A Generalist’s Work, Day 1

I’m still feeling rankled by various casual dismissals of generalism and synthesis as a mode of academic and intellectual labor. It’s particularly odd coming from humanists given that the cultural work that many humanists study has frequently been created by generalists of one kind or another. Not to mention that formal humanist inquiry has a long history that predates the modern research university, and all of that work was done by generalists.

I’ve decided to add a category to my blog in which I document the work of reading, study and writing that informs my practice as a generalist and synthesizer. I’m not entirely happy with having to prove that this approach also requires hard work, since I think that concedes more than I’d like to a productivist, bean-counting sensibility. (There’s another attitude that I find perverse: scholars on the left who could otherwise rattle off chapter and verse dismissals of how the logic of capital perverts and twists our human possibilities are sometimes remarkably quick to crack the whip on their colleagues in order to enhance their own authority.) But ok, the point is partly to demonstrate that generalism doesn’t just arise spontaneously from personal intuition, that it is a practice of investigation and inquiry. My generalism is very much mine, much as two specialists in a relatively narrow field of study can nevertheless be extremely different in their understanding of the field. I’m sure over the course of a year of documenting my readings and work, the pattern of my interests will become fairly clear.

I’m going to do this mostly as short book notes or commentary, which is a category of writing on this blog that I enjoy doing anyway and haven’t done enough of over the past year.

So let’s start inside my own “discipline of record” with the 2009 Bancroft Prize-winning book The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen.

Why have I been reading this book, other than it is a terrific work of historical research and analysis? Partly because I think it offers a comprehensively new framework for thinking about the relationship between non-Western and Western empires in the 19th and early 20th Century that goes well beyond the case study in its implications. Much like Richard White’s The Middle Ground and Mechal Sobel’s The World They Made Together, Hämäläinen’s study is a careful questioning of some prevalent understandings of imperial and racial domination and of the nature of imperial frontiers.

The book argues that the newly formed Comanche empire of the late 18th-early 19th Century in south-central and southwest North America did not just happen to coalesce as the early United States pushed westward and the movement towards Mexican independence began, that these were connected events which were in turn part of changes in larger patterns of global trade and political formation. Rather than insisting that Comanche imperialism was somehow dependent upon or caused by the intrusion of the West, Hämäläinen argues that it was both profoundly related to but not a consequence of Spanish, U.S. and Mexican territorial and cultural power. His account refuses to interpret “Indian dispossession back in time to structure the narrative of early America”, insisting instead that the formation of the Comancheria has to be understood on its own terms, not as a prelude to some inevitable later imperialism.

Most immediately, the book inspires me to think differently about African polities between 1780 and 1880. Hämäläinen’s analysis underscores for me the extent to which much of the political history of African societies in this period has been either similarly subjugated to a backshadowed sense of some later inevitable imperialism or is frankly shoved aside for the ways in which it complicates post=1960 nation-making projects. The history of the Ndebele polity in what is now southern Zimbabwe (and other mfecane-linked episodes of state formation) is very much an “African imperialism” with some resemblances to the Comancheria as Hamalainen describes it. It’s inconvenient to dwell on it as such as this destabilizes both the production of southern African indigeneity and the assumption of the unique moral infamy of late 19th Century white imperialism.

In a larger sense, this kind of analysis also points the way out of some of the stalls and cul-de-sacs of postcolonial theory towards the work that Anthony Appiah has been pursuing in Cosmopolitanism and The Ethics of Identity, the critique of statism that James Scott has been refining in his last few books, or the wide-frame reconceptualizing of what we mean by “empire” that Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank have initiated recently. Hämäläinen’s book is the kind of really focused, detailed reconsideration that moves conceptual and intellectual debates ahead where more abstract or theoretical interventions (such as Nicolas Thomas’ Colonialism’s Culture or David Scott’s work) might not. For exactly that reason, it’s the kind of book that should quickly leapfrog out of the specialized historiography to which it most immediately belongs and be read widely, and not just by other historians or specialists with an interest in Native American or Western culture.

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2 Responses to A Generalist’s Work, Day 1

  1. Western Dave says:

    I know it’s practically the same topic, but James Brooks’ Cousins and Captives looks at the same time period in a slightly different way. Ned Blackhawk’s work is relevant too, same time different place (Great Basin). The three could be linked in some pretty interesting ways in an undergraduate class that looked at colonialism (say by having one third of the class read each book and then jigsawing groups together to present on common themes and differences and discuss why those might be).

  2. G. Weaire says:

    If it makes you feel better, you’re not proving, you’re demonstrating. Important difference.

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