States of Statelessness: the 3rd International History Postgraduate Intensive

University of Sydney, July 2010

The third International History Postgraduate Intensive was held at the University of Sydney on July 21 - 23, 2010. Its theme was 'States of Statelessness'. It was convened by

  • Professor Glenda Sluga, University of Sydney,
  • Professor Erez Manela, Harvard University and
  • Dr Jessica Reinisch, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Participating Faculty members included

  • Dr Sunil Amrith (Birkbeck),
  • Professor David Armitage (Harvard/Sydney),
  • Professor Joyce Chaplin (Harvard),
  • Dr Clare Corbould (Sydney), Dr Ernest Koh (Monash),
  • Professor Marilyn Lake (Latrobe),
  • Dr John Gagné (Univesity of Sydney), and
  • Dr Roland Burke (Latrobe).

Report on “States of Statelenssness: The 3rd International History Post-Graduate Intensive”

Sydney - Harvard - Birbeck - École Normale Supérieure

by Barbara Warnock and Sophie Loy-Wilson

In recent years, historians have begun to push out beyond histories of the state, venturing into ‘stateless’ territory to examine the complex transnational nature of economies, cultures, societies and politics. In this spirit, twenty postgraduate students and a number of academics from Sydney, Harvard and Birkbeck College, Ecole Normale Superieure and other institutions from around the world gathered in Sydney for the University’s Third Post-Graduate intensive on States of Statelessness. This was a valuable opportunity to meet others in the academic world and hear papers on a wide variety of fascinating subjects and also to give consideration to the nature of transnational history. The remit was broad and papers were presented on topics as diverse as foreign political exiles in France in the early nineteenth century, interwar statelessness and the League of Nations, Italian anarchism, German expatriates in China, displaced persons in Australia after WWII, terrorism and transnational memory, human rights discourses in Argentina since the 1970s and factory workers in Republican China and Aboriginal history.

Professor Erez Manela (Harvard) and Professor Sunil Amrith’s (Birkbeck) opening words for the intensive mapped out the current debate over the possibilities and limitations of transnational and international approaches to history. Erez Manela noted that new international histories reflect the ‘desire of historians to push back against power;’ to focus less on ‘the mechanisms of western states’ and more on non-western and non-state actors. He called for less fragmentation between groups of scholars observing that some countries such as the United States still lack Professional organizations for international history. Sunil Amrith agreed that new international histories need to deal more specifically with archives produced outside of state institutions: ‘international histories deal with states. New international histories deal with non-states.’ Using his own work on Tamil migration in Southeast Asia he highlighted tensions between ‘archives of mobility’ – the archives of ‘people out of place’ - and archive of the state. Capturing an ‘archive of mobility’ involves uncovering material cultures, sacred landscapes and politically contested archeological sites which are often embarrassing to national narratives. In combination with archives of memory and oral history, Amrith showed how methodological and literal border crossing in international history can provide a strong push against methodological nationalisms.

Following these opening remarks, Robert Shaw, Delphine Diaz and Mira Siegleberg presented papers in a panel entitled ‘What was the state and what was statelessness?’ Focusing on links between the state and Celestine orders in medieval France, Robert Shaw analysed the ways in which religious imagery grounds the state, binding government to community. Delphine Diaz used the case of foreign political exiles in France in the July Monarchy to raise useful methodological questions about how historians can situate stateless people as political communities with dynamic and sometimes obscured relationships to the state. Moving forward into the twentieth century, Mira Siegelberg argued forcefully that histories of human rights and of the United Nations need to re-ass the legacy and impact of the interwar years as a seminal intellectual period in the development of human rights discourses.

This stellar introduction set the tone for the rest of the masterclass which saw panels tackle definitions of transitional states, communities and nations, difference and sovereignty and the continuation / discontinuation of empires. Sam Ritchie from the University of Wellington spoke on perceptions of indigeneity and colonial violence in colonial New Zealand and Australia highlighting the importance of regionalism and historical geography within transnational history. He reminded participants that ‘indigenous people are the paradigmatic stateless people’ and warned that transnational work needs to avoid ‘homogenising indigenous people.’ While Ritchie addressed the issue of refining and questioning geographic regions in transnational history, Isabella Jackson (University of Bristol), in her paper entitled ‘Managing a Transnational Municipality: The Shanghai Municipal Council’, discussed the challenges of defining boundaries around transnational institutions and the communities in which they are embedded. Debates over borders and border making were extended by Barbara Warnock from Birkbeck in her presentation on ‘Decision making and Hungarian borders at the Paris Peace Conference 1919-1920,’ whilst Yi Wang and Sophie Loy Wilson presented fascinating papers on transnational aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century Tianjin and Shanghai. Joshua De Cruz complimented this with an analysis of ‘Empire State Building’ in Singapore. Other papers examined the significance of migrants in a transnational context: Jonathan Motchidlover explored Italian anarchists in the United States, whilst Christina Loong and Rebecca Vonhoff examined British and German communities in Florence and Australia respectively. In the final session of the conference papers included Mark Pendleton’s comparison on the remembrance post the Sarin gas attacks in Japan and 9/11 in the United States.

The master class was integrated with other public events organized by the conveners. All participants were invited to a lecture co-hosted by the Asian Studies program and the History department by Professor Liang Pan, University of Tsukuba entitled ‘Harmonizing the Rising Sun: A Study on US-Japan Political/Security Relations in the Early 1970s.’ Professor Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Professor of Early American History at Harvard gave the J.M. Ward Memorial Lecture, speaking on ‘The Circumnavigating Body: Why it Hurts to Go around the World’ while David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blakfein Professor of History at Harvard and Honory Professor at the University of Sydney, spoke on ‘John Locke, Theorist of Empire?’ at the University of Sydney ‘History on Monday’ seminar series. A number of academics who participated in the masterclass including Drs Amrith and Manela and Professors Armitage, Sluga and Chaplin spoke at the Sydney Ideas Open seminar series on the topic of ‘History Matters: Historians Remap the Globe.’ Their discussion was subsequently broadcast on Radio National, Australia’s National Broadcasting station.

Overall, the Conference offered a very valuable opportunity for post-graduates to share their research and widen their horizons and for academics and post-graduate to exchange and debate ideas. The conference also revealed the richness of transnational history, providing as it does the potential for the examination of a multiplicity of stimulating areas from the transnational context of nation formation, to the transnational discourse and impact of ideas, to the nature of transnational communities as well as issues around ethnicity, migration, governance and labour movements.