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Apr 19, 2006 4:14 pm

Cliopatria Symposium on ... Transnational Histories of America

Welcome, all, to the April edition of Cliopatria Symposium. This month we focus on Professor Thomas Bender's essay No Borders: Beyond the Nation-State which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2006.

This symposium grew organically as conversation between Eric Rauchway, Caleb McDaniel and Rob McDougall evolved and incorporated the themes of the Bender essay. In the interest of giving a sense of the evolution of the discussion, I have taken Ralph's suggestion and organized the symposium accordingly.

I thank all the participants - Cliopatrians and otherwise - who send me their responses and I hope that Prof. Bender will find some time to read and respond here.

Click more to read Eric Rauchway, Caleb McDaniel, Rob McDougall, K.C. Johnson, Greg Robinson, Nathaneal Robnison, Jim Fedako, Evan Roberts.

Please feel free to send me your posts for inclusion into the symposium. update: Prof. Bender responds to the Symposium.

And, now the pieces submitted for the symposium:

Caleb McDaniel:

Since I profess to be (or confess to being) a transnational historian of sorts, I enjoyed reading Professor Bender's column in the Chronicle. (I hope my peculiar interest in transnational history will also excuse my somewhat long-winded contribution to this symposium.) As editor and as author, Bender has recently done more than anyone to advance the practice of transnational history in the United States, to give its practitioners a hearing, and to demonstrate how it might be done well. So all of my comments should be read against a backdrop of deep sympathy with the"end" of history that Bender is aiming for.

But I also feel some ambivalence about the"new transnational history" and particularly about the term itself. (It's worth noting that Bender never gives that name to the historical narratives he is calling for, which may be an advance itself.) Our perennial problem as transnational historians lies in defining the antithesis of transnational history. We cast ourselves as critics, but what precisely are we criticizing? In some ways that question is hard to answer because the answer seems so obvious to everyone: the assumption is that we all know what nationalist or national history looks like, and therefore should know instinctively what makes transnational history different. But (and I'm talking to myself here more than anyone) it's worth being precise about the establishment (if such it is) that we are trying to overturn.

Bender calls for an end to"history as we have known it." But that phrase seems to have several different referents. What is this"history as we have known it"? And who is the"we" Bender is referring to? Sometimes Bender seems to be criticizing history as"we Americans" have known it -- history as it is carried around the heads of ordinary citizens, or as it is told in the public sphere by talking heads and politicians. In a related line of argument, Bender criticizes the parochialism of the textbooks and public school curricula that most Americans have been exposed to. Is the call for transnational history, then, simply a call for academic historians to do a better job explaining the complexity of American history in the public sphere, or for academic historians to take more of an interest in seeing that the latest scholarship"trickles down," unbracketed, into textbooks?

If so, then I think few academic historians would disagree. It is hard to dispute that the popular conception of American history in the United States is framed by nationalist presumptions and questions, and that this nationalist history helps to underwrite support for nationalist policies. In 2004, the uproar over John Kerry's alleged call for American policies to pass a"global test" can only be explained if, as Bender argues, many Americans do intuitively divide the globe into"us" and"the world." When most Americans go into their local Barnes and Noble bookstores, they find the history section divided into"World History,""European History," and"United States History." They see the same divides on the report cards and textbooks that their children bring home from school. They see Sportscenter anchors talking about the influx of"international" players (as opposed to an undifferentiated group of"American" players) into the NBA or NHL. And as the recent debates over illegal immigration have shown,"American" is popularly glossed as"English-speaking" and"native born" -- two glosses that (as Nathanael Robinson has argued) do not make sense given the actual history of the United States.

So one thing Bender seems to be saying is that American historians need to do a better job of communicating to other Americans what they already know. But Bender also seems to be saying that historians themselves have been too easily ensnared by nationalism. And this is an argument that I think academic historians have found less convincing. As much as transnational historians warn against the non-transnational bogeyman, it can prove very difficult to put a face and a name on that specter. For example, Bender points out that nationalism helped shape the discipline of professional history, but he also points to the earliest practitioners of American history -- even the most putatively nationalist ones, like Frederick Jackson Turner -- as his ancestors.

Who, then, are his foils? The usual suspects here are"the post-World War II group" of American historians, but if Henry Adams and Frederick Jackson Turner can be absolved of"American exceptionalism," then surely historians like Louis Hartz and David Potter can be as well. As Michael McGerr pointed out in 1991, even the most allegedly"exceptionalist" Cold War historians recognized the need to extend the context of American history beyond the borders of the territorial nation-state -- because, not in spite of, the Cold War. Potter even argued, in a famous 1962 article on nationalism and history, that historians often used the nation-state uncritically as if it were a natural container of individual historical experience -- the very thing that historians of his generation are accused of doing by new transnational historians. Potter's magisterial narrative of the antebellum period, The Impending Crisis, also recognized, as Bender does, that the American national crisis took place in the immediate aftermath of other national crises in Europe. (See pages 14 and 15).

To be fair, Potter devoted only a couple of pages out of hundreds to that international context, and certainly much more work needs to be done on the long shadow that the Revolutions of 1848 cast over the American Civil War era. Recent work by historians like Paola Gemme and Timothy Roberts has started to do this, and the last chapter of my own dissertation argues that conversations between American abolitionists and European liberals like Giuseppe Mazzini helped shape debates about national identity and slavery in the United States. Still, the fact that this kind of work is now flourishing does not mean that post-World War II historians like Potter failed to anticipate it. Surely they anticipated and encouraged it at least as much as Henry Adams or Frederick Jackson Turner would have.

There's an irony (and I've seen it even in my own writings on the subject) in the way that transnational historians seem to define their identity primarily against a shadowy Other, even as they would probably disagree with theories of national identity that draw sharp dichotomies between"us" and"them." This may be a feature of the fact that transnational historians are still operating mainly in what Evan Roberts recently called the"manifesto" phase of field development. The more we move into what Evan calls the" contributionist" phase, the less we will need this sharp dichotomization between"transnational" historians and"other" historians. And Bender's essay is chock full of wonderful suggestions for such contributionist work. These suggestions, it seems to me, are the most exciting parts of Professor Bender's essay, which has certainly whetted my appetite for his book.

Since Professor Bender has indicated a willingness to join this symposium, I would be interested in knowing what he thinks of" comparative history." Some of the advocates for transnational history in the early 1990s (like Ian Tyrrell and David Thelen) used" comparative history" as a foil for the kind of work they were recommending. But at least some of the projects that Bender recommends in this essay seem like they would fall under the rubric of comparative history -- a field that has had a similarly hard time convincing some academic historians of its value, but which seems to be more established than transnational history. Is comparative history simply a form of the transnational history that Bender is calling for, or do they represent different ways of approaching the histories of nation-states?

Greg Robinson:

Before plunging in with the substance of my commentary on Thomas Bender’s, “No Borders: Beyond the Nation-State,” it might be fair for me to declare my particular interest in what Professor Bender says. “Interest,” that is, both in the sense of bias and in the sense of fascination. In the first definition, Tom Bender was (with an assist from Marilyn Young) my Ph.D. dissertation advisor, and I have continued to correspond with him since. Although I have not yet seen the book from which the current essay is adapted, I heard some of Professor Bender’s argument when he lectured in Montreal in Fall 2003, and I had a chance to discuss it with him then. My interest in the other meaning of the word stems from my situation as a Professor of United States History teaching in Quebec. Here I teach students who, with rare exceptions, have never had U.S. History courses in elementary or high school, and have instead been taught a connected (and sometimes competing) set of “national” histories about Canada and Quebec.

The result of this is that I am very much in sympathy with Professor Bender’s call for a change in the envisioning and teaching of History in the United States. From my vantage point, even shy of Professor Bender’s skillful macrohistorical linking of trends and events in the United States with those in the rest of the world, it seems both arbitrary and dishonest to try and provide students a self-contained national narrative. For one thing, the vast historical resemblances and interconnections between the United States and Canada make a mockery of the idea of American exceptionalism upon which a discrete national history is built. Worse, Professor Bender reminds us of the questionable ideological uses of such history. He is, I think, even a little too generous in describing how the American past is taught. As with the case of schools in many if not most nations, the ideological end of such history is nation-building. It is too often a triumphalist view of the nation as the apex of historical development, not designed to inspire critical thinking about the contradictions of the national life, or even express how the United States seems to the rest of the world, but expressly to inculcate patriotism, and even self-glorification. While I am myself a specialist on the United States, I regularly include comparison with Canada in my classes, and I do teach thematic courses with Canadian content. (We will put aside here the issues associated with teaching North American History, and the fears of some Canadian historians that it is a US-hegemonic project!)

Where I would differ with Professor Bender is in pointing out how much his call to look at United States History in an international context has succeeded and is flourishing in scholarship. First, there are a number of fields of research, such as international relations and military history, where a global view has always subsisted comfortably with study of governments. (It is interesting that Professor Bender, in his invocation of a golden age of historians, omits the discussion of naval specialist Alfred Thayer Mahan, the most internationally minded, and certainly most internationally famous, of 19th Century Americanists). American Studies, too, has made enormous strides towards looking at the United States in a world context, while continuing to question the political implications of such an effort). “Crossroads of Cultures, “ Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Presidential Address to the American Studies Association (reprinted in the SPRING 2005 AMERICAN QUARTERLY) offers a remarkable tour of works in American Studies that show an internationalist approach to the subject. Finally, the increased popular acceptance of foreign scholars of American History within US historical circles has fostered a larger viewpoint. One need but think of Niall Ferguson’s work on US empire and Paul Gilroy’s work on the Black Atlantic.

Nathaneal Robinson:

Few Americans are familiar with Felix Ponteil or his L’Opposition politique à Strasbourg. A student of Febvre who did much of the heavy lifting in publishing the Annales, Ponteil created a masterful work that depicted a nineteenth-century city that, on the one hand, was the headquarters of the German democratic movement, and on the other, suffered from French trade policies that cut it off from its sources of commerce. It was a cosmopolitan city that relished in an international role; it was also a provincial city submitted to French national authority. The contradictions were impossible without its position on the border.

In a recent article, Thomas Bender invites Americanists to get out of their own ivory towers, and recognize how their history is part of international and global processes: “I want to propose the end of American history as we have known it.” Yes, I am laughing in the background at the prospect that Americanists might be subjected to the same pain as Europeanists. Certainly, there are those Europeanists who will use the nation to simplify (without warrant) their studies rather than frame them (the phrase “I only do ...” should be banned from academia.) Nothing would please me more, however, than seeing historians working with broader palettes.

Beyond my enthusiasm for a change in the modus operandi, Bender leaves me perplexed by what he means by transnationalism and what it might offer to the profession beyond ending American parochialism. KC Johnson has already raised the concern that this ‘transnationalism’ excludes much of political history. Others, like Rob MacDougall, have voiced concern about the arbitrary pursuit of transnationalism: the nation-state is the appropriate context for some inquiries, and overcomplication leads to undo abstraction. Approaching Bender from the outside, as a Europeanist, and as someone who studies people who were not only aware of, but advocate for, transnationalism, I wonder if his conceptualization of transnationalism is too casual. The title of the piece, “No Borders,” leaves me pondering the differences between traditional international history (infused with diplomacy and warfare), global history, and the America-in-the-World approach that Bender recommends.

The notion of the borderless realm greatly simplifies transnationalism’s appeal and usefulness. Indeed, some form of transnationalism has always existed between princes and thinkers, predating globalization and nation-building. It was their privilege to supercede borders. It was also their privilege to make borders, using armies and fortifications to solidify the frontier, or pens to argue for the autonomy of the monarch and his authority over other princes. The cosmopolitanism of the political and intellectual elites was often made at the expense of the diversity of society, and the border was meant to mark the homogeny of the state.

To the vast majority of humanity, the border was not something to overcome, but to confront. Crossing the border was not always passing through abstractly-divided space, but a political act in which the individual negotiated complicated sets of identities. Even as space becomes easier to cross, authorities work harder to contain the flows of people and ideas. The emotions of nationalism made elucidating the border an issue for the general public, not just the elites. At this level, transnationalism was not free movement, but passage on bridges that regulated the flow of traffic.

Transnationalism reveals rich relationships and interactions below the games of diplomats and the letters of intellectuals. It is precious. It should not become a panacea for contemporary scholarship. Care should be taken to crafting a transnational history. First, it is the study that should define the relevance and nature of transnationalism. Second, transnationalism itself–its dimensions, scope, texture–should be at issue. Third, it should ideally bring together the high and the low and all the layers in between, not just the privileged aspects, of the transnational experience. Please, let’s be transnational, but let’s do it to its deepest roots.

Other Contributions:

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More Comments:

Jason KEuter - 4/22/2006

Most criticisms of exceptionalism seem to really be criticisms of any hsitories that assign a positive role in world affairs to the United States; I thus do not beleive that much of what is criticized as "exceptionalist" history is really as myopic as its critics would contend. To me, Transnational History simply entails a greater understanding of the global context in which American history takes place. It goes overboard when it speaks of nationalism as some kind of "artifice". Indeed, America's history could be considered a struggle to create and maintain a distinct nation-state within the tides and waves of European History.

I recall a post in which a critic mentioned Kaplan's "Power and Paradise", which, to his mind, lacked the virtue of condemning the international role the US played. He chided the book as being "exceptionalist". But the book is far from exceptionalism. As a matter of fact, the book argues that the behavior of the United States and Europe have switched since World War I, and that the difference lies in the US because it now has greater global responsibilities, it is thus more realistic (and cynical) about the necessity of war whereas the Europeans, enjoying a lack of responsibility akin to America after World War I, are more idealistic.

Thus, historians who argue that America is "different" are not arguing necessarily arguing that it is exceptional. Nor are they arguin that therest of the world doesn't matter.

Robert KC Johnson - 4/17/2006

I agree with Caleb's post above--it's not entirely clear to me who the "we" is in Bender's article. There clearly isn't an excess of teaching from a patriotic sentiment in most college US history classes--if anything, we have something of a reverse of the 1950s, with that era's pattern of reflexive praise of the US past. As to the trickle-down effect, I'm not sure how well this approach would work. I remain astonished at the popularity of some right-wing "popular histories"--books like A Politically Incorrect Guide to US History--that are terrible books but present messages the broader population likes to hear. Having the academy agitate for teaching US history in high schools from a wholly transnational perspective, it seems to me, would simply stimulate a powerful backlash and has no chance politically of success.

There's also something of a chronological disconnect in the piece. Bender writes, "If this concept of the nation is specific to the past two centuries, still we are so comfortable with it as to refer routinely to events that occurred a thousand years ago within the present borders of France, for example, as 'medieval French history.'" This is a compelling critique of those departments who offer courses or make hires in medieval French history. But for better or worse, the independence of the United States coincided with the period in which the nation-state emerged. That might have been an unhealthy development--but we just can't pretend that it wasn't so, or imply that discussing the nation-state in the framework of US history is the same as talking about it in the context of medieval France.

Finally, to go back to a point I made in my original post--Bender notes that "some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in American history has been framed in ways that do not necessarily tie it to the nation-state — work on gender, migrations, diasporas, class, race, ethnicity, and other areas of social history." Looking at staffing patterns among Americanists in History Departments, or, just recently, the Guggenheims, where 10 of the 11 US history awards went to social/cultural historians (5 to gender historians alone), I'd be hard pressed to say that we exist in a pedagogical environment unfriendly to US social and cultural history.

Most generally, it seems to me that we can do many of the specific things that Bender urges in his piece (reading US historians from outside the country, placing key events in the US in an international context) without adopting his more sweeping recommendations.