Twenty Years since the Imperial Turn: Time for Trans-imperial Histories
Many of the recent calls for border-crossing histories start from the premise that historians have long served nationalist ends by treating the nation as the dominant analytic unit. Although there is much truth to such characterizations of past historical practice, they overlook imperial scales of historical consciousness. Having gelled as an academic discipline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the heyday of Western imperialism, professional history has, from its inception, been attuned to imperial politics.
If early attention to imperial issues lacked a critical edge, later appraisals of U.S. imperialism ran into the wall of imperial denial, especially during the Cold War, when the conviction that the United States should be seen as the anti-imperial counterpoint to the Soviet empire took hold. The rise of social and cultural history also contributed to imperial oversight, insofar as early work in these fields tended to focus on what were understood as sub-units of national history—the city, the village, the neighborhood, and the household among them—rather than on imperial formations, however scaled.
The 1993 publication of Cultures of United States Imperialism, edited by the literary scholars Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, reawakened larger interest in imperial dimensions of U.S. history. The book called for attention to culture in histories of U.S. empire and to empire in American studies. It argued that diplomatic and foreign relations historians should engage with the ethnic studies scholarship that had long been attuned to U.S. imperialism, and it urged Americanists to become conversant with postcolonial scholarship. Kaplan and Pease sparked a movement by providing a name (cultures of U.S. imperialism), a rationale, and a sense of urgency. Subsequent research, including that found in Colonial Crucible (2009), edited by Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano, fundamentally reshaped the contours of U.S. history by revealing some of the many ways that the United States was not just a nation state, but an imperial state with subjects deprived of equal U.S. citizenship, constitutional rights, and recognized claims to belonging. Such research has countered the assumption that U.S. history should be conflated with national history by drawing our attention to various imperial formations shaped by “othering” logics, undemocratic politics, and unequal power relationships.
Given the fundamental challenge that Cultures of United States Imperialism posed to the conception of U.S. history as national history, one might have expected that the twentieth anniversary of its publication (in 2013) would have sparked a number of reflective events. Yet the anniversary came and went with surprisingly little stocktaking in U.S. history circles, leading to the question: why? One possibility is that historians are always acknowledging the foundational influence of the book, so commemoration exhaustion is starting to set in. Conversely, the enterprise may still seem so fresh that hardly anyone realized that it has been twenty years already. Perhaps both answers are right, depending on which historians we are talking about. And then there is yet another possibility: the transnational turn has captured much of the attention that might otherwise have been centered on the analytical turn toward empire.
The transnational turn can be traced back to another foundational anthology, Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002), edited by Thomas Bender. Of course there had been transnational scholarship before this collection—Leila J. Rupp’s Worlds of Women (1997) and Daniel T. Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings (1998) are two influential examples—but Bender’s work provided the rallying cry for a fundamental change in American history. Rethinking American History in a Global Age called on Americanists to recognize globalization as a core issue of our time. It demanded more attention to the historicity of the nation, in part by considering smaller and larger scales. Its keyword, transnational, refocused attention on the nation, in relation to other nations.
Lost in much of the scholarship that answered Bender’s call was the attention to empire found in the imperial turn. That need not have been the case, for Rethinking American History in a Global Age provided a powerful brief for “transi-ness,” on whatever scale, from trans-local to trans-imperial. In laying the groundwork for what is increasingly being conceptualized as trans-border history, the transi turn held important lessons for scholarship on imperialism.
Although Cultures of United States Imperialism aimed to connect Americanists to postcolonial studies, it did not de-exceptionalize U.S. empire. Despite bringing studies of U.S. imperialism into larger methodological conversations, Cultures of United States Imperialism was less successful in sparking new geographic thinking, for much of the resulting scholarship on the cultures of U.S. imperialism initially focused on relationships between the United States and one other place or people. Such two-party relationships were often separated from wider currents or other connections, whether within the U.S. empire (defined in terms of political power, economic sway, cultural influence, or some combination thereof) or across imperial boundaries.
If the transi turn has lessons for the study of empire, the study of empire has equally significant implications for our efforts to grapple with transi-ness. Especially before the great age of decolonization in the aftermath of World War II, many of the borders crossed by people, goods, ideas, movements, and organisms were imperial. Ditto for the infrastructures, nodes, and circuits of those crossings: empire had a hand in all.
That theme became visible to me when I was writing Consumers’ Imperium (2007). I realized that many of the imports that flowed into the U.S. market before World War I arrived via imperial conduits but not necessarily from the U.S. empire. When U.S. consumers bought into empire, it was not exclusively their own. Such investments in larger systems of empire surfaced again in my ongoing research on the myth of heartland insularity. Researching the history of the Berkshire hog—an animal first bred in England using genetic material from the far reaches of the British empire, and later exported (generally in the form of hams, bacon, and salt pork) by the settler colonists of the corn belt back to Liverpool, from whence it helped nourish British forces—provided new examples of trans-imperial connections.
I am by no means the only historian who has been drawn into trans-imperial terrain. An ample and variegated body of scholarship is emerging along these lines. One approach has been to focus on discursive connections, as seen for example in Paul A. Kramer’s analysis of Anglo-Saxonism across the U.S. and British empires and Moon-Ho Jung’s consideration of the ways that ideas about coolie labor circulated among the sugar planters of the British West Indies, Cuba, and Louisiana. Another approach traces the shifts of imperial power in particular sites. Eileen J. Suárez Findlay’s Imposing Decency (1999) and Louis A. Pérez’s Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (1988) are two examples of imperial secession scholarship. A related approach focuses attention on anticolonial efforts to play one empire against another: Harvey R. Neptune’s study of responses to the U.S. occupation of British-ruled Trinidad during World War II comes to mind.
Then there are studies—such as Anne L. Foster’s consideration of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia—that situate U.S. players in the context of wider imperial rivalries and anxieties. Histories of labor migrations through and across imperial systems have been particularly rich fields of inquiry, as Julie Greene’s and Lara Putnam’s work on Caribbean circuits demonstrate. We might also look to scholarship on U.S. actors as agents of other empires, such as Andrew Zimmerman’s investigation of Tuskegee Institute agricultural experts who advanced German interests in Togo. Also meriting mention are borderlands accounts sensitive to the ways that imperial power structures, imperial circuits of mobility, and imperially inflected political movements have been woven together in places of convergence. Nayan Shah’s book on South Asian migrants in the U.S. and Canadian Wests and Kornel S. Chang’s book on border-making in the Pacific Northwest have broken ground in this respect.
The emerging trans-imperial scholarship may appear to offer a dizzying array of approaches, but trans-imperial histories all have something in common: they mix the vertical analysis that characterizes the study of particular empires with the horizontal analysis found in transi scholarship (as well as older diplomatic histories). Shot through the whole are lines of diagonal analysis that are wonderfully new and revealing.
Taken collectively, trans-imperial scholarship underscores the point that the United States has been an imperial state as well as a nation state. But it doesn’t stop there—it de-exceptionalizes the history of American imperialism by situating it more fully within global history. In keeping with global history’s emphasis on connections, trans-imperial histories follow the trail wherever it might lead, allowing the subject to define its own geography while remaining attentive to power relations hidden by the vocabulary of transnationalism. By opening out so widely, the trans-imperial approach deepens our understanding of the imperial histories behind recent globalization.
A trans-imperial approach might seem to pose burdensome pedagogical challenges to teachers still working to incorporate transnational material into their courses in a political climate that does not always welcome such efforts. Though trans-imperial histories may be geographically and topically expansive, they also provide a notable pedagogical advantage: they can help us reach out to students who are resistant to the concept of American empire. I discovered this when I began teaching a class titled “The United States in an Age of Empire,” which focuses on the years between 1877 and 1920. In the earliest iterations of the class, some students appeared uncomfortable with references to U.S. imperialism, even in discussions of occupations and annexations. In response, I expanded the course to include the global history of imperialism and assigned Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998),a gripping history of Belgian colonialism in the Congo. Beginning the course with empires that were immediately apparent to students as such, discussing the larger context of imperial rivalries and collaborations, and locating U.S. actors in global history allowed students to grasp the value of an imperial framework for understanding U.S. interventions in the Caribbean, Pacific, and East Asia.
When we turned in subsequent weeks to American interventions in places such as Wounded Knee, Hawai‘i, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, China, Panama, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands, we took time to acknowledge prior imperial pasts as well as connections across those sites. The case studies also encouraged students to think more globally. They came to realize that attention to U.S. imperialism did not stem from an inordinately critical perspective on the United States, but from a disciplinary commitment to analyzing power. No less significantly, the wider perspective offered by trans-imperial analysis prompted students to confront the limits of U.S. power, as well as its extent—surely a valuable lesson for our own time.
KRISTIN HOGANSON is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The author of Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (1998) and Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865–1920 (2007), she is currently completing a book that challenges the myth of the insular heartland. She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002).
Kornel S. Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands (2012).
Eileen J. Suárez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870–1920 (1999).
Anne L. Foster, Projections of Power: The United States and Europe in Colonial Southeast Asia, 1919–1941 (2010).
Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (2009).
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998).
Kristin L. Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865–1920 (2007)
Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006).
Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993).
Paul A. Kramer, “Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880–1910,” Journal of American History, 88 (March 2002), 1315–53.
Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano, eds., Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (2009).
Harvey R. Neptune, Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the United States Occupation (2007).
Louis A. Pérez, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (1988).
Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (2013).
Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998).
Leila J. Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement (1997).
Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (2011).
Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (2010).