Thursday, September 30, 2004


Transnational history

[For a complete list of my posts on transnational history, see here.]

My dissertation identifies me as a "transnational historian." Transnational historians, instead of focusing on the official doings of nation-states, emphasize the migrations of people, ideas, and goods across national borders. They speak of "borderlands" and "diasporas," of encounters between nations, of travels across geographical boundaries. All of these things interest me too. But I'm somewhat ambivalent about my own genre.

To the extent that "transnational history" even is an identifiable genre. In the past eight or ten years, many scholars have issued manifestoes calling for histories of the United States that are less centered on the nation-state. But one sometimes wonders whether there are more manifestoes for transnational history than there are examples of it; we transnational historians are somewhat like Communists in that respect. You might also see already that we transnational historians are paradoxical people: how can we ask, with a straight face, for histories of the United States that are less centered on the nation?

But please, for a moment, suspend your disbelief about that particular tension at the heart of transnational history. Let me pose a different question: Why are there so many calls for transnational history at this particular moment in time? After all, historians have always paid some attention to the travels of people, ideas, and goods across geo-political borders. Only thirty paragraphs into the Histories, Herodotus talks about how the Athenian legislator "Solon set out upon his travels, in the course of which he went to Egypt to the court of Amasis, and also to Croesus at Sardis." Transnational history, in some form or another, is as old as history itself.

But the problem, as today's transnational historians see it, is that even those histories which deal with travels across borders reify those borders and make them rigid. Historians since the beginning of our craft have invested nations with essential or exceptional characteristics, even if they have also showed how national borders have been traversed by people and things. This, certainly, was Herodotus's assumption. He talked about travels between Greece and Egypt, but there was no question that those lands were essentially different. As he says in Book 2:
Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description. Not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the world, and the river unlike any other rivers, but the people also, in most of their manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practice of mankind. The women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home at the loom; and here, while the rest of the world works the woof up the warp, the Egyptians work it down; the women likewise carry burdens upon their shoulders, while the men carry them upon their heads. The women urinate standing, the men crouching. ...
And so on, "to a great length." These are the kinds of generalizations with which contemporary historians are uncomfortable. The reason we talk about border-crossings now is because we believe those crossings destabilize the very concept of monolithic nations. Borders are not natural and impervious, but permeable and fluid. Nations, too, are imagined communities, rather than entities rooted in a country's climate or topography.

Even if some form of transnational history has been practiced for a long time, it is only relatively recently that you will find historians making points like these. For a greater part of the past, most transnational history involved making comparisons between well-defined nations. Or they involved demonstrating that a particular nation was exceptionally superior to others. Consider the Athenian exceptionalism of Pericles, in his famous funeral oration recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides: "Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. ... In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by by so happy a versatility as the Athenian. ... For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation. "

Sound familiar? Substitute "American" and "America" for "Athenian" and "Athens," and Pericles could have given the oration at Ronald Reagan's funeral. Exceptionalism characterizes the way many people think of American history and America--we are the "school" of the world, a country like no other. Transnational histories, by arguing that nations are invented, that their boundaries are protean, try to avoid the related errors of national essentialism and national exceptionalism. That is the first reason why you find scholars these days calling for more transnational histories. They can provide an antidote to national histories that accept, uncritically, various kinds of American exceptionalism. And as an aspiring transnational historian, I sympathize with this mission.

But this brings me to the second main reason why transnational history is in vogue at the present moment. You may have already guessed it ... Transnational history is in vogue because "globalization" is. Later today I'll put up a post about why that bothers me. [The sequel is now posted here.]

Incidentally, I'm hoping that this post and its sequel can serve as my entries for Dissertation Week, even though they may not answer Sepoy's call for some of the "nitty-gritty." I'm glad that he's encouraged those of us who are blogging graduate students to use this forum as a dissertation workshop, since that's one of the reasons I started this blog. (See my very first post.) I'd be lying if I said I don't share some of Ed's reticence about blogging at length about his dissertation, but I also see the logic of this post at Culture Cat; posting ideas gives them a time-stamp and a "posted by."

Another reason for reticence: I don't want my academic ramblings on this blog to be seen unequivocally as "scholarship" in the conventional sense of that word. (See related discussions here.) My posts are not finely honed or fully vetted. But that doesn't mean that this forum is not a valuable place to try out ideas, or to work through my fear of letting ideas out of the bag because they are not wholly formed.

This blog isn't scholarship in the sense that it meets professional standards of peer review, footnoting, etc. But it is scholarship in another sense of the word: it is "learning" done in public. When I do share what I'm working on in my dissertation, it's not because I want to take the posture of an "expert," but because I want to take the posture of a "student," which is, after all, what being a "scholar" means. And in that sense, I think of all of you who have somehow found this blog as fellow scholars.

Collective Improvisation:
Hi Caleb,
(do you remember me, i was an exchange student at jhu-history 2003/04?)

I found your blog doing sort of "après-research" of a summer school on comparative and transnational resaerches to european history at the eui in florence/italy...
i think it is really important to both see the problems in defining "transnational history", as it seems to be "en vogue" while people are searching fr explanations for the so-calles "globalization" which at least began during the 19th century...

also shortly: a lot of people at the school i attended also thought that inhereently, every other history is comparative or transnational, if good!
but the problem goes back to that of definition because the question is whether "transnational" is more than an approach but still dependent on a methodologies like comparative and transfer history.

Posted by Johannes Wagemann

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/01/2005 12:45:00 PM : Permalink  

transnationally important...

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/01/2005 12:46:00 PM : Permalink  

I won't pretend to be able to talk on your level. Just wanted you to be aware I have a blog too. Love you!

'lil sis

Posted by Blogger Bonjo on 2/01/2006 11:16:00 AM : Permalink  

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