Some readers may recall several years ago when I debated a colleague in Oxford, with our prompts being ‘Global History’ (for him) and ‘Area Studies’ (for me). (Read my remarks from that night on an earlier blog post.) It was a fun night, and a useful exercise in thinking about historiography and academic disciplines for the post-graduates who hosted the event.
My opponent in that debate, Dr Jan-Georg Deutsch, passed away in 2016, leaving a big hole in the Faculty. This year, in his memory, I proposed to the same student-run seminar a debate on a similar historiographical question. My colleague, Prof Alexander Morrison, was game to participate, and put up the proposition, as follows: ‘Global History Is An Excuse for Anglophones to Study the History of the World Without Having to Learn any of its Languages.’
It was a provocative topic, leading to lots of enjoyable discussion. I argued against the proposition, but neither of us (of course) was really arguing our honest feeling on the matter; we argued opposing positions as a useful exercise. As I did last time, I wanted to share here my comments, in case they might spark further debate.
Many thanks to everyone for joining us tonight, and especially to my esteemed colleague for putting forward the proposition and debating me on it. The last time I defended one side of a debate in the Transnational and Global History Seminar, Jan-Georg Deutsch mopped the floor with me, and I hope I have learned a thing or two in order to improve my performance this time.
I reject the proposition on three levels: It is wrong as a specific idea, as a general idea, and as a principle.
1. The proposition is wrong as a specific idea.
All of us can name specific global historians who definitely speak more than just English. Without even resorting to many names from our own Faculty (indeed, many names of those within the room), I could point to Engseng Ho (for his beautifully nuanced studies of Hadrami Arabs spread around the Indian Ocean world) or Cemil Aydin (for his deep inquiries into alternative global ideas: pan-Asianism, pan-Islamism, and now the concept of the Muslim world).
Lest these names sound insufficiently Anglophone, though, let me through out a forefather in the study of Indonesia who is far more British than I am: Benedict R. O’G. Anderson. What global history has been more influential in the last four decades than his global history of the idea of nationalism? To drive the point home, though, let me remind us all that Benedict Anderson was anything but a monoglot. He spoke some Chinese from having been born in Kunming, learned Indonesian (and, I’m told, passable Javanese) for his doctorate, and after he was prohibited from entering Indonesia after 1965 he casually took up the study of Thai, then later Spanish and Tagalog to write on the Philippines. His pioneering lens on global history was not born out of an inability to access the local histories of specific places, but precisely by observing many places (several of them in their own languages) and finding striking similarities and the modular spread of ideas.
So, as a specific idea about the way global history is practiced in this day and age, I find the proposition wrong on its face.
2. The proposition is wrong as a general idea.
One can have some sympathy with the sweeping, pro-global South claim that there are too many individuals out of touch with the global South who are now empowered by circuitous academic thinking to make authoritative statements about the world. We have also just heard the argument that global history might be nothing more than the old imperial history masquerading under a new name. However, the idea that studying the largest geographic scale as a historian is a tradition with roots in Anglophone historians only pulling on Anglophone sources is seriously misguided. That assumption overlooks the facts and engages in exactly the kind of patronizing Orientalism that it claims to combat.
We have always had world histories that were neither Anglophone nor Eurocentric. Look at Sima Qian with his Shiji or Taishigongshu (1st century BCE Han China), or Rashid al-Din with his Jami’ al-tawarikh (13th century CE Ilkhanate Persia), or even the anonymous Babad Jaka Tingkir (19th century CE Java). All of these aspired to be world histories, and we can find in them an alternative genealogy for global history. Thus, it would be an error to say that only Anglophones have been interested in global history or writing the whole world in one scheme.
Even when turning to the establishment of modern, Western historiography, many of the white men who gave birth to the ‘global’ approach of historiography were indeed able to speak foreign languages. Perhaps my favourite among them was Marshall G.S. Hodgson (another thoroughly Anglicized name, to keep the rabble happy). Although we now think of him as a pioneer of world and global history, those writings were all published posthumously. The historical work he published in his lifetime was about the Assassins, grounded in Arabic sources.
If you prefer something a bit more up-to-date, what about Kenneth Pomeranz? He broadly revised our thinking about the comparative history of China and Europe entering the modern world. Here is a man who made his name researching China, thoroughly skilled in Chinese, and whose first book used records made by the Japanese imperial state. This is no linguistic weakling.
Thus, I would argue, great global historians who speak the languages of the world are not the exception, but are the backbone on which the sub-discipline was built. Furthermore, they come in a long line of non-Anglophone, non-Western writing on the history of humankind.
2a. As a side note, is there something wrong with global history written using only one language?
Harping only on linguistic qualifications of historians to write on certain topics overlooks many of the other types of sources and other types of knowledge that might be just as important. When we read a book on maritime history (the theme of this seminar in this term), do we question the sailing bona-fides of the author? Understanding how ships and boats work on water and amid wind is just as important, one could argue, as reading the language of the captain and crew. When we read early modern histories, what assurances do we get that the author is qualified to deal with non-written sources from archaeology and material culture? Surely those are also a source base just as important as sources in a foreign language.
When we look at language as just one tool of many in a historian’s toolkit, perhaps we can see that the proposition is a bit problematic. But I would go even further than that:
3. Dismissing global history as exclusively Anglophones using English sources is wrong as a principle.
The proposition would silo those historians who work on other parts of the world and speak other languages into a limited, area studies framework. We become the afterthought of history as a discipline, rather than the cutting edge of building new historical knowledge and ideas. As much as I (being an expert on Indonesia who put in the time to learn five non-English languages along the way) do not want to lose the specificity and distinctiveness of Indonesian history, I am equally concerned about not being dismissed as irrelevant to history broadly.
Rather than making the case for myself, let me frame it as defending one of my respected colleagues. Lien-Hang Nguyen speaks and reads Vietnamese, English, and some Chinese and French. Dismissing her fantastic book, Hanoi’s War, as being less than a global history of the Vietnam War is to undercut the importance of her work. To demote her from being a global historian of the Cold War to just being a regional historian of Vietnam flirts dangerously with the position of arguing that the history of peoples speaking languages other than English are minor histories. Especially tonight as we commemorate the great historian Georg Deutsch, let this be a trap that we never fall into!