- Response to Reviewers of Among Empires
I am grateful to the reviewers of Among Empires for the attention they have paid to this book and particularly gratified that it evoked such positive reactions from Carlos Noreña and Thomas Metcalf. Professor Mary Renda is more critical but she has obviously read the argumentation closely and deserves a considered response. Taken together, the reviews make some important points in a collegial spirit. I will take up the comments in what might be assigned as their chronological vantage points, but I want also to consider some of the more general issues that the reviewers have broached involving questions of comparative method and of empire more generally. This response, therefore, should be seen as an effort to continue dialogue.
What I found particularly rewarding about these reviews as a group was that they took seriously what most of the notices in the wider press — whether Foreign Affairs, or The New York Review of Books — failed to respond to: my preoccupation with the impact of encroaching empire on American democracy. Some early reviewers addressed only my analysis of U.S. policies outside our borders as if I intended only a critique of American foreign policy. In fact, when I undertook this work I was preoccupied equally with concerns about our domestic society and polity. Perhaps historians should not respond to political concerns, but I do not think that we can really insulate ourselves. Which is why, Carlos Noreña recognizes, as historians of empire we must meditate on Rome. Rome became an imperial enterprise even as it remained formally a republic. The metamorphosis of practices within the chrysalis of continuing institutions was for Rome and remains for the United States a challenge to us as academics and citizens.
Professor Noreña is correct to spotlight my ambivalence toward historical comparison, which, after all, I’ve endeavored to practice ever since my dissertation and first book, Recasting Bourgeois Europe, published now thirty-two years ago. My uneasiness is encapsulated precisely by the descriptive phrase that Professor Noreña uses, “historical sociology.” Not that historical sociology is not a powerful and valuable method; but the issue is how it relates to history as such, for sociology need not involve a developmental story line, whereas to my mind reconstituting changes in time remains essential to our enterprise. In the section on the implications of comparative history that Professor Noreña so aptly cites I wanted to stress my awareness that history involves narratives of embeddedness; and when we compare, we must to some degree tear out of narrative context, even as we reveal new contexts or new analogues. From one point of view history writing is all about reconstructing relevant contexts. And contexts, as Mary Renda emphasizes, differ for different groups, which is why the stakes are high. From her point of view, I have in fact been too cavalier about the racialist context of American expansion in my desire for generalization.
To offer one further word on comparison: although there is no space rigorously to defend the idea here, it does seem increasingly to me that modern cognition in the social sciences — and perhaps in the natural sciences as well, and certainly in the humanities — is fundamentally an operation of finding the revelatory analogue. To “know” something in the social sciences is to know what something is like. The process of analogue construction requires continues refinement and is asymptotic at best, nonetheless unavoidable. That is why I believe passionately that despite the phrase some historians love so much, the past is not a foreign country. It’s just the one we used to live in, often presenting exotic and unfamiliar elements, but always familiar ones, too, in terms both of human motivation — jealousy, ambition, love and hatred — and institutional “structures” — that is, discrepancies of wealth, status, and power as transmitted over time. If past societies, no matter how remote, did not present such continuing categories, how might we ever interpret the records they have left?
Of course comparison involves tremendous difficulty. First is just the difficulty to learn more than a single context with any degree of profundity. Noreña is frank enough...