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Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Origins, Inspirations, Ways Forward.

The genesis for Everyday Empires can be found, as is often case, in the quotidian interstices of academic life – in its linoleum-floored, poster-bedraggled corridors, as much as in the formal arenas of conference panel, seminar room or library carrel. As historians of French colonial empire, and U.S. empire respectively, we were co-teaching an MA course in Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. Working through a syllabus that juxtaposed the work of Susan Pedersen and Joel Dinerstein with that of April Merleaux or Keith Watenpaugh, we lingered after class sessions, digesting our students’ comments and trying to parse the overlaps, gaps and tensions between the fields in play. It was clear that we were both interested in the ways empires elaborated their hierarchical “rule of difference” and in how that imperial rule was experienced on the ground level through everyday things – such as racing bicycles, or the spare parts for Fordson tractors – and through the global circuits (ideological, commodity, and military) that supported them. At the same time, it was also clear that while we were concerned with “trans-imperial” perspectives our work was very much rooted in the historiographical and archival legacies of our fields.[1] If we found that our historical protagonists thought and moved globally, and that they skilfully exploited the in-between spaces of empires that wielded immense power but were never able to saturate their subjects’ lives, should not our own intellectual and historiographical frameworks function in a similar manner?

Everyday Empires aims to foster a greater dialogue and intellectual engagement between historians of Ottoman, U.S., French, Habsburg, Qing, German, British, and Spanish empires. It seeks to extend Ann Laura Stoler’s observation of empire in North America to the globe: that the study of empire must not begin with a “color-coded school map with fixed, clearly bounded units, but with a notion of empire that puts movement and oscillation at the center: to see them instead as states of becoming (and, for those ruled, as states of deferral), as polities with protean rather than fixed taxonomies and mobile populations whose designated borders at any one time were not necessarily the force field in which they operated or even their sovereign limits.”[2] Imperial structures and empires did not, we know, exist in isolation. Empires shared ideas, leaked and imitated practices, and competed with one other. Their administrators crossed borders seeking solutions and answers to local problems. Colonial subjects looked and travelled abroad, including to the grand stages of international institutions or the cathedrals of industrial modernity, seeking answers, publicity, and methods to contest imperial control.[3] And yet historians so often remain rooted in the methodologies, historiographies, and archives that we were trained in and know so well. If we are to write trans-imperial histories, we must begin to locate our intellectual frameworks within the in-between spaces of imperial historiographies and imaginations.

Where, then, is the everyday of empire in a world determined by movement and circulation rather than “fixed taxonomies”? What happens to our understanding of empire when we look at the liminal spaces or staging posts that separate, or gradate, metropole and colony? What happens when home and abroad, the domestic and foreign are not exclusive but shifting and mutually constitutive?[4] These histories call for a multi-sited approach that localizes global history and makes clear how the everyday practices and agency of both the colonizer and colonized were produced and transformed through trans-imperial connections.[5] To do so, Everyday Empires places emphasis on a variety of frameworks, from new materialist approaches in Science and Technology Studies to the storied traditions of Alltagsgeschichte.[6] Each panel is organized around a theme that brings together junior and senior scholars working within a discrete imperial framework. By combining and mixing we hope to foster a dialogue on the in-between spaces of empire, to ask scholars to interrogate empire as a process emergent through the everyday, ontologically negotiated material practices of its citizens and subjects: from children’s play to postcards; from military work to coffeehouses; from British sitcoms to steamships.

  • Dr. Nathan Cardon & Dr. Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham

[1] The “trans-imperial” is itself a protean concept still to be fully defined. Beyond this conference see the recently held “Harmsworth Conference on Transimperial US History” at Oxford University, May 27-28, 2016 (http://www.rai.ox.ac.uk/event/harmsworth-conference-transimperial-us-history) and “In-Between Empires: Trans-imperial History in a Global Age” to be held at the Freie Universtät Berlin, Sept. 15-16, 2017 (http://events.history.ac.uk/event/show/15783). See also Paul Kramer, “Trans-Imperial Histories: Spanish Roots of the American Colonial State in the Philippines” in Maria Elizalde, ed., Filipinas: Un País Entre Dos Imperios (Barcelona, 2011) and E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul (Cornell, 2012).

[2] Ann Laura Stoler, “Intimidations of Empire: Predicament of the Tactile and Unseen” in Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, 2006), 9-10.

[3] Nile Green, “Fordist Connections: The Automotive Integration of the United States and Iran”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 58, 2 (2016), 1-32.

[4] See for example Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill, 2000); Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, eds. At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, 2006); and Kristin Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill, 2007).

[5] Paul Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World” The American Historical Review (December 2011), 1365.

[6] See for example Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnological Change (Cambridge, MA, 1995); David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago, 2013); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1984); Alf Lüdtke, “Introduction: What is the History of Everyday Life and Who Are its Practitioners” in Lüdtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, 1995); and Paul Steege, Andrew Stuart Bergerson, Maureen Healy and Pamela E. Swett, “The History of Everyday Life: A Second Chapter” The Journal of Modern History 80:2 (June 2008).