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Reconsidering Transatlantic Studies: A Digital and Longue Durée perspective

RSC TSA 2015by Jesper Verhoef and Lisanne Walma

The Transatlantic Studies Association’s annual conference, which has hosted by the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, indicated some interesting and promising connections between Transatlantic studies and our project.

First, there seemed to be a growing interest in looking beyond diplomatic sources — notwithstanding the many panels still devoted to them – towards public circulation of ideas. In particular, it became clear that the interest in Digital Humanities and digitized material in studying this circulation is growing. There appeared to be two approaches towards Digital Humanities at this conference. One was the explicit use of digital tools, for which John Corrigan provided inspiration with examples when he elaborated on works from Spatial Humanities. Many of these papers acknowledged the need to combine the visualizations Digital Humanities techniques yield (which can be used for ‘distant reading’) with close reading; de facto moving beyond a false dichotomy between the two.

Another way scholars went about it was to covertly include digitized material and digital tools within regular historical argumentation: they used plenty of digitized sources, without making this explicit in their presentations. Interestingly, these (implicit) pleas foGienow_Hecht_still_0r Digital Humanities tied in with a call for larger historical projects, i.e. a return of the longue durée – amongst others stressed by both keynote speaker Jessica Gienow-Hecht and speakers from the opening panel ‘The Transatlantic Paradigm Reconsidered’. This is in line with recent work by, for instance, Jo Guldi and David Armitage, who in their History Manifesto stressed that digital techniques and data available nowadays invite one ‘to try out historical hypotheses across the time-scale of centuries.

 Which leads to a final observation: there were many different studies into the workings of references, in particular how across a range of discourses imaginings of America and Europe were established and changed over time. Notable was the wide variety of sources from which the scholars weighed in on these debates. This ranged from depictions of the United States in cultural magazines in Spain, to advertisement companies in Italy, to writers and others who traveled back and forth to the United States – of which American historian John Lothrop Motley, as Jaap Verheul showed, proved to be an intriguing case. The value of the vast Dutch national newspaper corpus was made explicit in our own presentations. Lisanne showed the importance of American drug dystopias in Dutch debates in the 1920s; while Jesper argued that debates on the portable radio in the 1950s and 1960s indicate that claims about the relation between modernization and Americanization needs be questioned – the two did not necessarily co-occur.

TSA logoIn sum, the presentations highlighted that a vast array of sources is able to further contextualize discussions on Americanization by showing that on the ground it is a complex, multidirectional struggle.