Are We All Global Historians Now?
As promised in our previous blog post, the Itinerario editorial board would like to report on the recent online discussion between David Armitage of Harvard and the journal’s readership.
Starting with some statistics: during the discussion, which lasted for ten days, each post was read by an average of 225 people. The part of the discussion related to global history as a discipline was by far the most popular, with 333 individual readers.
The debate centered on the question of whether the hegemony of national historiography is over, and whether transnational, international or global historical projects are now norm rather than a novelty. Aside from David Armitage himself, eight historians from various corners of the globe contributed to this question and raised thought-provoking issues. For instance: while being mindful of regional or international contexts, is the nation-state not still the main referent for historical fields such as military history? And, if the practice of national history is indeed on its way out, is ‘global history’ a worthy successor? As Bernard Schär of ETH Zurich asked, is ‘the global’ a functional opposite of ‘the national’? And if we regard it as such, is global history not at risk of becoming a catch-all term? Karwan Fatah-Black of Leiden University suggested that it might be more helpful if “global history” continued to refer to the study of historical globalization, rather than serve as a clever way to avoid the use of terms that presuppose the national. This led Sinai Rusinek of Hebrew University to ask to what extent this rejection of the nation-state as a category is an activist rather than a methodological positioning. The contributors further showed appreciation for ‘connected history’ (histoire croisée) but wondered whether it has been sufficiently conceptualized. To this, Lincoln Paine of the Itinerario editorial board added that a look at the Braudellian division of historical time into geographical, social and individual time might be helpful in moving beyond the national/global dichotomy.
David Armitage, finally, summarized this discussion by fleshing out the issues underlying the various posts: concern over those subjects residing between the national and the global; over the tools at hand to tackle these issues without necessarily calling the result ‘global history’; and concern over the relationship between time and space. Addressing these concerns, Armitage considered the use of ‘translocal’ as a category which, if done well, respects the embedded, entangled and mobile aspects of history. Armitage ended with a challenge to all contributors: to reflect more on questions of temporality in ‘post-national’ history. As nation-time implies linearity, continuity, and territoriality – what might ‘ocean time’ or ‘global time’ imply? And how might we reconstruct that?
The debate had two interesting spin-offs: the first was a second Facebook discussion on the future of Atlantic History, and whether that future lies in joining it to other oceanic and transregional histories. Underlying this debate was a similar concern over the use of Atlantic History as a discipline: when is it so broad it loses its functionality, and when is it too narrow to deal with larger narratives of flows of trade, people and ideas? Secondly, the debate spilled to the world outside Facebook and onto H-Net, after a few users of the latter questioned the suitability of Facebook as the best venue for an open and inclusive debate.
This caused the editorial board of Itinerario to reflect on this little experiment some more. First of all, while Facebook counts historians from all over the world among its members, it nevertheless does skew participation patterns. Over the course of the discussion, the editorial board learned that historians are well-represented among the group of conscientious objectors to Facebook. To what extent this is related to their chosen profession is a slightly off-topic, but interesting question. While the journal was very pleased with the enthusiasm from H-Net contributors, as a medium for running debate its posting construction has its limits too: while it does invite the longer discursive posts necessary for in-depth discussion, sustaining the debate is a challenge. A dedicated website may not attract the number of visitors and contributors that Facebook and H-Net do. For something as important as a broad-based international debate on the discipline, some thought on the best medium to achieve this is in order.
Finally, the editorial board would like to offer sincere thanks to all those who engaged with this experiment online and offline. The number of visitors to the page suggests that there is indeed considerable interest in an open discussion between historians, whether faculty, student or aficionado. For that reason, the discussion with David Armitage will remain accessible on the Itinerario Facebook Page. Access to the interview with David Armitage which prompted the debate is offered here.