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Jun 6, 2005 5:24 am

"Forget the Founding Fathers": A Symposium ...

At the suggestion of Manan Ahmed, Cliopatria is hosting our first symposium. The discussion focuses on Barry Gewen,"Forget the Founding Fathers," New York Times, 5 June. First take the time to read it carefully. The commentaries by the Cliopatriarchs on Gewen's article are posted here. For another perspective, Derek Catsam reflects on it at Rebunk. I will post additional comments from other members of the group as they come in. Your responses are welcome in comments.
Jonathan Dresner:

Marc Bloch was right: any periodization of academia by mere decades is absurd, because the careerspan of academics is 25-40 years, and the idea that generations are distinct and that ideas do not coexist and exist in tension (rather than being straight-line, easy to understand, mirrored reflections of their age) exhibits a terrible lack of understanding of human nature and intellectual discourse. I think most of what is useful (relevant to me) about the article was covered more than adequately in Another Damned Medievalist's recent comments on world history.

I think Gewen would benefit from a bit of exposure to Hayden White (who could put the narrative structures with which Gewen struggles into very neat boxes, complete with meanings and relationships).

Finally, I think it curious that the only non-american perspective comes from the British (whose general perspective is perhaps closer to Americans than any other nation, on average), so that the whole exercise ultimately is less about historiography and more a sort of national moral autobiography, and since I don't believe that America is, or was, or needs to be, any one thing to everyone in order to be both interesting and worth participating in, I think it's wasted effort.

KC Johnson:

I find little with which to disagree in Barry Gewen's article -- excepting his claim that there's anything particularly new to an approach to U.S. history that"rises above national boundaries to place the past in a global context." At many institutions, including Harvard, the study of U.S. foreign relations has been recast as"international history," with an emphasis on crossnational questions. The recent work of Akira Iriye has moved beyond a focus on the nation-state to examine global, non-governmental organizations. Books by historians such as Nick Cullather (the Philippines), Piero Gleijeses (first Guatemala, then Cuba), or Eric Paul Roorda (the Dominican Republic) are only the first examples to spring to mind of historians placing the U.S. experience in a"global" context through extensive research in foreign archives. Finally, while Bernard Bailyn celebrates the flowering of Atlantic history in his new book, his New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (1955) previewed most of the trends that would become apparent in Atlantic history, while Peggy Liss' Atlantic Empires (1983) offered the field's first pathbreaking work.

So, in one respect, what Gewen sees as new represents historiographical patterns that have been prominent for at least the past 15 years and arguably longer.

In another respect, Gewen's piece could foreshadow a potential problem--to wit, if an approach that"rises above national boundaries to place the past in a global context" becomes the predominant lens through which we interpret U.S. history. While, it seems, many historians would have preferred a past in which nation-states did not exist, wishing for something does not make it so. And there are many questions about U.S. history (notably regarding politics and the law, but also involving some elements of diplomatic and social history) in which ignoring"national boundaries to place the past in a global context" would provide an incomplete or even inaccurate view of events.

Ralph Luker:

Even as he urges on American historians the necessity of transcending the provinciality of our national narratives, it seems to me that Barry Gewen largely assumes it and, in doing so, he ignores pathbreaking examples already long before us. Our historiographical traditions were carved out in a nation that dominated a continent. To Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and to many American historians in the years after World War II that suggested that the only comparable experiences were those of the United States and of imperial Russia and its successor, the imperious Soviet Union. Briefly, with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the message of American exceptionalism seemed vindicated and all that is wrong with our provincialisms -- our notorious indifference to learning languages other than English, our certitudes about markets and governance, our condescending indifference to the other, whatever other there is -- was triumphant.

Gewen's mention of Schweikart and Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States suggests that, yes, this is how the doing of American history will look if we don't come to grips with and fundamentally reverse our own arrogant provincialism. For some not very obvious reason, perhaps, I was reminded of Seth Sanders' observation at Serving the Word:"Why is God supposed to be a universal political ruler, and why do people think America wants to conquer the world? The two questions are related, and perhaps they're also inseparable from what we study as Biblicists: what the Israelites learned from Assyria."

In the years after 9/11, it seems to me that American historians ought to look to the work of 20th century European historians, particularly those of the Annales School, for models of how to do our work. For the Europeans, 9/11 had already occurred in 1914. It's no accident that the Annales School emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War I. It emerged and flowered in the face of the 20th century's horrors, confident that they testified to the devastating consequences of triumphalist narratives. I think about the fact that its great progenitor, Marc Bloch, was executed by the Germans for his work in the French resistance and that Fernand Braudel completed his dissertation as a prisoner of war in Germany. That dissertation would become his great masterwork on The Mediterranean. I think about that and I know: this is what it means to have a sense of vocation and they had a deep sense of how history ought to be done if we are to be delivered from this present horror.

In the United States, it seems to me, the influence of the Annales historians has been largely limited to our European historians. R. R. Palmer certainly exemplified their breathtaking reach -- and pioneered in what Gewen calls"Atlantic history" -- in his great work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Their work has been known to and admired by the rest of us, but we have not followed their example. One of the things that disappoints me about Gewen's article is that he makes no reference to the two American historians who I've most admired in my career, David Hackett Fischer and David Brion Davis. After publishing a brilliant work about the logic of doing history early in his career, Fischer has explored many dimensions of the American experience with a brilliance that best illuminates the possibilities of the American narrative. And, among American historians, David Brion Davis's work approximates the grandeur of the Annales enterprise. He began his career with brilliant explorations of antebellum reform and found his stride in the study of slavery and anti-slavery. It took him back to beginnings – beginnings long ago and far away. He taught me that slavery was near ubiquitous in human history and, because of its ubiquity, it's the rise of opposition to it that we must understand and explain. I think about the fact that there may be more slaves in the contemporary world than at any prior time in history and I know that our work is not yet done. Maybe, if we begin -- with neither the self-pity nor the tub-thumping of our 9/11 -- but with their slavery, we will have found work to do that emancipates both of us.

Rob MacDougall:

Barry Gewen tells us that the founding fathers were"paranoid hypocrites and ungrateful malcontents," but they did spare Americans from the fate of becoming Canadians. I suppose in the eyes of posterity that counts as a draw. Being Canadian, however, is not simply a consolation prize one stumbles into by failing to become American. Being Canadian actually demands a great deal of angst and breast-beating and fingernail-chewing about just what"being Canadian" might mean. One good thing that comes out of all that fretting is a powerful sense of the nation as artificial construct. Few Canadians need to be told that their nation is an imagined community. The Canadian state is no gift of Providence or Promethean founding fathers, but an ongoing process, a fragile, clunky contraption that tries to paper over a vastly complicated reality of cultures, geographies, and histories. That's a perspective on the nation that American history could make use of.

I enjoyed Gewen's essay, and I applaud any calls for a more internationalized American history. I only wish Gewen had gone a little farther with this theme. To me, the most exciting examples of how American history is waking up to the world beyond its borders are not just traditional domestic histories with wars and diplomacy stuck back in. They are works that that study linkages across borders and cultures, and move beyond the nation-state as the basic unit of historical study. They understand that America's interactions with the rest of the globe are more than the doings of soldiers and diplomats, that the United States of America has never been a world unto itself, and that interdependence is not new but inescapable.

We've taken a few shots at microhistories lately, but this is one lesson the microhistorians already know. The histories of salt, cod, caffeine, and the color mauve (now joined by a history of red, I see) are not well contained by the borders of nations. Why should histories of bigger phenomena—race, gender, war, empires, business, technology, culture, ideas—fit any better into these boxes drawn on maps? Nations are variables in such histories but not the whole story; states are key players but not the whole game.

I have no argument with Gewen's précis of American historiography since World War II, but it is telling that fifty years of innovation and debate over historical methods and topics and styles, fifty years that saw seismic shifts in the manner and purpose for which history is written, can be boiled down so easily into a tug-of-war between those convinced American history should make Americans feel good about their country and those convinced it should make them feel bad. This is the civics class model of national history, where the subject is the nation and the purpose is training the citizenry to feel a certain way about their heritage. That seems to me the project that both A People's History and A Patriot's History of the United States are engaged in. For all their blue-state red-state sound and fury, they sit squarely in the same genre. They are national narratives written by Americans to Americans for the purpose of telling Americans how they ought to feel.

As long as the state is the principal subject of history, and the civics classes of the nation are history's principal audience, it's hard to avoid that tug-of-war. Maybe Louis Hartz was right in urging historians to write from outside their national experience. Histories written from inside the national experience are sort of like memoirs or autobiographies; they're useful for a firsthand perspective, but should we take them at face value? Maybe nations shouldn't expect to write their own histories. The project of autohistory, like autobiography, is fraught with pitfalls of self-love and self-hate. Maybe American history is too important to be left entirely to Americans. Best get some Canadians on the job.

Caleb McDaniel:

The narrative structure of Gewen's review depends on an opposition between the"Founding Fathers" histories that have been so popular in recent years and new scholarship by self-described"transnational historians," many of whom have argued that our"global age" calls for a"rethinking" of American history. Gewen thinks this latter trend is salutary for two main reasons. First, he agrees that transnational histories (Gewen alternates between calling them"globalizing" and"internationalizing" histories) better address the current global position of the United States. Second, he thinks that these narratives can serve as an antidote to the cheery naivete of Founding Fathers chic, which serves as a popular anodyne to what Gewen calls"history's horror story."

As someone who aspires to the practice of transnational history in my own dissertation on the American antislavery movement, I'm sympathetic to the animating impulses behind Gewen's manifesto. But as Evan Roberts recently noted at Coffee Grounds, the"ratio of manifesto to research is still relatively high" both in the perpetually nascent field of comparative history and in the newly aborning field of transnational history. And just as too many cooks spoil the pot, too many manifestoes often make for an eclectic stew of assertions and guidelines that is more stimulating than satisfying.

One main problem I see with Gewen's manifesto for"globalizing" or"internationalizing" histories of the United States is that it still takes the"nation" for granted as a discrete and coherent agent. It is ascribed a"leading role in an international arena." It"has no choice." Indeed, most of the examples that Gewen offers of the encouraging new"globalizing" histories are either comparative histories, in which the American"nation" is pitted against other nations, histories of state-to-state or diplomatic relations, or histories of America as seen from opposite shores--a perspective from which the nation either looks more or less virtuous than it does from our own shores. In the end, I sometimes got the feeling that what Gewen wants are"moral biographies" of the nation that are not unlike the didactic biographies of Founding Fathers that he decries. The nation still saunters forth into global space as a prime mover, prepared to act in various ways that can be described as virtuous or realistic or idealistic or naive.

"By embedding the American Revolution in British history, by internationalizing it," Gewen says, Stanley Weintraub's Iron Tears"speaks more directly to the needs of our time than do biographies of Adams and Hamilton. But Gewen's choice of metaphor here is revealing, because it imagines that the"American Revolution" can simply be"embedded" in British history--and American history embedded in world history--in the same way that the subject of a biography is embedded in some larger context. That way of thinking about the nation in relation to the world is one of the things that many scholarly manifestoes on transnational history have tried tounsettle. Many call not for histories that uncritically reify the"nation" and then put that character on a global stage, but for histories that show how the nation and nationalism are themselves constructed out of global circuits of people, ideas, institutions, and goods.

In a larger space, of course, much could be said to criticize these manifestoes--which tout transnational history as a way of challenging monolithic images or personifications of the"nation." But Gewen misses a big part of the scholarly impetus behind the push for transnational history by doing the very thing that many transnational historians want to challenge. And the most he does to address this undercurrent in transnational studies is to say that"for general readers trying to understand the present (as opposed to scholars), Atlantic history goes too far in dissolving the United States into a blurry, ill-defined transoceanic entity--the might and power of the nation are not about to disappear, nor is the threat posed by its enemies." The retort in this sentence is misplaced: by arguing that"America" is a place and an idea whose definition is the product of constantly shifting transnational forces, transnational historians are not saying that the nation-state is unimportant or that it is going to disappear.

And the original objection is also a red herring. David Thelen, the former editor of the Journal of American History has written several articles arguing that what most readers of history want are stories about people, and they are aware that the stories of people are seldom confined by the presumptive geographical, cultural, or political borders of nations. The best transnational narratives are often those that follow people back and forth across national lines, demonstrating implicitly but indisputably that the nation is an imagined community rather than a brute historical fact. Just this week in my local bookstore, I flipped through the pages of Jon Sensbach's new book, Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, which looks like a promising example of just this kind of transnational biography.

But this is where Gewen's original dichotomy between Founding Fathers chic and"globalizing" history becomes a liability. Biographies might perhaps be the ripest field for transnational history of all, since they can escape the confines of the nation-state in ways that sweeping comparative histories or diplomatic histories cannot. But Gewen has lumped popular biographies together with the old guard that he wants us to reject. Perhaps the answer to those Founding Fathers biographies, which are often admittedly nation-centered and inward-looking, is to be found in biographies that are not nation-centered. It is even possible to write biographies of Founding Fathers that are more"globalizing" and"transnational"; see, for instance, parts of David Waldstreicher's new biography of Benjamin Franklin, Runaway America.

My point is not that only biographies can be transnational, but just that Gewen's set-up of the problem makes biography itself seem like the culprit for American exceptionalism, and then creates a solution (the history of nation qua biography) that may exacerbate the problem. The answer to the patriotic and consensus-esque ream of Founding Fathers biography is not to forget such works, but to write biographies -- even of these figures -- that do not take the American nation for granted as a self-enclosed historical entity, removed from the ravages of time to which other nations are supposedly subjected.

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David Lion Salmanson - 6/7/2005

I have to disagree here. The American sense of self is intimately tied to landscape and the work of Sam Hays details that quite nicely, with more recent work on national parks and sense of place tying in nicely to Hays' themes. But for transnational environmental histories that fit into this discussion, look at Richard White's The Organic Machine - the Columbia River does not respect national boundaries. More broadly, David Harvey's Justice Nature and the Geography of Difference points the way towards a more transnational history. And I would include all those commodity histories as environmental history as well - recognizing I have to take the good (Sindney Mintz on sugar) with the bad (Mark Kurlansky on Salt).

Another direction is the whole conception of the Border as articulated by Chicano scholarship (and here I'm thinking of George Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American as well as the Chicana scholarship of Gloria Anzaldua et. al.)

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 6/6/2005

Indeed the point was made by Ralph et al. that getting beyond national constrictions could be accomplished in a biography whose subject crossed boundaries; I just thought, perhaps, mistakenly, that there was an implication that such a biography was a bit exceptional, despite the travels of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin.
Maybe the best new one is Frank Bremer's biography of Winthrop, called a forgotten founding father, in which he discusses England in detail in relation to Winthrop's later career in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As for giving less attention to nationalist definitions, it isn't just the history of (philosophical) ideas that ordinarily diverges from the national focus of the history of politics. Church history is trans-national, and there's no way to presume that current American church history is more important than what goes on elsewhere. Regarding another field, art history is traditionally taught in the United States through a mix of courses many of which are conceived internationally within limited periods of time (with names like medieval, Renaissance, baroque, etc.) augmented with various categories of non-Western art. Such a structure is commonly assumed, but I have seen a contrasting system in The Netherlands (as it was over thirty years ago), with courses arranged by medium (painting, prints, architecture, decorative arts) with primarily national focus, generally Dutch or Italian. An expert on some aspects of Dutch art could have practically no training about art contemporary with it that was produced in Spain, England, or France, for example. I have the idea that from an American perspective there is something called European art, forming a unity, developing into contemporary "Western Art"; while from within European countries there is first the local art and then its relation to influence from foreign artists before reaching an international "modern" art. But there isn't something called "world art" that is different from an accumulation of various regional histories. I'm obviously ignoring recent approaches influenced by "theory" akin to the fashion of imagining that literary critics write history.
Could one construct a course using a periodic approach to social or political history that is trans-national - such as comparing the rise of democracies, the defining of territorial boundaries, the assimilation of immigrants, the expansion of colonial farming, the environmental and social effects of canals and railroads, and relations with indigenous populations, throughout North and South America in the 19th century? (And that's just a random example of a non-nationalist course that would include national politics but not be driven by it.) Maybe there's someone with the necessary background.
I don't teach - just write - so that's a speculative question unconnected with practical curriculum responsibilities.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/6/2005

Gewen's article really isn't about history as a field, as much as it is about American history as self-reflection, and environmental history is still very poorly integrated into any national history narratives, particularly so in the case of the US where "environment" means "nature" and that's opposed to "progress" and "modernity"....

As interesting as the field is, there's too much of it which is still in one of two phases: naturalism, the very technical and detailed description of natural and human changes; activism, highly critical descriptions of the environmental degradation produced by modernity. There's a lot more that's going on but that's what the bulk of the scholarship looks like from the outside.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/6/2005

There's no triumphalism there. Not relevant.

Caleb McDaniel - 6/6/2005

Many of the, er, "Founding Fathers" of the new transnational history also call for a concomitant internationalizing of our professional history organizations in the United States. David Thelen was an animating force behind this during his tenure at the JAH.

Caleb McDaniel - 6/6/2005

Nicely put, Rob, as usual. I agree that the need for a "scoop" is partly to blame here, but I sense this presentist urgency--this implication that globalization has finally woken us up from our exceptionalist slumbers--even in some scholarly manifestoes about transnational history.

Mr. Bangs, I agree that intellectual history has always had a need for international perspectives, and I agree with Ralph that he and KC were already agreeing with you too. Thanks for the examples from your own work. But I do think that many transnational historians today would like to take the internationalizing impulse a step farther. It's one thing for intellectual historians to say, as they always have done, that national borders are permeable to ideas, but it's another thing to conclude from this (as Rob does) that perhaps the nation should not always be the prime unit of historical study or the central container of historical phenomena.

It's possible to write an intellectual history that acknowledges the international sources of "American" ideas but then still put your shoulder to the grindstone proving that those ideas have become uniquely "American." The old Progressive ideas about American democratic institutions migrating from the German woods with Anglo-Saxon settlers was "internationalizing," in a sense, but it was still subordinating that narrative to a larger one about what "America" is.

Rob MacDougall - 6/6/2005

Caleb, you and KC and Ralph are all quite right that there's less that's brand new about the "new" global history (or the newly global globe) than Gewen lets on. But that's pretty standard in newspaper writing, isn't it? Everything needs a peg, everything is always a present-tense phenomena: It's always headlines like "Today, More Than Ever, Teenagers Talk On The Phone" or "New Study Shows Things Are Mostly Unchanged From Yesterday." Asserting the newness of something is as natural to journalism as insisting on its oldness is to historians.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/6/2005

Environmental history. The complete absence of this category in the discussion thus far really surprises me.

Rob MacDougall - 6/6/2005

Julie: I was being flip about getting Canadians on the job, but that question - do non-American Americanists approach American history differently than American Americanists? - is part of what I was trying to get at in my comment. Is an outsider perspective useful in getting away from the tendency to "national moral biography"?

As far as terminology goes I've got no problem with "Americanist." You can also, I suppose, say "U.S. historian" - in fact, my new job (in Canada) is in U.S. history and I was gently corrected by the chair when I called it an American history position.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/6/2005

It's helpful to have the bibliography, but doesn't it lead up to a point that KC and I had already made and Caleb took note of?
Your point in re history of ideas is a good one, though it is fairly common for history departments to offer intellectual history courses that are either essentially European intellectual history or American intellectual history. More rarely do attempt a trans-Atlantic focus. It may be because there are relatively few historians who are either equipped to teach a trans-Atlantic intellectual history or who have the incentive to do so.

Julie A Hofmann - 6/5/2005

I think we should hereby mandate the use of 'Americanist' rather than 'American historians' because this is not the first time I've seen confusion. Except, of course, that I don't know if non-American Americanists tend to approach American history in the same way as their American counterparts. Can anyone offer insight into this?

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 6/5/2005

Caleb McDaniel refers to "chronological exceptionalism," and remarkes further that "manifestoes for transnational history" "often rely on the premise that because our world is more 'global' than ever before, our histories also must be more 'global' than ever."

Rather than being more global, perhaps our world is quicker at traversing distance. The Englishman who in second quarter of the seventeenth century praised the advantages of the idea of colonizing New England, as opposed to the Far East, by asking, "as for the passage, how can it be thought either tedious or dangerous, it being ordinarily but six weekes sayle, in a sea much more secure from pirats, and much more free from shipwrack, and enemies coasts, then our ten or twelve moneths voyage into the East Indies?" represents a view of the world unrestricted by national boundaries, although constrained in various ways by the concept of nation. He imagined a world arena for conflicting political and trading activities carried out by people who not infrequently combined in ways that would now be considered international business. Anyone dealing with seventeenth-century European colonial activity from the sources in European archives automatically arrives at an "Atlantic World" view (and beyond the Atlantic, too).

With obligatory apologies for the appearance of shamelessly plugging my books (which I'll do because I'm sure none of the readers of this blog will be aware of them)- a couple deal with aspects of this wider view.
One starts out as a biography of a dead white male colonist who is ordinarily merely a name in a colony usually considered too minor to get much more than a sneeze. The fellow returned to England, rose in various government committees, and was appointed jointly by the Dutch Parliament and by Oliver Cromwell to be the chairman of an international committee whose task was to resolve international disputes after the First Anglo-Dutch War; and they knew about him as representing the interests of New England. (The war revolved around issues that concerned New England - naval supplies.) In terms of getting beyong boundaries, he had to familiarize himself with evidence of action ranging geographically from Riga to Brazil. The book: Pilgrim Edward Winslow, New England's First International Diplomat (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2004).

Another book pursues the Dutch discussion of religious toleration in the seventeenth century by focussing on its practical expression in a massive international relief effort that has gone almost entirely unnoticed in recent historical literature, despite its having been coordinated by the circle of people that included the hosts of John Locke when he was exiled in Holland. Rather than stopping at national boundaries (toleration in the Low Countries, toleration in France, toleration in England, etc.), Dutch Mennonites coordinated an international effort to relieve suffering and end persecution in Switzerland and the Palatinate. Their activities ranged from collecting and distributing clothing, farm equipment, and money, to solliciting professorial letter-writing, distributing printed publications supporting toleration through citation of historical precedent, and finally to enlisting diplomatic intervention on the level of city, province, and national government, and by William III of England and Holland, and the Emperor Leopold I. (Clearly something else was happening besides the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and that changes the context for understanding Locke and Penn.) This one's called: Letters on Toleration, Dutch Aid to Persecuted Swiss and Palatine Mennonites, 1615-1699 (Rockport, ME: Picton Press, 2004).

Working in a sort of isolation from American academic trends, my reaction to the article that started this discussion, where "Atlantic World" and going beyond national boundaries are perceived as offering promise for new directions in historiography, can't be anything but to ask, isn't this obvious, and hasn't it been going on already for at least thirty years? Hasn't this always been essential to the history of ideas?

Caleb McDaniel - 6/5/2005

Although I characterized "transnational history" as "newly aborning," I wanted to second the points made by KC and Ralph about the fact that the kinds of narratives Gewen is discovering have been around for quite some time.

A related point: Many manifestoes for transnational history begin by taking aim at "American exceptionalism" or "national exceptionalism" in general, but in the end many of them succumb to what I would call "chronological exceptionalism." They often rely on the premise that because our world is more "global" than ever before, our histories also must be more "global" than ever. But one of the tasks of transnational historians, I think, can be to place our own experience of "globalization" in a longer historical perspective, and show why and when historical forces combined to make historical actors sense that their world was "smaller" or more integrated than before.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/5/2005

You know the Asian scholarship and I don't. I was actually referring to the fact, it seems to me, that the Annales school gets more lip service among American_ists_ (that's not saying anything about American Asianists).

Jonathan Dresner - 6/5/2005

Annales school methods have been immensely productive in Asian scholarship as well as European. I'm currently reading, for example, Louis Young's book on Japan's empire in Manchuria, in which she argues that some empires are "total empires" in which the center, as much as imperial institutions, are affected by and instrumental in creating and maintaining imperial power, and that the distinction between social institutions, political institutions and discourse is dramatically overstated by most analysts. The melding of social, political and cultural history is very much in the Annales tradition, I believe. What struck me about her introduction is that as I read it my thought was not "oh, that's new and interesting" but "of course it works that way" which means that her ideas are drawing on a solid foundation of previous scholarship and theory.