You can, to my mind, apply a transnational lens to practically anything. I remember jotting down a series of notes in the first seminar upon which I subsequently mused and wrote at length: of the possibility of historical axioms; of the contiguity of flow and networks; of the mental construction, Benedict Anderson-like, of nations and other anthropological entities. Patricia Clavin’s ‘glocalities’ supported these ideas early on, and reading Jan Ruger’s passing analysis of pre-1914 networks of Anglo-German relationships went some way towards confirming it. It appears that you can find such connections, and such vital relationships of contingency, between quite far-flung and, at first glance, seemingly discrete events, places, and people.
Take, for instance, the story of the phoenix. It was on my mind following the failure of CPR upon my previous topic: the idea of a new thing springing out of the ashes of the old is, I hope, one that will be exemplified as I resume my research. The area into which I was previously delving –the transnationality of human trafficking networks— was and is, as I said in the ‘post-mortem’ presentation, perfect for the transnational historian (laying aside the absence of sources and convincing scholarship). But really, what isn’t? Lux and Cook, whose essay on correspondence networks we read earlier in the semester, focused upon one man –Henry Oldenburg— and the way in which he remained stationary but nonetheless connected to thinkers across Europe. The ideas, in this case, were what were ‘in flow’: the conduits through which they moved, to use somewhat fanciful language, were the human nodes within an information network running on letters.
The ‘story of the story of the phoenix’ might be something similar; a brief glance at the Wikipedia page directs me to R. Van den Broek’s book The Myth of the Phoenix, a sprawling and densely-footnoted work that maps the appearance of the story as it surfaces in Greece, Egypt, Italy, France, Britain, and across the globe, seeming at times to die out but, fittingly, always returning. United within the umbrella of this research are such diverse thinkers as Herodotus, Dante, Isidore of Seville and Pope Clement I. This is not a history that calls itself ‘transnational’ –in 1972, the term wasn’t yet bandied about with such enthusiasm— but it nonetheless is one, or at least shares a large number of characteristics with other works of proudly self-identified transnationalism.
In these two examples –of Lux and Cook, and Van den Broek’s 487-page tome— we see instances of, respectively, a transnational history of intended, ‘formal’ networks of idea exchange, and of an ‘informal’ network of flash-points unified by a shared exposure to a single idea. The first spans a short period of time; the latter spans over a thousand years.
The great thing, however, is that ideas are by no means the only things that can ‘flow’, or which can ‘flash’. That’s been one of the major take-away points for me this semester. The interconnectedness of history has been striking, and has struck me more the more I consider it.
Where do I go from here? The question is doubly pertinent: firstly, where do I go for the rest of the semester –there are still five thousand words to be written— and secondly, where do I go with the ideas that I have gained in this semester, as I return to ‘conventional history’? The answer to the first question is still with the jury, who remain out. As I said above, I am of the opinion that practically anything can be viewed through a transnational lens, and I am tempted, for instance, by the idea of taking a single actor –as J-P.A. Ghobrial did with Elias of Babylon, or Jonathan Hyslop did with Gandhi— and examining their lives in such a lens, looking both at how they were affected by the networks in which they found themselves, and how they caused ‘flashes’ transnationally, by either their movements or the dissemination of their ideas. The 20th-century Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn is a possibility.
And secondly, how do I apply the ideas that I have been taught in this module to the areas that I will go on to study? It’s worth saying that this module has taught me a huge amount. It is easy to proceed with history according to a set of quite basic assumptions –that ‘different’ areas can be easily compared; that we can, at least for narratorial purposes, differentiate without too much difficulty between one place and another— but this module, and the thoughts that it generated, have gone far in causing me to question such premises. The interconnectedness of seemingly ‘different’ aspects and occurrences, where useful, is something upon which I will try to focus moving forward— alongside, of course, an elimination of those lazy assumptions and shorthands that have, as I have come to notice them more, increasingly bugged me.
In summary, looking back, I can say with confidence that I have greatly appreciated the module and the way in which it stretched me. I would, will, and already have, recommend(ed) it.