Area Studies and the "False Song of Globalism"

By Padraic Kenney, Indiana University.

The following Presidential Address was given on November 19, 2016 at the 48th Annual ASEEES Convention and published in the January 2017 edition of NewsNet.

This may be the most uncertain, fragile moment in the history of our profession. Now, any scholar should be wary of such categorical statements. After all, the study of Eurasia, Russia, and Eastern Europe has been out of favor in the United States before, and certainly funding and other forms of support have often been hard to come by. But we now face the prospect of the United States turning away from the world, instead embracing an America First isolationism that, for some, recalls the tenor of the 1920s. We can wonder whether there will still be federal support for study of our part of the world, and whether languages and study abroad will still attract students. We also wonder whether American isolationism will leave countries in the region isolated themselves, left vulnerable to attacks from abroad and to the impact of the next global recession.

And yet let’s examine that uncertainty and not accept certain doom. We can’t really tell where our profession, and the search for knowledge we hold dear, is headed. In April, Donald Trump delivered an address on foreign policy in which he promised that America would no longer “surrender … to the false song of globalism.”¹ As with so many of his statements over the last year, we don’t know what this means. The focus of his remarks was on international trade and military agreements, not on knowledge of the world itself. But whether “globalism” means merely the structures and connectors of globalization, or places under suspicion any interest in what happens in the rest of the world, the current moment, at once global and anti-global, threatens our scholarly community. It also challenges us to bring the area into the global, and not necessarily in the ways we have pursued for the last two decades.

Paradoxically, this new turning away from the world is anchored in an assertion that the rest of the world must finally be subject to common-sense American scrutiny. In this line of thinking, we have to examine the books to determine what other countries gain in international trade agreements; what other countries can do to prevent the movement of their citizens; and whether countries could do more to pay for their own defense. Now, I suppose we could raise our hands and say, “Scrutiny? I am professionally trained to do just that! Let me study regional armies and trade pacts for you.” But this will of course be a faux scrutiny, obsessed with the ways that the world does or does not pay sufficient respect to America. Genuine knowledge of the languages, histories, cultures of the countries involved is not necessary to draw up such balance sheets.

We are in one perverse way fortunate: our region is also once again at the center of attention. In the last twenty years, as the stirring stories of Communism’s toppling faded from popular view, a diverse hodgepodge of narrative lines replaced the unitary know-your-enemy plotline, and Eastern Europe/Russia/Eurasia became a normal part of the assemblage of areas studied on American campuses. Now, amid the myriad tensions of our era, we have a complex story to tell, as exemplified by the remarks at this Annual convention’s plenary discussion on “Russia’s New Role in the Middle East.” However, a one-dimensional interest does not necessarily bring beneficial effects on scholarship. We may see antipathy to knowledge of the world become acceptable, making the funding struggles of the last decade seem a golden age. We still have a President who went to school in Indonesia; the fact that the new First Lady was born in Slovenia does not mean that study of that country or any of its neighbors will gain new recognition.

But enough complaining. Our problems do not differ in their essence from those of other area studies fields, or from those of the liberal arts in general, but they are heightened in a moment that is, again, both globalized and quite antiglobal. What do we offer, and how do we make that offer visible? How, in this crucial moment of a transition that may be as much cultural as it is political, do we present what we do and make the case for it? Though one could approach the question of the future of area studies as a problem of funding, or of the way that scholars present their work, I’d like to think here about the way we conceptualize the world.² Scholars in the ASEEES community have always relied upon two things: first, a sense that our part of the world is of vital interest; second, commitment to the value of understanding region from a multidisciplinary perspective. Inhabiting one perspective, we also understand how we might look beyond what our own disciplines have taught us.

Let’s get back to first principles. I understand area studies not just as a means of bringing together scholars from various disciplines united by a common subject area, though we do that, of course. Area studies, at its heart, is a holistic approach to the study of a place; it is born in most of us as undergraduates, where we encounter, at more or less the same time, the literature, the film, the art, the history, and the current politics of a place. Then we go there, and experience it through all of these ways. I’m sure most of us have stories of that path we have individually taken. In my case, my work is still in some way infused by the sheer awe and almost giddy delight I felt when IPadraic Kenney first entered the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow, more than thirty years ago. So too my first encounters with youth opposition movements in Poland a few years later shaped the way I thought about agency and resistance in history long before I began writing about 1989.

If I were to use this opportunity to put up a slide of Vladimir Putin’s impressive physique—a cliché for which PowerPoint was invented, I think—we here would have no difficulty viewing it through a multi-disciplinary lens. We would think about how this image is inseparable from dominant and alternative cultural discourses in Russia, while constituting a canny intervention in Russian politics that builds upon and refers to Russian history. We endeavor to instill in our students the same 360-degree view. If we look at the area studies certificates and degrees offered by our institutional members, we find everywhere the same method: we require that our undergraduates who wish to study “Russia” or “Eastern Europe” or “Eurasia” take courses in literature, politics, and history. This distribution scheme ensures that the literature student takes some political science, for example, or that the anthropologist be acquainted with history. Why do we engage in what sometimes may seem a dry exercise in ensuring “distribution”? Only when devising programs for students do we make evident what otherwise we take for granted: that their understanding of one aspect of the region or country will be enhanced by understanding another aspect. The literature is not just recreational, the history is not just background, the anthropology is not just some customs, the politics is not just current events. It’s a position that is difficult to maintain within one classroom, to be sure: I am sure I am not the only historian who, assigning a favorite novel or screening a film, realized I did not have the tools to talk about them as anything beyond artifacts that illustrated a historical theme.

We need to identify and articulate this unique contribution of area studies. As the humanities and social sciences have come under pressure in this country and in others, administrators’ or funders’ call for “policy-relevant” research threatens to divide and conquer this community of scholars. Those whose work already appears to have policy relevance have the burden of making gestures toward the work of their less-favored colleagues; the latter try to find ways to align their research and teaching with agendas that promise continued resources. But this approach, as necessary as it may seem, does not make sense in the long run, because it eviscerates the values that inspired us and inspire many of our students. Area studies, in its commitment to diversity of approach and of interest, embodies the liberal arts tradition.

To return to the question I have raised: how do we put forward a regional approach in an era at once global and anti-global? How does the holistic knowledge of one world region allow us to engage in conversations that in recent years have turned, to quote a favorite phrase of university administrators, toward “our Increasingly Globalized World”? Equally important, how do we grapple with the potential threat to the search for knowledge embodied in anti-global politics? At this point, I think we’d benefit by grounding the problem in place and time. Given the ongoing observation of the quarter-century since the Soviet coup and the USSR’s disappearance, the end of Communism can be a starting point, so I’d like to use this most global of dates in our field (matched only by that date we’ll be remembering in Chicago next November) to think about how we connect our work to the world.

Besides being a rollicking great and photogenic story, the democratic revolutions across Eastern Europe in 1989 naturally invited us to engage with the entire world. Indeed, I would argue that they gave birth to new scholarly perspectives because they appeared to be as global as the era that followed. Just a few months before the year began, Augusto Pinochet unexpectedly lost a referendum in Chile and a dictatorship of great symbolic importance began to crumble quickly. Just a few weeks after Václav Havel welcomed in the New Year as Czechoslovakia’s president, Nelson Mandela left prison and South Africa began to move decisively away from Apartheid.

How could we address the diverse paths revolution took across four continents in that year or so? For years, I pursued a transnational answer to this puzzle of a global rainbow, examining the movement of people, ideas, and objects across borders. Transnational studies, hindsight tells me, are an approach for exuberant times, a celebration of human perseverance and ingenuity in confounding that which constricts, and appropriately inspired by an age of irrepressible revolution. There was plenty of the transnational in Eastern Europe around 1989: the Hungarian students of Fidesz (including Viktor Orbán) who visited Poland to learn from their more radical counterparts; couriers carrying Czech samizdat across the mountains from Poland; British pacifists traveling to Budapest in search of dialogue; people everywhere listening to Radio Free Europe and other news sources. Some contacts were at such micro-levels that their import is nearly impossible to tease out. Interviewing a Danube Circle leader in Budapest in 1998, I was startled when his colleague exclaimed: “I know you – you were at my wedding.” I hadn’t been, but I knew which Polish-speaking bearded Irish-American he meant, and a slender thread from the Danube Circle to Solidarity peeked out from the mist.³

When I began writing about the events of those years elsewhere in the world, I doggedly unearthed more such connections. A delegation of Poles visited South Africa in 1990 or thereabouts, and then the South Africans visited Poland. Chinese students were told by the astronomer-dissident Fang Lizhi to read Havel. And Orange Alternative-like memes can be spotted in just about any revolution; it’s a wonder the Poles did not copyright their happenings.

But so what? Can these connections really bear the weight of a global story? Is there a zeitgeist, a worldwide “dance of democracy” that we can narrate by following these connections? The answer is no. The transnational perspective takes us across some borders but not all, and not all the time. It diverts attention from the equally essential differences between the cases in contact. And by focusing our attention precisely on borders and on those who can cross them, it can miss other things of equal importance. It provides a grammar that is not always up to the task.

A profound challenge to anyone who would synthesize transnational connections into a global narrative comes from right in the middle of that year. I have in mind, of course, the fourth of June, 1989. While Poles voted out the Polish United Workers’ Party and supported Solidarity candidates, and the Communists accepted defeat, the regime in China engineered a horrific massacre of protesters on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. What is the relationship between a peaceful election in one country and a crackdown in another, other than that both regimes professed allegiance to ideas derived in some way from Marx? There is no transnational story to tell; the dance of democracy runs out of music at this point. But area studies, by contrast, does have much more to say. To understand comparable protests emerging in similar circumstances, produced not only by common structural transformations but by the thinking and experiences of particular activists embedded in particular cultures, and to trace them forward in time, we need the sensitivity of the scholar immersed deeply in place.

If the transnational harmonizes too closely with a globalizing agenda, what I call “global conversations” are a way to link to distant parts of the world, to overcome the barriers of exceptionalism. We know how to inhabit a world fully, alert to the ways in which different disciplinary perspectives must intersect. The area studies scholar cannot follow all the paths available, but is aware that they exist. This knowledge is a strong foundation on which to engage less familiar parts of the world. The transnational journey, if it no longer fits the times, is a prelude to bringing our scholarly tools to the understanding of the dynamics of other cultures, societies, and political institutions. Thus, to make sense of a “Global 1989”—or a “Global 1968”, for those of you scenting a tasty semicentennial on the way— the holistic approach of area studies is essential.

Over the ten years that I have been doing research in South Africa and Ireland, I have not become an expert in either field. I have learned enough to know how hard it would be to become an expert, in fact. But the method of global engagement is straightforward: driven by questions rather than geography, the area studies expert works from thematic authority and rejects (until proven otherwise) ideas of exceptionalism. Communist Poland begins to look more expected the more one learns about other societies. I know this experience is shared by colleagues. Friday’s plenary on authority in area studies featured a number of scholars who have moved bravely across borders to explore unfamiliar places. Strikingly, two panelists described nation-bounded research as imprisoning to the scholars and/or their subjects. Throwing off these shackles requires sacrificing a bit of scholarly authority, but the payoff is freedom to roam in new terrain.

There is no better example of the potential of and need for area scholars’ voices than the global moment we are in right now. After the October 2015 Polish election brought to power a populist government that bases its appeal in part on the rejection of liberal post-communist elites—including insinuations that the previous government was a criminal enterprise and may even have indulged in murder—and on rejection of the international order, it certainly looked as if postcommunist democracies as such were far more fragile than we had assumed. Now that the United States has also elected a populist government that bases its appeal in part on the rejection of liberal elites and of the international order—and which also attempts to criminalize its political opponents—that explanation won’t suffice. Our region is unfortunately not unique; this does, though, mean that we can hold our own in and build global conversations.

The educated public and our students need to hear from experts who can articulate how political choices and decisions are shaped by history and by culture; how culture bears the imprint of politics; and how history can serve as a way of interpreting our own experiences. We need to be able to talk about authoritarianism and the threat to democracy and the liberal order, but also to know about the limits of drawing analogies and about when the search for connecting threads and precedents is a dead-end task.4 We need, in other words, the expertise of the area studies scholar. The dominant rhetorical move today is surely hyperbole. The unique contribution of area studies, in this moment, is to work against hyperbole by thinking comparatively across space and time, drawing upon a broad range of perspectives to help us figure out when extreme claims are warranted, and what we must look for. Here at ASEEES, of course, we have the opportunity for a more basic kind of global conversation, among colleagues from around the world with whom we share interests. As all of us are searching for ways to make sense of what seems like systemic change in the countries we live in and the countries we study, I wish only for the conversations, within our individual scholarship, with publics and students, and with our colleagues at ASEEES and elsewhere, to continue and grow.


Padraic Kenney is Professor of History and Professor and Chair of Department of International Studies at Indiana University and was President of ASEEES in 2016.