Entangled History

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Entangled History (EH) is a historical perspective and a concept in historiography. Taking a trans-cultural perspective as the main point of departure EH centers on the interconnectedness of societies. The basic assumption is that neither nations, nor empires, nor civilizations can be the exclusive and exhaustive units and categories of historiography. As entities they themselves were formed through a process of interaction and global circulation in which they related to each other. Conceptually, EH owes much to two interrelated discussions within the historical discipline: The “Spatial Turn” in history and the fundamental epistemological challenges of post-colonial studies as well as their critique of the political, economic, social and cultural order of the colonial and postcolonial world. As a concept that examines historic power structures and their constitution in space, EH participates in a critical re-assessment of modernity, together with adjacent and often overlapping perspectives like Transfer History, Transnational History, Atlantic History, Borderland History, Histoire Croisée, World History and the History of Capitalism. By questioning the absolute centrality of national borders and inquiring about processes of non-state based exchanges, EH and its sister terms, understood here in a relation of family resemblance, are clearly distinct to traditional approaches in historiography, like Diplomatic History and International History. EH, therefore, examines dependencies, interferences, interdependencies, and entanglements, and emphasizes as well the multidirectional character of transfers.

Origins and Conceptual Considerations

EH was inspired as a concept by authors from various disciplines, critical towards the limitations of dominant methodological nationalisms, who aimed at moving beyond reductive national-historic and Eurocentric perspectives.

Early steps for a conceptual framework that stressed transfers beyond borders can be traced back to the 1980s and were articulated in a European context of increased political integration. Michele Espagne showed the intercultural transfers between France and Germany, emphasizing the forms of transition in the constitutional process of nations (1988). Generally, proponents of Transfer History argued for the permeability of borders and against comparative approaches in International History that constitute their units a priori. Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmer, initiators of EH in its French articulation as Histoire Croisée, shared this uneasiness in constructing the units of comparison. However, they criticized Transfer History for situating the beginning and ending of border-crossing processes within developments, themselves located in national societies. Transfer History would end up using the same definitions and categories that were criticized in the first place. For Werner and Zimmer, entanglement occurs not only between historical objects, but can be itself a category of reflection. The object in question and the perspective on it constitute each other mutually in a permanent process of interaction. Developments on one side could be the result of developments on the other. The authors argued for a reflexive induction, which questions the validity of analytical categories as well as for an inductive pragmatism that concludes from observation instead of models or theory. Each analysis is supposed to involve two different angles and the crossing of these views is its result (Werner and Zimmermann 2002). Reflecting on the entanglement between observer, angle and object, Histoire Croisée has contributed a valuable theoretical basis.

Closely connected to the concerns of a historiographical renewal are recent debates on Global and World History that question national narratives as the only possible way of writing history. Although the limits of a relational history have been questioned within the ongoing debate about Global History (Epple 2013), EH has generated important synergies with certain perspectives of Global and World History writing. Arguably, studies in EH have contributed to the formation of Global History as a discipline. Historiographically, Global History emerged in discussions about a convergence of the world towards a structural Westernness: the influence of liberalism and the idea of the nation-state among others. Whereas Jürgen Osterhammel stressed the world of the 19th century after the “Sattelzeit” (saddle period) as being shaped in culture, time and space by Europe (Osterhammel 2009), British Historian Christopher Bayly (2004) identified a polycentric world system with other powers, e.g. China and Islamic empires, that played important roles in the emergence of structural resemblances of politics and culture worldwide. Finally, EH can be considered as being part of a particular perspective on a new Global History that is distinct from both earlier World History (or history of civilization) writings (e.g. Spengler 1922) and current approaches to Global History by authors who stress western superiority and fundamental and dividing cultural differences (e.g. Ferguson 2012). Essentially, Global history narrates stories of connections within the global human community, portraying the crossings of boundaries and the linking of systems of the human past. These include, but are not limited to large scale population movements and economic fluctuations, cross cultural transfers of technology, spread of infectious diseases, long distance trade, and the spread of religious faiths and ideas more generally (Manning 2003).

Ever since Edward Said initiated the debate on Orientalism as a specifically western discourse about the Other in 1978, extending earlier, critical approaches to Western domination by authors such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, postcolonial studies have fundamentally contributed to the development of concepts on trans-cultural interaction, creating influences across disciplines (for an overview see Gandhi 2008). By articulating a critical perspective on the historic construction of empires and nation states, postcolonial theory contributed significantly to the theory production that informs EH. Proponents of postcolonial theory envisaged a concept of history that reflects on its own repressive, unequal and exclusionary foundations. This incredulous stance towards traditional history resulted from criticism against the hegemony of Eurocentric teleologies and models of developmental stages and modernization in European or World History writing that placed Asia, Africa and Latin America in the “waiting-room” of history (Chakrabarty 2000). To understand the relational constitution of the modern world, it is, thus, imperative to consider its inherent power asymmetries often hidden in binary analytical frameworks.

Under these pretexts, historians of all world regions have discussed the circulation, exchange and flow of knowledge, ideas, institutions and practices. Sanjay Subrahmanyam used the term “connected history” to point out the interconnectedness between India and Europe in the Early Modern Period (Subrahmanyam 1997). Sebastian Conrad and Shalini Randeria have elaborated a similar perspective to Histoire Croisée within a postcolonial articulation. Randeria described Modern History as a shared and divided history, emphasizing the twofold results from increased interactions and interdependence. Common experiences are shared by societies and cultures, but they simultaneously divide through resulting particularistic tendencies like nationalisms and categories of race, class, and gender. The development and worldwide adaptation of the nation-state exemplifies this tension precisely. The nation seemed universally transferable and at the same time was meant to show cultural particularities. Modern nation-states were at the same time the product and the basis of capitalist and colonial interactions (Randeria 1999; Conrad and Randeria 2002).

Global intellectual debates on the postcolonial resulted in a productive migration of these concepts into the writings of history in and of the Americas. Latin American scholars started elaborating a Latin American history of its place in colonial and postcolonial modernity, contributing crucial impulses to the field more generally. Powerful concepts emerged, such as “Coloniality of Power” and “Decoloniality”, with impact on critical theory way beyond the Americas (Quijano 2000; Mignolo 2011).

Another important conceptual impulse for the articulation of EH stems from the theoretical discussions that form part of the “Spatial Turn” in history. Building on the work of Fernand Braudel, Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja, David Harvey and Doreen Massey, among others, historians started to recognize the constructed nature of space, acknowledged the simultaneity of various spatial frameworks and the centrality of both the historical actors and historians in defining spatial orders. In this frame, space is not interpreted as a given, but as the result of relational processes with the potential to influence social interaction in return (Midell and Naumann 2010). These reflections proved crucially important in questioning hegemonic notions of the nation and other spatial entities as the exclusive terrains of social actions.

Entangled Histories in the Americas

Shaped by European historians under the experience of post-cold war integration and the impact of globalization processes on European societies and nation states, the original articulation of EH had less resonance in the Americas than in the “Old Continent”. However, the “Spatial Turn” and therefore new conceptualization of territories and their political, economic, social and cultural constitution became prominent in the US from the 1990s onward. The thriving fields of a multicoloured (black, red, green -Irish-…) Atlantic History (and the consequential extension to include also African, European, and Latin American histories) on the one side and Borderland Histories on the other, exerted a profound impact not only on modern history, but also on early modern history, before the advent of modern nation states and their normative claim to exclusive organization of political societies under industrial capitalism. Paul Gilroy, who expanded the work of W.E.B Du Bois, CLR James, and Eric Williams, set out to show how the experience of enslavement and white supremacy created a “double consciousness”, whereby individuals from African descent were striving to be both black and European at the same time. This alienating force of disbelonging, operating in a theatre of nation states in which whiteness constitutes the norm, simultaneously creates the possibility to enact a transnational, shared black experience and subjectivity within the Black Atlantic (Gilroy 1993). Linebaugh and Rediker, on the other hand, presented a “Red Atlantic” from the early 17th to the early 19th century of expropriation and capitalism, proletarianization and resistance (Linebaugh and Rediker 2002). Also, Atlantic History helped to reshape understandings of early modern inter-imperial rivalries and structures of power, but also of cooperation and interchange between the imperial powers of the Atlantic World (Gould 2007, and, although US-centric, Bailyn 2005).

The perspective of EH also resonates with a long tradition of writing “Borderland Histories,” starting with Eugene Bolton’s famous call to create a history of “Greater America” (for its conceptual innovativeness see Adelman and Aron 1999 on the topic). Again, Borderland History is strongest in its colonial and early republican settings, creating powerful interpretative concepts such as the “Middle Ground,” where rivalries between first empires and later incipient and ambitious nation states could be exploited and temporarily turned to their advantage by native groups (White 1991; Hämäläinen 2008). Through this perspective, historic border regions became a central space for negotiations of power and identity, revealing a forgotten history of interchanges between European settler societies and indigenous groups and their native agency that contradict quasi ontological assumptions about Europeans and their American Others. Borderlands constituted not only spaces of mestizaje, but also terrains of refuge from the disciplinary regimes of nascent capitalist, racial, and national logics, where deserters, slave fugitives and delinquents found shelter and new existences.

Not surprisingly, the history of borderlands does find fertile grounds in the Americas as a whole, where fragile frontier relations dominated the exchange between colonizing societies and native groups in peripheral territories for centuries, from Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to the Mexican North and Alaska (Weber and Rausch 1994. For a specific regional history of the Argentine Pampa as borderlands see Mandrini 2006). Importantly, contemporary borderlands and “unnatural borders” continue to be sites of hybridization and emancipatory struggles, as Anzaldúa’s (1999) articulation of a chicana feminist identity on the US-Mexican border, among other feminist activists, reminds us.

An earlier and different approach to rethinking space and borders in the Americas was put forward by Dependency theory, which did not emerge out of a historiographical tradition, but was informed by heterodox economics and Marxist inspired political sciences. Following a well elaborated political agenda and stressing international economic ties and inequalities in a structuralist perspective, Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch (1949) and others designed a bimodal system of cores and peripheries between developed and underdeveloped nations. Dependency theory, articulated by a host of Latin American intellectuals, became popular in the 1960s and 1970s and served as an important inspiration for other Latin American intellectuals in reflecting trans-border structures of power, asymmetries, and exploitation, most famously put forward by Eduardo Galeano in The Open Veins of Latin America. Furthermore, Dependency theory also had a profound influence on the work of Immanuel Wallerstein. According to Wallerstein’s World-System Theory, articulated as a critique to dominant modernization approaches, capitalism is organized around an inter-regional and transnational division of labour, with the Americas forming a central part in the advent of a capitalist world system (Wallerstein 1974).

Indebted to World System theory, more recent approaches to create richly textured and complex “Histories of Capitalism” are gaining ground. Mostly via narratives of particular commodities and how their production, trade, and consumption shaped societies in the western hemisphere and beyond, these histories transcend conventional economic histories by looking at societal and cultural factors as well. Primarily circulated by the academia of the American north, these works apply many of the conceptual, but also epistemological starting points of EH and include the whole of the Americas and beyond. Noteworthy examples are the complex histories of sugar (Mintz 1986; Schwartz 2004), rice (Carney 2001), cotton (Beckert 2014), and bananas (Striffler 2004). Especially Mintz’ work can be seen as a pioneering effort to integrate an interdisciplinary perspective, linking anthropology, history and economics to create a compelling narrative about one of the defining commodities of the modern and particularly the Atlantic world.

Other promising fields of historic inquiry on the Americas, using an EH-inspired perspective, are social histories of the Cold War (Grangin and Joseph 2010), the History of Labor and Labor struggles (see as examples Fink 2011; Hirsch 2010: especially part 2), the history of social movements, the history of Epistemic Communities and Entangled Knowledge (see Hock et al. 2012; Rinke and González de Reufels 2014) and the history of Migration in the Western Hemisphere (see Baily 1999; Wolff 2013).

Critical Acclaim

However valuable the perspective on entanglements is, the concept does suffer from shortcomings as well. A limited perspective on entanglements risks to re-affirm stereotypical hierarchies of spatial categories from the global to the local and to fade out inherent power asymmetries. Despite the power-sensitive approaches that had informed EH, in many historiographical writings we are confronted with celebratory accounts of circulation, exchange, mobility and influence, that do not take into account mechanisms of stratification, exclusion and structures of power more generally. Intensifications of communication and transportation technologies do not automatically entail higher levels of interdependency and increasing cultural homogeneity. Hence, the different degrees of entanglements as well as their obstacles need to be considered. In Conrad and Randeria’s proposition, studies in EH have to stay decidedly fragmentary in their character. Concerned with manifest situations and problems, they cannot be holistic (Conrad and Randeria 2002).

Beyond theoretical shortcomings, the conceptual implications of EH do confront the historian with a difficult task: She or he often must be not only multilingual (certainly the case for the History of the Americas), but also fluent in various national historiographies in the subject field, and willing and able to dedicate considerable resources to revise archives in multiple sites and countries. Finally, EH and other revisionist concepts, applying spatial metaphors to critique national historiographies, have found limited resonance in Latin American scholarship so far. If this reluctance can be ascribed to institutional inertia, academic parochialisms and the dominance of modern thought (as opposed to post-modern sensibilities) in Latin American academia is a discussion which is still pending.

Although important, discussions within the discipline on clear separating lines between the different approaches discussed here under the umbrella term of Entangled History often become sterile and irrelevant once the historian starts working with the archival record and creating historical narratives. What remains at the centre of reflexivity, however, is the motivating endeavour to question the monumentality of nationally defined borders and to account for the constituent power of transcultural circulations in a world of entangled influences, manifested in many seminal works (see for example Rodgers 1998; Manning 1996; Tyrell 1991).

Sönke Bauck and Thomas Maier


Please cite as:
Bauck, Sönke, and Thomas Maier. 2015. “Entangled History.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/e_Entangled_History.html.


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