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.

Ranke, Leopold von (1795 - 1886), Deutscher Gelehrter; Leopold von Ranke, Ausschnitt aus einem verschollenen GemŠlde von Julius Friedrich Anton Schrader aus dem Jahre 1868.; GemŠlde, kopiert von Adolf Jebens, 1875 Original: Berlin, Berlin-Museum Standort bitte unbedingt angeben!;
We’ve all heard about Ranke

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.

Undermining the supremacy of “shared history” and historicising Time

2 thoughts on “Undermining the supremacy of “shared history” and historicising Time

  • March 29, 2016 at 11:32 am

    Really thought-provoking remarks! I was just wondering about the following: ‘It [the transnational approach] serves to “liberate” history so that historians can construct narratives that demonstrate other forms of social unity apart from that of a “nation”’. Does this approach necessarily move beyond the nation(-state)? And does it help shed light on more fluid configurations of social relations, eg networks, that cannot really be described as forms of social unity?

  • March 30, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for the comment! What I didn’t include in the posting above is Bender’s reminder that we should avoid imprisoning ourselves in another conceptual box, but it is better to ‘imagine a spectrum of social scales, both larger and smaller than the nation and not excluding the nation’. Nation as a form of social unity (and a very significant one too) is still to be referenced, challenged and deployed in transnational analyses. As for the other question, I definitely think it allows for more fluid configurations, in a way expanding the possible meanings of ‘social unity’ so that it’s not constrained by national boundaries, which we recognise as arbitrary anyways. It basically shows that the nation, the most familiar form of unity, is in turn shaped by other less obvious unities, because transnational links can undermine but also strengthen national boundaries. By showing that the nation is in some ways dependent on, or interact meaningfully with transnational links, we liberate history from the supremacy of nationalist frameworks, so historians can work with more sources.

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