Blogs > Cliopatria > TransAmerica

Apr 9, 2006 11:46 am


I’ve enjoyed reading the conversation between Eric Rauchway, Caleb McDaniel, and now KC Johnson on globalization and transnational history. Perhaps I should say transnational American history, since all of them are coming at the topic from their studies of the United States—as am I—but the extent to which transnational history is American history, and American history is transnational history, is part of what is at issue here. (It may seem like I'm conflating transnational history and globalization here, but bear with me. I know that Thomas Bender and others like him are hardly prophets of globalization in the mold of Thomas Friedman, but any honest answer to the questions “why transnational American history?” and especially “why transnational American history now?” must surely involve the G word.)

KC, Caleb, and Eric’s positions (I’m just going to call them by their first names because I’ve met KC, been reading Caleb for ages, and because I saw a comment where Professor Rauchway said it was kosher to do so) seem complementary to me. Caleb is an advocate and (rara avis) an actual practitioner of transnational history, but he’s rightly skeptical of any grand proclamations about what globalization “proves” or “requires.” Eric has written a book on Gilded Age globalization and the United States that I obviously have to read: Blessed Among Nations: America’s Place in the World. He’s arguing for the continued relevance of political history now that transnational history is the new black. And KC wonders about the motivation of the transnationalists. Is it just another way to rationalize the marginalization of political and diplomatic history—to “take the state back out”?

In an earlier post on this subject, Caleb cited Thomas Bender’s Rethinking American History in a Global Age. This week my American Studies class discussed an article in that collection, Charles Bright and Michael Geyer’s “Where in the World Is America? The History of the United States in the Global Age.” With no greater qualifications on this subject than that, plus Ralph’s pleas for me to contribute to Cliopatria again sometime this decade, I’ll wade in with in a few thoughts.

I don’t know if my colleagues here have read the Bright and Geyer piece, but I’d love to hear any reactions to its arguments. It is interesting to me because it offers a more fundamental rethinking of American history than simply pointing out moments when the United States was affected by a wider world. If the latter is all transnational American history is, then, as KC points out, good American historians have been doing it for ages. But Bright and Geyer have a more ambitious program. The United States, they say, has been both a sovereign and a global nation since its start, one founded on universalist principles and driven by expansionist impulses that simultaneously sought national sovereignty yet challenged its foundations. There has always been an “offshore America,” they say, an imagined America that belongs to the rest of the world, “to be watched, ogled at, and commented upon.” But the last thirty years or so, they argue, have witnessed something more. Elements of the U.S. state and especially of American civil society have “broken free” of United States sovereignty and “gone global,” creating “a trans-nation … permanently distinct from the territorial nation.” The United States and its citizens are powerful participants in this new transnational America but neither control it nor constitute it in its entirety.

We’ve talked in my class about American exceptionalism, and I’d expected my students’ discussion of Bright and Geyer would center on that theme. One reason for Americanists to embrace this transnational turn is to help put to rest the old exceptionalism—that self-satisfied confidence that the U.S.A. is unique among nations, exempt from the ordinary forces of history. Bender’s CHE article [subscription required] makes this point explicitly. But Bright and Geyer’s version of transnational American history points to a new kind of American exceptionalism. They are not cheerleaders or apologists for American power, but I believe they do advance the premise that the United States is different from other nations, not just in degree but in kind. You say it’s a global age? Well, Bright and Geyer reply, America is the uniquely global nation. This is not the same self-effacing “there is no America” post-nationalism called for by American Studies scholars like David Noble or John Carlos Rowe. “What could be more American,” Bright and Geyer ask, “than a move to reposition U.S.-American history in the path of world history?”

As it turned out, my Canadian students had no complaint with Bright and Geyer on this score. The United States is exceptional, they all agreed. Why pretend otherwise? One student gave a presentation which asserted, “globalization = Americanization.” “Americanization of what?” I asked. “Of everything,” he shrugged.

What my students did balk at, though, was Bright and Geyer’s concept of the “trans-nation.” What is this transnational America exactly, they wanted to know. “Certain elements of American civil society have been incorporated into a ‘trans-nation’.” Which elements? And what does it mean for them to “break free”? The American trans-nation is obviously related to the symbolic America Bright and Geyer call l’Amerique—America as imagined from abroad, the land of the Golden Mountain and the Golden Arches, the Great Satan and the City on a Hill. But it’s more concrete than that. It includes American management practices and institutional forms. It includes the American dollar and American influence in bodies like the World Trade Organization. Most of all, it includes American corporations, or multinational corporations and alliances that once called America home.

“Well, why didn’t they just say that?” my students asked. Indeed. Not to pick on Bright and Geyer, because I think their article is very smart. I was more convinced by it than my undergraduates were. But my students, in their skepticism, made an excellent point. When impersonal forces like globalization and trans-nationalism get invoked, it is very easy to lose sight of actual historical actors and actions. Like all the passive voice sentences in the papers I’m currently grading, these important-sounding nouns obscure the key verbs. Who is doing what to whom? Who’s globalizing who? I’m nothing but sympathetic to the call for more transnational American history. I’m a practitioner myself in a modest way. But I worry about work describing elaborate “networks of influence” that embrace everything and explain nothing. When we step back far enough to see the whole globe, we lose an awful lot of detail. And in a lot of the calls for transnational history, I detect a fuzziness about actors and actions, power and causation, that is troubling whether or not it is intentional.

Hmm. This is getting long. I’ll break here, and hopefully return before too much time has passed with some thoughts on something I’m a little more qualified to speak on: the specific significance of technology to this history.

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