Telling Global Histories

Jeffrey C. Guarneri

When historians refer to the “global,” they can mean any of a wide array of things—from the liberal political and economic empires that have extended around the world since the eighteenth century to the spread of pathogens, flora, and fauna of the Columbian Exchange, to the telecommunications and financial networks that presently allow the transfer of massive sums of money across countries with the tap of a smartphone screen. The “global” is a concept that is often invoked to explain the above phenomena and more, and yet this concept escapes easy definition. Must a “global” phenomenon of necessity touch every nook and cranny of the planet? Is the global tied to the physical world, or does it stretch across socio-cultural imaginaries that defy our typical conceptions of space and place? The global, as a category, is easily applied, yet immensely difficult to define.

For historians trained within territorially-defined areas of expertise (nation-state or areas studies-based scholarship), writing “global” history seem daunting, an unfamiliar territory whose approach can seem more intimidating than exciting. But junior and senior historians alike are increasingly asked to teach outside their areas of expertise, making a broader geographical reach an asset. What, then, are the limits of “global” research and teaching? Where do we start, where do we stop, and how do we fit a global perspective into a single lecture, essay, or monograph?

One of the challenges presented by attempting to work through “global” histories is that of overcoming the notion that something must be all-pervasive, so utterly and intimately connected to each corner of the world, for it to be considered global. I will argue here that global history need not be a universal narrative. Instead, I draw from spatial theory as a means of navigating the limitations of the territorially coherent geographic categories that historians typically employ, without wholly discarding the nation-state per se as a unit of analysis. Thinking of “global” history in spatial terms can allow scholars to expand typical nation-state scopes of inquiry in ways that enable them to engage with global historical processes. I pose three questions: First, what are the dominant approaches to history-writing beyond the level of the nation-state? Second, how are these approaches related to global history? Third, how can we as scholars use spatial theory to think of our own geographically- and temporally-bounded areas of expertise in global terms?

By answering these questions, I define the global not as a singular thing, but rather show that it has a multiplicity of meanings that grant the concept a flexibility and wide range of applicability in scholarly work. Following the geographer Doreen Massey, whose work I describe below, I frame the global scale as a space that derives from and depends upon its multiplicity. If we think of the global as an intersection (to borrow Massey’s term) of people, things, ideas, goods, events, etc., rather than the most dominant manifestation of any of these categories, then perhaps the global will seem less daunting, and less in need of neatly packaged narration that attempts to impose order on the fascinating chaos that is the world. This, I argue, will enrich our own work as scholars by pushing us to pose new research questions, as well as change the way we ask those questions in relation to the dominant spatial scales at which global history-writing operates: international, transnational, and connected histories.

Thinking through International, Transnational, and Connected Histories

There is no shortage of “global” history-writing. Instead of focusing on the sweeping, and by necessity abstract, narratives of many of these texts, however, I focus on three types of history-writing that do not explicitly claim to be “global” in scope: international, transnational, and connected history. Each of these frames operate at global and sub-global scales.  International history can be between two nation-states as readily as it can be between all of them.  Transnational history, in its turn, can transcend any number of national boundaries.  Finally, connected histories can link a handful of locales or things in isolation of other places, or they can connect the entire globe through a single conduit or commodity. This flexibility inherent in these approaches is key because, much like postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty argues in his “history one/history two” formulation, people and goods circulate and operate in ways that are not fully beholden to a global system (such as capitalism, or relations between nation-states) can nevertheless be firmly enmeshed in that very system, and therefore connected to global historical trajectories.

First, I would like to consider what “international history” means in terms of global history. If one were to consider “international history” to the letter, s/he would see a form of history-writing that concerns itself with events and processes that occur between nation-states, and take nation-state as their chief subjects. This approach can include anything from the byzantine alliance politics of early twentieth century Europe, to the United Nations and the politics of international aid organizations. None of these are “universal” in the sense that they span every country or continent in the world: the Tri-Partate Alliance had little to do with Antarctica, and even United Nations resolutions are not signed by all of its members. And yet, the interactions and negotiations (and wars) between a coterie of nation-states has global ramifications: World War I sucked European colonies more fully into warfare on the European continent than ever before, while carbon caps on signatories to United Nations resolutions aimed to limit climate change affect the air we all breath. In this sense, while not universal, international history is global, even if the individual subjects of particular international historical subjects (the World Wars, international environmental policy agreements) are not representative of the whole of nations.  In other words, this reveals the paradox of looking at “international” history solely through the lens of the nation-state, as even “international” issues are often ill-confined to national polities.

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Figure 2 “A Global Map of Human Impacts to Marine Ecosystems.” Source: B.S. Halpern (T. Hengl; D. Groll).

An example of how international history can interrogate global phenomena is Richard Tucker’s Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World, which explores the relationship between U.S. consumerism and resource extraction overseas. By focusing on many of the United States’ commodity-based relationships (such as trade arrangements for sugar, fruit, and timber) with individual nation-states, Tucker’s analysis ultimately highlights the dynamic between the United States and neo-/informal colonies in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia.  Through these relationships he illustrates how U.S.-based companies brokered international arrangements, albeit ones concluded on unequal terms. The economic relationships between these states are negotiated and sustained by international corporations, such as United Fruit, that are deeply imbricated in state politics and the consumption of the commodities described in Tucker’s book.  While the chief subject of Tucker’s study is the United States economy and domestic consumption, it is only through the process of international trade that we can understand the nature of the “insatiable appetite” that causes U.S. demand to shape agricultural, economic, and land policy in Latin America and elsewhere.  However, Tucker’s analysis remains bound up in agreements between nation-states and/or colonies, and therefore analytically beholden to these administrative-territorial units.  The historical spaces created by his work are largely those that exist between nations, or that are determined where national sovereignty is honored and where it is violated.  It is the national subject (the Cuban plantation worker, the Philippine subaltern), or organizations that are part of a nation-state (U.S.-based corporations) through which Tucker ultimately thinks.  However, despite this reliance on the nation-state, the phenomena at play in Tucker’s work sits on the cusp of another mode of writing global history, one that goes beyond the nation-state: transnational history.

Transnational history is, as the name would suggest, history that transcends the nation-state, and therefore a frame of analysis that can be useful for thinking through concepts that cannot be explained through the nation-state alone. One frequently invoked example of this mode of analysis is the history of diasporan groups that often form because of dislocation or statelessness. These same groups can also be defined in terms that are supra-national, even when the people in question have nation-states that they might call home. An example of this is Shu-mei Shih’s concept of the Sinophone, a diasporan identity that links speakers of the Chinese language based on a common tongue (allowing for some differences of dialect), even when the constituent groups linked by this language come from states that have hostile relations (such as Taiwan and China), or when links to the “homeland” can be tenuous (such as people of Chinese descent in Southeast Asia). We might also conceive of transnational histories in the more ill-defined, but nevertheless important links between regions, cities, and empires. Commodities such as coffee or tea offer another means of exploring transnational histories, as their circulation and consumption cannot be explained by state-to-state dynamics alone.  Transnational history, then, serves as way of reconceptualizing these same historical subjects in ways that move beyond the physical and metaphorical spaces of the nation-state.

Another, related means of establishing transnational frames can come from assembling a patchwork of connected histories. Connected history offers up its own resolutions to the above shortcomings by tracing how diverse peoples and places can be connected by a single, often mundane thing. Two excellent examples of this, Gregory Cushman’s Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World and David Igler’s The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush,  create webs between the people and places that fall within their purviews (both engage with the Pacific) through things that might appear to have only local significance, and yet have global reverberations. In Cushman’s monograph, guano serves as a driver of global agricultural revolution, geopolitical contest over the guano fields, and dwindling avian populations. Igler, on the other hand, positions whaling, scientific expeditions, and the circulation of deadly pathogens as the product of the Pacific being integrated into the Euro-American world order of the nineteenth century. Each of the individual connections pointed to by the authors is far from a global totality, and often links no more than two or three locales. However, the sum total of these connections are viewed through the lens of the Pacific Ocean, and the ways in which the Pacific became a “world” more intimately connected with the globe than ever before through these overlapping connections, bringing Europe into the Pacific as much as it took guano and the Ocean’s fauna out.  Connected histories such as these present us with spaces of historical experience whose contours can be traced by mapping out these connections.

In sum, these three approaches to global history, while not without their own limitations, provide us with means of pushing back against historical narratives that fail to dislodge themselves from the nation-state.  As I will demonstrate in the final section of this essay, they can also be a means of achieving precisely the reverse effect, instead allowing us to interrogate what aspects as nominally national histories serve as intersections of global historical trajectories.  I argue that this is best achieved by conceiving of these histories in spatial terms, and it is to the spatial theory that informs this approach that we now turn.

Thinking through Space: An Approach to Global History

In the midst of the global tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre famously argued that space is a social product—not the grounds for human action, but produced through human struggle. For Lefebvre, who was a key figure in the May 1968 uprisings, the production of space is always a political project. His work has inspired a renaissance of critical spatial theory in geography and beyond that analyzes the social processes through which spaces are imagined and produced. In this section, I will draw from two scholars working within this broad tradition, the geographer Doreen Massey and the anthropologist James Ferguson, both of whom, I argue, offer analytical insights helpful for historians interested in thinking globally.

In her 2005 For Space, Massey argues that space is a temporal experience, and that space and time (or space-time) are two sides of the same coin. Using the example of someone traveling on a train, Masseys shows that time continues to move forward in both the place said person left and the place to where they are going; their train route represents a third time continuum of its own, independent of the places through which the train travels. Space is therefore experienced differently based on what Massey terms “intersections,” the varying trajectories that coalesce in a given (temporal) space.  Rather than thinking of temporality (and, by extension, history) as connected at all points, Massey proposes instead that we look at those points as defined less by their origin or destination, and more by what other points intersect with one another.  The result is a historical “continuum” (to borrow Massey’s term) rather than a nominally coherent, linear historical path, a welcome change that better equips us to deal with convergent historical parts that ill fit a neat, overarching pattern.    

Ferguson is an anthropologist of Africa whose work interrogates the nature and limits of capitalism, modernity, and the spatial construction of the African continent. Ferguson has demonstrated that nominally “coherent” spaces (such as the continent of Africa) reveal the extent to which purportedly universal dimensions of the modern experience pass over certain parts of the same space entirely. In his 2003 Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, he demonstrates that supposedly global forces, such as capitalism, are not experienced uniformly across the globe. Rather, they hop from point to point, accumulating or coalescing unevenly from one locale to another and leapfrogging much of the globe all the while. Ferguson demonstrates this by pointing to the accumulation of capital in select resource-rich parts of Africa despite claims that it is a coherent, “underdeveloped” region, problematizing how “givens” such as a “continent” impose a uniformity on the area so terminologically-bounded that is add odds with the heterogeneous reality of the region in question.  As a compliment to Massey’s take on space, Ferguson’s work helps to contemplate not just where things intersect, but also where they do not intersect (i.e. why “development” does not intersect with X place in Africa), and why, and thereby trace the trajectories that coalesce in certain parts of Africa (or elsewhere) that do not fall into the teleological trap of development versus underdevelopment.

Taken together, these theorists offer us a valuable toolkit for working through the problems of thinking and teaching “globally,” providing both a means of interrogating what the global is and how we can use it effectively as a theoretical and pedagogical concept. Massey’s and Ferguson’s propositions leave us with a global space that is a social construct, a series of parallel times that do not always meet, and an incomplete thing from the standpoint of subsumption under a single, unifying system such as capitalism. Massey’s argument, that space is a multiplicity of space-times, and of intersections and interactions between these space-times, allows us to think of this heterogeneity of experience to be the hallmark of the global, rather than its undoing. As Eric Wolf has argued, the world was connected well before the “globalization” wrought by Europe, even though experience in these connected locales differed widely. Africa, as Ferguson has argued, is within the capitalist world order, and yet not every nook and cranny is touched directly by outside investors and international corporations. Difference is what makes the global, as is the interaction between those differences.

Case Study: Japanese History as Global History

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Figure 3 “A Map of the World.” Author Unknown. Late 13th century. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum.

To illustrate a global perspective, I will draw on my own work on modern Japanese history. I argue that histories of empire and international commerce central to the modern Japanese state need to be understood as operating at global scales, rather than “stopping” at the borders of the Japanese archipelago. This dual pursuit of localized, Japanese histories and ones that span the globe does not come at the expense of my primary temporal and geographic focus. On the contrary: the two reinforce one another, and are in many ways mutually inextricable. They are not, however, synonymous. Take, for example, the Japanese empire. In the sense that the imperial system dominated the globe from the late eighteenth century onward, Japan’s emergence as a world power in the late nineteenth century makes the Japanese empire part of larger, global phenomena underway at the time. And yet, the Japanese empire was never “global” in the sense that the British empire was, and the American empire is (if only for the moment). Japan’s empire was fairly proximate to the Japanese archipelago even at its zenith, when the early gains of the Pacific War saw Japan’s dominion pressing toward the northern coast of Australia and occupying almost every major island in between. However, it was in an age and environment of global empire-building that Japan’s wartime empire of 1937-1945 was constructed and demolished. If the arrival of British, French, Dutch, and other imperial powers in the Pacific heralded the “globalization” of the Pacific, so too does the expansion of Japan’s empire into the South Pacific place its history well within a global historical frame. The stakes then become very different, and the history of Japanese empire goes from being part of “East Asian history” to being part of global history.

An instructive example of the need to understand Japanese history in terms of its web of global connections, rather than in terms of bilateral ties (like U.S.-Japan relations) can be found through viewing Japan’s relations with resource-rich developing states during the Cold War in tandem with its policies towards the superpowers of the day, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. In terms of geopolitics, Japan (or, at least, the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party) was firmly in the camp of the United States, the post-World War II empire par excellence, whose influence stretched across the globe to fill much of power vacuum that followed the end of the most destructive war yet waged. While not denying the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to the dynamics of post-1945 Japanese history, I would argue that Japan’s connections with other parts of the globe cannot be reduced to the U.S.-Japan alliance. For example: a large community of Brazilian-Japanese sustained economic and cultural conduits between the archipelago and South America, making the Japanese diaspora an important player in forging ties between Japan and Brazil. As Anna Tsing noted in her path-breaking ethnography Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, the hunger for timber made Indonesia an object of Japanese investment and resource extraction, tying Japan into the global process of deforestation that accelerated in the decades after 1945. Some of these histories overlapped; some of them intersected; some of them never met in the middle, but operated within larger frameworks that we might consider “global.”

Although each of the above themes can be subsumed under what we might call global history, they vary in the extent to which we can consider Japanese history “global” in terms of its geography, temporality, and other dimensions. One could argue that each and every one of the above themes is global, because of the larger processes to which they are connected, and that Japanese history is thus “global” by virtue of being part of those phenomena. This assumption would, I presume, stem from perceiving the global as a singular thing, a coherent whole rather than an intersection of various time-spaces à la Massey.  Alternatively, from the 1850s to the early 1890s we see in Japan, as Stefan Tanaka has demonstrated, the intersection of multiple temporalities based on neuzeit (modern time) and older ways of reckoning time based on the lunar calendar, cyclical views of history, etc. This Masseyan intersection of multiple temporalities, both local contingent and global/modern time, is necessary to understanding modern Japanese history as part of a global historical space, a context without which we cannot fully understand Japan’s historical development over the past century and a half.

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Figure 4 “Thunderstorms on the Brazilian Horizon.” Source: NASA Johnson Space Center.

Conclusion

In closing, I consider what sorts of questions thinking through the “global” allows us to ask, as well as how to go about answering those questions. First, what are the limitations of engaging with our own objects of research without an eye to their connections to themes and processes that exceed the bounds of our chosen subjects? An example of this would be David Igler’s positioning of the Pacific Northwest as the eastern extremity of Pacific Ocean, rather than as part of “American,” “Canadian,” or other national histories. By looking beyond the terrestrial concerns with which historians of the Pacific Northwest have often treated the region, Igler reveals the larger, global histories of which the region is part, even if only as a part, of a larger whole. Second, how can we think of temporally non-synchronous processes as nevertheless occupying the same sort of historical space? Massey’s example of the train ride (see above) offers a means of thinking through this seeming disjuncture: someone en route to somewhere else is temporally out of sync with both destination and point of departure, each of which occupies their own temporal “spaces”. However, each of these “spaces” (destination, point of departure, and current location) are all parts of the same spatio-temporal continuum, a continuum whose whole can only be deduced by examining the various temporalities that stitch it together. Third, how do we contend with gaps in purportedly global phenomena? Ferguson’s formulation is instructive in this regard: while the capital he describes accumulates unevenly in Africa and “leapfrogs” much of the continent from one point of accumulation to another, those accumulations are nevertheless part of a larger system that reaches around the world, even if that reach is incomplete. The ways in which capital “leapfrogs” over certain regions and not others is as instructive of its nature as are the places where it touches down.

To invoke Massey a final time, “space,” as she defines it, is the intersection of myriad trajectories. If we consider the “global” to be a kind of space in Massey’s sense, then we see that it need only be the intersection of multiple trajectories rather than the totality of all trajectories (i.e. all historical phenomena, personages, goods, etc.). In other words, thinking through the “global” is a means of looking at where things come together, and a point of departure for finding further connections, further intersections, down the road.   

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