Peddling Global History During Second-Wave Globalization and Resurgent Nationalisms. A Conversation.
Peddling Global History During Second-Wave Globalization and Resurgent Nationalisms. A Conversation with Jeremy Adelman. By Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck, U of London).
This conversation between Jeremy Adelman and Fernando Gómez Herrero took place in the Zoom planet during global covid, the final weeks of the U.S. Presidential election and the end of the Brexit negotiations (the 12th of October of 2020). The academic practice of “global history” is one salient issue, also excuse and pretext, to address a few others of undeniable importance passing through tense relations between the second-wave globalization process getting caught up in a few resurgent nationalisms. There is scaling up and down, soft eyes and a more sharp-eye focus, in this advocacy of provocative big timespaces, “global,” being tangled up and negotiated in more or less convincing localizations, Princeton University and the English midlands, two among others. And now the digital culture sends this exchange in many directions in the world wide web perhaps making spatialisation a relative factor.
The “global” is here, however, not the same as “the whole word.” It is “not total” and also “not universal.” Do the negatives still affirm the abstractions denied? There is surely proliferation of the sign “global”—an imposing adjective-- in universities, think tanks, big brands and shops or businesses of uneven recognition and reach. The brand “Trump” has now “gone global” for example in the last four years, and “history” remains the sign for the fight over the signification of foreign dimensions, (Latin) American and others of uneven power of interpellation and intellectual and emotional attachment. How is this (funny) pair of “global history” doing in the dominant Anglo-Zone and elsewhere? Are we falling for the nominalism? But other subjects and disciplines must be thrown into the cocktail and one wonders about how these social sciences are doing with or without the trail –and tail—of the humanities. In the case of Adelman, the bibliographies give him away: he is happy being in the historians’ club and he is still making the case for “global-history” in the end.
Jeremy Adelman wants to be able to amble around the globe almost like Phileas Fogg. Who doesn’t? Our Princeton history professor remains invested in the notions of globalization, integration, development, interdependence, building on his early work in 19th century economic history in relation to Argentina. We talk about his current projects: Latin America: A Global History; Nations, Empires and Other Worlds, and Albert O. Hirschman, a good institutional genealogy for him. We also talk about his Empire and the Social Sciences, and the essay “War and Revolution in the Atlantic World.” We include his work on the theme of hunger and the general frame of the need of strangers. References are made to two lectures dealing with the Catholic World System in Indiana and the world of global integration in Madrid. Jeremy Adelman gives us a quick sense of the experimental multi-sited “lab” set up with different institutions in Germany and Japan and elsewhere. “Global history” is no totem and taboo in this conversation, and our experienced interviewee fends for himself. The jury is out in deliberation with the interested readers of these pages. There are potentials and problems, virtues and vices, in this “global history.” And although no one is one’s own institution entirely, it must still be noted that this “global” bit comes from the former neo-Wilsonian house of knowledge and Ivy-League privilege in the U.S. There is no denying that this “fad” happens in these deep times of a profound crisis in the U.S., the U.K. and others.
There are major concepts here: developmentalism or the official ideology of the capitalist system and the angle of vision is leaning towards the “liberal” vision of history than the Soviet alternative, although one “accusation” goes in the direction of the Princeton history professor that he is “flirting with Castro.” There is a second accusation, that of a “Rortyan pluralist,” in relation to a calm positionality that does not want to be always right among other perspectives. Jeremy Adelman defends the potentials of “global history,” bypassing some cosmopolitanisms and the loudest of Nation-Firsters close to “home.” His is a predilection for a certain type of internationalism or at least an anti-nationalist anti-provincialism. The 1960s horizon of (national) liberation retreats here, also in relation to the “not upbeat” historiography of Latin American lessons, and Jeremy Adelman blows the whistle strongly on “nationalist methodologies” of (global) history, favouring the perspectival and the externalist sides of the argument. Inside and outside depending on the unit of analysis and the suggestion of spatialisation wins at the end of the day, but does it handsomely? Our Canadian professor describes himself as a “border-crosser” and a “contrarian.”
A few problems emerge under the umbrella of “global history:” the re-assertion of Eurocentrism, the mitigation of the postcolonial (or decolonial) lessons in the discipline of history and elsewhere, the obstinate self-referentiality of the Anglo World, the messiness in the disciplines among its disordered institutions, should we even consider the possible meltdown?, the murky Post-Cold-War configurations of Area Studies in the vicinity of U.S. supremacy, the sorry spectacle of the foreign languages in the U.S. and the U.K., the strong impact of US foreign policy on world visions serviced by dominant centres, think tanks, and the like, and the “narrow” set of interests of the strong nation-states and strong institutions in them. Is “global history” leaning on the side of the “big regiments”? Who are its best practitioners inside and outside the history field? What is its content, its social function? How persuasive is such knowledge practice in its beginning, middle and end? Cui bono? How long will it stick around in these unprecedented times?
More food for thought in the context of this good conversation: what is the philosophical “ground” of this professional craft? What is its belief system? Its articles of faith? Or, are these the wrong questions to ask when the proposal appears to be, merely, to suggest a wider aperture and the proliferation of positionalities going in many directions? What would the convergence accomplish? Is the digital medium of “global history” its message? Is it here, with Adelman, content-free? What about the political formula of the “us versus them”? There are many locations and actors, truism, and the canvas is sometimes done as though it was in the “squeegee” manner of a Gerhard Richter.
Jeremy Adelman pic, used with author's permission.
Surely some forms are discernible, if we linger: how does Canada signify in the dominant Anglo imaginary inside higher-ed institutions and outside side by side, say “Latin,” Argentina, Spain, or even better Mexico, if only to stick around the North American portion of the Western hemisphere that is still today one stubborn continent in conventional Spanish against two continents in conventional English? Let us fly to this side of the pond in Brexit Britain and reach out to the history of the Commonwealth and Latin America, surely two big portions of human reality. How pretty the picture? How easy the access? One brutal answer: both Area Studies are scheduled for termination by the University of London in three weeks’ time. Will they replace them with “global history”? “He digesteth hard yron,” wrote Marianne Moore about a resilient bird gone extinct in Madagascar. “You will know who you are by making mistakes in the valleys,” a paraphrase of Quincy Jones’s quote of Count Basie. There are hills and also valleys: we must update these references, make them more biting, side by side, others, say “colour-lines,” and what about the crude “Anglo” and “Latin” that still carry meaning in the disciplines and the streets? A worrisome query: could the dominant global imaginary be “white”? Another one, if ‘conservative’ and privileged environments promote “global history,” would others (have to) do the same?
No university is immune to the encircling crises all around us, not even the one in the state of New Jersey linked with the former President Woodrow Wilson of mixed record who held his own visions of the world a hundred years ago. The very name of Wilson has been taken down from its own School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton in recognition of his racist views and it is well-known recent history that the Barack Obama administration had some Princeton neo-Wilsonians giving advice about avatars of the world at large, after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the end, I am wondering what holds this “global history” together, besides the derring-do of imperial nation-states, or the business projection of powerful organizations with strong endowments. “Global history,” fine, surely “excessive” pie in the shop window or the sky, better a big pie than a small one, but the all-important question is the content, and its Archimedean point, and let us not forget about its portions. Let us pay attention to who’s talking – and who isn’t. Who is listening and who isn’t. There is, it seems to me, a “surface” approach in some of this “global history” that wants an awful lot of “green” for the ball to run around and sometimes hit others, using a snooker expression. Plus ultra of course, rather than being stuck in the rut of this or that miserable smallness: the contrast with erudite comparative-civilizational approaches, one possibility among others, is stark. And perhaps we cannot afford these “depths” anymore in these accelerated globalities of blown-up bits and pieces. The conversation includes a quick reference to Arnold Toynbee and his “Anglo-Saxon ways.” This was a knot of grand-history and international relations of an influential liberal international order now gone according to most bookies. There is willed self-criticism in the old English historian, global manqué, which proves that some “developments” take an awful amount of time and we (we, who?) already know that we must make haste and make do with the blessing of nations and the indignities of institutions or without.
What facts and feelings of your (professional) life would you like to share publicly?
I would say the formative influences have been the crossing of borders, being educated initially in a country like Canada, and then moving to the U.K., but even before then working and living in various countries in South America, and then moving back and forth between London and Buenos Aires for many years and then finally moving to the United States, then again living in Europe for a while. The border crossing has been very influential on me because it can challenge me to think about alternative perspectives and juxtaposing positions on questions about the world and not to assume that, let us say, the one that I have is the natural view. So, displacement helps me rethink the questions that I was posing all the time.
You have been at Princeton for a while now and this is your institutional platform. What about it in terms of blindness and insight, the good things and bad things attached to it?
The pluses are many. It affords me something that is very special about higher education traditionally speaking, that is under threat in many places around the world including in liberal democracies which is some relative autonomy to explore and experiment new directions in teaching and research. I don’t have to fit a box and provide deliverables and I think this has been important for opening a free inquiry, to be given some latitude to explore and Princeton has been very generous in that respect. I have great colleagues and students and of course many other institutions have them and also that freedom to explore is not unique to Princeton either. But it is worth saying that there are macro political and economic and historical conditions that enabled that to happen and resources for instance matter a great deal and Princeton is well endowed and does give me some of that freedom. So, many of the things that I do now in experimental teaching and research in refugee camps and elsewhere would be much harder to launch from other universities. That has been very important. On the downside, two things. One [thing] is what I refer to as its strength, which is that the resources that allow me personally to explore and give me autonomy can also be a curse. It is a conservative institution as I think many institutions that think of themselves as selective, elite institutions [are and] find themselves very often committed themselves to their status and the hierarchy of things. And that sometimes means that the university is risk averse, does not feel itself as accountable to the world as it should be. So, some of its strengths are also the source of its weakness. The other [thing] is that the faculty are very global and the students are increasingly international and as an institution it is a provincial one. Its own imaginary is bounded. It has been a struggle for the university to broaden its horizons and become more cosmopolitan.
By conservative, do you mean status-holding?
Yes. They like being number one and live with the kind of anxiety about remaining a number one and competing therefore with other institutions in order to keep its status, rather than cooperating and collaborating. This is a problem in higher education more generally that the ranking-mongering has gotten in the way of thinking systematically about partnerships and alliances. And it is very hard for the leading institutions to play that kind of role because they are also competing over who is going to be number one. They would never say it explicitly but I think it is very often a tacit foundation for the decisions and the strategies that the university pursues.
What made you go to economic history and Latin America (with a focus on the Southern Cone in the 19th century)? What made you study that and on the UK side of things? What developments in this field of inquiry have you seen since late 1980s?
What initially pushed me into economic history of Latin America was that I started more as an economist, or what we would call political economist. I was very interested in development in what was once called the Third World. And I lived in Colombia for a year on a project funded by the Canadian government when I was young. And I just got more interested in questions of what pushes some societies to become wealthy and others poor. That is where I started out. And that I realized, actually, that many Latin American countries are extremely wealthy; it is just that the wealth is very abysmally distributed. So, it is not just about wealth. It is about distribution. And I realized that the way that many people were posing the questions about development were really questions about history and about how change and no-change happens over time. That is what pushed me to read more history and I realized I really enjoyed reading about history and I could imagine myself writing about history and that is why I crab-walked my way into doing economic history from thinking about economic development.
Why Latin America? That is a contingent thing. Probably because that opportunity arose with that youth programme with the Canadian government that allowed me to move to Colombia. That was an important factor. Another one was that this was in the late 1970s and early 1980s of the 20th century and at that time Latin America was very much in the news from the Sandinista Revolution to the wars in Central America and so on and so forth so it seemed to me a hot spot for thinking about these development questions.
Why go to the U.K.? That was also a slightly contingent thing. I actually never thought about coming to the U.S. I got a Commonwealth Scholarship as a Canadian to first go to the London School of Economics, where I did a Master’s Degree and then another another fellowship that allowed me to continue my graduate work and I went to Oxford and I did my DPhil there. I had the perception that somehow the U.K. intellectual world was more metropolitan and more cosmopolitan than the Canadian one was / is, I think there is an element of truth to it, that is a kind of holdover from Empire, let us say, which is something that perhaps we can talk about. Although I had idealized it in my mind only to discover that in intellectual ways the world is much flatter than I had realized. But it was very important to see that the sorts of things I had been reading and thinking about from a Canadian standpoint looked very different from a British vantage point. And I had already been dislocated because I had been living in South America and I knew that everything was, let us say, perspectival. But moving to the U.K. was very important for exposing myself to currents that otherwise I would not have run into when I was living in Canada.
And then there is the question of the 19th century: why go back to the 19th century? And there two answers. It was a matter of realizing that many of the foundational questions about Latin America push us further and further back in time to explain things. And I increasingly realized that many of the institutions, the social classes, the identities that framed modern Latin America were forged in the 19th century. Not all of them, but many of them. So, I was interested in going back to those origin points for the modern experience. And I felt that the 19th century illuminated many of those. Historians have a weakness, a charming one which gets you in trouble, which is in a sense that you can always go further and further back, that is what explains to the moment that you are looking at, which is I started off in the 19th century, and then I realized, well, there are things that are happening earlier, so I got pushed further and further back, and I ended up going back to 1492 in thinking about very different origin points for thinking about globalization. But the 19th century is where I started and I pushed back. I do a lot of writing about the contemporary period as a historian which we can get to later in the conversation.
Do you still call yourself historian or a social scientist or both in terms of self-definition if it matters at all?
That is a tough question, what would you say? I don’t lose much sleep over issues of categories, particularly over disciplines and professionals. I have a very broad conception of the social sciences and follow traditions of people like Albert Hirschman, who we may talk about in the conversation, and others who believe in trespassing, that the disciplines in themselves are artifices and constructs of particular historical periods. They aren’t objective realities, even though the disciplines have now moulding the world in their minds’ eyes. We can see this in the way the economy functions. Am I a humanist or a social scientist or a historian? I do a lot of trespassing. I read sociology, literature, art history. I am doing a lot of writing now on the history of photography, which belongs in the art-history department, which is often separate from a history department. I think of these as pretty artificial boundaries.
I share your love for the promiscuity of sources, information and interests, affections and attachments, but isn’t it true that your bibliography is mostly about historical sources and that it is circumscribed by fellow historians?
Yes, I would say that’s true. I am a historian. That’s right. And I self-identify as a historian even when I write about the present because I am writing about histories of the present moment. So, I have the voice of the historian, that is absolutely true.
And I think it is fair to say at least in relation to some of your work, that you focus on the role of the intellectual, and the connection between the intellectual work and the social sciences.
Yes, that’s right. I would say our cognitive models and ideas about the world often frame and inform how and why behave. Usually, it is the other way around: we think that we are driven by objective interests in something. But, in fact, we are always trying to make sense of them. I am very influenced by people like Daniel Kahneman and others for whom the cognitive process is extremely important. There is one more side to this which is to say that social scientists themselves play a role in constructing these models because they have a very important influence on institutions particularly governing institutions and I think governing institutions, we have seen this play out in the middle of our political contest now, have enormous effects on our lives. I think that social scientists are themselves historical actors and that is interesting.
I may be forcing the suggestion of a rationale or a path or a straight line in one’s life. I wonder if there are no strong moments of chance operations (“I apply for a fellowship, I may or may not get it, I do that and that…). It may very well be that there is no deliberate plan in some or most cases, perhaps not even an intellectual plan, necessarily. Now it may be different because you are in a relatively more comfortable position, professional and otherwise. I am moving now to ask you about your current projects. I am after synthesis or highlights: Earth Hunger: Global Integration and the Need for Strangers… What is this about?
This is a book that has a history. And as you were saying earlier, contingencies matter. And this is something that historians try to puzzle out, what is the balance of forces between big structures versus contingent, unpredictable events and decisions. I had finished a biography of a man called Albert O. Hirschman. And I had been asked to write an essay, which never actually got published, trying to imagine a new history of the 20th century. Hirschman was a 20th century [person], both a witness and an example of the way the 20th century affected peoples’ lives, and he himself was an analyst who shaped the way we think about the 20th century. So, they asked me to write something reflecting on this. And that got me thinking, what are the big themes of the 20th century? That then exploded into this book, which is a history of interdependence, that is when strangers affect each other’s lives, even if they don’t realize it and they never know each other or meet each other. It is a phenomenon that really arises in the middle of the 19th century. It is recognizable in the middle of the 19th century by observers and critics like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx and many others. It thickens and deepens by the end of the 19th century. And I would say by the First World War, the world is an enclosed interdependent survival unit. And people are arguing by 1914 what that means: what are our responsibilities, obligations, burdens when it comes to dealing with strangers? And dealing with strangers not because they have needs, but because we have need for them. It is very important that the thematic is the need for strangers, and not the needs of strangers, which has been the traditional way of international and cosmopolitan thinking has been framed. So, I am trying to reset the conversation about interdependence that looks at the anxieties and the euphorias that surround the way we need strangers and strangers need us, for food, fibre, security and so on. And that tension and debate has been unfolding since the middle of the 19th century and I think it is the debate that has defined the modern condition. We can go into details about what that looks like. But we are not even aware we are having this debate now, even as the nationalists and the Brexiteers and the trumpistas of the world have a particular global imaginary. The nationalists don’t believe in dismantling the world order, they just dream of a hierarchical world order rather than a more horizontal, egalitarian, one where countries cooperate with each other. They like the language of domination over cooperation. So, it is trying to capture the narrative of what those big debates look like that the book is really about, starting with the 18the century and coming up all the way to the present.
Would native and foreign be a valid binary for what you are trying to describe?
In a way, except that part of what happens with global integration, and this debate, is that natives themselves may sometimes feel estranged from their own country. I think in fact the Brexit vote and the vote for Trump is in some senses a reminder that the voices of the natives are in fact outcries of the estranged, that they become near-strangers, within what they thought it is their own country and that is in itself a global phenomenon.
The next project, Latin America: A Global History… which I have not read yet. What are you doing here? And how would this be different from similar works by Mignolo and Tenorio Trillo among others?
That is a book I started many years ago and I have got bits and pieces out there. On one level, it is an experiment about writing a history that tries to do three things: one, overcoming some of the divides between doing regional or area-studies history versus global. So, it is doing what is called trans-scalar history. So, it is a regional history of the world, and a world history of a particular region. And in some sense, all places and regions of the world exist in that tension, in fact, very often their epic is about locating their place in a wider system or wider world, including the place of the nation and the invention of the nation as a global by-product, which is one of the questions we are going to come to. So, my interest was trying to find a way in which a story of a region could also be the story of the world and vice versa, that you could see global practices unfolding in very particular ways in Latin America. Number two, I wanted to do something very longue durée. It is a story that begins in the fifteen century and comes right up to the present, so we can talk about processes that take very long term [to develop]. Historians have increasingly gotten narrower and bite off shorter time spans, for a variety of reasons we can talk about if you are interested. I wanted to pull the lens back and think of a very wide-angle view and think about continuities and discontinuities beginning with the double openings of the Iberian peninsula on the one hand and on the other hand the opening that was happening in the Americas as 1492 brought these two actors together, and there was a third actor, Africa. And it is worth recalling that before the 1840s more Africans crossed the Atlantic than Europeans. One might even argue that the Africanization of the New World was at least as important to the kind of creole societies that got created as the Europeanization of the New World, something that we can talk about. And the third one, is to give a different narrative to globalization from the perspective of Latin America, or from Ibero-America, from the perspective of a different time, what does global integration look like once we do that kind of thing, so the narrative of globalization is not about the isomorphic effects of markets, which is how we think about globalization now.
I listened to your lecture at Notre Dame (“Catholicism and Globalization: Coincidence or Causation”, April 4, 2019 at the Cushwa Center’s conference Global History and Catholicism). What are you doing with Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Guaman Poma de Ayala in 2019 among the U.S. Catholics?
It did not go over particularly successfully. It was really an effort to tell American Catholic historians that there are other Catholic narratives of the global that you can see in the Ibero-Atlantic world flourishing, and debates about Empire, and what I call their Catholic world system, that provincial American historians don’t realize. And that is what I mean by taking a different optic on global. What does it look like when you think of Guaman Poma as an author about the global? Or of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and try to think about Monarchy and morality and place? Because that is what Guaman Poma saying to the King: I have a place in this world that is connected to my genealogy, I am the descendent of nobles, and as a result I have certain claims that I can make, but what I need is recognition from you. It goes back to a petition culture that we associate with the Ancient Regime.
The next project is Nations, Empires and Other World Products: Making Narratives Across Borders, edited anthology with Andreas Eckert… What is it about?
That is an anthology of essays from many-many year projects that I have. I am part of the small collective we call the global-history collaborative. It is a group of historians in Berlin, Paris, Princeton and Tokyo. And we have been meeting for years with our graduate students and faculty running workshops trying to find ways to have historians as they are thinking about their work engaging in conversations across these borders and to think what their work looks like in a conversation with strangers. Over many years of doing this thing, we began to think that we should go beyond conversation and think about collaboration, and therefore think about the ways in which these exchanges were affecting the way we were writing and thinking. What kind of topic, and this came out of Brexit, Le Pen was on the rise in France, and there were anxieties about nationalism, and discussions we had about the nation-state as an actor on a global stage.
Once upon a time in this field called global history, which I think you want to ask some questions about, there was this rhetoric that global history is a kind of history that was just right for the global age and it was to declare the obsolescence of the nation-state, that was a terrible mistake, that was really unfortunate, because one thing we do know is that global integration resignifies political power, makes meaningful the constructions of sovereignty and membership in political communities, and the fact was that the nation in the modern age is the main way in which people have identified the legitimate wielding of political power. In the course of our conversation we began to explore the ways in which the nation was constructive from the late 1800s, but gathering speed in the 19th century, as a response to global integration. So, it is not that nations existed around the world and as free trade and cables and railroads began to pull countries together that we got the creation of international society, in fact it is the other way around, it was global integration that required the creation of national institutions that would help manage market integration.
But as it turned out the nation was not the only one. There were all sorts of other imaginaries and constructs that got thrown up by global integration. The idea of diaspora. The idea of international law. The new idea of Empire. So, really the book pulls together the ways in which these processes of cross-border fusions produce effects of which the nation is one.
@Jeremy Adelman pic, authorized use.
This one looks like a promising collaboration: Imagining the Third World: Genealogies of Other Global Histories, edited anthology with Gyan Prakash. What about it?
Gyan [Prakash] and I organized a conference to start thinking about the ways in which the birth of this construct called the Third World affected the world. The old story was that the Cold War developed, some might say, after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and by 1945 it looked the world into this bipolar struggle between communism and capitalism, or liberalism and socialism. And that along comes the crisis of European empires and these fledgling countries in Africa, Asia and elsewhere struggle for their place in this bipolar world. In fact, what the book argues is that not only does that confuse the narrative, in some sense it is the struggle for Empire and over freedom and sovereignty is what changes the meaning of the Cold War. The causality is the other way. But, the Third-World moment did was construct a form or a set of ideas, and aesthetics even, of global interdependence that captivated large parts of the world. We now forget this. We now assume a memory of Third-World peace, solidarity, equality that gives us some clues as we think now about a post-Americana world. Where are we going to create a historiography, post-hegemony, post-uni-polar-world, post-whatever-we-are-going-into? We are going to need a history that gives us some moorings, so that is what the book is intervening in.
I am going to say it with a slight light-hearted touch, but the question is genuine. Imagine I am a nice Irish-American woman attending your lecture in Indiana, I call myself Catholic, I am somewhat provincial and I am monolingual and listen to your lecture and I hear you talking about individuals coming from the Third World, and I approach you and say, “Prof. Adelman, that is very nice, but why should I go to those individuals, Guaman Poma and El Inca Garcilaso, to find what exactly?”
That is a great question.
[Continuing with this train of thought…] “Why should I go there intellectually, emotionally? Because it is not easy at all. They are very far away from me. They come from minor countries. These are minority-foreign practices that are not going to reach me through popular-culture or mass media. It requires effort, dedication, proper framing, and there is nothing immediately obvious… “ If you are start talking about how we are all interdependent and are interconnected in this wide world, they are going to look at you and might think, “well, of course, but I do not want to go there, thank you very much.”
Absolutely. Just to underscore this point: we are interdependent but we are definitely not one world. But it is very important to understand that because integration produces fractures, inequalities, discrepancies, disparities. The interdependence effected by climate change is itself also the effect of disparities and differences, because the fact is climate change is not produced by humanity. Humanity did not produce climate change. Certain societies that were addicted to fossil fuels did it. Just because we are interdependent does not clear the grounds for a new universality. But the question about the woman in the lecture is absolutely an essential one. I do not think historians should assume that people should have an intrinsic curiosity for knowing about the other. I would say a couple of things: interdependence means that you have a self-interest in knowing something about strangers, and that’s the difference between the argument I am making about interdependence versus an old cosmopolitan language of curiosity and a humanitarian rhetoric about caring. I am talking about something that is more structural and the woman in the lecture is in her self-interest to understand these wider global dynamics because the decisions that are being made in Wuhan affect her.
So, it is like the butterfly effect. You would say: think about that because it may reach you, actually.
Yes. And it does not have to be just as small and random as a butterfly. It can be about whether the beginnings of a pandemic are. So, we have to take a global optic on these things for our own self-interest.
Let us not treat it like a fetish, tell me something about this “global history,” what about it? “Global” as in multi-sited, decentred? Why do we need it?
You framed it in an interesting way: do we need it? I don’t know. What do we need? I think it helps the conversation and it helps the arguments about our times. And it is in fact a field that is responsive to the urgencies of our time. And, with it, it carried a lot of historic baggage. It is not a coincidence that global history emerged just as globalization became a reality. And there was a connection between what was happening in the real world and the way historians were re-setting their questions. I would say right now global history really consists of three commitments: one is, we talked about it, trying to get beyond what is called “methodological nationalism.” So, for instance, even the nation, super-relevant, super-charged, is itself the effect of global processes, and not some [product of] what we may call an auto-poetic process that emerges from the inside of the society and sticks out the grounds for a national identity and then it agrees to lock arms with other nations and societies in the creation of something called international. The causality goes the other way around. And you have to understand that. So, getting beyond methodological nationalism. And getting beyond methodological nationalism does not necessarily mean that the nation-state is irrelevant.
Getting beyond Eurocentrism: that is number two. And getting beyond Eurocentrism does not mean that Europe and the centrality of Europe in the global narrative isn’t relative. In fact it means that it must be explained. And it must be explained globally.
And number three is much more attention to complexity, that the forces that give rise to the categories that allow us to make sense of the world are really complicated.
What would you say if I asked you about your own philosophy of global history?
It is mobile. It has shifted a lot over time as I rethink things and I realize mistakes or the limitations of what I used to think. I don’t have a fixed philosophical commitment. Maybe I have some personal biases. It goes back to your first question about my own border- crossing propensities and my own background as I was a child of immigrants, a mother who was born in China. I always thought of borders as lines that one crosses for oneself as for understanding other peoples. A bias or a preference to look at the category that I am using, economic development or democracy, from outside, and looking at my country, whether it is Canada, or the U.S., or Argentina, from the outside. That is kind of a bias, I would say, rather than a philosophy.
You sound a little bit like Edward Said, Jeremy.
But I have never been an exile.
Putting you a bit against the border fence, so to speak, if you were to be self-reflexive about your own perspective approaching intellectual ideas, what would you say?
I’d say one thing I worry about sometimes goes back to earlier themes we talked about in this conversation, which is what happens to the economy. I started off as an economic historian very concerned with economic development and distribution. And sometimes I ask myself, is my interest in cognitive processes and ideas in the making of the world been allowed to float too far away from the mothership of the economy? And to do so without collapsing into vulgar Marxist habits of saying that all ideas are just reflections of class interests. How can we think about the relationship between the economy and what the economy needs and incentivizes and the kinds of ideas and cognitive processes that we rely upon to make sense of the world? So, there is an old divide between materialist idealists, and ways of thinking about this that kind of keep me awake at night. That is something I am very concerned about.
I am not after some easy or cheap confessional declarations, but it seems to me that in “going global” your ideology and politics go out of the window, whether it is the issue of nationalism or democracy or any issue. You lay out the landscape, and you say that there are plural options, forces of integration and disintegration, people like this and people don’t like that. You are selling plurality of living options, but you seem to be rather careful about your own landscape or ideological lens or your own community. What about them? What about your own politics of knowledge production? Isn’t it missing?
I hope it is not too abstract answer to the question. The question is very meta but it is also, let us say, personal. You want me to answer on a personal level. I will say one of the challenges I face, and I think a lot of us face, I am not unique in this way, although I try to be very conscious of it, which is not to assume that I am right. Either in the way I answer a question or in the way I pose a question. And this gets to the global temperament about thinking about what looks like for somebody else’s perspective. What concerns me a lot now is the poverty of the arguments about the state of the world, including local worlds, between standoff positions of rival certainties. I actually try to tout the virtues of uncertainty and doubt because I think we are listening to a cacophony of arguments in which rival positions are invested and not listening to each other because they committed to being right, even before they articulate the arguments. And that is getting us absolutely nowhere. It is anti-intellectual or it is boring and is creating a lot of problems. So, I am trying to think more consciously about writing stories that are not premised on that kind of certainty.
This is a another light-hearted provocation in relation to the “methodological nationalism,” Well, of course! Who in 2020 is going to get up and approach the microphone and say they are in favour of that? But, you and I and everyone else realize that we all come with nationalities and passports, Guatemala is not the same as France or Germany or whatever, and I bet my humanities savings, that, also in your own immediate circle, you are not going to find many representatives of minor-power nations inside the academic disciplines and institutionalized spaces telling the U.S. what to do. It seems to me that you are not pressing enough the issue of nationalism. You seem to be advocating a type of internationalism that is devoid of immediate content, hence your advocacy of hesitation and doubt, which is perfectly Cartesian, and I really love it, but, going back to the previous stereotypical woman approaching you in Indiana holding the candle of the Catholic faith, she might think something like that “you are not going to give me doubts when you are presenting the Catholic World System.” What that type of talk delivers is, I think, a feelgood factor for American Catholics, in the setting up of a universal Catholic enterprise for the 21st century… The issue of nationalism is not that easily kicked out of the picture by mentioning “method.” Foreigners are distributed among the disciplines in the U.S.A. of all places in a variety of dissimilar ways, you only have to look at the social sciences and the humanities even around you in Princeton and elsewhere. I suppose the automatic tension will be between this “global” (which is not apparently universal or total) and the scaling down of the various “area studies” (Latin America, Atlantic, Iberian, etc.), tell me something about it…
The global isn’t the whole world. But it is a way of thinking about societies’ development as they are connected to and integrated with others’ societies. And that can happen at many scales. It can be planetary. And we are living in planetary scale when we are worried about nuclear Armageddon or climate change. These are entirely planetary processes. But in other moments and in other dynamics it does not necessarily have to be the entire planet. And we can go into examples of how that would work. What the global means is that you don’t think of societies as existing in isolated, self-developing units. They exist within a wider constellation of inter-social or international, because we choose the unit of the nation-state as the repository for sovereignty for the modern world, and very few people are willing to cede to the United Nations as a source of sovereignty and it exists at best as an arbiter to help reconcile disputes over sovereignty, which is an entirely separate thing. So, the scales can shift and move. It is about not being, what we call in history, internalist about the units we are describing, but rather an attention to the external dynamics, not as the only ones, but the power that they have in shaping the internal ones.
And the tension will be between the “global” and those areas mentioned (Latin America, Atlantic, Iberian…)?
How can you tell a story, you come to a field I know you think about, Fernando, which is the story of the Spanish Empire without thinking about the British Empire? Or the Ming Dynasty? And we can go on. And we can think of the rise of the Spanish Empire can live in relationship to other kinds of imperial systems. And yet if you look at most histories of Spanish Empire, [they are] written from the inside out, and not the outside in.
So, how do those aforementioned areas fare in the dominant matrix of the Anglo world
That’s a tough question. Not particularly well, I would say. You know as well as I do that the Anglo sphere is still excessively self-referential. And it has been a life-long struggle. Whether I was in Canada, or Britain, or the United States, thinking about even those units, from Central America, or Africa, or the Middle East, or wherever it might be, was screaming from the fringes. And the way in which the academy in the Anglo sphere keeps those voices at the margins, and continues to, is really remarkable.
We are talking about [inequalities] and “Anglo” is a very crude and blunt instrument, and so is “Latin America.” But, if I may say so, if the impulse is to say, I am going to historicize that timespace, or that chronotope, called “Latin America,” from 1492 until 2021, you are already setting up a unit to investigate, whether you call the approach “inside or outside.” I am talking quickly about complicated issues inside crude Anglo-Latin polarities. You have said something that rings very true; namely, that there is a resistance to not just open up, but to enter into intellectual and emotional dialogue with that entity called “Latin America.”
I would go even further. You mentioned Mauricio Tenorio Trillo: an important part of that book exposes the ways in which the very terms of the admissions of the history of a thing called “Latin America,” which after all is a coinage created by Europeans and Anglo-Americans, it was a French word to start with, is itself racialized. So, you are admitted into the American world, not only on the [U.S.] American side of things of higher education and intellectual discourse, because you are racialized others. We can go back to my very first book, which is trying to say to Canadians that the process of economic development in Latin America in Argentina can tell us things about Canadian history. That we study the other because we can get better perspectives on ourselves. That was not the animating motivation for creating Area Studies and Latin American Studies in the United States and then later on in Great Britain, which was, in that field anyway, derivative of what was happening in the United States from the 1960s. We can talk about the history of Latin American Studies in the U.K. if you want.
I am going to throw a whole bunch of synonyms at the “global history” label to provoke you. “Global history” can be many things: a secularized Summa Theologica in times of increasing fragmentation; or an act of spreading the butter more thinly on the “bread of the world;” also, hubris, the desirable goal of a giant, or a gigantism; also a delusion, a falsit;, a stalking horse, a trick, even a ploy. It can be “anti-postcolonial.” It can be a re-assertion of Eurocentrism calling it otherwise.
It can be all those things. Different people can go at it in different ways. It can be also “postcolonial.”
It is almost like “everybody is doing the global.” If you (a generic you) were selling Coca Cola some time ago, now you are in the same institutional spot selling “refreshments.” “Global history” is almost like a scatter-gun advertisement technique addressed to whoever is out there via Zoom (good morning here, good afternoon there, good night elsewhere…). We are selling knowledge to whomever is out there. I remember the rubric “global Latin America,” which seems to be a contradiction in terms. Why do you think everyone is selling it?
I am not sure I agree with the premise of your question. They may be selling it but it is like snake oil in the sense that the global can just be a brand for nothing. And I think there is a lot of that going on. I am not convinced that everyone is doing this. I think there has been a very strong counter-push, a resurgence of the local and of the national. In fact, I think we are seeing that in part a response to covid is a re-identification with and a re-signification of the nation itself. So much so that Jeremy Farrar, who is head of the Wellcome Trust in the U.K., has argued that we have seen, what he calls “vaccine nationalism.” In the competition to be the first one to get the vaccine, and to hoard it for the nation-state, and “man, if you can do that, how much can you re-signify the power of the nation-state!” So, I am not sure we are all global now, even if it is kind of an empty category. I think there are a lot of counterpoints and resistance to it. And that is healthy. There was way too much comfort in 2008 with global this, global that.
What do we do with Area Studies?
It worries me. Do you want an answer to the question? Or do I simply say I am worried? I think Area Studies matter. We can go on about it but it is not a choice of either-or between the global and Area Studies. Just as the nation was not made obsolete because we got global interdependence. Regions matter though not in the ways, and I think this is going back to Mauricio Tenorio Trillo’s book, the traditional Area Studies configuration, that these were, “civilizations” with their own internalist logic, that they became highly racialized, etc. I would say in fact regions are ways to think about the positionality of actors, that does not assume their universality and uniformity. Let us start with language. And let us go to ours, yours, Spanish: if you dismantle Area Studies, you are turning your back on language acquisition.
In the U.S.
In the U.K. too. The U.K. has never been more monolingual than it is now, even before Brexit.
Losing the capacity to speak other languages is devastating. Why? Because among other things, Americans and Brits, and Australians, and whoever else is listening to this interview, if they can’t speak another language, they don’t know what is like to be from another country, whether it is Mexico or Russia, trying to speak in English. You will never know. And in some sense, our real home is our language, as Milosz would say, and if you can’t understand what it means to try to struggle to work in somebody else’s language, as you do, Fernando, your ability to understand the other is extremely limited.
Isn’t it true that what you say about the social sciences or nomothetic fields of knowledge, using Wallerstein’s nomenclature, also applies to the “maligned” idiographic fields (“modern languages, literatures and cultures”)?
Yes. That’s right. And that is why I don’t think we can go back to all those internalist stories about regions or civilizations which would be the idiographic style. But nor do we want to collapse into the alternative, which is nomothetic. And I think this was a device which opened up in the 1980s. We are plagued by it. It is an important debate, but it is now sterile and exhausted, and we must find strategies for moving past it.
For clarification sake, it makes intuitive sense, but the more I think about it, the less I understand it, when you say “inside and outside,” that is in relation to what?
It depends on the unit we are talking about. It might be the nation. It can be the Catholic world system. The boundary conditions of the unit have these two dimensions to it.
So, when you are talking about the Catholic world system, and you appeal to or have a dialogue with [Immanuel] Wallerstein, you are talking about the Catholic from outside that faith.
And as well as the subjects who have been integrated into it by becoming themselves Catholic.
But, really, when you think about it, there is no pure inside or outside, even to those of a stereotypical, maligned, insiderist or parochial Nation-First type. They are not that dumb. They realize there are forces out there doing all sorts of things.
Right. But I would say two things. One is that the inside-outside is relevant because we want to look at processes that are focused on drafting boundaries of the inside and outside that has an internalist process, which is who gets to be incorporated as a member of the unit, let us call the nation, in which case it is the citizen, and all nations are inclusionary-exclusionary at the same time, and allows us to think about internal boundaries, as well as the external boundaries, especially in a rivalrous, competitive system. So, the Catholic world system exists as an alternative to other claims to being world systems, like the Protestant one. So, you need to have those happening simultaneously.
Before I go further, I cannot resist the temptation. If I take you to a club, and I have you with Trillo and Mignolo, you will sit down closer to the fellow historian Trillo.
I like them both [mutual laughter]. They will probably disagree with me about a lot of things. I am more materialist than both of them are, although there is a Marxist streak in the way Walter [Mignolo] thinks about these things.
You do not appear to have much traction with the postcolonial or decolonial way of doing things…
I would say it is extremely important. It is not possible to do modern Latin America and global history without being influenced in some fundamental way by it. I know there are multiple origin points for postcolonial studies, but a work like Edward Said’s 1978 work, Orientalism, was one of the most influential books for me and for lots of people in my generation, because it allowed us to think about actors who were creating dreamscapes of a world order that, in inventing styles, traditions, aesthetics, that would allow them to understand the hierarchies that gave them meaning and enabled them to dominate other people.
I am going to ask the same question that you include at the beginning of the solid volume Empire and the Social Sciences, why Empire in the grand scheme of things?
That is a good question. Because I would say for long, long periods of the ways in which the world systems were being made and remade, imperial units were the units through which actors constructed the world system. We can unpack what an Empire is but among other things those units wrestle with an experiment that goes back to the book I am writing about, Latin America and global history, is that empires were wrestling for many centuries, and nations are now grappling with, but it is a relatively recent history, with governing difference, that they were internally heterogenous, recognized heterogeneity, in fact that is what defined them as empires, as opposed to other forms of political community, and therefore monarchy had a very important status in the creation of those political systems.
Since George W. Bush and his administration assumed the word “empire” for self-definition, are we revamping Foucault’s power/knowledge, and bringing it close to multinational corporations and the big players?
I think there is a lot of sloppy language around Empire. What is the difference between being a bully and being an emperor? I am not sure that Trump is an imperialist. I think he is a bully. Those are different things. And then there are hegemons and there is a lot of slippage between and within these terms. And it is true that after 1989 there was a way in which people argued that we have gone from a world of superpowers to an imperial world with the idea that “Rome” was the framing for thinking of a new unity. And there was a discussion about Empire around the Gulf War. What is remarkable in retrospect is how short-lived that was, even though there was a lot of noise, and big fat books with very hubristic claims about it. Man, did it collapse quickly!
Isn’t it true that with global history we seem to be going upstairs to privileged points of observations, and if I may use this language, that we are moving over to the side of the big regiments or the big guys?
There are two things to be said there. One is that I would pick up on your word privilege and there is no question and this is something we talk a lot about and we fret about, which is global history as a genre of writing about the past has traditionally presumed a resource base and access and mobility that no everybody can do. Not everybody can play in this game, right? So, it is not coincidental that it is well-supported historians in Berlin, Tokyo and Princeton and Harvard or Oxford who can do this game, whereas if you are in Sri Lanka, or South Africa, it is a lot harder. And this is a problem. Who gets to define what are the questions that have more status and more value. That is one that concerns me and I think global historians have to be very [conscious and] acknowledge the limits of the conditions of themselves that they don’t examine about their privilege.
You are intellectually attached to the notion of development. You historicize the idea of development, particularly in the pages that you sent me titled “Development Dreams,” in which you underline the “ideal” or the “dream” quality. Are you not flirting with Fidel Castro at the beginning of this piece? Is it fair to say that you soften and mitigate somewhat the critiques of Prebisch, Escobar and Mazower and Wright, all included in the footnotes? The prefixes are dropped: it is no longer “under-“development. We seem to be looking at the noun and its influential history. “Development” is clearly used to this day by corporations, influential organizations, think tanks, and the like. Yet you remain a historian of the ideal of development after all, also for the 2020. I am trying to understand how you go about it.
One answer is to say that there is an idea of development, which is an idea that humans, societies, social classes, can mobilize resources to shape societies’ futures. So, it is a way of intervening and making time. In fact, the word itself, development, presumes starting from position A and ending in position B. And this can somehow be engineered by human intervention or human institutions and so on. That is a modern concept. And one in fact might say that that is one of the signatures of modernist forms of thinking. That has guided institutions of policy thinking and institutions that govern our lives for the last couple of hundred years. So, I am interested in that process. How do we do that? What does it mean? What is the experience of it? And what are some of the horrible consequences that come from it that some of the critics of development focus on?
In the reconstruction of the historical idea or ideal of development, there is one big hole in those pages at least: Trotsky is missing. So, we are moving on this side of the ideological divide. We drop the prefixes (“un-“ or “under-“), we do not bring about the combined mixture, are we not risking a nominalist reification of the thought process side by side the invocation of the global? I am not saying that Jeremy has to have five basketballs at the same time in the air, but if anyone is making claims for globality, the Russians are clearly invested in development, and that is why I “accuse you,” with the proper quotation marks, of “flirting with Fidel Castro,” but at a time when he is not threatening. But that was not the case in the 1960s and the 1970s… If I am a good God-fearing Catholic from Indiana, I am not threatened by your notion of development, right?, and I am assuming capitalism as the most natural system on this planet earth…
No. And you should not be. And I do not have a single notion of development. And I would say, first, to go to the Fidel Castro [reference], particularly in relation to the 1960s, the issue is that one of the appeals of Castro was developmental. In other words, he made the case for a Socialist model of development that had appeals because, let us say, the liberal modernization conception of development was not so appealing to lots of people. So, we have to understand the competition for rival narratives of what development is in itself. And Fidel Castro peddled one. He was a great peddler. This is what he did. And in action it turned into a nightmare. And it took the left a long time to reckon with the nightmare that he had produced. But I think that we have to think of how these multiple narratives’ struggle to control time. And they go back to the origin stories of development and modernization itself which is the middle of the Nineteenth Century, about stages and preconditions for development and so on. They get seeded very early on and although they have a shared origin moment, they diverge and they struggle like siblings. So, there was a strong developmentalist streak to Marx’s own theory of stages of capitalism, what Trotsky and Lenin will call development.
But, why don’t we call development the official discourse or ideology of capitalism in the nineteenth century until the 1970s?
Because socialists also argued for development. And, in fact, development, and this is coming to Castro, was socialism. All capitalist arguments were arguments for under-development, said the critics. If you want development, you have to have socialism. That was the postcolonial global socialist turn on what was happening. That emerged in the mid-19th century. There were people clearly arguing for alternative roads for development that were not liberal and not capitalist.
You have done work on Albert O. Hirschman of Jewish-German origin, émigré intellectual finishing his adventurous trajectory at Princeton, are you creating institutional genealogies of a more palatable or “benign” side of the most critical dependency theory in these worrying times?
Yes. That is a good question. And in fact, Hirschman himself was criticized by people who wanted a more radical critique of development. He was a reformer. And he was a radical reformer, I would say. But he was a reformer nonetheless. And it goes back to his biography, to what he had seen unfold in the Weimar Republic by 1933 was that the polarization of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary positions were committed to the failure of liberal cosmopolitan, experimental, incrementalist styles [of development] that he was more identified with. By the 1960s, just to go back to the Fidel Castro [reference], he was clearly an anti-Castro, and most of his friends on the left would have been critical of him for his lack of sympathy for the Cuban Revolution, just to give you an example.
I do not know what you are up to with “Declaration of Interdependence.” We are moving away somewhat from some Appiah-type eulogy of cosmopolitanism, o.k. And we are entertaining mixed feelings about general interconnectedness, neither such enthusiastic cosmopolitanism nor the bunch of backlash Nation-Firsters. Taking this with a grain of salt in relation to the pages I have read: it seems to me that you are developing a kind of pallid humanitarianism in which the prose has a tremendous level of generality. So, when you go Federico del Pino foundation in Madrid and you talk to the impresario class about integration and interdependence, again, they are not going to be alarmed by you, so what is going on with this interdependence business?
You are not the first to have this concern about my work and I would say to make the distinction first between occupying a middle ground as if there was some space in the middle between these polar positions and we have to commit to creating middling. That is very different from creating a space in which we are capable of hearing the counter-arguments, considering them and refuting them. These are two different ways of thinking about the centre. Not the centre as an alternative to extremes, but the centre as a place where we agree to commit to civic arguments, the condition of which is not over-commitment to our correctness and to be open to the falsifiability of our claims. So, interdependence. That is kind of a style and an approach and why I chose to have conversations across these divides. Interdependence is in essence taking from the Latin American critique of capitalist development that say that all capitalist development systems are hierarchical and stratified, even when they integrate. And, in fact, integration creates stratification. What was then a marker for dependency theory that some societies in the course of becoming developed and wealthy do so by exploiting and dominating other societies. So, there was an inside there that dependency analysis had, that wealthy countries relied on other countries as a condition for their own wealth. What I am trying to add is the prefix “inter-,” which is to say, that the flow goes both ways, always. Even if it is asymmetrical, unfair and unjust, the flows and the dynamics always go both ways.
I really enjoyed your article “War and Revolution,” included in the volume edited by Antonio Feros. There are many points of interest: you mention that the Spanish and Latin American historiography is not very “upbeat” about these matters. And we seem to be moving away from some type of horizon of national liberation. Is your conclusion that there were multiple options for multiple subjects overstepping then and now newly formed national boundaries across the Atlantic expanse? You lay out the landscape, we are not enthused by “nation,” that is a big no-no, “national liberation” does not tickle us, so we are dealing with a big expanse, call it “water” or the “Atlantic,” and we see two notions, “war” and “revolution,” but not the drastic-Russian type, the Bolshevik option, instead the bourgeois-liberal 19th century type of revolution in Latin America, the “criollo” modality. In these dense pages of a historian in his original field of pasture, I am wondering: is this the way to go? No big Platonian origin of things that matter, no big catastrophic teleological end of anything, but a rich plurality of social actors doing a plurality of things and narratives and [the invitation to the reader is almost] help yourself to your favourite “dish…”? So, Jeremy, you end up being in the end a Rortyan pluralist.
What I tried to do is to exhume the native categories of an experience of a shattering world. And what was that native category? It was Empire and Monarchy, not nation. Nation was the effect of the crisis. Not the cause. And nationalist historians have never really got that, right?, that the epic struggle was over the future of the Empire and once placed inside an Empire an alternative imaginary is about how the Empire could be created without necessarily leading to the nation-state as the only resolution to the problem. Only later on do we think of the nation as the necessary outcome for the Age of Revolutions and then comes a nationalist historiography that reads it backwards and totally anachronistically. That’s one. Number two is, if we think about it globally, that the struggle over the existence of the Empire itself is not something that just goes on inside the Empire, but goes on in the set of complex relationships between imperial parts and rival empires. And so you have to put war and the organization of mass violence in the middle of it. And there are many things to be said about the nature of violence in the making, unmaking and remaking of world systems. And so that is what that essay is trying to get at.
If I were to listen to you in my provincial locality, and I do not want to throw any (stereotypical) adjectives at it anymore, I could still ask you, “and what are we learning about, wars, revolutions and all, down there in those independent moments or movements in Latin America that I could add to my celebratory impulse of the American Revolution?”
One thing is to think about the American Revolution differently. I did not send you this piece but I have written another piece titled “The Age of Imperial Revolutions,” in which I am taking the Latin American perspective on the crisis of the Ibero-American imperial systems as a way to rethink the Anglo-American system, which is to say that you can’t tell the story of the American Revolution without thinking about the role of the Spanish and the French Empires in that struggle. And secondly, that for much longer than American nationalist historians have reckoned with, the fight was not over the birth of the nation but over the future of the Empire. So, for instance, to give you an example, you have to put the loyalists back into the story of the American Revolution and stop assuming that every colonialist was a proto-nationalist. Huge numbers of settlers remained loyal to the Crown. Many colonies in what was considered British North America remained loyal to the Crown. All the Caribbean colonies did and of course Canada did. So, the American Revolution is an invention that has been projected backwards. It was an imperial revolution that produced this thing called the United States, which, even back then, before the Civil War, was always spoken of in plural terms, only after the Civil War did they call the United States in the singular form. It was always many jostling, fighting ideas with many unresolved conflicts that you can see repeat themselves in what is often the Second American Revolution which is the Civil War, and we can see now all the unfinished business of that conflict.
But you realize what you are doing: the nation is not the final teleology of history, fine, fair enough, we are not our nineteenth century historians anymore, our “decimonónicos” say, but I suppose complicating the narrative of the nation, is taking place at this moment of nationalist resurgence…
Within the second wave or third wave of the so-called globalization.
I agree. And that is the uphill struggle in the fight over methodological nationalism.
You write at the end of that chapter, and you do it very carefully and parenthetically that “the influence of North American constitutionalism has been altogether exaggerated,” please expand.
I think this was partly an invention of Americans and partly of many liberal constitutionalists later on in the Nineteenth Century. You alluded to this earlier in this conversation in relation to the “failurist default,” of Spanish and Portuguese and Latin American historiography, the kind of “fracaso-manía” (sic in the original Spanish, or failure-mania), so sown into the DNA. We failed, right, and because our failures there is nothing redeemable at all about our historical experiences. And, therefore, all of our constitutionalist experimentation that just went on was doomed to fail and so later on in the 1860s some jurists will invent this idea that we had been trying to borrow from the Anglo-American, particularly the American model, ever since, particularly when it comes to issues of federalism. I just think that is wrong. There were many other examples: Switzerland played [a role]. First of all, all of the constitutionalists were reading documents all the time imported from all over the place, translating, cutting and pasting, and yet we pick out the American articles as if they had this totemic significance. I spent a lot of time looking at those constitutional debates at the River Plate: Swiss conceptions of federalism were enormously important. They were very global thinkers. It does not mean they were thinking about the global system, although many of them were, but they were drawing inspiration from many parts simultaneously.
I suppose that you are going to agree with me that some scepticism is appropriate towards some practitioners of the global or of international history, who remain firmly within the English-only U.S. and also the U.K. confines, U.S. first and U.K. close by, as a lasting bridge to an Eurocentrism, whilst they export their riches and they are not looking into backlash or blowback or “Empire strikes back.” But genuine Eurocentrism-questioning and dismantling is easier said than done…
I would agree with you.
The bibliography of some of these practitioners in the name of international history of ideas gives them away in the revamping of Eurocentrism. This is comparable to the way in which some think tanks are worried about the whole Anglo-American alliance and how to take it to another level. That has a tremendous impact in history as a discipline, Area Studies and other disciplines. Empire and the Social Sciences is an ambitious project. I have read it with gusto. I already asked you about Empire, why the generic “social sciences” in no specific time and place? If I were a sociologist or an anthropologist, I don’t know if I would feel myself interpellated by this work.
Returning to an earlier point, I agree with you that the global has very often been an instrument for reprovincializing the academic discourse. We can talk more about this but that is a big problem. And, in fact, in some cases it has led to a revitalization of Empire and of imperial history, which comes to Empire in the social sciences. So, why the social sciences so generically [put thus]? Because I really think we have to be careful about being anachronistic, even though the term of “social sciences” is a relatively recent one, we have to be weary of being anachronistic about professionalization. What would have been called sociology, even in the late 19th century, was an admixture of economics, anthropology, etc. What was then imagined as disciplines were much more porous than norms that governed them now. So, I am also trying to capture this fluidity and openness, in that volume. The other is, of course, that there are many different kinds and styles of social science were mobilized by imperial actors. I took advantage of imperial systems to do the kind of work that they did. And, in fact, to a large extent the creation of the modern world of social sciences has been branded by Empire. The discipline that has been most conscious of this has of course been anthropology. We can talk about that as an example about why that happens, but economic development, the origins and theory of international relations, etc. they are all connected to the ways in which social scientists got employed by and for Empire to do fieldwork for the Empire itself. And it was not just a European habit. It was a Japanese, Australian, etc.
I am going through the Toynbee archive in the proximity of Chatham House. I recently read his 1960s lectures in the U.S. and Puerto Rico where he is showing some sympathy for the (Castro) devil, whilst accusing the U.S. of being a blockage to world revolution. How is that for daring? Toynbee is also most significantly speaking critically of the Anglo-Saxon ways and how they gain distance from the foreigners, epistemologically, emotionally, at the dinner table, and perhaps in the bedroom as Octavio Paz’s great essay of the 1980s suggests… Tell me something about the old civilizational approach of Arnold Toynbee, its virtues and vices. Must cultural-relativism be the logical end of this approach in our troubling times also in relation to your global-history approach?
That’s a big question. I don’t know that I have a particularly thought-out answer. I don’t think it is necessary, although it is true that the kind of global positionality that I am advocating does imply a kind of capacity to be empathetic about other people, other traditions and other cultures and not presume that one’s own has a monopoly over truth and values. As for Toynbee, it is worth saying that he was very committed to ideas of cycles, so that goes back to his reading of Oswald Spengler.
Tell me about the “Princeton University’s Global History Lab.”
It is called “lab” because it is an experimental space that is collaborative. It is global because its reach is a transnational and it is committed to history, which is to have students think about how to develop a certain spatial and temporal fluency. It is global in the sense that we co-teach and co-research with a set of partners around the world and right now I teach world history in 19 different locations synchronously, from Ho Chi Minh City to Paris, to New York, etc. And it is collaborative because we get these students from different places in the world to work together and exchange ideas. So, the core of it is a pedagogical commitment to thinking across borders from particular locations, including we have a whole team of people working in Madrid. [It is the] umbrella for projects that we have ongoing with graduate students and faculty from different institutions around the world. So it is committed to practicing what we do as a kind of everyday thing inside universities, research and teaching, but in a global fashion.
So, how does Phileas Fogg travel in 2020? I am also attending really exciting experimental courses in Columbia University in New York City, now with covid it is a must, and Zoom makes it relatively easy, so how would this thing go?
It is a challenge but we are using new technologies. The whole thing started with the creation of a MOOC [massive open online course]. It has now evolved since then. And I now run it as a network course rather than as an open access course.
What social function would you like your pedagogy to have? And what social function would you like your more general practice of global history to have?
The social function of the Lab: two of them. One of them is for my students right here at Princeton, as they learn the history of the world, to learn that the very same things that they are studying can mean different things to different people. So, part of learning temporal and spatial literacy is that the significance or meaning of what they are learning is itself contested and polyphonic. And if they are really going to be worldly it requires the ability to hear that and see that and recognize it. Not necessarily agree with it, but to understand it, that makes them global learners, on the one hand. On the other hand, it is a strong commitment to refugee education. So, the part of this is also that my students are learning from refugees and vice versa and the refugees should have what [Arjun] Appadurai calls, the “right to research.” They may be stateless, so they don’t have rights to have rights. But we as educators don’t have to abide by the limits of the international legal system. We can create learning opportunities for refugees. And we have these projects in different refugee camps around the world.
About my own academic practice, one [aspect is] to think of access. Who has access to the power to tell stories and have these stories to be heard. And they could see in the style that I write in, in these public ways, they can recognize themselves in the space that is being created. So that would be one objective, in the form in which I teach, the platforms and the technologies that I am invested in creating. Another one, especially in relation to the more recent work, is trying to think of narratives for a divided world is to create, you might call it a master-narrative, but it would be a framework for thinking about the place of discordant stories about our togetherness that allows people to make sense of them, and therefore to have better arguments about their differences. What drives me nuts right now is the utterly impoverished level in which we are making claims about our truths. What I hope to do is upgrade the quality of those claims and in the course of upgrading them making them less absolute, more porous, more intelligible to others, and without necessarily saying that we have to find some common ground -- that’s bullshit -- but maybe even agree to disagree a little bit more and be more civic and less intolerant of each other.
The final question has to do with your mood or your emotional tonality. I see it in your prose, in your lectures, in conversation: something comes across that is very even-tempered, very measured, as though there was no pain, hurt, blood, shout, scream, etc. How would you address your own “affect” in your own practice of global history or perhaps better or more general of your own professional craft as a historian in 2020?
Partly, I am trying to be contrarian, and this is may be a dissatisfying answer to a good question, which is to say we live in such an impassioned world, and it is not that I am dispassionate, but that I think the emotional attachment to the stories and the narratives, and I have been using these words a lot, has been privileged at the expense of setting aside one’s own identity to be able to understand where the emotion of the other is coming from. And if you live with your emotions that very often produces a dialectic that gets in the way of understanding, which is really what I am trying to do. So, my mood right now is very often to be calm or cool, or even-tempered, yes. I have a lot of colleagues who are outraged all the time, and it is not that I am not outraged, or that I am not scared or worried about the future of the planet, and of our kids, but leading with that, just adds fuel and I am trying to say, what if we step back and how can we re-imagine and reformat histories for the present?
Transcription finished. FGH/ Warwick 30 October 2020.