Blogs > Cliopatria > Bender on Transnationalism

Apr 8, 2006

Bender on Transnationalism

Thomas Bender has a piece in this week’s Chronicle advocating “the end of American history as we have known it,” to be replaced by an approach “that rejects the territorial space of the nation as a sufficient context and argues for the transnational nature of national histories.” There’s a disconnect, though, between the specific examples he cites—all of which seem to me to be examples of how to teach a U.S. survey well—and his broader recommendations, which strike me as a departure that would close off large segments of the American past from inquiry by historians.

Bender’s essay provides a nicely done summary of how to teach US history on the theory that “American history cannot be adequately understood unless it is incorporated into that global context.” The effects of the global Anglo-French rivalry and the Haitian revolution inform the history of the post-Constitution period. The Civil War can be examined in the context of the European revolutions of 1848 and the subsequent burst in nation-state formation, a “’federative crisis’ in which nations, from Argentina to Japan, from Germany to Siam, from the Russian and Ottoman Empires to the Hapsburg, were participants. All were recalibrating the relations between national and local authority. In most cases, wars were part of the story. So was emancipation. While the United States emancipated four million slaves, another 40 million serfs were freed in this era. Nation-making was a global phenomenon with distinctive local results.” US imperialism, Bender recommends, should be studied as part of a global phenomenon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Progressivism—both in ideas and in policies—was part of a global phenomenon, a point well illustrated by Daniel Rodgers’ recent book on the subject.

Cliopatria readers might disagree with me here, but it seems to me that most professors currently teach American history through this type of lens. I’d be hard pressed to imagine a discussion of US politics from 1789-1800 that contained no mention of Britain, France, and Haiti. Ditto one that analyzes the war in the Philippines without discussing the broader scramble for China and the imperial division of Africa. In this respect, Bender seems to be arguing against a straw man. He contends:

Most Americans hesitate to acknowledge the centrality of empire in their history, let alone to see that the American empire was one among many. The imperial adventure of 1898 was not, as is often argued, an accidental and unthinking act; empire had been on the national agenda for decades. There is a striking continuity in purpose and style from America's westward expansion to its overseas colonization in 1898.

I doubt that this statement would apply to any but a handful of US historians currently on college faculties in the country. If Americans as a whole don’t accept this interpretation of American imperialism, it’s certainly not because of the way in which US history is being taught. Likewise, his approach, Bender reasons, will make the academy “more open to interpretations of our history coming from historians and others beyond our borders.” Again, I find it hard to imagine that there are many US historians who are not open to interpretations of US history solely on the basis of the author’s nationality. Moreover, Bender argues that his approach will educate students in “the kind of cosmopolitanism that will make us better citizens of both the nation and the world,” since this approach to history will make them “humble” citizens of the world. There are some loaded arguments in this claim—ones that can be easily distorted by professors intending to teach their political views rather than history.

Having raised—and dismissed—a number of straw men, what is the model of this new transnational history Bender desires? “In the past few years, 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.” Hmm. In other words, “transnational” history represents one way to rationalize the academy’s having driven political, diplomatic, military, and constitutional history out of the discipline. How reassuring.

My chief objection to Bender’s analytic framework comes in its implicit suggestion that questions that don’t fit into this new transnational conception aren’t worthy of exploration. His essay repeatedly, and correctly, denounces a parochial approach to the study of the United States. But a “transnational” approach is also limiting. Take, for instance, the study of congressional history. Analyzing the topic through a redefined transnational lens to the American past would allow historians to explore only a sliver of the questions open to us. This concern would apply to a variety of other topics in political, diplomatic, military, and constitutional history.

If Bender can incorporate all rather than just some sub-disciplines of American history into his framework, it might be easier to imagine his “re-imagining” of the past.

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Robert KC Johnson - 4/9/2006

I know Bender's work, and I didn't want my critique to be read as accusing him of advocating politicizing the field. And I agree with you that, ala Peter Novick, it's impossible to separate our personal and political biases from what we teach and how we study the past. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do so, and that an ideal of objectivity or pursuit of truth, even if it can never be reached, should simply be abandoned.

This is what concerned me about Bender's rationale. He says we should adopt his approach to history because our goal should be to train "a cosmopolitan citizenry, at once proud nationals and humble citizens of the world."

But what exactly is a "cosmopolitan citizenry"? My guess is you could ask 50 historians and get 50 different answers, and that this definition is almost wholly based on the instructor's political beliefs. (I'm not a big fan of citizenry training, period, for this reason, but at least with the ideal of training American citizens, there'd be a common agreement that students should know something about the US system of government and the American past, even if there's understandably wide disagreement on what constitutes the latter.)

And what type of history instruction will create "humble citizens of the world"? And what are "humble" citizens, anyway? Citizens who stood by silently during the human rights abuses in Chile and South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, on the grounds that "humble" citizens ought not to have the right to impose their views on others?

Bender's rationale seems to me so vague as to invite abuse.

Robert KC Johnson - 4/9/2006

Ralph, You're right that "exclude" might have been too strong a word--perhaps "distort and limit" better captures what I was trying to say. You're right that in virtually every subfield of American history, there are ways to frame the topic in transnational terms.

But imagine a redefinition of American history along transnational lines--which is what Bender advocates, at least in his opening and closing sections. At one spectrum we'd have something like borderlands history or immigration/migration history--topics that are inherently transnational and would be unchanged by Bender's redefinition. At the other end of the spectrum is political history. Sure, you can come up with topics like a transnational comparison of political parties. But (a) there's nothing in the more nationally-based conception of history that Bender decries that prohibits such a comparison; and (b) any study of the inner workings of the American state (say, the politics of a particular piece of legislation) almost by definition can't be framed in a transnational way, or can only be framed in a transnational way by closing off more fruitful, exclusively domestic, lines of inquiry.

I'm especially sensitive to this as a congressional historian. In one of my book talks, I spoke on chapter 5 of my Congress book (which focuses on Stuart Symington as the embodiment of a more general transformation of the congressional approach to world affairs from 1969-1973). I was asked by an advocate of transnational history in the audience why I had focused so intently on the inner workings of Congress and the domestic influences on Congress during this period. The answer, essentially: there's very little evidence of non-US influence on any significant congressional action during the period of this chapter.

There seems to be an assumption in Bender's thesis that all issues can be framed in a transnational way, if we just look hard enough and redefine our approach to history. I don't think that's true.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 4/9/2006

As with everything in teaching, you have to make choices about the level at which to focus, or how to blend them. This is true whether you're talking a survey or a specialized course: you only have the term (whether it's a quarter or semester). And, unfortunately, when many students are only exposed to texts that talk in pablum generalities ('gummint' as my pet-peeve generalized concept), some undergraduates just stare back at me when I explain the importance of state administrative structures to the politics of education, or the relationship between events in Europe and Horace Mann's 12th report (published in 1848--maybe one or two students in every class understands off the bat how his claim, "capital and labor in the same class are essential fraternal" would have resonated that year).

Fortunately, some students are eager to look at multiple levels, but it's a different cognitive activity and one that most are not introduced to earlier.

Konrad M Lawson - 4/9/2006

Thanks for outlining some of Bender's ideas and your critique. Not having read Bender, I am reluctant to comment directly on his conception of transnational history. If indeed his conception somehow excludes some fields from any legitimate consideration, then this doesn't make our field any richer.

To broaden the discussion of this issue a bit though, I must confess that I'm very sympathetic to the more general move away from national history and towards transnational history. Although I'm only a 2nd year phd student, I already feel like there are powerful (residual?) forces in the works I read and even the structure of the program/department itself, which tend to box or frame questions at the national level by default.

While you note that "good" history today is history which takes note of the international or global context, I find that too often this is done in the form of side note, or a dismissive introduction. I can't help getting the impression that we still seem very much bound by national history. What I mean by that is that when we ask questions (or ask ourselves 'what questions matter') the nation emerges all too often as the subject, the point of reference (for purposes of legitimation for posing the question to begin with), or the natural framing of the scope. The other (once) major contender, class, never seems to have come close to having this power, even within Marxist scholarship.

Even gender, identity, subaltern, etc. studies are more often than not done within the national frame. Of course, this is not only some kind of "categorical" hegemony at work, but the practical fact that working "transnationally" often means demanding much more of the historian in terms of language abilities, familiarity with the historiography in that field, etc.

"International history" of course, has been around for a long time, but I dislike the term's use to describe the direction I think we should be going in since the word itself tells us where it has usually been the strongest: inter-national history.

Support for "transnational" history I believe will help overcome the tendency - still strong I believe, to assume that the questions that deserve to be asked and addressed, are ones which relate to the nation, are limited by its scope, and so on. It is the opposite and complimentary side of the microhistory tendency - just as we can produce interesting answers to big questions with a small scope, we can ask small (or big) questions without reference to or limited at the level of national history.

But what of its political implications? This brings me to my final point in this rather windy comment. As you have noted, this is an issue which has strong normative implications. That is, those who want, as I want, to change the practice of history and shift the dominant categories of our field do so because they believe this change will better facilitate the achievement of some goal. This goal, the classical positivist approach to history might say (and I am assuming here that it is not a creature made of straw) is, "as completely and accurately as possible reconstruct the past" But if anything at all has emerged from the sometimes ruinous recent encounters between theory and history it is that this was always a fantasy.

Here is where I would my concern about the assumptions of your posting and many of your postings here at Cliopatria come into play. My impression is that you divide the scholars of our field into two types: historians, and "those who teach their political views in the classroom." You might reasonably counter here that you are only concerned with a particular type of excessive politicization, defined in some suitably cautious way, but I don't think you can get very far in the end.

To support history as it is currently (or was "once") taught, to protect the categories and defend, for example, national history is not to staunchly protect history from the protesting postmodern rabble outside (or already inside) the gates. It is in fact, I would argue, just as much a <em>political</em> act as, say, Bender's desire to support transnational history in order to make them more cosmopolitan.

There is no apolitical history, no transcendent way to narrate the past which, through the selection of its subject, the events for inclusion, and the very rhetorical strategies it deploys, not affirm or negate certain indisputably political aims; does not reify or undermine certain politically loaded categories. You cannot leave politics out of the classroom or the textbook.

That is not to say that I don't agree with your instincts sometimes in objecting to the particular way that political ideology is expressed in the specific examples you have brought up on occasion in these pages. I am still very interested in exploring the ways in which might come to some reasonable agreements about how a good historian should engage their students and readers of their work. However, I think you have the language all wrong, and I suspect that your good intentions have rubbed countless readers in the wrong way as a result. You cannot shave politics from history like so much scum from the surface of an otherwise transparent pond.

In this particular case, I agree, we cannot deny that pushing transnational history serves at least one overt political aim (that of delegitimizing the nation in favor of cosmopolitinaism). I am happy to admit that I also support it precisely because I want to make a small contribution to the complete destruction of the nation-state (or the disastrous relationship between units of communal identity and political/military power). However, I object to the idea that any historian who has ever claimed to study the past is exempt from the deeply political nature of our craft.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 4/9/2006

Well, party systems in many parts of Europe emerged in response to a common event: the French revolution/First Empire. In that sense, the divide between liberal and conservative spread transnationally.

Bender seems to use transnational as a synonym for global or international. Given his examples, I keep wondering what transnational dimension he wishes to illuminate. I don't find anything particularly 'transnational' about conflict between states (not in the same way as migration.) Moreover, international conflict has already been a paradigm that has contextualized history since antiquity. A better definition of transnationalism would consider the confrontation with borders rather than seeing them as transparent.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/8/2006

KC, I'd like to see more specific examples of what Bender's agenda would exclude. I can't recall anyone having put the emergence of competative party systems, for example, in an international context. We've got all kinds of work that's been done on Federalists/Republicans, the breakup of the National Republicans, Democrats/Whigs, and Democrats/Republicans, but how does that compare with the emergence and development of British or French party systems? Are they largely legislative coalitions or do they emerge from below?