The American Historical Review’s Nonsense

Today, I received the latest American Historical Review in the mail.

Just try to make sense of the abstract of one of it’s featured articles:

In “History in the Dungeon: Atlantic Slavery and the Spirit of Capitalism in Cape Coast Castle, Ghana,” Andrew Apter focuses on a West African spirit, Nan Tabir, a coastal diety associated with Cape Coast Castle and Atlantic slavery in Ghana. His goal is to examine Tabir’s history less as a record of objective documentation than as a generative locus of insights into the past – in this case, of Afro-European encounters associated with the rise of the Atlantic economy and the development of Cape Coast government and society.”

Let me stop right there before I continue with the rest of the abstract. The last sentence was written in the third person – “His goal” , “he”, “Andrew Apter” does such and such. There is no way, however, that this sentence could be written by someone else other than Andrew Apter. Why do I say this?  Look at the specific, convoluted language. Do you think another person would read Apter’s article and then summarize it in such terms? Who speaks like this: with terms like “generative locus” and phrases structured like  “less a this, more of a that”?  Certainly not someone who is trying to make the article understandable to others reading the abstract. What does it even mean to examine something as a “generative locus of insights into the past?”  To learn stuff? And what the hell is “Cape Coast Castle?” Aren’t we taught to describe terms that are unfamiliar to the majority of even educated readers?

The abstract continues:

“Tabir epitomizes a range of African coastal “festishes,” extending from Senegambia to Luanda, that register European contract and trading relations in their ritual iconographies and forms of spirit possession.”

I have no idea what this means.

What are “fetishes” here, and why is the term in quotes? These fetishes are registering Europoean contact in forms of spirit possession? What?

Ok, maybe if I read on, it will make more sense.

“What distinguishes Tabir within the growing literature on the historicity of such ritual archives, however, is the depth of European documentation going back to 1601.”

There is a growing literature on the historicity of ritual archives? Oh my.

The depth of European documentation (of Tabir?) I presume, is greater than the depth of European documentation of other ritual archives? But what the hell is a ritual archive?

“Tabir may look like an invented tradition “customized” for tourists but he has been around for centuries, changing forms and places, sacralizing spaces, and shaping pathways of ritual reciprocity to empower chiefs and devotees.”

He? Oh, okay, this is a male diety named Tabir. Does the author actually think Tabir does these things? He believes in Tabir, the god of archival fetishes?  What is going on?

“His history is less a story to be told than a past that he both mystifies and evokes: a past of migration and settlement, gold and slaves, coastal military companies, and the making of a creole culture through the mimetic appropriation of European signs.”

That’s how it ends. I still don’t really know what this is about, but its in a top journal, so it must be good, right? Right?

Let me summarize my feelings about this article using the style of the author:

“This article is less a history to be read, than a blob of text to be awed over, both for its use of extenuating phrases and obtuse “vocabulary”, and colonization, and Europeans, and Africa, and…um…oh yes…the making of the modern world. Also, archival fetishes mimeticize the appropriation of the not so much the past, but also the history of how sacralizing occurs.

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