Transnationalism, it is evident, is a tricky beast to pin down. Even those who optimistically declare themselves to be defining it seem to find themselves grasping at shadows and not quite managing to fulfil their original intent. Such a difficulty befalls Patricia Clavin, who proffers several aspects of a possible transnational history without quite tying it all together. ‘First and foremost’, Clavin declares at the outset, transnationalism is ‘about people: the social space that they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.’ I agree with this, and think it a valuable starting point- indeed, a fundamental premise. I agree, too, with her observation that ‘the influence and character of these networks defy easy categorisation’, a statement whose truth becomes uncomfortably apparent the more one looks at transnational history and what it seems it should best do.[1] To my mind, that being the case, Clavin does not go far enough in her assessment of the potential of transnational history; she attempts too much, in addition, to categorise networks, and to evaluate them as discrete series of links rather than parts of a contiguous whole. Although it’s quite clearly early on in the day, I outline below my initial thoughts— a summary, despite the length, and starting with two articles by Clavin as a springboard.

The transnational approach, I propose, ought to be a study of more than the ‘border crossings’ posited by Clavin.[2] Clavin ultimately argues for a heuristic that views ‘a transnational community… as a honeycomb, a structure which sustains and gives shapes to the identities of nation-states, institutions and particular social and geographic space’, a conceptualisation which I hesitate to accept.[3] The honeycomb, both for the sake of consistency within the chosen metaphor and for accuracy, must be recognised to be created by the human actors present in the creation of the entities contained within the bracket of ‘nation-states, institutions and particular social and geographic space’; instead, however, she appears to suggest that the honeycomb, rather than being the result of the interactions occurring within those spaces, functions in a role more akin to a mould. Such an interpretation of historical causality arises elsewhere in her work, such as when she proposes that the concept of ‘“Europe”… acted as an extrusive force’, or that ‘the forces of attraction and repulsion’ were often deeply intertwined.’[4]

I baulk at such a reduction in the role of the human in history at the expense of ‘historical forces’—  a conceptualisation that opens the door to a return to a history that places at its centre such conceptual monoliths as the unquestioned nation-state. I like rather more, by contrast, her argument from Boli and Thomas, that ‘local history becomes global history’ as the result of a relationship between the mindsets of individuals and the common cultural conceptions prevalent within any society.[5]

I find it a pity, that being the case, that Clavin does not develop that idea further in this essay: she notes that ‘cultural historians’ have, recognising this, sought to ‘“de-centre” the focus of attention away from governments and diplomacy towards society and culture as autonomous spheres of historical interest’, but in so doing she again slips towards a division between society, culture, and other areas as ‘autonomous spheres’.[6]

I find it intriguing that she would divide a nation up into ‘autonomous spheres’ while simultaneously arguing for the blending together of the nations themselves. I would like, therefore, to attempt an understanding of a term central to transnational history: that of the ‘nation’. Though difficult this must, I believe, be at the heart of transnational history. Without a strong understanding of what is meant at least conceptually by ‘nation’, any attempt to investigate that which goes ‘across’ them is doomed to fruitlessness. For one thing, it seems important that ‘nation’ be distinguished from ‘state’. One can find examples of a nation without a state (such as that of the Jews during the Diaspora, who continued, en masse but unilaterally, to identify themselves as members of a Jewish nation); nationless states, though perhaps rarer, could also be argued to have existed in the cases of composite monarchies or imposed empire. States are frequently deposed during revolutions, but in most instances the nation itself continues; indeed, it is often in the name of the nation that the revolution is said to take place. To differentiate properly between the two, however, is difficult, for reasons to be discussed.

Fundamentally, it must be recognised that a nation is an entity that comprises, and is constructed by, its constituent actors. This is an argument which follows that proposed by Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture ‘What is a Nation?’, and which works with his concept of the nation as a ‘daily referendum’ or constantly ongoing plebiscite.[7] If a sufficiently large proportion of a nation woke up one morning to the realisation that they no longer wished to be a part of that nation, it could not continue. This seems conceptually true, but the infrequency with which nations wink out of existence in this way appears to belie its claim, or at least its utility as a theory: nations, generally speaking, are considered ‘fixed’ units, to the extent that the Realist School of International Relations –to my understanding: I have never studied them formally— would declare them the fundamental blocks in theory necessary for understanding global interactions.

The origin and continuation of nations, and their role as actors and composites, must be further examined. ‘How is it,’ Renan further asks, ‘that France continues to be a nation, when the principle which created it has disappeared?’ As Clavin remarks, too, it is far from ‘easy for historians to abandon the nation as, at the very least, a useful category’: it evidently continues to exist, and continues to be of relevance, well after its initial cause.[8] Renan, examining the ways in which nations usually begin, identifies the creation and consolidation of dynasties as a frequent cause, but also notes that in some cases –the USA and Switzerland, for instance— there are no dynasties involved; and in others, like that of France in 1882, a dynasty has come, gone, returned again and left once more, while the nation continues. Equally, he continues, attempts to synonymise nationhood and nationality with race or language founder.

Arising from my attempt to understand nations, and to attempt to create a model according to which transnational interactions could be theorised, I propose two very basic axioms from which to extrapolate further conclusions. This may seem an ambitious project, but the axioms themselves are uncontroversial and indeed hardly original; and both, when applied, invite a usefully pan-disciplinary approach. The first is that:

‘Any individual actor acts in an effort to navigate what it perceives to be the easiest route to what it perceives to be its end in any given situation.’

This may be called ‘the axiom of convenience’. It follows, to a certain extent, the egoistical (though not necessarily selfish) theoretical heuristics espoused by Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli. It may at first glance appear rather trite, but I believe that the implications of such an axiom, if allowed to serve as the lens through which history is examined, are significant.

Firstly, the axiom is of immediate direct utility in a re-assessment of the natures of the nation and nationality. Any human construct recognisably develops out of a consideration for its utility. Language, arguably that most necessary for the existence of interaction, adheres to this; so too, far further down the timeline, does, for instance, the construction of a railway network. In every instance, the act occurs because those undertaking it perceive it to be the most convenient route to the obtainment of their ends. Sometimes the ends perceived important may change, or the route initially deemed most expedient is later realised to be inefficient: this is, of course, not a theory intended to argue that actors, like water flowing down a hill, always navigate the most convenient path to a given end: it is only intended to make clear that the route perceived to be the most convenient is always taken to what is perceived to be the given end.

Robert Nozick, when theorising on the development from a theoretical state of nature of the basic state, argued that the state occurs as a response to the stateless anarchy, dangerous to the ends of most individual actors, of the state of nature. The state of nature, he argued, has unavoidable problems: individuals aren’t good judges of their own cases, and accordingly there will be inevitable arguments over perceived violations of rights, perhaps leading to violence. The inevitable outcome of this, Nozick continued, is that ‘protective associations’ of multiple actors will be created to ensure and ensure their rights. The most effective ‘protective association’ will eventually gain all the ‘customers’ –individual actors— and will function as a minimal state.[9] I find this analysis persuasive, setting aside the extrapolations to morality consequently undertaken by Nozick as irrelevant to the subsequent study of history, and find too that Nozick’s ideas on state formation accord with the proposed axiom of convenience.

John Rawls, against whose ideas Nozick was largely opposed, put forward a concept of a social contract which looked not at how society is, but how it ought to be. An understanding of this, paired with the ideas of Renan and Nozick, can serve to solidify the claim to legitimacy of the axiom of convenience. Rawls proposed that in order to theorise a just society, it was necessary to place oneself behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, imagining that one could be placed into any level of an unknown society. From there, the thinker is invited to imagine a society into which they would be happy to be placed: the just society is one into which one would be content to be placed at any level. This follows the minimax principle: he argues that everybody behind the veil would agree to a truly just society out of personal self-interest.[10]

What would be, according to Rawls, universally recognised as the ideal society as viewed from behind a veil of ignorance is thus one that allows individual actors to most conveniently obtain their perceived ends. Simultaneously, it is perhaps worth noting that the choice of those behind the veil to create such a society would also be a step on the ‘path’ perceived to be most convenient in obtaining those ends.

From the arguments of both Nozick and Rawls, it emerges that theorised society and the interactions contained therein are in accordance with the axiom of convenience. Any entity serves ultimately as a form of safety net: it is created and perpetuated because it, and the circumstances attending it, are perceived to be the most convenient route to the obtainment of the ends, often disparate, of the actors involved. This is the case for all entities of any size or nature. When they no longer appear, to a sufficiently large number of actors involved in their perpetuation, to be of use in the obtaining of their ends, they inevitably collapse— in support of Renan’s proposal of the concept of the ongoing plebiscite.

This produces a second axiom— that:

‘Because any actor is acting in an effort to navigate by what it perceives to be the most convenient route to what it perceives to be its end, all actions undertaken are unilateral.’

This may be called the ‘axiom of unilaterality’. Two or more actors may, for semantic convenience, be said to ‘collaborate’ or act ‘multilaterally’ on a given project; ultimately, however, this is, per the axiom of convenience, done in order to advance the obtainment of their perceived ends (although such an end may be, for instance, ‘to benefit others’— such as the actor’s kin). Because each individual ultimately has different ends, the project in which it could be said to collaborate with another actor is different for them than it is for their collaborator. This is most easily seen during complex events such as the French Revolution or the drafting of the American Constitution, in which multiple actors could be said to have ‘collaborated’, but with evidently different ends and with different routes perceived to be most convenient. Without this axiom, it is possible that the significance of the individual actor as a particle in flow could be forgotten, with harmful consequences for historicisation of events. Jan Rüger, in his very enjoyable article on the origins of OXO, notes that transnational historians emphasise ‘historical actors within international networks, rather than conceiving of individuals from the outset as national subjects’: that is the methodology; above, I would suggest, I have outlined a possible ideology.[11]

There are certain extrapolated results of the above axiom that must, as Rüger observes from a different starting point, be applied. Firstly, the state and all other anthropologically constructed entities are held to be networks of unilateral paths of convenience, established over time for the expedient obtainment of individuals’ ends and altered or left unaltered depending on the changing natures of historical individuals’ perceived ends and their perceptions of the methods best utilised for their obtainment. Over time, and in order to maximise the convenience with which actors are able to obtain their ends, certain norms (such as taxation, for instance) become prevalent, varying with geographic and temporal location. These are largely ‘calcified’: historically, it appears to have proven more convenient to actors to seek to obtain their ends within their constraints (constraints, in passing, that also bring attendant benefits) than to attempt to reject them. In addition, it is largely more convenient for other actors to resist attempts to break the web of convenience-maximising norms, and so the convenience in obtaining ends to be found in attempting to forego them would be limited.

The nation-state, far from being a fixed unit, is thus revealed to be a fluid entity composed of myriad individual actors, all of them acting in order to most conveniently obtain their ends, and acting unilaterally. Far from being ordered entities, accordingly, nations are best visualised as roiling clouds of particles. The norms that appear to delineate them can be ignored or remade if a sufficient number of paths of perceived convenience appear to require it, and the very existence of the nation itself could, theoretically, be declared null, as Renan argued, should it be deemed in accordance with a sufficiently large number of ends.

The nation, in addition, because it is formed of the relics left by past paths of convenience and perpetuated by its ongoing convenience to the actors comprising it at any time, can be recognised to be a construct ‘bought into’ by those considering it, whether thinkingly or blindly, to be convenient. It is the product of those individuals that it comprises at any given time. It is the product, too, of their consent, rather than of the abstract existing culture, rules, language, or other attributes associated with it—  such qualia exist so long as those individuals involved in their perpetuation deem them convenient; it is for this reason, for instance, that languages die out. The nation, accordingly, can be recognised to be an entity in a state of constant flow. It is formed of discrete particles constantly moving and constantly being replaced, operating within vast tapestries of interwoven networks. Despite this, it continues: the individual actors comprising it in any given generation tend to adopt ends that do not act in absolute dichotomy to those of the previous generations, and furthermore are constrained by the webs of convenience in which they must attain their ends. Jan Rüger, noting that historians now know ‘almost everything one could ever want to know’ about early 20th Century Anglo-German relations, declares that ‘one comes away from many of the transnational studies of the Anglo-German relationship wondering why the two nations should ever have gone to war with one another at all’, before observing that when one examines ‘the two countries in diplomatic, strategic and economic terms… one gets the opposite impression, namely that of rivalry and antagonism, at points amounting to a sense of inevitability’.[12] These two impressions, though, can be reconciled with relative ease within the posited framework of paths of convenience: in the case of the First World War, it was perceived to be more convenient for the mass of actors comprising Germany to consent to the demands made of them by the hierarchical structure atop which sat the Kaiser than it was for them to resist in favour of a continuation of Anglo-German collaboration. The individuals involved in these events, as Rüger notes, were sometimes part of overtly transnational networks (such as those caused by international gymnastics competitions, one of Rüger’s examples)— but these were not the only networks in which they were involved, and in which they had to navigate to obtain their ends.

A nation, evidently, can change in direction and opinion within a short space of time. To what extent, building on such a thought, can a nation in one century be regarded as the nation of three centuries previously— or, in some cases, far less time? The Greek philosopher Plutarch discussed the question of an entity’s continuity with regard to the ship of the hero Theseus. Theseus’ ship, he says, was preserved by a civilisation that revered him: as timbers decayed they were replaced, until after a significant amount of time none of the original timbers were left as part of the ship. To what extent, Plutarch asked, could this be regarded as Theseus’ ship?

The nation, similarly, could be viewed –and has been, though in a surprisingly small number of articles— as subject to the paradox explored in the question of Theseus’ ship. It is a construct; it is comprises multitudinous individuals; the atoms that comprise it –the individual actors— are replaced inevitably over time. Philosophy might attempt, when discussing changing constructs, to delineate between ‘Thing’ and ‘Thing1’; history could be said to tacitly attempt to do this by declaring the slice of time within which a given entity is to be examined— ‘France in 1939’, for example. There is an implicit and vital recognition that a nation, or any given entity, as assessed at one point in time is fundamentally different from an entity that shares the same name at a different point in time.

That is not to say, of course, that the nation as a concept is without importance, or that all networks (insofar as one can separate one network from its surroundings) are of equal significance.[13] Nations very clearly possess a great deal of conceptual importance; as entities comprising large numbers of individuals, similarly, they have a large amount of real influence in their ability to enable representatives to aid their constituents in their pursuit of their ends (it could be worth drawing a parallel between nations and trade unions in this regard). However, to make ‘the nation’ –a cloud of individual actors, shifting across time— a delineated and even quasi-permanent building block in the construction of a historical narrative is to take the path of intellectual least resistance. Any nation, as a concept, is ultimately a metonym for the actors contained therein and their attendant anthropological structures, and to make such declarations as –for instance— ‘Prussia responded firmly to the incursion’; or, ‘the West regarded the East avariciously’, often allows an easy shorthand, but inevitably reduces accuracy. Despite her recognition that ‘it is important for transnational history not to lose connection to the question of human agency’, this is at times the case, I would argue, in some of Clavin’s points: ‘Ireland sought to refashion and break free of one set of transnational connections’; ‘Norway look[ed] to internationalism as a means of defining a new identity.’[14]

Rather than Clavin’s honeycomb metaphor, which still necessitates a certain amount of imagined fixity, I therefore find it more accurate, but of still limited utility, to use as a metaphor for nations an image of multiple sieves of ice, buoyant on a closed and changing sea of sentient particles: currents from within and without the sieves eddy within and through them, melting them and reshaping them; at times the sieves may fuse together, or even collapse should conditions change. The challenge to the nation-builder has historically been to persuade the actors comprising the imagined nation to accept their part in the metonymy, and to identify with the metonym: it is here that we find another part of Renan’s argument, that ‘forgetting [differences]… is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation’, in evidence.[15] He who would preserve a ‘nation-sieve’, in other words, must convince the particles that make up the water of (simultaneously) the sieve’s existence, firstly, and utility, secondly, for the sieve to be created and maintained. If this cannot be done, a nation will either never come into being –despite being united under one state, as occurred under composite monarchies— or will fall apart, as is currently in danger of happening in the case of, among other examples, the Catalonia-Spain and Scotland-UK divergences.

That is an image of the interactions between nation-states; the same is even more the case within nations, in which an enormous number of interactions are constantly taking place, such that the whole is constantly changing. To delineate between the ‘spheres’ of culture, economy, and so on, as I noted at the start that Clavin attempts, thus becomes inaccurate to the point of meaninglessness, albeit convenient from a narratorial perspective.

Both within, and without, the masses of relationships and geographical spaces commonly referred to as ‘nations’, there is an eddy and flow of movement: of ideas, of actors, of goods—and all undertaken by the actors involved with the intention of unilaterally obtaining their perceived ends. To adopt anything other than a transnational history is therefore, though once again conducive to greater ease in constructing narrative, doomed to gross inaccuracy. Transnational history itself, meanwhile, becomes of vital necessity, while also itself doomed to struggle with irresolvable issues of scope. History cannot occur in a vacuum; the flow, central to transnational history, does not stop, and rejecting the arbitrary and the inaccurate, though courageous and forward-thinking, presents the historian with numerous difficulties.

[1] Patricia Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, Contemporary European History, Vol. 14, No. 4, (Nov., 2005), pp. 421-439, p. 422

[2] Ibid., p. 423

[3] Ibid., pp. 438-439

[4] Patricia Clavin, “Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts”, European History Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 624–640; p. 630; p. 631

[5] Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, p. 437

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”, lecture delivered 1882

[8] Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, p. 438

[9] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, Utopia, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001)

[10] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005)

[11] Jan Rüger, “OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History”, European History Quarterly, Vo. 40, No. 4, pp. 656–668, p. 659

[12] Ibid., p. 661

[13] Graeme S. Cumming and John Collier, “Change and Identity in Complex Systems”, Ecology and Society, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jun 2005), p. 4

[14] Clavin, “Time, Manner, Place”, p. 635; p. 633

[15] Renan

Theseus’ ship’s in fact a sieve

One thought on “Theseus’ ship’s in fact a sieve

  • February 19, 2018 at 9:31 pm

    Dear Sam – lots of great points, thank you for this. For the past five years I have taken Clavin for granted – or at least for a metaphor that works well for me. I thought that the nation could be seen as one of the honeycombs, or perhaps indeed an entity somewhere halfway between a honeycomb and a hive. I like your approach, and I believe that diving into spatial history (which goes hand in hand with transnational these days…) will help you get through this conceptual pickle. See Henri Lefebvre (getting old but still working well as a definition) or see more recent understandings of space (Franco Moretti and his Atlas of the European novel offers a new understanding of these ‘honeycombs’ in European novels of the 19th century.

    Your post is obviously very detailed – it could nearly be of essay standards (by adjusting the wording of course – this is perfect for a blog post, but would need some refining to sound a bit more academic). Maybe make sure your blog posts are a tad shorter so your peers can quickly get your thought and engage with it!

Comments are closed.