Friday, October 01, 2004


Globalization versus "globalization"

"Some claim that the world is gradually becoming united, that it will grow into a brotherly community as distances shrink and ideas are transmitted through the air. Alas, you must not believe that men can be united in this way." -- Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)

[This post is a long-winded continuation of this one. For a complete list of my posts on transnational history, see here.]

Many manifestoes for transnational history begin by stating that our world is uniquely "global." Here's how the story goes: The world's landscape is now criss-crossed by information flows, digital technology, multinational corporations, international NGOs, cheap transportation, "flexible citizenship," [fill in the blank here with your favorite sign that it's a small world after all].

Factors like these, according to globalization gurus, show that the sovereignty of the nation-state is eroding, that a new "Internetional" is forming over and against the international system of Westphalian states. And, so the argument goes, now that we can see how fragile nations are, and how interdependent the world is, we should apply that understanding to our studies of the past.

This seems to be the implication of a recent anthology on "transnational history," edited by Thomas Bender. It is titled Rethinking American History in a Global Age, and the "in a Global Age" is crucial to the general thrust of the book. In the introduction, Bender writes that nation-centered narratives of American history no longer satisfy because the world is globalizing:
We are intensely aware today of the extraterritorial aspects of contemporary national life. The inherited framing of American national history does not seem to fit or connect us to these transnational and global developments. Inevitably, contemporary historiography is being inflected by a new awareness of subnational, transnational, and global political, economic, social, and cultural processes. These circumstances invite, even demand, a reconsideration of the American past from a perspective less tightly bound to perceptions of the nation as the container of American history. One can no longer believe in the nation as hermetically sealed, territorially self-contained, or internally undifferentiated. (3)
I have said before that I am a self-described transnational historian (and describing yourself as a transnational historian is the first thing that transnational historians do). So I'm preaching to myself here. But I'm telling myself to be wary of claims that globalization "demands" a transnational reconsideration of history.

My complaint is not necessarily that this demand is "presentist." I'm not lamenting that our beliefs about the world inform the historical questions that we ask. That's unavoidable, in my view. During the 1960s, historians of abolitionism were influenced by the Civil Rights movement in choosing questions to ask about abolitionists. And I can see how, writing the history of abolitionism in the twenty-first century, I've been influenced by contemporary debates on globalization, patriotism and cosmopolitanism in my choice of what to study.

But my complaint is that transnational historians often take the globalization of the present for granted, instead of interrogating the concept, instead of exposing it to skepticism. There is a difference between being aware of how the present always intrudes into the stories we tell about the past, and uncritically accepting "now" as the end-point towards which all of "then" has been moving.

Consider the interesting contribution to the Bender volume by Akira Iriye. It's useful to look closely at something Iriye says in his essay, "Internationalizing International History":
Historians need neither embrace the concept of globalization uncritically nor suppose that it is the only framework in which to understand international history. But they are uniquely equipped by training to historicize such a concept, if for no other reason that that globalization is a historical phenomenon. David Held and Anthony McGrew, two leading students of globalization, write that this term "refers to ... entrenched and enduring patterns of world-wide interconnectedness ... [and] suggests a growing magnitude or intensity of global flows such that states and societies become increasingly enmeshed in worldwide systems and networks of interaction." Words like "become" and "increasingly" are part of the historical vocabulary, and so historians are in a good position to make a contribution to the literature. (53)
This paragraph starts out exactly right. Historians should not uncritically "embrace the concept of globalization." They need to "historicize such a concept." But there are two ways to do that. One is to tell the history of Globalization with a capital "G," by showing how the world changed over time to become more global. But the other option is to tell the history of "globalization" (notice the scare quotes). A history of "globalization," unlike the history of Globalization, would try to understand why and when people think of the world as more global, and would bracket the question of whether the world actually is globalizing.

The last part of Iriye's paragraph seems to favor the history of Globalization. Why are historians "in a good position to make a contribution to the literature" on Globalization? Because we can ask, in Gershwinesque fashion, how long has this been going on? But this is not the only service that historians can provide. In fact, if we really want to "historicize" "globalization," we won't just go about testing how or why It has occurred. We'll view the phenomenon itself as a cultural construction--as a concept--and not just an objective historical fact. To put this another way, "increasingly" and "become" are part of the historian's vocabulary, but so are "global," "states," "systems," "interaction," and "interconnectedness." All of those words need to be taken apart, not just the ones that deal with change over time.

The distinction I'm drawing here--between Globalization and "globalization"--might seem like splitting hairs. I reserve the right to do that on this blog, but I don't think I'm doing it now. For one of history's tasks is to put quotes around words whose meanings we think we understand. When we speak of Globalization, we might think we have a clear idea of what constitutes this phenomenon. We might mean that in today's world, so much money and information flows across borders in the blink of an eye, that the world is more connected than ever before. But in fact, that statement is loaded with unspoken cultural assumptions--first, that the people involved in those information flows represent, in some sense, the world, and second, that those flows do more to connect than to divide. There are other lacunae in this logic as well. When we say that technologies like the Internet are shrinking the world, for instance, we pass lightly over the fact that only a minority of the world's population enjoys regular Internet access. Historians can help shine a light on some of these logical leaps by demonstrating that generations long before ours thought they were living "in a global age," even before air travel, Internet outsourcing, and the United Nations.

On the first day of the class I'm teaching this semester, I put this quote on the board: "No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world. ... Space is comparatively annihilated." I asked students whether they agreed; they did, and for many legitimate reasons--the world economy, the growth of international law, the nature of worldwide environmental problems, digital communications etc. But then, in the grand trickster tradition, I revealed that this was not a quotation from someone like Anthony Giddens, David Held or Anthony McGrew. It was said by Frederick Douglass in 1852. He was referring to transatlantic steamships, which shortened the trip from New York to Liverpool from four weeks to two: "Oceans no longer divide," Douglass said, "but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated."

When confronted by the fact that earlier generations thought of their world as "global," we can do one of two things. We can chuckle at the quaintness of thinking that steamships annihilate space. Or, we can learn to laugh at ourselves, too. We can look with greater skepticism at the idea that the Internet annihilates space, or by itself links nations together. Another way of putting our historiographical choices is this: We could suggest that steamships were the beginning of Globalization, or we could say that they were the beginning of "globalization." I'm not opposed absolutely to the first disjunct in each of these disjunctions, but I think the second disjunct has been neglected in manifestoes for transnational history.

The search for origins in history often means going as far back in time as your expertise runs, and then surmising that everything before that time was completely different. My advisor is rightly annoyed whenever he reads in my drafts some variation of, "And nothing was ever the same again ..." Perhaps we can find the origins of Globalization at some point in the past, but whenever we locate that point, we are likely to find that people before then thought their age was global too.

Many globalization theorists, including Giddens, talk a lot about how the electric telegraph, which spanned the Atlantic in the 1860s, was the beginning of modern global connectivity. But before the telegraph, people thought steamships annihilated space. And before steamships, people thought clippers annihilated space. And before clippers, people thought ships with sails made the world smaller, and before that ships with galley oars, and before that ... By emphasizing how contingent "global" world views are, historians fully historicize the past and help us put the present in better perspective.

To conclude, there are two possible contributions transnational historians might make to debates over Globalization. Neither has to be the One True Way to write transnational history, but they should be distinguished, and they ought to correct each other. On the one hand, we can write the history of Globalization, but that concedes in the first place that It has happened. In addition to investigating how the world is "increasingly" "becoming" global, we should also write transnational histories that put quotes around "global."

As I see it, the latter is one of the major tasks of transnational historians. We should not simply go and fetch evidence that nations are on their way out, and have been for some time. Our contribution is not just to say that Globalization theorists are right, and we'll tell you where it all began. Our contribution is also to historicize the concept of "globalization" itself, and show how Globalization theorists have come about.

In sum, if part of our task as transnational historians is to show that "nations" are constructed, contingent, and imagined communities, the other half of our task is to show that the "globe" is constructed, contingent, and imagined, too.

Collective Improvisation:
I think by "globalization" what we really mean is a relative and perceptible increase in the speed and complexity of transactions. ( You can also have, I suppose, " de-globalization" as when the Roman empire fell, the Silk road went into disuse and when nations raised tariff bariers in the 1930's).

So for the 19th century, the introduction of steamships, the telegraph and eventually the telephone and transatlantic cable was a perceptible and relative increase in transaction speed to the people at the time.

We've always had a single global market. Even isolated and lunatic North Korea lets some goods, people and ideas across their frontiers. What has waxed and waned over time are the tangible and intangible barriers that act as obstacles and filters to interaction.

Posted by Blogger mark on 10/02/2004 12:40:00 PM : Permalink  

Interesting post. You might want to check out Denis Cosgrove, Apollo's Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination

It's not the fastest read and maybe a little too obscure at times (and I haven't read all of it) but I still recommend it. Each chapter discusses different ways people in the West have understood the earth as a globe, starting with antiquity.

In any case, since the world hasn't always been understood as a globe, there's a good chance that you will be able to find a time when people did not think of their age as global (with or without the quotation marks). Connected to areas/peoples outside of their "known" world - yes, but still not global.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 10/03/2004 12:28:00 AM : Permalink  

I probably should have referred to "globalizations" (plural) in my post, since part of the problem is that the word can mean so many different things. It can refer, for instance, just to an increase in the speed of transactions, to the detachment of "time" from "space" that telegraphs presumably achieved. Or it can refer to a theory about international economic, social, and political relations.

I agree entirely that new technologies cause a "relative and perceptible increase in the speed and complexity of transactions." But I'm suspicious of the inference that more speed means more connectivity. What historians should do, I think, is stress how "relative" these changes in perception are: relative not only to what came before, but also relative to particular places and people in the world.

So, when Mark says the steampships and transatlantic cable meant an increase in transaction speed "to the people at the time," I agree. But one thing I think historians can and should do is to complicate "the people at the time." Not everyone had access to these technologies, in the first place. And secondly, even the fact that the telegraph was a "transatlantic" cable shows that it was not fully globalizing in the other sense, unless we take the North Atlantic community to be the globe (as many, no doubt, have).

In short, by showing the contingency and incompleteness of people's ideas about "time-space" in the past, historians can help us think more carefully about the inferences bound up in "globalization" today. We can put pressure, in particular, on the inference that increases in transaction speed (for some, in some places) make the world a more global society.

Distinguishing "globalizations" (plural) might also address Anonymous's comment. What I meant was that some people have probably always perceived changes in travel and communications speed, relative to what came before. So if by "globalization" we mean to talk primarily about transaction speeds, I'm comfortable saying that the concept has been around from time immemorial. But if by "globalization" we mean the creation of a global society or something like that, then I agree that we probably can find points in time when people began conceiving of the world as a "globe."

That only serves my point, though, that these two things--transaction speed and a global civil society--are historically distinguishable, which should again make us wary about the way they are linked together by contemporary proponents of Globalization.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 10/04/2004 10:07:00 AM : Permalink  

Oh, and thanks for the book recommendation!

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 10/04/2004 10:10:00 AM : Permalink  

I ran across this interesting blog while googling - trying to understand what the concept of "transnational history" meant. I did want to post a comment on the role of travel time on concepts of "globalization."

For a couple of centuries, beginning with the development of steam power, travel speeded up. Prior to steam and better roads, I've been told that travel from London to Rome was faster in the Roman Empire than in Europe of 1700.

Our time horizons are not typically that long, so most older adults grew up in a world where increases in speed were the norm, and felt as if they had always been the norm.

There were no jet planes when I was born, and my parents were both born shortly before the Wright Brothers took their first flight. Speed limits on expressways in New York when I was young were 35 mph.

These gains are no longer being made. The fastest transatlantic flights now take longer than they did a generation ago, especially when one factors in getting to the airport and through security. At more local levels, journey to work times have gradually increased.

There is, of course, an enormous increase in "virtual" speed, and this is what is normally meant when "the world is smaller" is a part of today's discourse.

To the extent that direct interpersonal contact matters, though, it's not at all clear that the age of "globalization" is really an age of increased speed. What implications this has down the road is a question I can't answer, though.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/05/2006 12:11:00 PM : Permalink  

It may be odd to comment on a post from so long ago, but I'd like the record to reflect that the second comment above, mentioning the Cosgrove book, was mine. I believe it may have been the first comment I ever left on any blog anywhere. Hence, the lack of a signature.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/10/2006 03:22:00 AM : Permalink  

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