Friday, April 14, 2006


More on transnational history

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

Transnational history has recently been the subject of some excellent posts by KC Johnson, Rob MacDougall, Eric Rauchway, and Evan Roberts. Since I'm currently out of town, I have not been able to follow the discussion as closely as I would like to. But there is much food for thought in these posts, and there promises to be more in an upcoming symposium on Cliopatria about transnational history.

In the meantime, I do have some cursory thoughts about the posts listed above. First, KC Johnson's post shares Rauchway's initial concern that transnational history is trying to displace political history. Johnson worries that transnational history, as advocated by scholars like Thomas Bender, "represents one way to rationalize the academy’s having driven political, diplomatic, military, and constitutional history out of the discipline." I've already argued that I do not think transnational history is necessarily inimical to political history, but instead is one way of doing political history -- a method that helps answer some, though not all, of the questions political historians ask. But I might add that transnational historians are also far from hostile to political historians within the discipline, nor are they necessarily committed to driving political history out of the academy. On the contrary, some transnational historians criticize community studies and microhistories -- the classic examples of new social and cultural history -- that focus too narrowly on local contexts and subnational historical forces. To that extent, transnational history might also be read as a qualified critique of the ascendancy of new social history and an appeal to bring the state (and the transnational) back into the discipline.

That's not to say, of course, that transnational historians want to drive social history out of the discipline either. As I've said before, I think it's a mistake to read the critical interventions of transnational history as a veiled attempt to vanquish other modes of doing history. And in some contexts, transnational historians can prove to be sympathetic to the insights of social and cultural historians.

For example, Rob's post concludes with the very good point that "when impersonal forces like globalization and trans-nationalism get invoked, it is very easy to lose sight of actual historical actors and actions." Rob worries about transnational historians who betray a certain "fuzziness about actors and actions, power and causation, that is troubling whether or not it is intentional."

That worry is perfectly valid, and it should serve as a caution to transnational historians not to invoke faceless abstractions whenever they find something hard to explain, thus creating a kind of Globalization of the Gaps. At the same time, it's worth noting that this same concern about the "fuzziness" of talking about "impersonal forces" rather than actual persons has often been lobbed into the foxholes of social and cultural historians. What made many historians wary of the new cultural historians who were writing their manifestoes in the 1970s and 1980s was their seeming unconcern for things like causation and explanation, and their apparent satisfaction with historical narratives that simply tried to interpret and understand cultural and social forms, even if that meant eschewing the historian's supposed obligation to trace "change over time."

But as David Hollinger once wrote in a now classic essay on intellectual history, "a truism that seems always in need of repetition is that providing causal explanations is only one of the things historians do." It's also only one of the things that transnational historians do. While we should be on guard against transnational historians who try to answer questions about "influence" simply by gesturing wildly in the direction of "globalization," their gesticulations should not distract us from the other kinds of things that transnational historians might do. One task, for instance, that transnational historians seem to take as their own is to contextualize the history of the United States by setting it alongside the histories of other nation states, in order to show that the United States was not somehow immune from the historical forces -- both personal and impersonal, national and transnational -- that shaped other nation states.

The point of that contextualization, by the way, is not to argue that the United States was no different from other nation states. As Rauchway argues in his latest post, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that in many ways the United States is "peculiar," and studying transnational forces like globalization often simply underlines how peculiar the history of American politics and state-building has been. I don't think transnational historians must necessarily demur. The "American exceptionalism" that transnational historians hope to undermine is not the proposition that the United States is "different" from other nation states. That nation-states are different is a truism; if they were not distinguishable, then there would be no such thing as a "nation-state."

What transnational historians want to contest is the idea that the forces that made the United States distinct from other nations were themselves unique and unconnected to the kinds of forces that shaped the distinct character of other nations. That is the exceptionalism that bothers transnational historians: the idea, as Daniel Rodgers described it in his contribution to this book, that the United States, as a providentially chosen nation, has simply been exempt from the kinds of historical processes that affected other nations, as though Americans simply walked through history on dry ground while the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean rose up like walls around them.

I want to conclude by saying that I do not intend to defend from all criticisms "transnational history" -- a term that is hard to define, much less to defend. I heartily amen what Evan Roberts says in his brilliant post on the life cycles of historical fields, which provides a stadial outline of the phases through which every new movement among historians seems to pass. Evan urges transnational historians to move beyond the "manifesto" phase of its life cycle into the "contributionist" phase. As he puts it, "one way forward for transnational historians is to stop assuming that the transnational was really that important, but set out to 'measure' its influence anyway." That seems exactly right to me. Perhaps necessarily, manifestoes for new historical fields have to deal in abstractions and even in exaggerations, if only to clear institutional and intellectual space for new research projects to fill. But once those projects have begun, the need to wave banners for The New Thing diminishes, and it becomes more important for the new kids on the block to retreat back into the difficult spade work that all historians share in common.

I've found, even in the life cycle of my own research project, that defining it as "transnational history" has become less important to me than simply understanding how transnational networks among abolitionists worked, why they were important to abolitionists, and why debates about slavery in the United States make more sense when these networks are taken into account. It's still important professionally to wear the moniker of a transnational historian, if only because (thanks to the high visibility of manifestoes for the field) that term serves as a convenient and easily recognizable shorthand for the kind of things I'm interested in as a scholar. But I wear the term lightly, and I think most historians should wear their adjectives ("political," "social," "cultural") lightly. That way those terms can be cast off easily when the sources lead them in new directions. For most of my graduate student career, the working subtitle of my dissertation was "Transnational Currents in American Abolitionism." But in the finished project, the subtitle became "Radical American Abolitionists Abroad," and my discussion of transnational history -- which had once occupied many pages of my introduction -- receded into a historiographical footnote. But to follow up on Evan's point, the retirement of a new field's manifestoes to the footnotes is not a bad thing, and may be the best possible thing that can happen to it.

P.S. Eric Rauchway has another post clarifying what he means when he says the United States is exceptional.

Collective Improvisation:
Dude, I think we're all talking way too fast. Which is kind of cool, because it means we're excited about the subject, but it also means we're not having a very orderly conversation. But hey, I guess that's what blogs are for: disorderly, excited conversation.

Although, maybe we should have a conference, and we could have an orderly conversation.

I feel a little awkward, because every time I try to say anything, I start to feel like I'm plugging my book. Or, I start to think like I shouldn't say anything that would give away what's in the book. But as for "measuring" transnationalism's influence? The book is all about that.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/14/2006 01:27:00 PM : Permalink  

The pace of blogging conversations does have some disadvantages, I agree, but I've enjoyed bouncing these ideas around with you and others. And no need to feel awkward about plugging your book: I'll look forward to reading it!

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 4/17/2006 04:31:00 PM : Permalink  

Where is that Hollinger quotation from? I've searched for part of it as a phrase online - both google and some of the subscription databases - but haven't been able to find it.

This transnational discussion has been very interesting, by the way, but a bit too fast-paced for me. I do hope to have some things to say in the future, however. I spent a great deal of time preparing to be a transnational historian before taking on a different topic as one of the compromises I've made with myself in order to be able to come up with a finishable dissertation.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/17/2006 08:36:00 PM : Permalink  

Sorry, eb, I should have cited that Hollinger quote. It's from his essay, "Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals," which is reprinted in his In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas. The quote is on p. 141 of this reprint.

The essay was originally printed in John Higham and Paul Conkin, eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History (Baltimore, 1979).

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 4/17/2006 09:31:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks! Amazon says it's searchable; I must have made an error in my search phrase when I went looking for it.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/18/2006 12:25:00 AM : Permalink  

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