The Promise of De-centering National Histories: America, Germany, and Spain

AHA Session 72
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Los Angeles Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, New York University
De-centering from the Center: Boston and the Problem of Colonial American History
Mark Allen Peterson, University of California, Berkeley
De-centering Spanish History: From the Regionalist to the Postcolonial Turn
Xosé-Manoel Núñez, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

Title:  The Promise of De-Centering National Histories:  America, Germany, and Spain

 For a very long time, historians have been dependent on national narratives for framing the past. Indeed, they have often played critical roles in legitimating them.  This session engages the limitations and blind spots of such narratives by drawing on the examples of American, German, and Spanish history.  Each of these national histories has been changed by the rise of global perspectives, by historians’ increased interest in transnational movements and flows of peoples, ideas, and things, by post-colonial turns as well as concerns with regionalisms and local identities.  Those concerns have caused many scholars to rethink the limitations inherent in national narratives of the past and to contemplate the implications of seeking alternatives.

The papers in this panel offer three complementary analyses of the teleologies inherent in national histories, and they demonstrate some of the benefits that can be gleaned by broadening our geographic and chronological frameworks as we narrate the histories of places and human relations. By situating the city of Boston in a global framework, for example, Mark Peterson exposes the pitfalls of assuming the unity of Boston and the United States and embracing a linear history from colony to nation state.  Indeed, he underscores the tragic consequences for this Atlantic city-state that accompanied the emergence of the United States, and he argues that historians’ focus on the putative unity of Boston and America has caused them to misunderstand the history of both.  H. Glenn Penny argues for similar limitations in the ways in which German history has been written over the last century, illustrating the degree to which historians’ dependence on political periodizations and national boundaries have led them to over emphasize the role of ruptures in shaping German history while paying little heed to many of the continuities that flowed through those ruptures and informed actions and events in subsequent periods.  Xosé-Manoel Núñez, drawing on more than a decade of engaging these problems within the context of a Spanish history that has been transformed by recent attention to regionalism and colonial connections, discusses the concomitant shifts that have taken place in the historiography of Spain.  He explores the ways in which alternative national histories have been posited during the last decades, and then he unveils the potential of moving toward a history of a globally-situated Iberian peninsula. Taken together, these papers emphasize the potential inherent in shifting the writing of history away from coherence toward relations, de-centering the nation state, and calling into question our fondness for political periodizations. They also suggest alternative narratives and new ways to conceptualize the relationship between cultural and political history at large.

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