[Editorial note: This essay is the third in a series of posts examining a recent student-sponsored forum on intellectual history held last week at Stanford University. You can find the previous two posts here and here.]
Area Studies and the Problems of Global Histories
by Ruben Flores
Portrayals of academic area studies centers in the U.S. that have arisen in the debate concerning Stanford University’s decision to deny tenure to historian Aishwary Kumar have perplexed me. In one, Stanford literature scholar Robert Harrison describes the centers as “nationalist” rather than concerned with communication across nations. In another, Matthew Linton argues that the centers have proven unable to craft global education models or to create “independent theoretical concepts without grounding in a single discipline.” One comes away from these pieces convinced that area studies centers are parochial in their intellectual labor and thus ill-suited to the study of a noncontext-based intellectual history, by which Harrison means an intellectual history that is attuned to flows of ideas across contexts rather than their production in any one.
Here I offer two objections to these pieces. First, they misrepresent the intellectual labor taking place within area studies centers, which is not only comparative and attuned to cross-national communication but is also intellectually innovative. Second, they rest on a distinction between area studies centers and the disciplines that is not sui generis but instead part of a structural problem created by the disciplines themselves. Whatever absence of innovation exists is not the fault of area studies, I argue, but the fault of structural inertia within history departments and other disciplinary units.
I note one caveat from the onset. It is not clear in either of the two pieces which moment in the history of the area studies centers is the target of attack. Linton begins with the problems of World War I area studies centers, moves to mid-century ones, then argues that the work of “more recent” centers has been limited by attention to specific locations rather than to flows of ideas. It is difficult to respond to academic critique that argues so universally about one-hundred years of scholarship, but I do note that this willingness to compress time and geography into a minute statement of failure is emblematic of how scholars avoid the more complex histories of Latin American Studies, Asian Studies, or East European Studies centers in the US academy. With this caveat in mind, let us turn to the relationship between area studies and global histories that have come in for criticism.
Linton objects that area studies centers have not discovered the key to integrating area knowledge into a global whole, but this hardly seems enough to indict area studies as academic failures. Linton argues that the centers have failed to define the geographic parameters of regions across the globe, yet how do such disagreements about geographic boundaries within area studies differ substantially from debates within history departments about global cartography? Perhaps area studies centers have struggled to analytically unite the societies of the globe through concepts such as “borderlands” or ideological fulcrum points like communism, as Linton also argues, but does such difficulty mean that area study centers have not advanced scholarship on borderlands, communism, or other important concepts that help scholars to better understand integration across global regions? Linton’s criticisms mask what area studies centers continue to do exceedingly well in the face of their challenges: design courses of study and research for undergraduate and graduate students alike that demand a synthesis of history, philosophy, geography, and political science as the starting point for an understanding of the relationship of the US to other regions in the world. “Organicism” is the word that Morton White once used to describe such work many years ago, and it remains vitally important today in a world of war and migration.
Linton’s related claim that area studies centers do not innovate new frameworks of interpretation but merely apply ones innovated in the disciplines seems hardly defensible to me. The literature scholar and intellectual historian Ignacio Sánchez Prado has recently coined the term “naciones intelectuales” to describe the discourses that Mexican humanists created across the 20th century to challenge the political hegemony of the Mexican state and the cultural hegemony of England, France, and the U.S. Such an innovative concept not only shows American scholars what the growth of the American Empire has meant culturally for the nations of Latin America. But in making the point, Sánchez Prado also shows how Latin American intellectuals have theorized Mexico’s relationship to classical Greece and Rome, the Spanish Empire, and 20th-century European modernism. Raúl Coronado has marginalized the French and English Enlightenments in 19th-century Texas in favor of Spanish Enlightenment thought through the creation of an international discourse of political rights that stretched from Madrid to the Caribbean to Texas. In doing so, he has reshaped the study of US history, literature, and political theory by exploding narrower frameworks of analysis in favor of global circuits of ideas. I could go on with additional examples that show how new theoretical frameworks have helped us to reconceptualize the relationship of Latin America to Europe and North America, but the work of these two thinkers suffices to show how the vitality of thought that is routinely traded within Latin American area studies has helped us to rework the history and effects of U.S civilization.
The true tragedy of the characterizations by Harrison and Linton is that they perpetuate the belief that the weaknesses of the area study centers can be separated from the structural weaknesses of the disciplinary units themselves. They cannot. Area studies centers do not control their own faculty lines or hiring decisions. Instead, they are amalgams arranged by courtesy appointments from disciplines that retain the ultimate control for the flow of scholars that come into their departments. This structural arrangement has enormous consequences for the area studies centers. It means that the disciplines themselves, and not the area studies centers, are the units that hire scholars and decide tenure cases. If subsequent intellectual problems follow in area studies, such shortcomings are as much the failure of the disciplinary units that made the hires in the first place as they are of the area study centers that did not. Such a structural arrangement also produces a conflict between disciplines that demand distinct forms of intellectual labor and interdisciplinary units that use broader forms of work in their everyday analysis.
This structural problem is exacerbated by the fact that few departments of U.S. history insist that their graduate students and faculty integrate foreign-language work into their tenure portfolios. This is a devastating structural impediment to global histories. It means that U.S. historians cannot integrate philosophy, literature, sociology, or religion conducted in a language like Spanish into their work, because Americanists have no reading basis on which to evaluate such intellectual labor. Consider the fact that intellectual historians routinely use Herman Melville, William James, and Robert Park as part of their inquiry into the history of American ideas, but that similar ideas produced by Jorge Cuesta, Luis Villoro, and Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán cannot be evaluated because Americans cannot read the original work in Spanish that reflects the presence of a discourse across nations. Tenure committees are ill-prepared to evaluate such work, meanwhile. How would a committee of Americanists evaluate a tenure portfolio partially based on the humanism of Alfonso Reyes or the pragmatism of Moisés Sáenz? Poorly in most cases, and skeptically without the intervention of philosophers capable of translating ideas for an American audience and academic Spanish into academic English.
This failure to read the foreign languages also means that Americanists are often incapable of judging the worth of new ideas that wash over and routinely innovate the intellectual substance of the area studies centers. My aim is not to chastise Americanists. It is to show that area studies centers routinely help to innovate new ideas that history departments are structurally ill-equipped to appreciate. That Sánchez Prado and Coronado in my examples above are literary theorists might suggest to some that these scholars developed their innovative ideas in the Spanish and English departments where their tenure lines are housed. But it is impossible to call their work merely “nationalistic,” and it is impossible to separate the innovations in their work from the dialogues in Latin American Studies centers that they were engaged in as they wrote their books or from their analysis of the original Spanish texts that they incorporated into their evaluations.
Area studies centers are under financial attack from the US government as Title VI programming continues to be cut and from state legislatures concerned with producing more graduates in the professions. Within our universities, they are dominated politically by disciplinary units that find it hard to take intellectual chances and are structurally ill-prepared to evaluate scholarship that has been produced in other languages. If there is, indeed, a problem of “academic globalism,” as Linton maintains, or a problem of nationalist scholarship, as Harrison argues, this is not the fault of area studies centers. It is the problem of disciplines that refuse to transform their own structures yet find it easy to blame the interdisciplinary units when they do not do that work for them.
 Morton White Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (New York: Viking Press, 1949).
 Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado Naciones intelectuales: Las fundaciones de la modernidad literaria mexicana, 1917-1959 (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2009).
 Raúl Coronado A World Not to Come : A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Ruben Flores is associate professor of American Studies and courtesy professor of history at the University of Kansas. He is former associate director of KU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Flores is the author of Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), which analyses the political effects in Mexico and the U.S. of the discourse in pragmatism conducted across the two nations in the middle of the twentieth century.