Provincializing European Intellectual History
Postcolonial criticism’s dissemination throughout the humanities has inspired revisionist readings of Western history and culture, and opened up new terrain for research. Intellectual history, however, has been slow to embrace the insights of postcolonial criticism and its critique of the received categories and practices of Western culture and history, instead maintaining its focus on the canonical texts and figures of the Western intellectual tradition. Inspired by the 2012 American Historical Review Forum on “Historical Turns,” our panel, “Provincializing European Intellectual History,” applies postcolonial criticism to studies of 20th century European intellectual history.
Sandrine Sanos’ paper, “The Philosopher’s Body: Simone de Beauvoir, the Algerian War, and the Sex of Violence,” returns to a cardinal figure of French and feminist thought to excavate the colonial context that shaped her postwar writings. Focusing on her memoir, Les Forces des choses, Sanos argues that de Beauvoir developed a politics of “embodied empathy” that grappled with both the violence of the Algerian Revolution, and with her guilt regarding the Vichy years. Sanos argues that French memories of the Holocaust were mediated through reflections on colonial violence, and that understanding French thought requires situating it in its colonial and postcolonial context.
Marc Matera’s paper, “Imperial/Post-Imperial London and Black Atlantic Intellectual Histories,” examines London as an important site of anticolonial activism and postcolonial intellectual production. Looking particularly at how the West Indian historians Elsa Goveia, Lucille Mair, and Jessica Huntley were marked by African and Caribbean communities in postwar London, he traces their intersecting intellectual and activist itineraries, arguing that struggles over censorship, exile, and repression shaped their pioneering studies of women and slavery. Their activism also helped form the history department at the University of West Indies and encouraged the spread of Caribbean women’s history.
Andrew Daily’s paper, “The Place of Empire: Spatial Thinking in Edouard Glissant,” looks at Glissant’s reflections on the dialectic between space, place, and colonialism. Focusing on his early novels and criticism, he argues that Glissant’s work reflected both postwar philosophical interest in space as a category, and rethought space and place through the colonial context. Reading Glissant alongside philosophers Henri Lefebvre, Martin Heidegger, and Kostas Axelos, Daily argues that Glissant’s colonial reading of space both supplements and amends European spatial thinking.
Building on work in colonial and postcolonial studies, literature, philosophy, and intellectual and cultural history, the three panelists – assisted by the chair, Dr. Gary Wilder – propose new archives for the study of intellectual history and model methodological and theoretical approaches to writing a postcolonial intellectual history. Drawing on figures from the Caribbean, West Africa, the Maghreb, and Western Europe, our panel demonstrates that postwar thought was bound up in the questions generated by decolonization’s challenge to Western hegemony. This panel strives to present not only new work by young scholars, but to stimulate dialogue and discussion about the possibilities and challenges of writing and researching a postcolonial and global intellectual history.