A few weeks ago, as I was explaining to my family that I would soon be taking a module on Global and Transnational History, my grandfather exclaimed that I would return from Scotland knowing “everything about everything” and become the family’s pride. Despite being convinced of my own naivety I was not able to refute him. Indeed, global history also conjured in my mind the idea of a “planetary comprehensiveness”, as Conrad puts it, of a total knowledge produced by scholars casting an almost ‘god-like’ all-encompassing look on time and space. This perspective made me feel all at once fascinated, fearful and sceptical.

To my delight, this first week has demonstrated that Global and Transnational history is infinitely more complex and promising.

As an aspiring geographer, I am particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of using and investigating the concept of space in history: in the ARH Conversation, Isabel Hofmeyr points out that, in a “postsecular” era in which the space of the state in only one spatial framework among others, scholars can investigate the “transwordly spaces” which arise from beliefs, dreams and legends constituting imaginative geographies. Furthermore, Potter and Saha, in their essay ‘Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire’, explain that connected histories are concerned with “webs of interconnections”. What these two interventions reveal is that space is no longer considered as a passive, one-dimensional and homogenous stage on which historical phenomena unfold. It is in fact multidimensional and made of nodes and connections and is therefore fluid and permanently reconfigured. It produces historical phenomena as much as it is produced by them. I look forwards to reflecting on this in my project.

This makes me think that transnational history is very linked to the notion of complication: complication of space, as just seen, but also of time since, as highlighted in the ARH Conversation, transnational historians often refuse linear narratives. Traditional “containers” such as states are replaced by complex networks, local contexts and individual agencies are put forwards and integrated to bigger scales, disciplinary boundaries are blurred. Grand structuring narratives are challenged. As Chris Bayly remarks in the ARH Conversation, transnational history produces a vision of a chaotic world in which the main drivers of change are impossible to determine.

But isn’t the task of the discipline of history to explain change? This is at least what I was always taught at school, and I think that it is a widespread opinion among the general public. What is the use of the acknowledgment of chaos and uncertainty? This process of complication is perhaps involved in a reshaping of the project of history and of our understanding of how knowledge progresses and is valued. Progress is no longer the result of a linear and incremental process of accumulating certainties, but rather lies at the intersection of contradictions, of ambiguities and of the infinite number of facets of human societies. By overlaying each other, they participate to a deep and qualitative, rather than to a mechanistic and explanatory, appreciation of the past.

We are very far from my grandfather’s all-encompassing, and necessarily general and simplifying, history. The main challenge might be to make transnational history equally understandable and attractive to him.

The history of a complex world

One thought on “The history of a complex world

  • January 24, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    A super comment and reflection. And it does speak to my heart and interests along the lines of space or the complex notions of space in transnational history and that the two are interlinked. And it is fair to point out that (in hindsight) both the Spatial Turn and the transnational turn evolved from the early 1990s on. First separate and perhaps over time coming together. We come back to this later this semester. Yet is your comments hint at our St Andrews take, if you want, at transnational and & as spatial history. Also see our latest “Doing Spatial History” volume with Riccardo Bavaj and Konrad Lawson and our own very recent short guide to Spatial History https://www.spatialhistory.net/guide/.

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