Saturday, April 15, 2006

Historiens sans Frontières?

[This post was written for Cliopatria's symposium on Thomas Bender's "No Borders: Beyond the Nation-State.", which is now available for your reading.]

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.

[Editing note: somehow I forgot to put in the adverb that negated transnationalism as a panacea.]

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