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Unweaving Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”

Pause for a moment while reading this review and check out the inside collar of your shirt or blouse. There’s a good chance that the garment you’re wearing is not only made out of cotton but was made in a country other than the one you’re living in: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala, or somewhere else with appropriately low wages. Cotton, in short, is so much a part of our daily lives that its ubiquity as an industrial good and its central role in global trade are invisible. In an age of smart phones and Dreamliners, it’s easy to forget how humble cotton remains one of the most valuable and widely traded goods on the planet.

It’s easy, too, to forget that this plant has a history that is in large part the history of global capitalism–easy, that is, until the recent publication of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, published in late 2014 by Random House. Beckert, originally from Germany and the co-director of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Initiative on Global History, was already well-known to many American colleagues as a historian of capitalism. His 2001 The Monied Metropolis was a key early work in a generation of scholarship that has transformed a subfield formerly thought of as dusty, if not dead, into one of historical academe’s growth areas. Indeed, Beckert was an early champion of the field at Harvard, founding a Program on the subject there, and has helped shaped many a dissertation project–Louis Hyman on debt in modern America, Vanessa Ogle on time synchronization, Ian Klaus on trust and capitalism–in a burgeoning literature. But with Empire of Cotton, Beckert takes an approach that is still often focused on Anglophone, if not just American capitalism, and seeks to apply it to one of the greatest global goods of all time.

Harvard Historian Sven Beckert, author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”

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Book Launch: Leslie James, “George Padmore and Decolonization from Below”

Here’s an exciting event for readers located in London: on Tuesday, February 3, Dr.Leslie James, a Lecturer in World History at the University of Cambridge, will discuss her new book, George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire, which appeared recently with Palgrave MacMillan.

Readers outside of the fields of British History, or studies of the Black Atlantic, might not have heard of Padmore’s name. But the London-based, Trinidad-born Marxist led a life that, as James’ book’s subtitle hints, ran through many of the major themes of the twentieth century. Whether one is interested in Padmore’s relationship with Pan-Africanist figures like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, or just interested in following a life that illuminates the twentieth century more broadly, George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below promises to be an illuminating read.

The event will be hosted by our friends at LSE Ideas, a unit of the London School of Economics. The event will take place from 6:30 PM to 8 PM in Room B.13 at 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and will be chaired by LSE’s Odd Arne Westad, with Professors Richard Drayton (King’s College London) and Bill Schwarz (Queen Mary University) appearing as discussants.

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Assistant/Associate Professor in World and Global History, University of Macau

The University of Macau has advertised a tenure-track position for an Assistant or Associate Professor of World and Global History, expected to begin in August 2015. “Applicants,” the call explains,

Applicants should have a PhD in hand by the time of employment and some teaching experience, and should specialize in one or more of the following research and teaching areas: Ancient/Modern/Contemporary European-Asian Relations, and related areas of the History of Europe, South, Southeast or East Asia. The successful candidate may be required to teach General Education courses in Global Issues in History and Culture. Command of at least one European or Asian language (in addition to English), relevant to her/his area of specialization, may be considered an advantage.

Applicants are invited to visit the University’s vacancies site for more information; to apply online, they should use its job application portal. (The reference number for this position is: FSS/DHIST/WH/01/2015).

The review of applications will commence on March 1, 2015, so make sure to submit your application by then! Finalists will be invited for interviews. Hence, “applicants,” notes the posting, “may consider their applications not successful if they were not invited for an interview within 3 months of application.”

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Of Nation-States and the United States: An Interview with Ryan Irwin

It’s hard to escape the conclusion today that writing about American decline is a growth industry. For at least the last decade, pundits have spoken of a “post-American century” in which, China, the BRICS, or the “Next Eleven” will constitute an alternative power center to Washington. Scanning global headlines, whether it’s the recently published The Governance of China (a collection of speeches on global governance by Chinese General Secretary Xi Jiping), Vladimir Putin’s assertion of a “Russian world” or the inauguration of the Eurasian Union, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pretensions to lead the Muslim World against an alleged upswell in anti-Islamic attitudes launched by Europe, the world does not lack today for leaders of global and regional powers claiming to articulate a post-American moment. Conversely, in the United States itself, neoconservatives like Robert Kagan argue that “superpowers don’t get to retire“–that the United States must re-assert itself globally around the world to respond to challengers like China, Russia, or Turkey.

Lost, however, in all of the debates about new powers or the reinvention of old ones is what exactly the American project stood for in the first place. What do we mean when we talk about a “post-American world”? About an international system of rules and practices anchored by Washington? True, look to the writings of pundits like Walter Russell Mead or Thomas Friedman, and you can find some articulation of this vision. Even then, however, it’s difficult to understand the roots of our current global system of economic and financial globalization secured by overwhelming American military might and the embedding of American power into alliance systems in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. How did America, “the most belated of all nations” (Theodore Roosevelt), come to occupy such a dominating position in the international system? Why did American élites come to favor this style of internationalism, as opposed to flat-out imperialism and annexation of territory? Assuming this system is actually coming to an end today, challenged by the emergence of a multipolar world system, why didn’t the whole house come crashing down when faced with the Soviet challenge, the explosion in the number of sovereign nation-states through decolonization, or the collapse of Bretton Woods?

In short, understanding the present and future of American internationalism requires understanding its past–not only through the lens of America, moreover, but understanding how the American project interacted with exogenous shifts and shocks to the international system, too–the ebb and flow of German, then Russian power, or decolonization, for example.

Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

It’s for this reason that the work of Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum, is so valuable. Irwin, an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY-Albany, writes on the United States in the world, but from an international perspective that makes his work unusual. As comfortable in U.S. national archives as in those of the United Nations–or South Africa, Irwin seeks to understand the trajectory of American power as it interacted with an international order of its making, but not always under its control. We were delighted, then, to sit down with him this winter to discuss his evolution as a historian, his early work, and his ongoing projects.

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University of Pittsburgh, Postdoctoral Fellowship in World History

Our colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh have advertised a neat post-doctoral position in World History that should attract readers of the Global History Forum and Global History Blog. “The World History Center and the Department of History seek applicants,” the advertisement notes,

for a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in world history beginning fall 2015, with the option of renewal for a second year. We seek candidates who can demonstrate strong training in global historical studies, and whose research interests are cross-disciplinary, multiregional, and/or have varied time frames. The successful candidate will participate in research, teaching, and other activities of the center and the department. Research will include individual research plus work on such Center projects as the Alliance for Learning in World History and the Collaborative for Historical Information and Analysis.  Teaching will include two world history courses each year. Salary and benefits are competitive. Candidates must have completed their Ph.D. within the past eight years but before June 2015.

Applicants are requested to send a letter of application, a full CV, a dissertation chapter, and three letters of recommendation to Diego Holstein, Chair, World History Postdoctoral Search Committee, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Application materials may be submitted by e-mail to holstein@pitt.edu. The deadline for applications is February 27, 2015.

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Call for Papers: “The Global Public: Its Power and Its Limits” (German Historical Institute, London)

Our friends at the German Historical Institute in London are organizing a conference this coming autumn that will surely interest followers of the Toynbee Prize Foundation. Entitled “The Global Public: Its Power and Its Limits,” the conference, taking place from October 22-24, 2015 and organized by Valeska Huber (GHI London) and Jürgen Osterhammel (Koblenz),

will explore theories and practices of a global public in the long twentieth century. Recent forms of mass protest and debates around open, censored or intercepted flows of information have triggered debates about the power and limits of the global public. Yet many preconditions for such a global public had their origin in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when global travel became more standardised and new media such as telegraphy, mass print and later film entered the scene. During the two world wars, the global public was mobilized and manipulated in an unprecedented manner. Communication theorists and internationalists of the inter-war period, such as John Dewey, Harold Lasswell and H.G. Wells, saw it as a rising political force that would change future decision-making. In war or crisis, peace activists and humanitarians evoked it as a moral tribunal and normative entity. The organisers of cultural and sporting events hoped for new worldwide audiences, which businessmen and advertisers associated with opportunities for profit-making on a new scale. Politicians recognised the global public as a force for prestige and image cultivation, for instance during the Cold War, turning it into an arena of intense competition. At the same time the related technologies, especially print media and film, and their penetration of different world regions and layers of society provided a field of experimentation, and the limits of the global public, on a geographical and social but also on a normative scale, remained visible.

The call for papers elaborates on the themes of the conference. Those interested in participating are requested to send proposals including their  name, institutional affiliation or place of residence and title of paper; an abstract no longer than 500 words, and a brief CV to huber@ghil.ac.uk no later than February 28, 2015. Participants not based in the UK should not hesitate to apply: travel and accommodation expenses will be covered.

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Dipesh Chakrabarty, “From Globalization to Global Warming: A Historiographical Transition”

The 2014 Toynbee Prize Lecture was delivered by Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago) on Saturday, January 3, 2015, at the 2015 American Historical Association Annual Meeting. In his lecture, entitled “From Globalization to Global Warming: A Historiographical Transition,” Professor Chakrabarty offers his reflections on the field of global history today. Prior to the talk, recorded and available below via YouTube, Toynbee Prize Foundation Vice-President Darrin McMahon (Dartmouth College) awards Professor Chakrabarty with the Toynbee Prize and introduces him. 

Dipesh Chakrabarty, who has taught at Chicago since 1995, is a scholar of South Asian history, postcolonial studies, and global history. Perhaps best known for his 2000 volume Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty has made major contributions to the historical fields at the core of the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s concerns. Epitomizing the mixture of breadth and depth that distinguishes major historians, he is currently at work both on a book project on the implications of the science of climate change for historical and political thinking as well as two other future projects on democracy and political thought in South Asia and the cultural history of Muslim-Bengali nationalism. Chakrabarty received his BSc honors degree from Presidency College, University of Calcutta, a postgraduate Diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, and a PhD (history) from the Australian National University.

The Toynbee Prize was established to recognize social scientists for significant academic and public contributions to humanity. Currently, it is awarded every other year for work that makes a significant contribution to the study of global history. Previous winners include Albert Hirschman, Raymond Aron, Ralf Dahrendorf, and Natalie Zemon Davis; its most recent recipients prior to Chakrabarty are John McNeill and Michael Adas

Many thanks to Andrew Cohn, Toby Philippe and Tahir Patankar with technical support for the event.

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Toynbee Prize Lecture at the 2015 AHA

Visitors to this year’s American Historical Association Annual Meeting in New York City are reminded of the Toynbee Prize Lecture taking place at this year’s conference.

At 2:30 pm on Saturday, January 3, in the Central Park East room at the Sheraton New York (811 Seventh Avenue), the Foundation will be awarding the Toynbee Prize to Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago), who will deliver a lecture entitled “From Globalization to Global Warming: A Historiographical Transition.” Professor Chakrabarty will be introduced by Toynbee Foundation Vice-President Darrin McMahon.  The Toynbee Prize Foundation hopes to make available the text of Professor Chakrabarty’s lecture on this website shortly following the event.

For maps of the area and the hotel, see this program, supplied by the American Historical Association.

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Immigrants, Railroads, America, Germany: An Interview with Julío Robert Decker

People often ask scholars of history what, exactly, the discipline constitutes–what its unique methodologies are, what precisely its subject of study is, and what contemporary questions it offers to clarify. As our recent Global History Forum interviews have shown, one of the joys of the field is that it rejects the reassuring but often illusory national containers of traditional historiography, and that, precisely by doing so, it can help us, a twenty-first century readership, understand problems that exceed the boundaries of the nation.

Look through the headlines today, or follow the reception of recent works in the field, and potential points of intervention and debates already launched are everywhere. In the United States, for example, President Barack Obama’s November decision to grant “deportation relief” to millions of illegal immigrants has revived a heated debate about American identity and obligation. From all across the political spectrum, commentators and activists put forward arguments about the role race does, does not, should, or should not play in American identity. The argument that many illegal immigrants have entered the country unfairly while tens of thousands of more “deserving” non-Latin American immigrants wait in line raises all sorts of questions about the shifting moral sentiments towards Latinos, Asians, and Europeans as “good” and “bad” future Americans. Even the counter-use of the the term “undocumented immigrant” as a term opposed to the more judgmental “illegal immigrant” reminds us of the entire regime of documentation that accompanies the immigration process in America today.

Julio Robert Decker, feature of our latest Interview with Global Historians
Julio Robert Decker, feature of our latest Interview with Global Historians

As global history at its best–and our guest to this edition of Global History Forum–reminds us, however, debates like these have a long history. More than that, debates like these are also inevitably entangled in networks of ideas that go beyond the nation-state itself. In his work to date, historian Robert Julio Decker, a scholar at the Technical University in Darmstadt, has explored the history of immigration regimes, while his future work promises to contribute the exploding literature on the history of capitalism. Speaking with him earlier this year during his tenure as a fellow at Harvard University, we discuss his path to global history, his early work, and his ongoing research on the global history of capitalism in the United States and the German Empire.

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Apply to Be an Global History Blog Editor-At-Large!

The Toynbee Prize Foundation (TPF) invites applications for Editors-at-Large for its Global History Blog. Through its website, TPF promotes both long-form interviews and articles on the field of global history produced by TPF’s Executive Director as well as shorter-form material that is nonetheless of interest to audiences interested in developments in the field: job postings, cross-postings of material from blogs, and recently-published articles in the field. Working with staff from the Toynbee Foundation and George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, Editors-at-Large will nominate pre-curated content for posting on the Toynbee Foundation’s website via the Foundation’s WordPress PressForward plug-in. Content nominated by the Editors-at-Large will then be forwarded to TPF Editors, who will write the introduction / commentary on selected pieces. Candidates who distinguish themselves may receive the opportunity to write commentary themselves or, eventually, to produce their own in-depth content for the website.

This is an excellent opportunity for graduate students wishing to gain more exposure to one of the most vibrant fields in the discipline today, but undergraduates with a strong interest in history are also welcome to apply. Professors teaching courses in global history who wish to involve their students in the field by nominating them to serve as Editors-at-Large at Large are also welcome to apply. Applicants are invited to use the form at the Editors-at-Large page of the Foundation’s website to apply, sending in (a) a 300-word biography, (b) a 300-word statement of motivation, and (c) a link to a post that they think would be of interest to TPF’s readership. Applications will be assessed on a rolling basis, but successful candidates will be able to start immediately. Questions about the position can be addressed to toynbeefoundation@gmail.com.

You can find detailed instructions on how to apply at this page, also available through the “Participate” drop-down menu on the upper right of your browser window.