In an academic world where we all need a tagline, I find myself hard to categorise. Writing the little blurbs for websites or talks is excruciating. British or imperial? International or Global? Cultural or social (or political)? Nineteenth or Twentieth century? And now, increasingly (and slightly surprisingly, even to me) the United States or the Sea? Since moving to Sydney I’ve ended up writing about Australian history too. What sort of historian am I?
At the heart of all my work is an interest in universities and the institutions and spaces of knowledge production, but embracing the label of ‘university historian’ leads pretty directly to eyes glazing over at dinner parties and almost certain career death.
This seemed a worry too, for the presenters who gave papers at a workshop on British History in the ‘Antipodes’ in May 2015. Despite working with British sources, almost all of them seemed reluctant to adopt the label ‘British historian’.
In my contribution to the special journal issue of History Australia (13:1) that grows out of the workshop, I try to think about this disavowal in the context of recent developments in both transnational history (and its global, international and new imperial iterations) and the continuing robust life of more insular national approaches.
Australia and Britain were (and are) made both by cross-border processes (such as the tendrils of capital, the routes of imperial and transnational migration, the regimes of land, labour, trade and consumption), and also by local efforts to create, resist and direct these forces.
As scholars we too are made by and in these dual processes. We are conditioned and enabled by thick networks of connection, and by variously resourced and located institutions. We work in the midst of specific currencies of legitimacy and we are fashioned by distinct intellectual and economic geographies that, in the case of the ‘Antipodes’, still reflect our particular connected history as part of the English-speaking former British empire that now buys us good access to the international universities, overseas students, archives, journals and funding opportunities that are so crucial to the contemporary (neo)liberal intellectual order.
In the article I suggest that our task as historians might be, not to disavow, but instead to claim these multiple labels (though I would say that wouldn’t I?)
It might be to situate our histories within the supply chains (of commerce, governance, labour, belief etc) that stretched across the globe, and also within the particular polities that sought to locate and contain these in various contexts.
These multiple geographies not only shaped the lives of our historical subjects, they also (if in a somewhat different guise) continue to shape our own.
Here is the free-to-download full text pre-print version of the article. For the subscription version visit ‘Afterword: What was Britain? Where is its history?’ History Australia 13:1 (2016), 153–159.
The full issue is here. It includes pieces by James Vernon, Leigh Boucher, David Blaazer, Kate Fullager, Kirsten McKenzie, Andrew J. May, Tanya Evans, Charlotte Greenhalgh, and Shurlee Swain with a brilliant bonus meditation of a life in history by Wilf Prest.