Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Glorious Promise of Transnational History

Who would want to be a Canadian historian these days? It's a question that comes to mind in looking at recent trends in academia today. It's not enough anymore to want to study the nation's past. Job ads for university professors frequently now call for someone who teaches Canadian history from a 'global perspective' or someone how is a 'transnational' Canadian historian. That is if universities will hire any Canadian historian, even of this modified form.

This only follows up on intellectual trends (with the emphasis here on trends) about the glories of studying  anywhere (but especially little Canada) from a transnational perspective. The nation is so very 20th century. I have even been blamed for jumping aboard this bandwagon because a book that I co-edited contained a number of essays celebrating just this thing - the glorious de-parochialization of Canadian history. That an editor could disagree with the some of the essays in the collection (and could still consent to publishing them) doesn't seem to have occurred to a few reviewers.

But where will this all lead?

One example is in the June issue of the Canadian Historical Review where we find an article by Geoff Read and Todd Webb titled ' "The Catholic Mahdi of the North West": Louis Riel and the Metis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context.'

Read and Webb take that very familiar figure of Canadian history, Louis Riel, and give him an up-to-date transnational spin. (for background see the DCB entry here) The article essentially looks at Riel's second uprising in 1885 and asks what international newspapers had to say about it. It's a potentially interesting question, and might provide a new angle. But, of course, in typical academic fashion, that's not how it's sold. Instead we're told from the outset that previous scholars have 'neglected' this international aspect, that it has 'passed largely unnoticed'. It's always polite in academic articles to set yourself up this way - set out the sins of the past that you will now correct.

But what does this internationalizing of Riel tell us? Does it give us some dramatic new telling of Riel and the Metis? After all, if previous historians have neglected the international Riel, they must have missed something significant. Does this article force us to rethink what we thought we already knew? Well, no.

We are told that 'For Canadians, and especially Metis Canadians, it is surely of interest that Louis Riel was a media sensation in the the transatlantic world.' This reminds me of the time when a prime time US television show made a Newfie joke on air. Upright politicians righteously demanded how on earth this could ever have happened. But then This Hour Has 22 Minutes did a skit which showed several Newfoundlanders sitting around watching TV. When they heard the joke, far from being offended, they leapt up into the air, celebrating the fact that someone had just mentioned Newfoundland on American TV. It seems that when we internationalize Canadian history, parochialism can't be entirely done away with...

We're also told that because Riel was discussed in international papers or, as the authors have it, 'That he operated within North Atlantic and imperial contexts' means that historians should 'if not necessarily rethink their interpretation of Riel the man, revise their view of his significance.' Ok, then, more of what was already stated above. 'Hey, they mentioned our guy in London, and in Paris! Now, I really know Riel is important!'

Then we're told that other countries made what they wanted with him, that they interpreted Riel and the uprising along the lines of political conflict in their own countries. This can perhaps be shelved under the heading 'No need for research to discover this.'

And then, finally, we learn that neither the Metis or Riel ever really got to speak for themselves in the international press. This is certainly notable, but hardly surprising.

Why should I pick on these two historians? They are probably decent blokes who have done and could still do great work.

But the wider implications are disturbing. We are told again and again that we need to reimagine Canada in an international context (as if no one did this before). This, it would seem, is theoretical sophistication. This is the kind of thing that SSHRC evaulators are looking for. And yet, here is one of the places it leads - to an article that crosses all the trendy "t's" and dots the transnational "i's" and yet, even by its own authors' admission, tells us essentially nothing that should make us change our interpretation of the main events in our nation's past.


  1. The problem with transnational history is that it often ends up stating the blindingly obvious: the reaction to X in country Y was different from country Z. The crucial issue is what the connections were and why there were different reactions. There's nothing wrong with considering a country or an issue in a global context per se, I have done so myself in my Rebellion Trilogy, but its effect can be to reinforce the particularities of countries and far from 'de-parochialising history' reinforce its national basis.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Richard. I agree: there really is nothing wrong with studying something in a transnational perspective. For me, as I think for most historians (at least in theory)the point is to try to understand how and why things happened as they did. What worries me about the trendyness of the current transnational fad is that this gets put by the wayside. As long as one is looking at something in transnational perspective, then that becomes good enough. Or, perhaps more accurately, that's good enough at a certain stage - in getting articles accepted for publication, in getting used in the classroom, in getting funding, etc. My sense is that, in the long term, the works that will last from the current trend, as with others in the past, will be those that do the classic work of history well.

    But in the meantime, a good deal of mediocre work is going to get funded and published and taught simply because it is on the right topic.

    And when this affects the hiring of historians - as it is doing - this is even more dangerous.

    But I've said enough!

    Thanks again.

  3. Geoff Read and Todd Webb11 July 2012 at 15:56

    While it is always good to know that one’s work is being read by colleagues, it is disappointing to see our article set up as a straw man and then knocked down as part of a defense of parochialism. In order to make your critique of the wider ‘trend’ of transnationalism in Canadian history, you ignore the key historiographical point of our article: that the way that the press in Canada, France, Britain, Ireland and the United States dealt with Louis Riel in 1885 demonstrates that discussions about imperial affairs transcended national and imperial boundaries. This point is not made for historians of Canada alone as you appear to suggest. Viewing 1885 from that point of view, we argue that the international press’s differing perceptions of Louis Riel and the Metis both shaped and were shaped by many of the cultural and political tensions that cut across the North Atlantic world. These tensions also helped to shape contemporary Canadians’ interpretations of events. Ultimately, as we note in the conclusion, the Metis created their own sense of nationhood, but rarely under conditions of their own choosing.

    As you say ”The Catholic Mahdi of the North West,” does not “make us change our interpretation of the main events in our nation's past.” It wasn’t meant to. The article examines the lively trans-Atlantic conversation that transpired about Riel, the Metis, and their fates – and, we hope, makes an original contribution to our knowledge of the controversy surrounding the events of 1885 in so doing.

  4. 'Faddism' has always been a feature of History and has undoubtedly had an impact on the hiring of teachers. I can remember in the early 1980s that the Schools History Project was regarded as THE syllabus to study in English schools and that those of us who did not approve of its unhistorical source paper (more an exercise in English than history)and criticised the course found career routes blocked. Vindication of our position only came later when the source paper was given a historical context. But to return to transnationalism.

    The notion of the Empire as a network was initially developed in the 1990s as a way of looking at its diverse structures and personnel particularly how individuals played a part in different parts of the empire. Dominic Daly, for instance spent several decades in Canada before ending his career as a governor in Australia while Judge Willis caused problems in Upper Canada in the 1820s and Victoria Australia in the 1840s and was sacked on both occasions. The relatioship between different parts of the Empire have been studied particularly through the medium of the burgeoning colonial press, a process aided considerably by the digitalisation of, for example, Australian and New Zealand papers as well as a similar process in Britain. The result has been some notable pieces of transnational history:, for instance, Pickering, Paul A., ‘‘Ripe for Republic’: British Radical Responses to the Eureka Stockade’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 121, (2003), pp. 69-90, and Lejeune, Françoise, ‘Representations of the First Colonial “Civil War” in Victoria’s Reign: the Canadian Rebellions in the English Press (1837-1838)’, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, Vol. 66, (2007), pp. 289-316. Avalia, Aurelio, and Le Jeune, Françoise, Les rébellions canadiennes vues de Paris (1837-1838), (PUL), 2011 is particularly good. What transnational history allows is a Janus like approach: it looks out into the world to consider reactions to events in particular areas, but it also looks back to those areas and provides an additional dimension to explanation.

  5. Todd and Geoff: Thanks for commenting on this.

    You suggest that I set up your article as a straw-man. My edition of the OED says that a straw-man argument is a sham or false. You don’t, though, point out where I have misrepresented you or where I have got my facts wrong (except for one omission that I’ll talk about below). I think it would be hard to do this as each of my points about the article is drawn directly from the article itself. In fact, in assessing what is meant to be the main contribution of the article, the blog post goes point by point through the article’s conclusion.

    But speaking of straw-men: you suggest that I am defending parochialism. Where do I say this? This is, in fact, the opposite of what I am doing. What I am suggesting is that it is erroneous to think that previous scholars who tried to explain the nation’s history were somehow parochial and didn’t think about the international context of what they were writing. Yet two of the article’s four concluding paragraphs essentially argue that Canadian historians should find it fascinating, and that we should think Riel more ‘significant’, because the press in other countries wrote about him. Who exactly is defending parochialism?

    The one omission you see in my blog post is that that I neglect to mention what you call ‘the key historical point’ of the article: that your coverage of the domestic and international press of Riel ‘demonstrates that discussions about imperial affairs transcended national and imperial boundaries.’

    Yet if I didn’t point it out, it is because the point seems so banal. Who said that Riel wasn’t understood in this wider context? What you’ve shown is that previous historians didn’t trumpet this contextual detail. But who said that 19th century English Canadians/British North Americans didn’t think of themselves in a wider imperial context? Of course they thought of themselves as part of the British Empire. This (Canada’s place in the empire) was the issue that concerned Canadian historians (and a large part of Canadian politics) more than any other from the founding of the profession, right through the economic history of Innis and Creighton et al, down through to recent decades. This is certainly a big part of what the whole British World scholarship over the last few years has called us to remember. It was certainly in Carl Berger’s magisterial The Sense of Power, published 40 years ago. That Canada’s place in the empire has faded from historiographical concern isn’t because of some kind of narrow nationalism. Surely it has much more to do with the switch to social history and the examination of ‘limited (or not so limited) identities'. And this scholarship was always influenced by international trends, even when it focused on Canada alone.

    The real straw man being set up here is the idea that, by not focusing on the wider imperial context, previous historians like Bumsted have somehow forgotten something essential? Yet, in reality, he and others probably just took it for granted. Of course ‘Canadians’ in the 1880s thought of themselves as part of the empire. Again, who says they didn’t? Certainly Bumstead’s recent biography of Lord Selkirk operates in exactly this wider imperial framework.

    The key question is, as I said before, why does this matter? Why does it need to come to the forefront of our discussion? Does it change how we see Riel, or is it just chastising previous historians for not highlighting some issue of the past that they understood but didn’t feel the need to trumpet because it wasn’t the then currently fashionable topic?

    As you’ll gather, I think (and you yourselves admit) it is the latter.

    [cont'd in next comment]

  6. [cont'd]


    Sometimes revisionists accounts such as the one this article presents completely change how we see the past. Think of Sylvia Van Kirk’s brilliant book on women in the fur trade. She showed how the misinterpretation, and complete neglect, of this topic, meant that we fundamentally didn’t understand the history of the fur trade in Canada [Much to the detriment of Peter Newman’s academic if not popular reputation.] I’m inclined to think that current work in environmental history will do the something similar over the coming decades. What I’m not convinced is that the transnational/Canadian history that I’ve so far read (including your article) will do the same. The blog post explains why.

    Perhaps where I would agree you are right to feel badly handled is in being singled out. This isn’t me setting the article up as a straw man, it is simply recognizing the article as part of its wider context. There are plenty of other examples to choose from, but your article happened to be the lead-article in the most recent issue of the CHR. This is the article that the editors of the most prestigious journal in our profession thought that we ought most to read at the moment. It seems only fitting that it merits close scrutiny and, where appropriate, criticism.

  7. Yes, you draw select points from the manuscript itself, but without context. For example, you cite the passage, "That he operated within North Atlantic and imperial contexts' means that historians should 'if not necessarily rethink their interpretation of Riel the man, revise their view of his significance." But you don't address the point that follows, which is essentially that Riel was a significant figure abroad as well as in Canada. The inference there is not, as you suggest, that this changes our interpretation of Riel in Canada, but that the coverage of the Riel case can teach us about France, Ireland, Britain etc. as well as about networks of trans-Atlantic exchange. This might not be what you personally find interesting - it's not about the great events in our nation's past as you put it - but the article is a history of the trans-Atlantic world that happens to be relevant to Canada and Canadian historians, not an exclusively Canadian history.

    Similarly your comment that there was "no need for research to discover" that local context shaped the telling of Riel's tell seems to miss the mark. Since no one before this research even knew if international papers covered the Riel story in any depth, of course research was necessary to uncover this fact. Frankly, I was shocked at how assiduously newspapers in Europe and elsewhere followed events, at how widespread the campaign for a reprieve for Riel was, and to discover that everyone from the French Workers' Party's tribune to Ulster Protestants editorialized on his death sentence. Moreover, you are again voiding the argument of its complexity. We're not just saying that local contexts shaped the telling of the story but that in examining how they shaped it we can learn something about those local contexts as well as the transmission of narratives across the Atlantic world.

    In short, I think there's a lot more going on in the article than you imply.

  8. Dear Geoff

    In your response you claim that I cite evidence out of context. What is really significant, you say, is that ‘the coverage of the Riel case
    can teach us about France, Ireland, Britain etc. as well as about networks
    of trans-Atlantic exchange.’

    Let’s deal with this, then, on its own merits. Are you really willing to take a stand to say that the coverage of Riel in these papers tells us about these other countries in a more than peripheral way? Are there any historians from these countries who have claimed that there is much to learn from the coverage of Riel and 1885? You don’t cite any. Instead, the article goes through general histories of other countries (a Penguin history of the US, a history of the Sudan, general histories of Ireland, a history of France and its empire since 1870) in order to help you understand how individuals in those countries are interpreting Riel. The authors may be learning something about these other countries. But it’s not at all clear that anyone else, who is actually expert in the field, would learn much about these countries. And if this is the main point, why publish in the CHR which has almost zero readership abroad?

    You then say: ‘This might not be what you personally find
    interesting - it's not about the great events in our nation's past as you
    put it - but the article is a history of the trans-Atlantic world that
    happens to be relevant to Canada and Canadian historians, not an
    exclusively Canadian history.’

    Where exactly do I ‘put it’ that it is about ‘great events in our nation’s past’? I don’t say this in my comments. I talk about Canadian history and the nation’s past, but ‘great’ is an invention – probably meant sarcastically.

    [cont'd below]

  9. Is this about my interest?

    I don’t think so. This is question of significance. There are many types of history that I don’t find particularly interesting – labour history comes to mind – but that I nonetheless find to be significant. I’ve just been photocopying chapters from books by Craig Heron and Bryan Palmer to give to my students. It’s not my cup of tea, but it matters, so I teach it.

    Essentially you are saying that you have found some new documents that no one has looked at (this is potentially significant) and then you go on to say that ‘we can learn something about those local contexts [other countries] as well as the transmission of narratives across the Atlantic world.’ As I noted above, I’m pretty sceptical about just how much we can learn about these other countries. As for the transmission of narratives across the Atlantic world, what is it that the article tells us? It tells us that they existed, and this seems to be the largest point, and then it says, in jargon laden prose, that the Metis might have ‘contested’ and ‘negotiated’ their identities through this discussion but that, in this case, their voices didn’t show up.

    This doesn’t, frankly, seem that significant. Almost all texts on the essentials of history say that what good history ought to do is explain how and why things happened the way they did – how and why people thought the way they did. This article doesn’t do it. It answers a ‘what’ question. It describes. It says that the documents existed and then tells us about them. I think you are saying that the very existence of this Atlantic world discussion is itself enough of an answer to the ‘So what?’ question.

    Perhaps there’s future research here. How did these networks function? Why did they take shape in the way they did? How did they change over time and why? There might be something in it, but in a future form.

    To return to my main point about why this matters: my guess is that the article was able to get through the review stage without really having a good answer to the ‘So what?’ question, without really explaining how and why something happened in the past, is because there are enough people in the profession now who basically agree with you that the mere existence of these transnational documents matter. This is where we come back to trendiness. If someone had found that the international press talked about the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1950s, this could be interesting. But I bet the journal editors would have been pretty keen to know exactly why this mattered. They would have wanted, not description, but an answer to how and why these documents change our previous ideas.

    Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps if the imaginary author through in enough ‘contests’ and ‘negotiates’ and ‘transnationals’ it might fly.