Having been reading Thomas Bender’s “Introduction” to the edited volume of Rethinking American History in a Global Age, I’d like to deepen our previous conversations on the methodology of transnational history, as well as the rationale behind it.
We’ve often talked about the tension that exists between transnational and national history, but also noted that transnational history needs the nation. Bender provides an insight as to why practitioners of transnational history may like to challenge a nationalist historiography – that is because nations, by default, celebrates commonality. It “affirms a common history for a shared future,” and “represents a particular narrative of social connection that celebrates a sense of having something in common.” (my emphasis) Breaking this down further, we see that nationalist historiography privileges certain narratives over others, which are equally valid and enlightening in their own ways, but left in the dark because they don’t share the effect of fostering a sense of nationhood.
It is here that historians cast their gaze back on themselves. What is the role that professional discipline of history has played since Leopold von Ranke in the formation of nations? Prasenjit Duara puts it straight, “modern historiography collaborated in enabling the nation-state to define the framework of its self-understanding.” Such writing of history searches for origins – places, events and people where the idea of a nation first germinated, or initial signs emerged. What is implied here is its purpose to construct a narrative that explains a “shared history”, to provide a timeline of the most important battles, powerful states, patriotic fighters that helped to realise the nation that many take for granted today. Crucially, such a this method is teleological and linear. Promoting the transnationalist agenda, Bender argues that historians should “describe a past that can more effectively engage the present,” pointing to a need to “displace focus on origins and allow a greater spatialisation of historical narrative.”
Bender suggests that since Ranke, the writing of history has developed in a way that “the nation became the unit of politics and history,” historians were “committed to evolutionary theories,” and the most crucial is that “peoples not organised in nations” are treated as historical nonentities. To use an example of my own, the Japanese empire portrayed Taiwanese inhabitants in the early days of colonisation as “barbaric”, “uncivilised”, and above all, “backwards” to justify their subjugation, deliberately imposing a temporal difference on a contemporaneous space. This way, history becomes concerned solely with “peoples organised into nations,” the rest falls under the domain of study for anthropologists. Bender proposes that the “dissolution of that division between history and ethnology” (my emphasis) is the reframing of history brought about by the transnational perspective.
The main point here seems to be that transnational history breaks the mould that has so far restricted “meaningful history” to one that explains the nationalist agenda. It “reveals the plenitude of stories, timescales [and] geographies” by breaking history down to its basic constituent parts – time, space, structure, transformation, relations. It serves to “liberate” history so that historians can construct narratives that demonstrate other forms of social unity apart from that of a “nation”, but also doesn’t exclude it. In sum, time is not singular but historicised, and the writing of history is that much richer by it.