#121, March 3, 2009


A Piece of the Pie



At a panel during a recent American Historical Association conference, several panelists discussed the place of South Asian Studies in the AHA. Are South Asianists marginalized in the profession? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should something be done about it?  I am certainly not the one to answer such questions. I have written somewhat caustically about the profession and the AHA, so I would feel inclined to ask, what is it that one wants to be integrated into? Why should I care, or, why would I care if I were a South Asianist? Of course, all the sub-disciplines in the profession are no doubt organized along the same lines as the Mother Association, and each fiefdom probably insists that its lower orders conform to the same kinds of practices and the same sets of beliefs – truth, justice and the American way of doing things – as those of the larger Association, so it may well just come down to wanting a bigger slice of the pie. We have had no South Asianist president of the AHA (until the recent election of Barbara Metcalf) – well, I am sure the person who is president is important, but it has never been something I have concerned myself about. I went to one Presidential Address, but I think I left after a few minutes – I think there was a nice Thai restaurant that a few of us wanted to try around the corner from the convention!


There does seem to be a sense, though, and it is warranted enough, that the Americanists in the Association dominate the discipline in the United States and, in fact, have become more dominant over the last years. This is at a time when there has been talk of the need to internationalize American history. I have written about this elsewhere – “Making the World Safe for American History” – so I won’t linger too long on all aspects of the story.  But, suffice it to say, these two impulses – the increased dominance of Americanists and their internationalization – are not necessarily antithetical. Indeed, the global was embraced, particularly during the 90s, when all those American bridges were going to be built to the next century, partly as a result of American triumphalism and trumphallic behavior. World Communism had been defeated, there was now only one game in town, and while it was not the “end of history” as such – god forbid that that should happen because where would the AHA be then?! – it was the end of all other histories, and it was only necessary to spread the word, the beginning, middle and end of which, was American.


One of the consequencies of internationalized American history, then, was to strengthen the narratives that were already dominant, and to place the United States in a yet more prominent position. In the same vein, the study of empire has, in a way, allowed the European and British historian to survive and prosper, when the position of both may have seemed a little more perilous ten or fifteen years ago. Now things don’t look so rosy for the global Americanist, of course. American hegemony, within and without the discipline, has been brought into question with so many people questioning how nice the United States is, and how attractive its narratives really are. This is a conundrum then for the non-Americanist. One needs to be critical of the Mother Ship, but how critical can one afford to be, if one wants the ship to keep sailing?  What do Others do?  Do they fall back on Area Studies and try to carve out their space in the larger profession once more, knowing full well that the previous space was carved out for them by State Department imperatives?  Because there have been some negative results, it seems to me, arising from the breaking down of the Area Studies approach. Done with the best intentions, creating Indian Ocean history, for example (and I should say that my college established the first of these positions, getting rid of an Americanist line, before anyone else did), has meant that the migration streams – of people, of things, and of ideas – have become mere factors in a globalizing disciplinary initiative, easily absorbed by disciplinary bridge builders. Of course, on the other hand, not opening up to such connected histories and denying the existence of such streams, leaves a susceptibility, one might argue, to communalism and nationalist forces that are always in danger of erupting in the historical profession. Countering this, though, it is always important to remember that those same national and communal narratives were given significant boosts by the earlier globalizing strategy of colonialism.


None of this is new; something that begins as a radical intervention (internationalizing history, the focus on comparisons and connections, etc.) becomes the established and mainstream view. And when plugged into an organization like the American Historical Association it ends up taking on a positively bureaucratic air. Leading lights critiquing the stodgy old guard become the next old guard. And, in the meantime, the discipline itself seems to soldier on with the same commitment to things like historical truth and objectivity, binding everyone together, the American Americanist, the European Americanist, the American South Asianist, the South Asian Americanist, and so forth. Leaving the question we began with: what is the price of a larger slice of pie?