Gifts for lurkers, part II: Agostino Brunias in St. Vincent’s

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[click to see whole image

The image you see here is taken from Lennox Honychurch’s fine historical website devoted to Caribbean history; this comes specifically from a page devoted to an interesting painter of St. Vincent’s island, Agostino Brunias.

http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/brunias.cfm

In fact, these miniature images were painted on buttons, buttons on a waistcoat said to have belonged to ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture, the liberator of Haiti [, and ] replicas of Brunias prints miniaturized on each button, probably in France.’ 

I found this set of Caribbean images by accident, and saw to my even greater surprise that Brunias had painted one of the figures I’d been reading over the past few weeks, Sir William Young, 2nd Baronet, whose entire family figures in the history of these islands between the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See Honychurch’s description)

One of my inspirations for doing this was a post by Slawkenbergius, who announces the appearance of the William & Mary Quarterly special issue (April 2007) devoted to the intersections of american and post-colonial studies:

http://slawkenbergius.blogspot.com/2007/07/history-and-theory-turning-and-turning.html

Slawkenbergius is not especially thrilled with these developments, but I did appreciate David Armitage’s statement about the potential gains of post-colonial approaches for the historical study of state-formation and -expansion:

The great advantage of Greene’s postcolonial perspective is that it reveals the common imperial features that spanned what have conventionally been seen as the colonial and national eras. The United States was—or rather were—born into a world of empires; little wonder, then, that the land-hungry, westward-expanding, federal Republic should have taken on many of the features of the imperial state that had given birth to it and also of its imperial neighbors and contemporaries. The world of states today emerged decisively only in the last fifty years in the aftermath of decolonization, though its roots lie in the American and Latin American revolutions. Scholars should not project its peculiar features onto eras when states were only one among many competing forms of corporate human association. Taking that knowledge into account allows historians to uncouple nationhood from statehood and to reverse the nationalist teleology that informed much American historical writing. It will also have the salutary effect of bringing American history into closer parallel with developments in Latin American and South Asian history, both of which have tended to stress continuity rather than rupture in the passage from the colonial to the postcolonial state.

http://www.historycooperative.org.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/journals/wm/64.2/armitage.html

Looking at these paintings of ‘Caribs’ and others produced by an Italian ‘draughtsman’ employed by an English aristocrat and a Scottish architect, it’s hard to say what national history they belong to, especially when these same images end up being worn by L’Ouverture, liberator of Haiti, and later copied and mass-produced by French workmen.

DM

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4 responses to “Gifts for lurkers, part II: Agostino Brunias in St. Vincent’s

  1. Don’t get me wrong: I think the study of continuity in imperial expansion is a valid theoretical perspective. I just don’t think it has anything in particular to do with postcolonial theory; or, rather, it can plausibly be interpreted in the light of po-co, but such an approach doesn’t seem to yield any special benefits.

    Of course, since the literature on this perspective is underdeveloped, it’s possible that these benefits may become clear soon enough. But there isn’t really any debate on what these might possibly be, aside from the above.

    I think it smacks of bandwagonism. It’s almost like saying, “I’m going to use Foucauldian theory to study the eighteenth century,” and then finally concluding that “institutionalization increased.” Well, duh. But you don’t need Foucault to tell you that.

  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for responding. Let me lay out my take on the essays in question, and then you can tell me if you think I’m missing or misrepresenting some aspect of what’s going on.

    From my point of view, this is the passage of DA’s that is key:

    The world of states today emerged decisively only in the last fifty years in the aftermath of decolonization, though its roots lie in the American and Latin American revolutions. Scholars should not project its peculiar features onto eras when states were only one among many competing forms of corporate human association. Taking that knowledge into account allows historians to uncouple nationhood from statehood and to reverse the nationalist teleology that informed much American historical writing.

    DA has been attempting for some time now to de-couple nations from states conceptually, since the strongly naturalized association of the nation-state functions most convincingly for hegemonic powers like post-Napoleonic England or the post-WWII USA, but not so well for weaker, more fragmented states like Italy, Germany, or practically any of the states in Latin America.

    And DA’s point, I think, is that it was the historical moment of decolonization in Latin America and South Asia that helped him, along with scholars like Benedict Anderson, to see the historical continuities AND discontinuities offered by the ‘world of states.’

    But I think Greene’s and DA’s language of ‘testing,’ along with the more skeptical responses in this issue (Rothman’s for one) suggests that this is more of a research program than a manfesto.

    Best.

    DM

  3. In the context of Armitage’s work, that emphasis on denationalization seems very understandable; I hadn’t read enough of his work to make that connection, I guess. But, again, I don’t think the denationalization project is in itself the problem–though, as Einhorn points out, it’s hardly a historiographical rupture. The emphasis on postcolonialism is much fresher, but more questionable.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m operating under a pretty specific definition of postcolonialism: not simply a body of academic work produced after the 50s-60s decolonization, but a Marxist and existentialist-influenced philosophical tradition which aims to critically evaluate the intellectual legacy of the colonizing powers, particularly from the point of view of a critique of rigid binaries. (not that I’m nearly familiar enough with any of this work that I can debate it intelligently). So when I hear “postcolonial theory,” I imagine a history grounded in this framework–something like what War Historian once found himself doing. Which is why I basically agree with Zuckerman that “Greene’s misappropriations of postcolonial thinking … are flat where postcolonial thinking is subtle.” Also, I’m hesitant to support any direction in historical research that tends toward giving Ward Churchill academic legitimacy.

    A more ecumenical definition of “postcolonial theory” fits this problematic pretty well, on the other hand. In that case, though, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. The work of Anderson, and of “postcolonial” social scientists like Hirschman and Eisenstadt, has been orthodox for a while, hasn’t it?

    G

  4. Greg,

    One of the necessities for this kind of discussion is defining ‘post-colonial’ thought in an unreductive, untrivializing way, to do justice to the diversity of views and approaches encompassed by that term. And of course the field expands or contracts depending on the breadth of the specific questions considered.

    I’m not sure I’m up to that job, either, since I consider myself someone who occasionally works ‘with’ post-colonial critics and criticism (whose stuff I read) rather than ‘in’ that field. But here goes.

    For my purposes, at any rate, postco is a historicism that looks at texts and events as embedded in what some theorists call ‘geo-historical’ location, which include the power-relations between various regions and/or collectivities: this is what is meant when we talk about centers and peripheries, which are of course political as well as geographical, and capable of plenty of elaboration. The analysis emerged out of the historical moment of de-colonization in the post-war, but it can also travel, with greater or lesser plausibility, to other times and places.

    I don’t know whether postco is an orthodoxy or a heterodoxy at this point in time. What I do know is that the work is out there, with the usual range of quality from stanky to superb, and it’s there for you to read and engage with , if you so choose.

    Best,

    DM