All the stories in the world

The questioning of Eurocentrism has changed the ways of making history: it is to the connections between stories that we must now pay attention, in a broader and global vision.

Since the late 1990s, the stories that appear global multiplied, first in the English-speaking academic world, then everywhere else. Beyond the apparent editorial consensus, responding both to historical practices and public curiosity, the question remains of knowing what exactly is going on. Is global history fundamentally different from what has long been called international history, world history, transnational history?? If only a new attempt by historians to adapt to a changing world, to current events which meet the globalization or globalization?

Global history as a perspective

Sebastian Conrad, professor of global history Freie University from Berlin, is a specialist in intellectual history and has worked in particular on Germany and Japan. His insights into the links between German nationalism and globalization have largely renewed national history. And it is as a confirmed practitioner of global history that he proposed, in 2016, the work What is Global History?, noteworthy analysis of the historiographic phenomenon and its multiple ramifications (a first version was published in German in 2013). Now translated into French, the work provides a panorama of the promises and aporias of global history that remains very current. Didactic, supported by illuminating examples which clearly show the contributions of this or that investigation and its historiographical inscriptions, What is global history? appears as a sort of travel guide into the twists and turns of global history.

Since the turn of the century, the consideration of globalization phenomena in the academic field has been accompanied by a questioning of Eurocentrism and the sole model of the nation-state. In this context, it has become necessary, Sebastian Conrad reminds us, to move away from a narrowly national vision of the past, to propose a more inclusive history, which takes into account the interactions, circulations, and exchanges that constitute the modern world. Without English, he immediately emphasizes that global history is only a perspective, a heuristic device (p. 17), allowing us to ask new questions about objects that can also be considered differently. It also immediately anticipates a criticism traditionally addressed to global historians, suspected of an overarching and/or totalizing approach. For Conrad, the project is not to do world history in its entirety, but rather to analyze the intersections between global processes and local affairs. From this point of view, global history would be distinguished from world history (or at least one of the meanings of this term), often practiced without connection with national histories, or without anchoring in well-defined areas.

Competing approaches

Conrad also refines the attempts at definition by comparison with other approaches. The second chapter is thus devoted to this world history, of which Herodotus, Simia Qian or Ibn Khaldun are presented as precursors. The author recalls that gender gains consideration from the XVIe century, and at the same time European hegemony imposed itself on the rest of the world XIXe century. But beyond this chronological timeline, what is notable in the genelogy of world history is that it refers not A world, but of the visions of the world that have changed according to times and places. However, writing the history of these relationships with the world is also part of the agenda of the global historian.

To better understand the object, the historian returns to the connections and differences with other competing approaches, from history compared to post-colonialism, through the theory of world systems or that of multiple modernities. Trying to go beyond national perspectives is indeed not the monopoly of global history. Comparative history, energized by connected history which emphasizes the circulation of things, people and ideas, the historian clearly states that it is a part of global history. Just as transnational history, which broadens the perspectives of national history, by providing new framings, has a lot in common with global history. Far from stagnant theoretical positions and sub-disciplinary barriers, the author underlines how all these approaches feed off each other, intertwine, and are often ideal types on which history, in practice, plays out.

The objective of the book, however, is not to say that everything is in everything. For the author, it is important to identify concepts and frameworks specific to global history. He thus insists on the centrality of the concept of integration, which postulates that a society cannot be understood in isolation. It also attempts to specify the space and time in which this global story unfolds. The historian recalls the importance of constructing spatial frameworks adapted to the scale of analysis, taking the example of the history of guano. The idea is to draw a frame not a priori, but which is constituted according to the places where the object of investigation takes: from the Peruvian coasts to the Pacific islands, then to Great Britain or the United States, in this case, it is an adequate geography which determines the space considered, more than divisions or pre-established borders. The scale of time must also be reconsidered depending on the object, even if the long term has often been favored by global historians. What matters for Conrad, more than the chosen time interval, is the ability to account for the synchronicity of events, to identify moments where connections are made.

Critical feedback

While refining the definition of global history, Conrad takes a distance from the content throughout the work to analyze the positions of global historians, engaging in questioning the modalities of writing, perspectives, points of view. Closer to a test than to the manual, this part is extremely stimulating. Even if these questions are well known today (at least more obvious than when the first edition was published ten years ago), we will appreciate here the elegance of Conrad's style and his ability to draw readers into the thread of his thoughts. , by offering sometimes complex analyzes simply and without jargon. Thus, as he reminds us, talking about the world or even worlds is always done from a place, often from Europe, and very often in English. How, to this extent, can we claim global? How to balance voices, without falling into differentialism, cultural relativism, or only taking a compensatory approach? We know that the concepts used in the social sciences are often incapable of reflecting the diversity of points of view or modes of knowledge. They nonetheless remain essential. The echo of Chakrabarty’s observations is very present here. Especially since the operations are complex and there are numerous points of vigilance. It is not Europocentrism that we must track down, but different forms of Europocentrism, that of the point of view and that of the object.

Thus, historians continue, sometimes unconsciously, to formulate their questions with the idea of ​​evaluating the dominant role of Europe, even to call it into question. And in any case, the idea that there is a purely African, purely Chinese or purely European history is fragile, even dangerous. As for reflections around the concepts of civilization or national narrative, often acclaimed by the general public, these are also pitfalls. In line with this reflection, the author questions, at the end of his reflection, the reality of the inclusive character of global history, certainly open to the world, but whose language, financing, places of production and questions generally come from the States. United States and Europe. The company's declared cosmopolitanism has its limits, and becoming aware of this, in the absence of effective remedies, is a first step.

Inventing writing forms?

Drawing up an assessment while suggesting possible avenues and improvements is not the least of the strengths of this important book, which is neither a plea nor a criticism. Its usefulness, both for students and for a wider audience, is obvious, and its translation into French welcome. Among the numerous essays on the history of global history, it clearly stands out for its educational dimension, its refusal of a hagiographic posture and a critical position always based on examples.

Certainly, we could point out other questions specific to the practice of global history, return to the nagging questions of sources and the establishment of corpora, and the biases that any generalizing enterprise involves from this point of view. We could also question the modalities of the historical narrative. It would undoubtedly be instructive to have Sébastian Conrad's opinion on some current trends in the writing of global history, very present in French publishing: sums of dates, dictionaries or encyclopedias which globalize while fragmenting history in their form. After the success ofWorld history of France, published in 2017, world histories, world histories and global histories (of the Second World War, revolutions, socialism, colonial France to give only a few examples) have established themselves as a form of popularization of historical knowledge.

Another historiographical question, linked to this form of writing, concerns authorship and the functioning of the collective. What added value does this collective writing have?? What is the reality of collective work in global history?? If common sense implies that global scales lead to necessary collaborations, the resulting stories remain in question.

Moreover, and also concerning the question of authors, or more precisely of female authors, it would undoubtedly be relevant, alongside the observation of the imbalance between Europe and the United States on the one hand, and the rest of the world on the other hand, pointed out by Conrad, to also question the relative discretion of historians in the field of global history. Why does she write, or at least claim to be, more commonly in the masculine? So many open questions which show, in any case, the vitality of a field whose contours are fortunately still vague, and therefore open to new experiences of research and writing.