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Clothing, as Emma Tarlo insists, matters.[1] How we dress, what we have been permitted as dress, for whom we dress have all been hugely important political as well as social and economic questions, as sumptuary laws demonstrate. But if clothing is important historically then so, too, I want to suggest is its absence. Lack of clothing has many meanings and is often freighted with significance.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, unclothedness has special significance rooted in the concept of original sin. In other religions, too, revealing the naked body is highly charged, suggesting the ways in which sexuality and religion bump up against one another across cultures. It is perhaps also why nakedness has often been deployed as resistance. In seventeenth-century England, Ranter and Quaker sects protested their marginalization through nudity -- which they argued was a state of grace. In the early twentieth century, Canadian Doukhobors (an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, about 7500 of whom migrated to Canada en masse in 1899) paraded nude on a number of occasions protesting what they saw as discrimination by the government.[2]  There are many more such examples across the world and in the British Empire specifically, suggesting that revealing the naked body has long been a powerful gesture.

Yet what exactly is a naked body?  Is it naked only when particular areas or organs are visible?  Is it naked if adorned with body markings such as piercings or tattoos?  Does ornamentation, whether of the neck, the penis, or the hair, mitigate nakedness?  The determination of nakedness is a slippery and contingent business, different (and contested) at particular moments and places. Read modern legal briefs about the regulation of strip clubs and the point becomes obvious. With nipple pasties firmly glued on, the dancers are mostly legal; absent these accessories they are naked. If a detail as minimal as this can pay the salaries of lawyers and tie up busy court time, it seems reasonable to insist on the political and economic as well as cultural importance of nakedness.

In the wake of Kenneth Clark’s massively influential 1956 book The Nude: A Study In Ideal Form, nudity and nakedness have frequently been distinguished. Nudity, as Clark articulated an already-understood convention, was acceptable because it eschewed sensuality and celebrated the pure beauty of the human form. Think breast-feeding Virgin Mary canvases and sculptures. Nakedness, by contrast, was the expression either of loss or absence (the unhinged King Lear railing at his fate) or of corrupt sexuality. Art schools had to exercise care in the use of life models for fear of crossing the line from beauty to wantonness. One way they did so, flawlessly captured in Pat Barker’s 2007 novel Life Class, was by forbidding women students in live modelling classes. The issue was the subject of a parliamentary debate in 1860 when a motion to withdraw monies from state-funded schools of art employing female models was squarely defeated in the House of Commons.

Clark’s distinction has resonances, too, when we consider the naked colonial body. The trope of colonial nakedness is a remarkably tenacious cliché, still used to advertise exotic holiday locations, or to indicate a state of savagery or primitiveness. Until very recently school textbooks, missionary newsletters, and even scientific texts in Britain, and indeed in the former Dominions, routinely depicted ‘the native’ as definitively naked, lacking (and thus naked not nude) manners, morals, and money.  Thus when Thomas Huxley requested the Colonial Secretary to have colonial governors furnish him with photographs of ‘Races of men’ living in the British Empire in a ‘condition of absolute nudity’ for ethnological study, their ‘natural’ state of unclothedness mean that his request could cause no offence.[3] In an era of high colonialism the difference between nudity and nakedness thus had distinct racial as well as sexual resonances, dividing the civilized from the savage, and reminding us that the category of race was ever crucial in British history. Considering nakedness as a historical construct seems to me a great way to do that.


Philippa Levine is the Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities and co-director of the Program in British Studies at UT Austin.  She is the author of many articles and several books, including Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (2003) and The British Empire, Sunrise to Sunset (2007, 2nd Revised Edition 2013).

[1] Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

[2] John McLaren, 'The Despicable Crime of Nudity,' Journal of the West 38, no. 3 (1999): 27-33.

[3] Thomas Huxley to Lord Granville, 12 August 1869, TNA CO854/10/5.

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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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