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  • How Did the World Become Global?: Transnational History, Beyond Connection
  • Paul A. Kramer (bio)
Isaac A. Kamola, Making the World Global: U. S. Universities and the Production of the Global Imaginary. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. xviii + 282 pp. Notes, references, and index. $27.95.

It was at some point in the late 1980s and early 1990s that policymakers, journalists, and academics in the United States and elsewhere decided—roughly 490 years after the advent of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and 425 years since the opening of the Manila galleon trade that linked Chinese and European trade circuits—that the world was suddenly, finally, becoming “global.” For many of these commentators, signs of an epochal shift were soon apparent everywhere: streamlined, seemingly instant, financial transactions; accelerating barrages of email; growing fleets of container ships, stacked with Day-Glo metal crates of minerals, cars, and plastic toys, plying the world’s oceans.1 Observers at the time might have invoked the “annihilation of time and space” to capture this bold new world, had the phrase, coined in the 1840s in captivated response to the telegraph, not exhausted itself over the century that followed, chasing steamboats, the railroad, the underwater cable, then the airplane.2

There were very good reasons that observers found themselves searching for, embracing and inventing new cartographies and timelines. New technologies were indeed speeding and cheapening long-distance communications, for example, even if they did so incrementally, rather than abruptly, and in patchwork fashion: “networks” were stretching and thickening, even as they were cut through with vast, equally defining (if never as talked-about) gaps and fissures. Perhaps most significantly, for over four decades, the idea of a rigidly divided world organized by a Manichean opposition of “free” capitalist and “unfree” communist domains—with problematic fence-sitters—had been foundational to the worldviews of many U.S. policymakers, experts and ordinary citizens, and a key structuring principle of American politics, society and culture more broadly. This imaginary had been anchored by material and metaphorical walls and barricades at the militarized frontiers between “West” and “East”; where these fell, permitting the mobility of capital, goods, [End Page 119] policies, ideas, and migrants (or some of them), it seemed to call for a radical rethinking of historical processes and the spaces within which they unfolded.

It was in this crucible that what might have been plausibly taken to be discrete, potentially contradictory phenomena with their own distinct histories were melted into the mega-narrative of “globalization.” Out of a dangerous, dichotomized world, it was said, a new, unified, promising, “global” world was being born. Deeper, broader and faster transits of capital, goods, and information, unprecedented in scope, were eroding and supplanting the regulatory power of territorially bounded national polities. Rising in power were supranational formations like the European Union, global trade regimes like the World Trade Organization and, at least aspirationally, human rights norms and institutions. The result was a progressively homogenized global consciousness, webbed together by transnational civil society organizations, diffusing consumer habits and mass-mediated reference points which, depending on your angle of vision, heralded the end of potentially conflictual and destructive difference, or a tragic collapse of human diversity, or both. It was not always clear to those who invoked a newly global present how far things had proceeded. Was globalization complete, or a work in progress? Was globalization a condition, a process, or something else? But this did not mean they saw it as reversible or escapable.3

Within the university-based social sciences and humanities, “globalization” (and “transnationalism,” the non-identical term with which it was often used interchangeably) launched a thousand agendas that varied in their understanding of what “global” analysis could do and why it was important or necessary. They diverged on the question of why the previous interpretive regime, with its taken-for-granted framing of social analysis within nationalized units— ”methodological nationalism”—was a problem. And they differed implicitly or explicitly in their normative approaches to the question of how national and global spaces ought to interrelate.

But works that found inspiration or analytic potential in the “global” or “transnational” often shared key features. In search of a rough...


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