Family Matters: Intimacy, Affect, and Political Life in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

AHA Session 201
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Okezi T. Otovo, Florida International University

Session Abstract

The family was a central metaphor for national, religious, and political communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it became commonplace across the world to speak of mothers and fathers of the nation, of the future, and of the faith. Why was this metaphor so powerful? Each paper responds to this question from a different geographical perspective, mapping the actual and imagined relationships—affective, hierarchical, economic, and colonial—that “the family” spoke to and structured between 1890-1945. How did the affective language of family relations shape new notions of ethics, governance, and political subjectivity? What was the relationship between the enormous power of the family as a metaphor for political and social life, and the transformations taking place within actual families across race, caste, and class?

These papers treat the family as both an abstract and concrete object of historical enquiry in order to trace how the modern metaphor of family often moved in multiple directions: both "in” from broad family ideals to actual family practices, and "out" from particular family practices to powerful ideals. Ferguson’s paper considers how the family moved “in:” as theorists identified the family as the place to shape future subjects suitable for democratic governance and ongoing elite hegemony, new patterns of family life emerged in fin de siècle Cairo and Beirut. Choudhury, by contrast, looks at how the metaphor of family moved “out,” from the exemplary practices of an elite Bengali Muslim family to the conceptual architecture of a Muslim loyalist politics to the British “mother-father” colonial state. Tillman and Bowes’ papers highlight how the language of family relations worked across different scales. Bowes shows that in the United States, the anti-statist movement against compulsory vaccination was grounded in a sovereign home shaped around women’s moral authority as mothers and men’s rights as citizens. Tillman’s paper shows how the language of “fictive kin” in China moved simultaneously across multiple scales: fictive kin became a way for war orphans to think about institutional care, for elites to configure their relationships to the nation, and for politicians to legitimate US sponsorship and foreign aid in a deeply nationalist context.

This panel explores how the power of the family as a political metaphor grew as the actual space of the family became key to expanding state power, imagining new political subjectivities, constructing colonial relationships, and assuring social reproduction in times of economic transformation. Together, the papers examine how languages of intimacy and affect, for example mother-love, the sovereign power of fathers, and childhood vulnerability, became central to the conceptual architecture of modern statehood and political life, and to what ends. What did it mean, in other words, for mothers, fathers, and children, as well as state bureaucrats, political leaders, and citizens, that political and social life were increasingly imagined in familial terms? What did it mean for actual families that their intimate lives became marked as models for broader communities and social orders?

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