The Theoretical Foundations of Transnationalism: A Primer

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Though certainly not a recent invention, the proliferation of transnational histories over the past two decades successfully shifted scholars’ historical gaze to new concepts of membership, the impact of quickly disseminated technologies, the transformation of local, national, and international economics, and melting of traditional nation-state centered frames. Like other moments in historiography, the “transnational turn” as Micol Siegel labels it, illustrates the influences of the period. Increased flows of labor and goods ignorant of national borders, images shot across continents and oceans tying diasporas more closely to their place of origin despite distances of thousands of miles separating the two, or the undeniable influence of, not necessarily new but more powerful, multinationals. All these factors and more serve to alter not only historians’ view of history, but suggest several points of inquiry. Of these numerous questions, four serve as this paper’s central focus. How have historians accounted for the nation-state and its interplay with the mass migrations and technological innovations of the 20th and 21st century? What are the new economic structures and flows that underwrite the transnational approach and what are their attendant meanings for historical actors and scholars alike? How has transnationalism affected perceptions of space, time and movement? What has this all meant for historians sense of self and their work?

I. The Nation-State, Borders, and Race

In his article, “But a Local Phase of a World Problem: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950”, Robin D.G. Kelley explored the various ways African, Caribbean/West Indian, and African American scholars long embraced the transnational approach to history. Longstanding diasporas of black communities created through forced labor, slavery, migration and imperialism served to create a world in which black writers sought to circumvent national borders. How much of this is due to past discrimination and second class citizenship serves as a point of debate within Kelley’s piece, however it reveals an important point: American historians attentions to transnationalism have arrived rather late in the day.

Several years before Kelley’s article, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbaum explored the meaning of nationalism and the nation-state in Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, and Reality. Relying heavily on Bendict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Hobsbaum argues that the standard solidarities based on language, ethnicity, and religion developed only recently as constructs accelerated by post 1880s processes such as Wilson’s declaration of self determination, the decline of imperial empires, and the harsh formation of nation-states out of colonialism’s decline. The “new nationalism” which surfaced illustrated marked differences from earlier variants. First, it abandoned the threshold principle, meaning smaller nation-states proved viable politically. Second, ethnicity/language became central, whereas previously each might account for some stratification internally, both failed to mobilize large numbers of peoples. Third, a political shift rightwards emphasized nation and flag, punishing internal minorities whom might not fit constructed national ideals. As nations grew and economies expanded numerous ethnic groups made choices about which language they chose to identify with for several reasons but significant among them economic and social benefits (i.e. Poles that chose to speak German etc.) National consciousness did develop, however it grew as did numerous other forms of consciousness.

Hobsbawm and Anderson’s questioning of the nation-states “inherent presence” serves as two of the earlier academic salvos aimed at deconstructing national oriented research. The rise of electronic media, global migrations of peoples, diverse financial systems and tools, along with other developing factors have led numerous others to openly question the efficacy of the nation state. Multivalent consciousness, the kind Hobsbawm hints at, emerges as a key pivot for anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in his work Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. For Appadurai, globalization fundamentally changed the flow of capital, peoples, and images. Technology allows for new diasporic connections, ones that allow peoples to remain more closely connected than ever to their origins. This new spatialization or what the author categorizes as deterritorialization combined with the rise of electronic media contributes to the unmooring of the nation-state from traditionally defined nation based identities. Moreover, the process of globalization fetishizes localities as “the globally dispersed forces that actually drive the production process.” Appadurai cautions anthropologists, sociologists and historians to avoid imposing western historical models of capital development or democracy, noting that these new developments requires more flexible and insightful analysis, since the growth of such concepts need not occur identically to European or American examples

George Lipsitz agrees with Appadurai’s “deterritorialization” arguing that connections between cultures and places once intertwined with industrial area political and cultural practices lack the pervasiveness of past iterations. Regarding culture, Lipsitz advises a new and different imagination. In Modernity at Large, Appadurai constructs a theoretical apparatus made up of five distinctive “cultural flows” consisting of of ethnoscapes, mediascapes, financescapes, ideoscapes, and technoscapes. Appadurai suggests that though at times in agreement, these “scapes” frequently relate to one another disjunctively. People’s, nation-states, and others marshall public spheres and counterpublics to reimagine their own organizational or ethnic identities or as the author notes, they create “scripts” that allow for “imagined worlds” which may apply to their own existence or “those of others living in other places”. Lipsitz concurs even quoting Appadurai but taking issue with his underestimation of the continuing power of “local spaces memories and practices, [moreover] his framework does not adequately account for the degree of oppressive centralized power basic to the creation of these new spaces” . Still, Lipsitz certainly agrees with the need for the field of American Studies to engage with “global popular culture”, “We are witnessing an inversion of prestige, a moment when diasporic, nomadic, and fugitive slave cultures from the margins seem to speak more powerfully to present conditions than do metropolitan cultures committed to the congruence of culture culture and place.” Again like Appadurai, Lispitz calls for imagination in realizing the new identities, memberships, and perspectives emerging from the vast migrations of capital, peoples, and technologies.

The expectation of new economic, social, or political developments unfolding in European or Western traditions disrupted the production of credible history. The imposition of one region’s history of development on another resulted in ethnocentric, racially infected, muddled historical understandings. Critically, the construction of discourse plays a role in spreading these flawed understandings. In relation, Stuart Hall traces the creation of a Western European discourse toward the “other”. Borrowing from Edward Said and Michele Foucault, Hall illustrates how Foucault’s ideas regarding discourse and “truth regimes” which Said rightly pointed out constructed an “Orientalism” that fetishized non-western peoples (inscribing on them the difference of inferiority). As Hall notes, the differences Europeans utilized to separate themselves from non-white peoples, often grossly misinterpreted native civilizations as simple or backwards, ignoring the complex social, political and economic structures which served as the foundations of indigenous civilizations. The failure of Europeans to consider an alternate way of producing markets, civil society and government led them to consider such differences as signs of primitiveness. The pervasiveness of such discourse infected the work of even the most visionary theorists, most notably Marx and Weber, who embraced many of the linear progressive assumptions of “The West and the Rest” trope. If Hobsbawm suggests religion as a national organizing principle in the late and early twentieth century remains problematic, Hall argues that in earlier eras the unifying force of Christiandom provided a “co-identity” in which “Europe’s Christian identity – what made its civilization distinct and unique – was in its first instance, essentially religious and Christian.” Only later did Europe develop its geographical, political, and economic identity. Moreover, Hall agrees with Said that the West’s construction of “the Rest” reveals as much about itself as its discourse of the other. Without “the Rest”, the West loses its meaning, a relational identity obscured by its emphasis on perceived difference.

Michele Foucault traces this use of difference from the Classical Age of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to its transformation due to Enlightenment influences in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to Foucault, the “Classical Age” created a table or picture based on the representations of three fields: natural history, language, and biology. Between them they establish a sort of matrix upon which knowledge of the age rested, “The nature of things, their coexistence, the way in which they are linked together and communicate is nothing other than their resemblance. And that resemblance is visible only in the network of signs that crossed the world from one end to the other.” With the closing decades of the eighteenth century came change. Discontinuities arose. The table no longer sufficed as “the general area of knowledge is no longer that of identities and differences, that of non-quantitative orders, that of a universal characterization, of a general taxinomnia, of a non-measurable mathesis, but an area made up of organic structures, that is, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function… these organic structures are discontinuous … they do not form a table of unbroken simultaneities, but that certain of them are on the same level whereas others form series or linear sequences.” In this way, analogy and succession become the hallmarks of ordering various “empiricities”. From the 1800s on, history “deployed … the analogies that connect distinct organic structures to one another. “ Of course, Foucault’s history places laws on the “analysis of production, the analysis of organically structured beings, and lastly, on the analysis of linguistic groups. History gives place to analogical organic structures, just as Order opened the way to successive identities and differences.”

As Hall works illustrates not only Foucault’s thoughts have impacted transnational orientations. Edward Said’s Orientalism greatly influenced a generation of academics. In Orientalism, Said took Western historians and academics to task for constructing an essentialized view of the Asian and the Middle East which revealed as much about Western culture than those outside of Europe and the Americas. Traversing similar terrain, Said’s Culture and Imperialism explores the role of “culture” in the imperial project and culture’s connections globally, illustrating a clear influence on the thought of Stuart Hall and several other writers of transnational histories. Focusing on the Western Empires of the nineteenth and twentieth century and their cultural productions , Said notes that too few scholars have paid close attention to “the privileged role of culture in the modern imperial experience” noting that its “global reach” continues to “cast a shadow over our own times.”

Much like Arjun Appadurai , Said attempts to illuminate obscured relationships between imperialism and its colonies taking note of imperialism’s obscured presence in the domestic culture of imperializing nations. Said’s literary examples include Thomas Hardy, Albert Camus, and Chalers Dickens among others. Utilizing examples such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Said illustrates the implicit connections between European protagonists and Europe itself to Asia , Middle East, and the Caribbean. For example, Jane Austen’s protagonists depends on Antigua for their economic livelihood, a dependency often presented by the text as peripheral. As evidence of Hall’s “noble savage” argument, Said notes that Heart of Darkness' Marlowe simultaneously reinforces ideas about non whites and Africa while also expressing a deep skepticism about the project of imperialism itself. Said suggests that the “great texts” of European and American culture must be reexamined such that scholars “give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally represented.” In addition, Accordingly, the metropole/periphery formation cast subjectivities on the Middle East and Asia as well as other realms of empire, as places younger Europeans went to “sow their oats”, a wild adventure among irrational non-western peoples. Again, one finds the root of similar observations which Hall puts forth.

If Culture and Imperialism’s first half resonates with critiques by Stuart Hall, its latter portion clearly influenced Micol Siegel’s “Beyond Comparison: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn.” Siegel explores the flaws in the comparative method from its tendency to juxtapose non-equivalents, reinforcing the tropes of difference Europeans used to cast themselves as superior to its utilization by American historians to justify exceptionalist ideas of the United States. In addition, Siegel accuses the comparative approach of imposing binaries upon its subjects such that nuanced issues of race become affairs of “whiteness” or “blackness”. Moreover, Siegel credits anti-colonial fervor and its global “webs of resistance movements” with laying bare the “metropole’s” dependence on its colonies, a relationship believed to uni-directional was challenged by an interdependent reality. The work of anti and post colonial intellectuals crystallized around such issues, as many enacted a daily existence on the transnational level, often living, writing, and learning in first world cities. This creation of identities and knowledge served to displace the centrality of the nation-state in historical inquiry, “it posits social definition as a boundary setting process that ties identity categories together in the specular play of subject-formation familiar to scholars in many fields.”

Siegel’s attentions to anti and post colonial intellectuals finds companion arguments in Culture and Imperialism. Paying close attention to “cultural resistance” as another way of viewing history, Said explores the works of CLR James, George Antonius, Salmon Rushdie, and Franz Fanon among others. As Said acknowledges, “the post imperial writers of the Third World … bear their past within them”, meaning their works continue to exhibit a connection to imperialism well after its “official” political collapse. However, Said carefully distinguishes earlier writers such as CLR James whose work explore imperialism and its connections more broadly from more recent authors such as Ranajit Guha who focuses more exclusively on cultural productions emanating from imperialism or post-colonial networks of authority.

Relationality undergirds much of Thomas Bender’s arguments and those of his like minded colleagues in Rethinking American History in a Global Age. For too long historians focus on American exceptionalism presented the nation’s history in false terms, apart, unique from all others. Much like Stuart Hall’s Europe, American historical tropes failed to account for the influence of international evens on American domestic life. In its introductory chapter Bender identifies a key aspect informing past scholarly writing, “The near assimilation of history to national history over the course of two centuries following the creation of the nation-state …” Bender and his fellow contributors want the history of nation-states to be “contextualized on an international, even globalized scale.” American histories are “entangled” in those of other nations and peoples. The aforementioned Robin Kelley article (one of the contributions to Rethinking) illustrates this reconceptualization, framing African American history and its writing within an Atlantic World that incorporated Asia, Africa, the West Indies and Caribbean and Europe. Additionally, Bender’s own work A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History resituates the United States internationally, not as a dominant player but as one of many competing states. International affairs influenced American domestic policies and discourse, notably Abraham’s Lincoln’s appropriation of nineteenth century liberal ideas to his own conceptions of American freedom and citizenship. A Nation among Nation’s examines numerous other domestic episodes such as placing the American Revolution in the context of the European wars of the time to an international perspective on progressive reform following the 1890s. Bender carefully notes that the destruction of the nation state is not the point, but rather a more nuanced and accurate understanding of America’s own history and that of its place in the world.

II. Culture, Space, and Economics

The threads of modernism and postmodernism in Western historical thought remain. If Modernism struggles with concepts of time, then Postmodernism’s great dilemma involves space. As noted above, several cultural theorists, anthropologists, historians, and others continue to carry forth similar temporal and spatial struggles. Abstract ideas such as time and space serve as crucial characters in Stephen Kern’s intellectual history The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918. The collapse of space, the imposition of time, the destruction of form, and the rapidly increasing importance of the present due to technological advance drove intellectual thought, art, literature and even war in the first decades of the long twentieth century. Kern’s work argues that essential human understandings regarding time, space, direction, and form were radically transformed by technological innovations such as the telegraph, telephone, railroad, automobile and cinema which undermined traditional hierarchies throughout society. Beginning with time, Kern outlines how the implementation of Standard Time set off a countercurrent that rejected a single monolithic time for the idea of “private time” which was fluid, multiple, and constantly in flux. The concept of ‘simultaneity” emerged among artists and others suggesting that the present was not “a sequence of single local events … [but] a simultaneity of multiple distant events.” Simultaneity depended on “private time” which emphasized the present, reorienting humanity’s relation to the past and future. Ideas of the past and future remained similar to those of earlier eras but the past took on increased importance regarding the present and what came after. Stream of consciousness writing represented the importance of the present such that a single moment in thought, as evidenced by Joyce’s work, might traverse numerous periods and spaces, making individual’s private time transhistorical and potentially transnational.

Though new constructions of time suggesting pluralities and the importance of reference reverberated, the alteration of humanity’s spatiality mattered equally if not more. In terms of transportation, railroads, airplanes, cars and bicycles collapsed physical space, reorienting nations’ ideas of themselves and others. Simultaneously, the telephone, telegraph, and cinema made information nearly instantaneous, surprising, and broad. Additionally, these innovations collapsed spaces more abstractly such as with the cinematic technique of the close up which engaged the audience more directly creating shared intimacy between actor and audience and between audience members. In the world of art, the “affirmation of positive negative space” struck down artistic traditions and hierarchies just as the cinema brought numerous classes in public space together. As with time, concepts such as the plurality of space, “affirmation of negative space”, perspectivism, and the restructuring of forms undermined traditional hierarchies paralleling the collapse of aristocracies and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Kerns’ observations support those of many of the aforementioned writers. The mulitiplicity of spaces, their collapse, and the proliferation of numerous times, parallel similar arguments brought forth by Lipsitz and Appadurai. Had Kern tackled his subject differently from a wider temporal perspective, one might also add Hobsbawm since the work of many modernist writers, poets, and painters reinforced the narrow identities of nation states through their own works (such as the emphasis on ‘folk’) most notably Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. Of course, Kern’s emphasis on technology suggests a techonological determinism driving The Culture of Time and Space that might obscure other forces at work. Moreover, Kern’s work focuses exclusively on Western Europe and to a lesser extent the United States ignoring the work of intellectuals in the world’s colonial states. Ironically, at the time, many European artists looked to Africa and Asia for inspiration.

Modernism’s struggles to account for space and time reshaped ideas about each. The adoption of modernism by Western governments and societies along with the canonization of its various cultural products (paintings, literature, architecture) created dominant discourse which others pushed back against. Though not as monolithic as perceived , new writers, artists, and theorists resisted Modernism’s pervasive influence through a new aesthetic referred to as Postmodernism. However, as anthropologist David Harvey argues, though meant to create new oppositions and spaces for marginalized peoples, a project not unlike that of current transnationalists, post-modernity reveals a problematic construct that though gives voice to otherness, that simultaneously ghettoizes them in an “opaque otherness”. Written in 1989, Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity maps the cultural changes that have unfolded from Modernism to Postmodernism. Along the way numerous shifts within modernism itself helped to construct the Postmodern turn in society and academia that so dominated the 1970s and 80s. Postmodernists debated how to regard space while modernists continued to apply to it a larger social purpose. For Postmodernity, space remained independent, autonomous, and shaped by aesthetics. Postmodernism refused to strike “authoritative” or “immutable standards of aesthetic judgment” rather judgments now hinged on how “spectactular” the aesthetics proved to be.

The debate over Postmodernism does not rise and fall with David Harvey. Rather his work followed the publication of Frederick Jameson’s Postmodernity or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism five years earlier. The dialogue between the two illustrates many of the tensions within Postmodernism along with its apparent failures. Both writers viewed postmodernism as aesthetically obsessed but devoid of content. Additionally, both point to modernism’s dilemma with time arguing that Postmodernism’s fetish dealt with space. One of Postmodernism’s great weaknesses, most visible in its architecture, is its historicism or the random cannibalizing of all past styles. Postmodernisms evoke a past simulacra (his and Harvey’s word not mine) which provide a duplicate of the past or a duplicate interpretation of the past which is then reproduced ad nasuem until it becomes our idea of the past and can be mistaken for the very past it represents. Even worse as Harvey argues, the use of simulacra works to erase any trace of labor or social relations from its production but post modernists fail to acknowledge this since many “disengage” urban spaces from their dependence on function. Unlike Modernism, the use of simulacra and Postmodernism’s focus on alienations leads to “feelings” or “intensities” within its works but they remain impersonal. Some of this relates to commodities and cultural production. The machinery of capitalism for Jameson has on some level infected Postmodernism which displays an affinity for schlock or kitsch; this fetish for the mass produced, turns away from the cultural pretensions of high modernism. Harvey’s criticisms of the Postmodernism attempt to find spaces for the marginalized, bear some relation to Jameson’s who notes similar processes. According to Jameson, Postmodernism’s spatialization textualizes all in its path from bodies to the state to consumption itself. While Postmodernism creates space for marginalized groups it remains “’merely’ a cultural dominant as it coexists with other resistant and heterogenous forces which it has a vocation to subdue and incorporate.”

Both Jameson and Harvey’s critiques of Postmodernism emanate from its relation to capitalism. The commodification of cultural products, their fragmentation, and the shift from place to space, holds dire consequences for working class communities. Regarding the Postmodern crisis over space, Jameson has much to say. Place has been lost. According to Jameson, the average person can no longer map their own place in the multinational, decentralized, urban metropolis. Postmodernism locates humanity in a sort of hyperspace where “place in the U.S. no longer exists or it exists at much feebler levels.” Space itself is not the culprit but capitalism and other global systems, “The problem is still one of representation, and also of representability: we know that we are caught within these more complex global networks, because we palpably suffer the prolongations of corporate space everywhere in our daily lives. Yet we have no way of thinking about them, of modeling them, however abstractly, in our mind.” Similarly, Harvey views the same developments warily. For Harvey the reorganization of global economics privileged “powers of greater coordination”, leading to greater use of finance capital which resulted in a devaluation of commodities and a fall in standard of living. Ironically, the decline in the importance of borders has increased the value of space, “shifts in tempo or in spatial ordering redistribute social power by changing the conditions of monetary gains”. This shift from place to space, undermines working class attempts to accumulate social and political power. Jameson’s work supports this argument suggesting that Postmodernity contributed to the rise of political groups rather than a class politics. Such memberships prove smaller, easier to organize, more homogenous, and are imbued with a psychic connection lacking in class which acts as a sprawling heterogenous category that Jameson astutely notes must be convinced first that it even exists. This also reflects late capitalism in its dispersement and atomization which then requires the local concerns of groups need to be expanded and broadcast such that they may incorporate other groups

Jameson and Harvey serve as seminal texts on Postmodernity. However, though each provides sophisticated economic observations, their analysis rests on a Marxist cultural approach. Immanuel Wallerstein’s 2003 work, The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World builds on several points proposed by both Jameson and Harvey but also provides points of divergence. Wallerstein views the current global economic system as in flux. If Harvey and Jameson point to 1973 as the pivotal year for American Capitalism , Wallerstein locates this critical juncture in 1968. In this moment collapsed a popular faith in centrist liberalism as many 1968 protesters rejected U.S. hegemony, the U.S.S.R’s complicity in this dominance, and the failure of previous radicals or old left to consolidate their acquisition of state power into the expected or promised reforms. Additionally Wallerstein notes, repeatedly, “The collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of liberalism by removing the only ideological justification behind U.S. hegemony.”

At times, The Decline of American Power treads into debates about simultaneity, spatial orderings, and the fluid nature of time. In these examples, Wallerstein echoes Modernist concerns about time that other writers such as David Harvey and Frederick Jameson discuss in their respective scholarship though his dips into more existential terrority reminiscent of Arjun Appardurai minus the emphasis on technology . For example, when Wallerstein notes that “we live in many of these social temporalities, simultaneously,” then follows that no unique universalisms exist but “also that science is the search for multiples universalisms can be navigated in a universe that is intrinsically uncertain and therefore hopefully creative,” he seems to point to the fractured overlapping nature of existence that Modernity at Large, Postmodernity, and The Condition of Postmodernity address. Moreover, Wallerstein’s work echoes the efforts of postmodernists to ascribe marginalized groups a seat at the cultural table when universalisms impose themselves broadly, “people take refuge in particularisms,” but that minorities only follow such routes when attempts at citizenship (meaning equal citizenship) have been denied or held back by illegitimate force. Certainly, Wallerstein agrees with Harvey and Jamison in their assertions that the Postmodern order remains linked to capitalism such that the tensions between temporalities, particularisms and universalisms, create a “central locus of political struggle” in which the culture of protest has been commodified. Yet, unlike, Jameson and Harvey however, Wallerstein sees hope in these new political memberships, “In the drama and struggle of recent decades new social movements based on new memberships have emerged such as the Greens, environmentalists, feminists, ethnic/racial minorities, human rights groups and anti-globalization protesters. They must debate their goals and the current transition while not neglecting short term gains as well including electoral politics.” Clearly, Wallerstein views the current condition of humanity with greater optimism taking solace in what he believes is an economic system in transition, one where new solidarities, politics, and opportunities may emerge.

Wallerstein’s optimistic proclamations found both support and criticism from numerous corners but especially from Richard Kilminster. According to Kliminster, the political influence of the nation state and the position that many social scientists take in relation to its dominance have distorted their arguments. Wallerstein serves as Kilminister primary contemporary foil. While accusing Wallerstien of ignoring cultural influences and resorting to a teleological viewpoint (which to be fair he also ascribes to Marx), he also credits Wallerstein with suggesting that scholars consider the creation of “social reciprocities and interdependencies integrated at a level above that of the nation state.” For Kilminster, the political trap that many social scientists fall into lay in their no doubt principled opposition to the dominance of Western nation states. However, he cautions that such polemical tropes lead to the establishment of arguments that can be neither proven nor disproven. Moreover, Kilminister acknowledges that peoples have traditions that predate Marxism and the like that are not simply constructed social manifestations. Still, like Wallerstein, Kilminster adopts a more positive perspective. For example, though he agrees nations remain unequal economically, rich nations are less likely to resort to violent coercion at least in comparison to colonialism. However, this viewpoint carries with it the caveat that nations remain more willing to resort to violence then most citizens. The power of poorer nations can only be grasped when one “considers the relations between interdependent peoples in the round, and not only economically.” Here once again, the influence of Said emerges as Kilminster carries forth Said’s argument to the contemporary era that western power depends heavily on parts of the world once considered peripheral.

III. Conclusion

The question remains, if the naturalization of both the nation-state and free markets prove illusionary, how should historians and other scholars imagine new memberships and solidarities. Perhaps a brief exploration of Jacqure Derrida may prove useful. Several authors from Bender to Kilminster suggest that academics need to embrace a sort of “cosmopolitanism”. How should one interpret this? Kilminster argues that “Globlization fosters forms of cosmopolitan consciousness and stimulates feelings and expressions of ethnicity.” Thus, it seems to both encourage inclusiveness while simultaneously building ethnic/racial solidarities. In his 2001 On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Derrida retreats from the nation state emphasizing the locality that other writers such as Appadurai, Wallerstein, and Lipsitz emphasize as increasingly important. The city becomes the locus of salvation. Basing his argument on Europe’s “history of hospitality” , Derrida suggests that cities must embrace this moment, balancing the needs of law, traditions of hospitality, and cosmopolitanism, “how to transform and improve the law, and of knowing if this improvement is possible within an historical space which takes place between the Law of an unconditional hospitality, offered a priori to every other, to all newcomers, whoever they may be, and the conditional laws of a right to hospitality, without which The unconditional Law of hospitality would be in danger of remaining a pious and irresponsible desire, without form and without potency, and of even being perverted at any moment.” Thus, Derrida seems to be acknowledging the importance of the very localities that Appadurai argues have grown in importance while maneuvering these localities away from nation-state conceptions. Simultaneously, Derrida encourages transnationalists like Siegel to push away borders into equating this new “cosmopolitanism” with a transnational or translocal existence.

Historians must both theorize for the future while reflecting on the past. The changes of modernity impact the view of what’s come before as the historical profession utilizes new sensibilities to locate formulations and alliances that had always been present but not always visibly. The collapse of borders, the increasing importance of space over place, the reinforcement of new solidarities apart from the nation-state and dissemination of simultaneously unifying and fracturing technologies cast light onto past historical conditions and actors that provide both continuity and discontinuity to our modern grasp of society. It remains incumbent upon historians to highlight these developments in the past, present, and future.

Ryan Reft