the contributors to reflect on the ways their personal, professional, and public lives intersected with and were informed by empire — and, in turn, the ways their experiences shaped their historical preoccupations.  I’ve found it fascinating to learn how historians whose work I admire were drawn to their subjects and what made those subjects meaningful to them.

As for myself, I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I realize in retrospect that I turned to British imperial history at least in part to make sense of that war, to frame and clarify my moral and political objections to it.  The time I spent conducting research in Rhodesia, which was then in its death throes as a colonial society, also had an important impact on my development as a historian.  The British imperial past has continued to intrude on the world I inhabit in various ways, most recently and urgently when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

Will greater awareness by historians of their own subjectivity make any difference in how they write history?  Honestly, I don’t know, but it sure can’t hurt. 

 

3) Over the past two decades you have written extensively on the inclusion of new historical perspectives that challenged more traditional understandings of imperial history.[3] Do you believe that imperial historians have effectively incorporated these new perspectives into a more holistic understanding of the British Empire, or do we now simply have even more contending understandings of the meaning, substance, importance, and perhaps even the definition of imperialism?

I don’t think it’s possible to achieve a ‘holist’ understanding of the British empire—or any other historical subject, for that matter.  I do think our understanding of the empire has been immensely enriched by the new approaches that have been introduced over the past few decades under the banners of postcolonial studies, the new imperial history, Subaltern Studies, the ‘British World’ project, settler colonial studies, and more.  But each of these approaches has its own agenda, and I don’t see much chance of pulling them together into a grand meta-narrative.  Just read the essays by John MacKenzie and Bill Schwarz in the latest issue of The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History and you’ll see that the relationship between different schools of imperial historians remains as testy and polarized as ever.  These debates are signs of the continued vitality of the field, so I’d hate to see some bland consensus take their place.  What’s changed, however, is that the new approaches to imperial history have become far more pervasive and institutionally entrenched than they were, say, a decade ago, and their influence is felt even among historians who work on ostensibly ‘traditional’ subjects.


4) What new directions do you see emerging in the historiography of the British Empire? What are the major topics or research questions that you think will drive the scholarly conversation over the next decade? 

The nice thing about being a historian is that you get to interpret the past rather than predict the future.  At this point in my career I’m probably the last person to recognize the next big thing in British imperial historiography.  I will simply say that we’ve begun to see some innovative work in those aspects of imperial history that got left behind by the cultural turn, such as economic, political, legal/constitutional, and military history.  There’s also some great history being written about other empires, as evidenced by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s brilliant synthesis.  The most exciting book I’ve read recently happens to be about the Russian empire — --Willard Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Cornell UP, 2014).  Finally, we should acknowledge the growing influence of transnational and global histories.  They raise the possibility that British imperial history will lose its identity as a distinct field and become submerged in these larger projects.


5) Would you reflect on your time as President of the NACBS, and how it has influenced your understanding of the wider field of British Studies?

What I learned from being president of the NACBS is how much the organization depends on the generosity of its members, who devote a great deal of time and effort to its operations.  It’s pretty remarkable that a scholarly society as large and active as the NACBS relies entirely on volunteers.  This includes its administrative officers, its governing council, its various prize and fellowship committees, its program committee, its webmaster, the local arrangements team that organizes the annual conference, and many others.  This speaks, I think, to the intellectual and professional value these volunteers attach to the NACBS.

We can be proud of what the NACBS manages to do with our limited resources. We host an annual conference that has a well-deserved reputation for its quality, congeniality, and reach, attracting large numbers of British and other overseas participants.  We also have remarkably vibrant regional organizations, each with its own annual conference.  Our JBS is quite simply the best journal in the field, its reputation the result of the hard work done by a long line of superb editors — again, each of them volunteers.  We have taken care to honor British studies scholarship with our book and article prizes.  And we work to nurture the next generation of scholars with graduate fellowships and other forms of financial aid, including stipends to attend our conference, as well as the essay prizes we give to undergraduates.  We have an increasingly active web presence, as this Intelligencer blog demonstrates.

The challenges we face come from the broader forces at work in higher education.  The corporatization of colleges and universities is causing the erosion of history and other humanities disciplines.  Fewer students, fewer faculty, and fewer financial resources for those faculty who remain, especially those who struggle as adjuncts, don’t bode well for the NACBS.  Our membership is shrinking, and it’s hard to see this trend reversing so long as the marginalization of the humanities within higher education continues.  At least in the near term, however, the NACBS has the financial resources and the allegiance of members to weather the storm.     

 


 

[1] In the interests of acknowledging my own subjectivity, I was a graduate student of Dane’s at The George Washington University from 2007-2013.

[2] Dane Kennedy, “The Imperial History Wars,” Journal of British Studies Vol. 54, Issue 1, Jan. 2015, 5-22.

[3] Dane Kennedy, “Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24, No. 3 (1996): 345-63; Dane Kennedy, “Postcolonialism and History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies, ed. Graham Huggins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 467-88.  


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