The Limits of Empire: Imperial History in the Wake of the Transnational Turn

AHA Session 202
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 7 (Washington Hilton)
Jeremy I. Adelman, Princeton University
Empires of Land, Empires of Sea: Writing World History in Weimar and Nazi Germany
Joshua Derman, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Resurrecting Empire in Twentieth-Century China
Xiao Wu, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
The Limits of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts
Christopher P. Magra, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Jeremy I. Adelman, Princeton University

Session Abstract

The participants in this panel engage with recent historiography—and with each other—to debate the limits of imperial frameworks for understanding the past. Does the current emphasis on transnational approaches to the past add to, or detract from, imperial perspectives? Does the analytical validity of imperial containers fade during the modern era? Do stark divisions between the early modern Age of Empires and the modern Age of Nations obscure more than they clarify? The three papers presented will address these questions by drawing on case studies from Nazi Germany, twentieth-century China, and the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. In doing so, they aim to initiate a discussion of imperial history that will be of interest to scholars working on diverse temporal and geographic topics.

Joshua Derman (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) examines how the opposition between land and sea empires was thematized by Carl Schmitt, a controversial German theorist whose work is often uncritically cited by historians of empire today. Schmitt’s theories of land and sea cannot provide a coherent heuristic for historians, Derman argues; rather, they represent the product of a shifting field of dubious ideological positions.

Shellen Wu (University of Tennessee) proposes revising twentieth-century Chinese history by stepping back from the discourse of the nation, and refocusing attention on the geographical expanse of the modern Chinese state. The rise of geopolitics, she argues, proves an invaluable framework for understanding how the discourses of science, race, and empire combined in the twentieth century to formulate a new ideology of empire.

Turning our attention to the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, Christopher Magra (University of Tennessee) argues that capitalist behavior complicates the utility of imperial analytical frameworks. Merchants living in colonial Massachusetts—like their Dutch, French, and Spanish counterparts—flouted imperial commercial regulations, traded directly with foreign entrepreneurs, and defied the efforts of imperial customs agents in their pursuit of profits. Self-interested profit maximizers certainly made use of imperial legal and political institutions, but they did so to suit their own ends.

The session will be chaired and commented by Jeremy Adelman, Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture and Director of the Council for International Teaching and Research at Princeton University. Prof. Adelman studies the history of Latin America in comparative and world contexts. He is the author or editor of ten books, including most recently Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, which will be published in March 2013.

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