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Transnational History as Historical Subject

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Transnational history has emerged in the wake of the sprouting of international history, global history, and post-colonial history as historical subject fields in the 1990s academic marketplace. Chris Bayly’s 2004 book Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 is a landmark in the emergence of transnational history as an academic subject stressing the connectedness of history, as a narrative of accelerating cross-border métissage and intercontextuality. As another historian in this school, Sven Beckert, reminds us, transnational history is more than an academic brand; it is a fundamentally different analytical space and a social movement in itself.

On the cover of Bayly’s book is a portrait by Anne-Louis Giradet, student of Jacques Louis David, who would be exiled in Brussels after 1815 with Emmanuel Sièyes as revolutionaries turned supporters of Bonaparte. Ironically, it hangs in in the Trianon at Versailles. It is a portrait of Citoyen Jean-Baptiste Belley of Saint Dominique, native of the slave port of Gorée in Senegal, comrade-in-arms of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the first Black Deputy to both the National Convention and the National Assembly. Belley’s silk cummerbund and the decoration of his hat assert the universalizing intention of the French Revolution, His light breaches express the sexual power of Rousseau’s noble savage, and refer to Bayly’s emphasis on bodily regimes. Belley leans against a bust on a marble plinth: the bust of the Encyclopèdiste Raynal, the most radical critic of slavery and the colonial policy of the Ancien Régime.

Modernity connotes a world set unstoppably in motion. Transnational history gives a sense of movement, flows, circulation, and intercultural interpenetration: a whole range of network and institutional connections and connected histories. Bayly’s transnational history recognizes how the most important ideological, social, cultural, economic and political movements have operated across politically bounded territory. These are flows and movements within the interconnectedness of plural material and virtual worlds. The flows are not organized around a center.

Transnational history is neither history of national self-determination that was internationalism at “the Wilsonian moment,” nor schematic universal history in the sense of some master teleological narrative. Indeed, transnational history denaturalizes the nation. Beyond the methodological nationalism of international relations and international law, jurists like Max Gutzwiller (1931) and Philip C. Jessup (1956) forge the concept of the “transnational” as not just the lex mercatoria but as a space of respective self-regulatory frameworks transcending national frontiers. The historian Fernand Braudel—in the spirit of Montesquieu—utilized the same concept in his chronicling the Mediterranean. The transnational denotes space rather than place. Connections are important, not just some particular territory. We come to comprehend connected histories within an emerging polycentric globalization.

Specifically, we have a wide sweep in transnational history studies: flows of ideologies; flows of contagions; C.L.R. James’s epic study of the Black Jacobins; proletarianization/precariatization across continents; Paul Gilroy on the movements across the Black Atlantic; Brian Larkin’s studies of Hindi cinema and Nigerian lovers; Alejandro Portes’s studies of dual citizen Latino American communities in the United States; Ranajit Guha’s neo-Gramscian studies of the downtrodden’s articulation of subaltern culture as opposed to British colonial culture; maritime studies now focusing on the post–Cold War Indian Ocean; migrations across the Pacific Rim; transnational advocacy networks (TANs); terrorist cells; histories of merchant banking rooted in city-states; financial elite networks; investment patterns; the institutions that govern transnational economic transactions; global supply/distribution chains; the doyens of urban planning; the reach of communications technologies and the Internet; ICANN: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Where does American history stop and Asian history begin? And as Bayly himself wryly describes, nineteenth-century Malay sultanates looking to the Ottoman Empire for legitimacy, and to the Arab world for literature and culture beyond the colonial Malayian literature with a British impact.

As a historical movement, transnational history is universal history in the sense of how differences that marked off previously specifically embodied social formations were softened. It is universalizing history in the sense of tracing progressively generalizing and more inclusive stabilizing mediations: understanding that transnational historical sociology does not just look at how groups become connected, but also at how they become excluded from processes of exchanges and circulation. Further, transnational history has a post-secular dimension dealing with a range of otherworldly, post-worldly, and ancient worldly dimensions, and thus engaged in different languages of justice.

Transnational history marks a move beyond Marc Bloch and the Annales School of comparative history, as well as Michael Mann’s comparative historical sociology built on Philip Abrams’s seminal Historical Sociology (1986). As a movement itself, it argues the inseparability of the two enterprises, yet remains suspicious of their respective structuralist determinism and tendency to downplay discourse and agency. For the historians, there are transnational migration and diasporas, transnational circulation of ideas—for example, Pascale Casanova’s development of Braudel and Pierre Bourdieu in The World Republic of Letters (2004)—as well as the transnational circuitry of commodity flows Karl Marx so vividly describes. More to the point of the remainder of this paper, there is transnational associational life that sociologists of law see as revealing in its practices an emergent regulating rationale.

We can argue that transnational history is not just a historical academic subject area. It is a historical subject in and of itself. Transnational history is a movement toward what Niklas Luhmann identifies as greater cognitive complexity marked by polycontextual logic, hybridity, and heterarchy. The transnational relates to a growing functionally differentiated complexity of re-scaled cognitive spaces oriented toward a purpose of mediating some sense of normative stabilization among a pluralism of contextual logics. This involves interculturally construed mutual recognition, understanding, and learning. Universality comes to mean establishing commonality across diversity, boundaries, and conflicts.

Since 1914 transnational history as a historical subject reveals an immanence that unfolds/enfolds beyond the “Wilsonian Moment” of Kantian cosmopolitanism that marked the emergent post-colonial consciousness following Europe’s suicidal World War I. The close of which, argued Ulrich Beck, marks the watershed between the First Modernity of unlimited faith in technical mastery, and the Second Modernity of global awareness of externalities of Enlightenment rationalism and the limits of sustainability. Challenges of a global circuitry in the Second Modernity were not successfully addressed by state executives alone. These spaces grow into processes and networks that transcend politically bounded territories in connecting various parts of the world to one another. These spaces react to shared vulnerability in the Second Modernity, forging relations of intersubjectivity with appropriate and mutually recognizing interlocutors. These are the transnationally appreciated global risks understood as generalizable threats to humanity as a whole—ecological degradation and climate change; nuclear disasters and annihilation; global terrorism, the global spread of diseases.

We recall here that Hegel had been critical of the Kantian approach to a cosmopolitanism that focused on a notion of international law as a moral postulate or an a priori principle of reason. Hegel, in his 1805–6 Jena Lectures, understands what we now call a transnational historical subject as a relationship of reciprocal recognition rooted in association. History is understood by Hegel to be the domain where the concept of Right is defined, validated, and concretized institutionally by and for the persons and peoples to whom they have meaning and application. For Hegel, the universal is understood in the sense of affording different interpretations of reciprocal/mutual recognition; to bear and sustain gradually evolving different universals in the development of freedom; and not calling for some total all-inclusive or cosmopolitan transformation.

As a movement, transnational history is universal history in the sense of how differences that marked off previously specifically embodied social formations were softened. It is universalizing history in the sense of tracing progressively generalizing and more inclusive stabilizing mediations. The universal rights of man fundamentally freed through the market were understood in the First Modernity as a liberal order providing the premises for a conception of social justice. But in the last decades of the twentieth century, the Second Modernity becomes reconfigured by neoliberal/ordoliberal paradigms. These are frameworks of meaning and understanding which subvert the universalizing liberal history of respective First Modernity nation-states by failing to protect the social relations necessary to underwrite individuation as both autonomy and reciprocity. The citizen is now conceived as human capital for transnational firms, extending market metrics and practices in every dimension of human life and its governance, displacing all other modes of valuation and assessment for judgment and administration, consigning broken solidarities to oblivion. Property rights trump social rights.

We witness the emergence of new re-scaled transnational space—not only corporate firms, but post-regulatory corporatist forms of reciprocity like Forestry Stewardship Councils and Maritime Stewardship Councils as well as “negotiated network-connected contracts” among franchised commerce and e-businesses—with NGOs, international organizations, transnational advocacy networks (TANs), and multi-scalar inter-regional and inter-urban constellations like the Network for Regional Governments for Sustainable Development (nrg4 SD). These are nested scalar configured spaced imbricated within unfolding and enfolding internal loops of network logics. Loops within loops—superseding the mentalité of immanence of structures.

This new associational space of negotiated rule-making amounts to a space for functioning among transnational institutional forms, as interfaces for common both self-referring and mutually referring relations between the multiple fields Bourdieu denotes, and Luhmann conceives of. These multiple fields and autonomous systems involve the development of spatial (hence scalar) logics of transnational coding and bounded rationality. The intermediary associations of negotiated rule-making at the interfaces should not be studied as “in-between” intermediary variables, but as an independent variable form in its own right. One that is being reproduced upon the basis of independent transnational logics operating amid the imbrications of network loops and the layerings within interwoven institutional meshwork-like webs.

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