U.S. Intellectual History Blog

CFP: A Great Divide?

America between Exceptionalism and Transnationalism

May 21-22, 2015

International Conference at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich

Convener: Michael Kimmage (Catholic University of America), Uwe Lübken (LMU), Andrew Preston, (University of Cambridge), Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson (GHI)

Call for Papers

This conference will examine those new departures in historical inquiry that radiate out from the old problem of American exceptionalism. It will be held at the LMU in Munich in May 2015 and is intended to generate either an edited volume or a journal special issue devoted to the topic. The conference will be interdisciplinary, and it aims at bringing together junior and senior scholars.

The expression “great divide” presumes a divergence in historical experience, which became pronounced in the 1970s and has intensified ever since. The trend toward democratization, symbolically associated with the year 1989, was emphatically rejected by China. Since 1989, China and Russia have elaborated forms of authoritarian capitalism unique to these powerful nation states. For the past several decades, the E.U. has expanded in pursuit of integration. The recent financial crisis, however, has revealed a plurality of economic models within the E.U. as well as the awkwardness of German or Franco-German leadership in Europe. The E.U. is diversifying along a North-South axis. Outside of Europe, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a decisive and consequential break from the West, and from Turkey to Egypt to Pakistan political Islam has emerged as one of the key forces of twenty-first century history. The U.S. has robustly contributed to the great divergence. Its political parties and electoral system, its legal and academic culture, its blend of religiosity and secularism remain stubbornly idiosyncratic by any standard of global comparison. Americanization, a felt reality in postwar Europe and the alleged leitmotif of the globalizing 1990s, has shown itself to be a phenomenon of receding importance. The international scene today betrays little real convergence and much real divergence.

These recent developments have reopened the question of American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is a phrase rich in normative associations. To historians of the U.S., the phrase connotes the “consensus school” of the 1950s, which used both fascism and communism to argue for the excellence of American democracy. America’s historical evolution had been unusual, many historians believed in the 1950s, and America’s deviation from European history had saved it from the totalitarian temptation in the twentieth century. When the mood changed, in the 1960s, American exceptionalism attracted many critiques. On the one hand, it was blamed for fostering too romantic an image of American life, the fantasy of an America without racism, without sexism, without poverty, etc. On the other hand, exceptionalism was condemned for inhibiting comparative historical analysis. The rebuke to American exceptionalism was so powerful that it essentially persuaded the historical profession and has long been conventional wisdom. As such, the rebuke to exceptionalism constitutes the foundation for transnational histories of the United States. The U.S. belongs to world history precisely because it is not exceptional in its historical development, as some historians have argued; a contention that has found eager and receptive audiences, especially among young historians.

“The Great Divide” is an attempt to analyze American exceptionalism from a fresh perspective. In tandem with recent scholarship, it eschews the normative hubris of the 1950s, the project of listing the ways in which America is better than Europe, and embraces a transnational historical purview. The desire among many transnationally inclined historians to find commonalities and to build analogies, however, has resulted in the historiographical neglect of national and regional particularities. “The Great Divide” will therefore use transnational historical analysis to address the recalcitrant peculiarities of twentieth-century U.S. history. Special areas of focus will include, but not be limited to American culture, economics and law, domestic and foreign policy as well as academic and religious life. It will take up historiography through a comparison of American exceptionalism, from the 1950s to the present, with the Sonderweg thesis in German historiography. Finally, this conference will scrutinize the dilemma of democracy promotion (from Washington) in the context both of American exceptionalism and of a global scene in which there are multiple and serious alternatives to the American or Western model, doing so with reference to China, Russia and to political Islam and extending in time from the 1970s to the present.

Applications may have an American or non-American focus, presuming a non-American topic has some comparative or transnational application to the overall theme.

Though this conference emphasizes history, it is not in any sense limited to historians. Hence, anyone with expertise and interest relevant to American exceptionalism and to the sub-themes within this topic is warmly invited to apply. The application should be no longer than two pages, and it should be submitted to Michael Kimmage by November 15, 2014. Notice of acceptance will be made by December 15th, 2014.