By Bronwen Everill, University of Cambridge, Anindita Ghosh, University of Manchester, Ayala Levin, Northwestern University, Cyrus Schayegh, The Graduate Institute Geneva, Rosemary Wakeman, Fordham University, Carl Nightingale, University at Buffalo, and Joseph Ben Prestel, Freie Universität Berlin
Carl Nightingale and Joseph Ben Prestel
Every two years, scholars gather in a different city for the European Association for Urban History conference. The EAUH’s biannual conference is among the most prominent stages for historians working on cities. At this year’s conference in Rome, the Global Urban History Project (GUHP) invited a group of scholars to participate in a roundtable discussion on global urban history. The research of the five scholars who joined the roundtable speaks to the combination of urban and global history in different ways and in a variety of geographical settings: The roundtable brought together historians working on cities in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Not least, the event benefited from the lively interest of conference participants, as a number of fellow urban historians entered the discussion during the three-hour event.
Conceptual and epistemological issues were at the center of the roundtable in Rome. Participants raised questions about the analytical vocabulary that urban historians draw on, the geographical boundaries in which their work operates, the various scales that inform their studies, and the usefulness of different geographical and civilizational categories in urban history, such as “Europe.” After the conference concluded, GUHP asked all five participants to reflect on the event and to sum up their thoughts. Their responses not only illustrate the opportunities that the combination of global and urban history can encounter. They also underline the challenges and pitfalls that scholars working on cities in different world regions can highlight in this emerging field.
The concept of “Europe” in global history is problematic. For much of early modern and modern history, what constituted Europe and the European city was an open inquiry. Regions in the east and along the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Balkans were just being discovered by “western Europeans.” They were perceived as something other than Europe – a cultural geography “in between” Europe and the Orient. Their urban systems were tied to other, global places. This challenges us to think critically about the geographic imagination and its role in urban history. While travelers and early geographers were busy inventing “Europe” as an epistemological framework, European cities long enjoyed the extensive commercial, cultural, and intellectual webs that underpin globalization. Much of the excellent work on these European urban networks has been done in the context of empire and colonialism. The challenge is to branch out into the extraordinary migratory, cultural, and trade circuits whose patterns take us beyond the colonial framework alone. This means exploring European borderlands and port cities, the role of war and epidemics, the maritime circuits and multiethnic fabric of cities along the Mediterranean and in the Baltic region. From these points of view, the global appears in European cities in countless ways. Commercial and energy networks – such as British coaling stations and the Black Sea oil fields – also reveal the complex interaction between Europe and the global. By examining how the form of European urbanity changes as it “globalizes” we can also shift our gaze from elsewhere – beyond Europe – to the nature of European urban development itself. This provides new ways of imagining modernization and the evolution of cities across the continent. This is particularly important in relation to east central Europe, which has too long suffered from a Cold War reading of backwardness and retarded progress. Exploring global connections across the European continent, such as east central Europe’s contacts with China and communist countries worldwide might provide entirely new frameworks for understanding global urban history.
Building on my recent monograph, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World (Harvard UP, 2017), I urged us to consider a key problem that historians, rather than ignoring or circumventing, should address head-on: different spatial scales of human action (for instance the urban, national, and global) are not clearly distinguishable. In parallel, the key socio-spatial trait of the modern world is not simply globalization or urbanization or nation-state formation, to mention three oft-used paradigms.
Rather, that trait is what we may call transpatialization: the fact that cities, regions, states, and global circuits reconstituted and transformed each other much more thoroughly and at a much faster rhythm than earlier in history. Transpatialization denotes not one process, but a set of processes: of socio-spatial intertwinements. It is not an empirical unit, then. It is a heuristic umbrella. Its use, by historians, makes sense because the processes it bundles unfolded in tandem, and because it does not assign artificial primacy to any one presumably unitary process or to any one seemingly distinct scale.
I provided three examples to illustrate my contention: (1) Following the First World War, in some Middle Eastern countries surging nationalist rhetoric meant that city dwellers, many spearheading that rhetoric, re-imagined their home as a place vital to the nation-state. Cities were “nationalized,” discursively and structurally. In return, nation-states were not uniform but a conglomerate of competing cities: “urbanized.” (2) To lionize their national importance, city dwellers asserted their city’s weight in a field that transcended the nation-state—the global economy, say, or the Muslim world, or “their” multi-country region, e.g. Greater Syria. As a result, cities and nation-states were transnationally linked. (3) Some cities, like Beirut, played a role in the simultaneous nationalization-cum-globalization of “their” region, in this case, late nineteenth-century Greater Syria.
In conclusion, I offered three take-away points. First, relations between the urban, (nation-)state, regional, and global are not zero-sum affairs: one’s gain is not necessarily another’s loss. Second, multiple socio-spatial reconfigurations happen in tandem, and their pace of change accelerated from the nineteenth century (compared to earlier centuries). And third, we cannot take any one (presumably distinct) scale as the ground floor, as it were, of our historiographic imagination, and zoom up and down an imaginary ladder. History did not function that way, neither structurally nor in lived experience.
What I took away from the roundtable was the challenge that global history can bring to the temporality and geographies of urban history. Cyrus Schayegh’s argument about trans-spatialization and Ayala Levin’s thinking about how Africa was influencing European and American ideas of modernity were encouraging in their approaches to shifting the assumptions of which areas constitute a unit of power and influence. For me, this works well with my hope that historians of Atlantic cities could reconfigure their geographies to include West African cities, which can have more in common with some regional developments in the Atlantic than with continental changes in Eastern or Southern Africa. For instance, there were port cities that emerged in Bristol, England, Newport, Rhode Island, and Saint-Louis, Senegal that were oriented, economically, around both Atlantic trade (especially in enslaved labor), and around local and regional economic demand. In particular, I think being willing to shift the geographical (or temporal) scales can help answer questions about different levels and relationships of power in new ways, and especially about how power between interconnected cities changed over time as, for instance, power derived from economic advantage in the slave trade diminished.
Both Rosemary Wakeman’s and Anindita Ghosh’s call to not lose a sense of the truly local in urban development in comparative and connective global approaches was not lost on me though! A similar concern applies in African historiography, where historians are very aware of the tension between cosmopolitan, globally-oriented African histories, and histories rooted in the place of the city in its local and regional context. I think it’s important for both conceptions of the city to exist simultaneously – what is local about it, and what overlapping regions or networks it might fit into at another scale – but not to assume that either a global frame or an “area studies” frame would necessarily be the default way to place the city.
In response to the query about what to do with the new geographies, and whether it is planetary coverage that we are striving for, my answer is, no, it is not. Admittedly, a spatial shift would yield newer paradigms as Bronwen Everill pointed out with the example of the Atlantic in histories of urban Africa. However, universal models of the ‘global’ or ‘urban’ need reframing in the light of multiple histories of the local. New geographies in this sense should not be simply accretive to a universal, already fixed model, but should fundamentally change our approach to studying urban history.
I think Rosemary Wakeman raised a very important point about where Euro-America stands in this debate. I found her use of the trope of the transnational very useful in the Euro-American context rather than the global (which carries more baggage). Perhaps it is time for Europeanists to look at transnational transfers to see how their own urban impulses were shaped and influenced as they travelled around the world, traded and conquered places. The onus of consumption of the global then does not lie with the non-West (as Ayala Levin pointed out in her paper, Africa was not just a peripheral region and a receptacle of grand narratives of the urban). This shift would open up a real conversation.
A final thought: The terms urban and global assume fixity, and are really residues of early architectural and planning histories. But increasingly urban histories are about people – less fixed, and less predictable – and their use of city spaces. Do we therefore also need a shift in the approach to what we study? Are we interested in buildings and spaces or rather their use?
My concern with the inadequacy of considering urbanism in Africa in terms of the perceived binaries of global versus local or urban versus rural have met Bronwnen Everill’s similar concerns over the location of African urbanism as part of the trans-Atlantic world, and Anindita Ghosh’s concern regarding the inadequate translation of urban planning concepts in India. It is particularly the latter point that resonates with my call to rethink disciplinary knowledge formation from the South. By this I do not mean necessarily the abandonment of established disciplinary terminologies. Instead, I propose to reflect on their coming into being and their usage in various historical moments and geographies.
In this formulation, thinking with and from Southern cities is a critical approach that considers the formation of disciplinary knowledge via travel and translation, the positioning of the historical agents that enabled these translations, and the effects of these translations on the constitution of various categories, including geographic, such as Europe, the Middle East or indeed, the South. Gesturing to Edward Said’s Orientalism, I turn the question of the relationship between area studies and global urbanism into an epistemological one and posit that if the city (and its necessary counterpart, the countryside) has been a privileged object of study in area studies – and the various disciplines that constitute it – then it can serve as a lens to critically reflect on the latter’s postulates. Indeed, as Rosemary Wakeman has argued, history has much to contribute to the contemporary theorization of urbanism. I propose to put to scrutiny these theories in light of their histories of formation, and, following Cyrus Schayegh’s suggestion, situate the urban in multiple scales of affiliation that well-extend area studies’ geographic and epistemic demarcations.
Carl Nightingale and Joseph Ben Prestel
The participants’ reflections demonstrate that global urban history accommodates a wide array of research interests – from a renewed consideration of scale in history to an analysis of the particular global entanglements of cities in east central Europe. While these are far from all the paths that historians in the field can take, the participants thus outlined a variety of possible approaches as characteristic of global urban history. Ultimately, this variety does not only illustrate the option of choice, but also highlights the question of power: Who gets to decide which scale is included in studies of global urban history? Which geographical concepts will rise in prominence and which concepts will become less central? Does the methodological promise of a less Eurocentric approach to urban history dovetail with a scholarly practice that brings in a larger number of scholars, students, institutions, and archives that are located outside of Western Europe and North America?
In this way, the roundtable discussion in Rome not only provided intriguing insight into the dynamic evolution of global urban history, but it also raised critical points that scholars who are interested in this field will need to debate in the future. Two events that GUHP is co-organizing in 2019 will provide ample of room for such debate: A joint conference with the World History Association in San Juan, June 27-29, one of whose themes is ‘Cities in Global Contexts,’ and a joint conference with the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester, July 11-12, entitled ‘The Pursuit of Global Urban History: A Dialogue Between Two Fields.’ The aim of these conferences is to continue the discussion begun last summer in Rome.