This Is What Happens When Historians Overuse the Idea of the Network

tags: historiography, global history, networks



David A. Bell is the Lapidus Professor in the Department of History at Princeton and the author of The First Total War (Houghton Mifflin).

Sherlock Holmes, that most English of fictional characters, would not seem an obvious icon of globalization. Yet the novel in which he first appeared, A Study in Scarlet, begins with the exploits of Dr. Watson in Afghanistan. In the four novels that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes, two of the plots hinge on Americans pursuing vendettas in Europe, and two on fortunes acquired (in one case stolen) in British overseas colonies. As for the fifty-six short stories, fully three-quarters of them have a significant foreign dimension, most often extending beyond the European continent. Holmes’s London is a predictably exotic metropolis bustling with Indians, European radical exiles, wealthy Americans, and sundry foreign aristocrats, sailors, and spies. But even the crimes that draw the detective into the deceptively tranquil countryside most often seem to involve an estate purchased with Australian gold-mining profits, or a grudge among soldiers dating back to the Indian Mutiny. The Hound of the Baskervilles, although set in deepest Devon, revolves around the efforts of an Englishman born in Costa Rica to steal a fortune made in South Africa from a Canadian cousin.

For many years now, it has been the rage among historians to uncover past global connections of this sort. In the so-called “global turn” in contemporary historiography, it has not been enough simply to study the way Western powers have affected the rest of the world—a venerable subject. The task has also been to show how the rest of the world affected the West; how ideas and practices flowed back and forth in a constant flux of appropriation, transformation, and resistance; how the oppression of the strong met the “weapons of the weak”; and how history’s repressed “subaltern” can be made to speak. In other words, it is not simply a matter of debunking claims of a Western “civilizing mission,” which most people in the West ceased believing in decades ago. It is also a matter of restoring “agency” to non-Western peoples, to ensure that they are not treated as the passive objects of Western activity. It has been a matter of showing how, even in the relatively distant past, global patterns of movement, exchange, exploitation, and aggression shaped phenomena that historians once saw as purely local. And it has been a matter of applying, even to quite distant historical periods, the controlling metaphor of the digital age: the “network.”

The initial impulse behind the turn was strongly, if often inchoately, political. Revealing how even early patterns of globalization extended, iceberg-like, far beneath the visible surface of politics and trade seemed an effective way to heighten sensitivity to the persistence of long-term patterns of inequality and exploitation today, particularly in regard to the “global south.” Demonstrating the myriad ways in which particular peoples either resisted forms of globalization, or appropriated them for their own uses, allowed them to serve as inspirational paragons. To take one prominent example, historians such as Laurent Dubois have interpreted the massive slave revolts in the French Caribbean in the 1790s neither as a simple explosion of rage against horrific oppression nor as a mere echo of European revolutions. The revolts have emerged instead as a complex process in which rebellious slaves took European ideas of rights and liberty and blended them with Caribbean and African ideas and practices to create something entirely new.

Over time, the ordinary operations of academic life have blunted the political message. Quarrels have taken their toll. Does too strong a stress on the “agency” of indigenous peoples naively downplay the brutal realities of imperial exploitation? Or, by contrast, does an excessive focus on this exploitation end up making indigenous peoples seem like nothing more than passive victims, thereby keeping the West itself at the center of the story? Cautious of venturing into such minefields, many “global historians” now encase every hesitant assertion in a suffocating gauze of hedging and qualification. Meanwhile, the hope of taking part in a powerful and exciting intellectual trend (coupled, perhaps, with the prospect of winter research trips to Barbados or Goa) has drawn in many scholars with little concern for the original political stakes....




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