I am a historian of modern Europe, with a particular interest in the places where the borders of “Europe” become porous: moments of cultural contact and commercial exchange that force us to question what this thing “the West” is and how it has come to be defined. My current research focuses on France between about 1880 and 1940. During that period, France had the world’s second largest empire, with extensive colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. Crucially, France in those years was also a global cultural capital: Paris, like New York today, was a place where many artistic careers were made, and where the prospect of international fame attracted hundreds of ambitious young painters, sculptors, writers, composers and musicians from around the world. The various movements they formed – such as Cubism and Surrealism – and the celebrities that emerged from their ranks – Stein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Bechet – have become central figures in the cultural history of the twentieth century.
The book I am writing now, Metropolitan Fetish: African Sculpture and the French Invention of Primitive Art, is a transnational study of the interaction of these two forms of power, imperial and cultural. It uses the wooden masks and figures brought back to France by colonial administrators, businessmen and soldiers as a jumping-off point for a story that travels from sub-Saharan Africa to Parisian art galleries, to the pages of fashion magazines, to the Louvre Museum, to world’s fairs, to auction rooms, to the apartments of avant-garde critics and poets, to the streets of Harlem, and then full-circle to colonial museums and schools in Dakar, Bamako and Abidjan. The point of this wide-ranging journey is to place two topics normally studied separately – the Modernist avant-garde and the European colonial project – in a single frame, and to show as a result how each influenced the other in profound and often unexpected ways.
My first book, Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism and Occultism in Modern France (Cornell UP, 2008), addresses the question of cultural contact by exploring the consequences of the arrival of an American religious innovation, “Modern Spiritualism,” in France. Beginning in 1853, when reports of American Spiritualist séances triggered an astonishing craze for what the French called tables tournantes – tables that seemed to turn under their own power, or even tap out coded messages, when a group of people put their hands on them – and continuing through about 1930 with the rise and fall of several new religious movements, many French people were fascinated by the idea that paranormal phenomena might exist, and the spiritual prospects that possibility seemed to open up. The appeal of these strange manifestations derived from the way in which they promised a new kind of modern religion – one in which such concepts as the immortality of the soul and the existence of God could be transformed from articles of faith into experimentally-verified scientific truths.
Different as these two topics are, both share a concern with exploring the ramifications of cultural exchange – how contact with ideas and objects from elsewhere can reveal anxieties and aspirations that would otherwise be much more difficult to discern. They also both reflect what it is that I find most compelling about history, and seek to convey to my students as a teacher: how the study of the past can be a highly-disciplined way of learning to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. By using the careful, rigorous study of evidence to reconstruct points of view, ways of life, and forms of common sense very different from our own, we move closer to the kind of clear-eyed understanding of others that a pluralistic society like ours requires. A critical dialogue about the nature of our values and what should be changed if we hope to live up to them – the ongoing practice of democracy – must begin with mutual understanding, and few things develop the skill of understanding more effectively than the study of history.