The Age of Questions

Guest Post by visiting fellow Holly Case, Brown University

For a month last summer (mid-May to mid-June, 2016), I had the privilege of joining the Reluctant Internationalists project group for research and interaction on themes of common interest. Among the project leader (Jessica Reinisch) and other members and guests (among them Heidi Tworek and Elidor Mehilli), the intellectual energy was remarkable. At several conferences, talks and workshops organised over the course of the short time I was there (on the Armenian genocide, the history of medicine, expertise, etc.) a broad range of interests was paired with impressive regional and temporal depth of knowledge. It is not surprising to me that so many of the project members have found jobs and received honours in the meantime.

Beyond the scholarly merit of the project, I was above all taken with the comradery within the group. The tenor of discussions was always productive and the atmosphere intense intellectually, but relaxed socially. It was truly a joy to think and work among such young scholars and enhances my faith in the future of historical inquiry that they are the faces of the next generation.

As for my own research, Britain was just where I needed to be this summer. Much of my time outside of Birkbeck was spent between the National Archives in Kew and the British Library. In both places I found a wealth of documents and pamphlets relating to the book project I am currently completing on “The Age of Questions,” tentatively subtitled “First Attempt at a History (in Aggregate) of the Eastern, Social, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions from Roughly 1800 to 1945, and Beyond.” The Reluctant Internationalists did me the honour of asking me to deliver the opening address for their new Centre for the Study of Internationalism, for which I spoke on my book project.

What was “The Age of Questions”? From a spattering of references to the American and Catholic questions in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, there followed an interrogative deluge in the nineteenth. Before long, publicists, scholars, statesmen, novelists, religious authorities, millers, doctors, and others competed to derive the best solutions to the Eastern, Belgian, woman, labour [worker], agrarian, and Jewish questions. These were folded into larger ones, like the European, nationality, and social questions, even as they competed for attention with countless smaller ones, like the Kansas, Macedonian, Schleswig-Holstein, and cotton questions. The most prominent figures put their pens to them: Alexis de Tocqueville, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Frederick Douglass, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Adolf Hitler, to name just a few. That questions were construed as problems is evident from another familiar formulation: the “definitive” or “final solution.” My book wonders: Was there a family resemblance between questions, or certain patterns that recurred or migrated across them? Have they disappeared, or are they still with us?

Being among the Reluctant Internationalists at Birkbeck helped me bring this project to completion. My archival and other findings at Kew and the BL filled the last of the holes in the analysis relating to the origin of the age, in which British politicians and publicists played the leading role. I left London just days before the Brexit vote. As such, I will always remember that month as an especially wonderful time before the general unravelling that has since ensued, and that shows all the more the unquestionable relevance of the Reluctant Internationalists project.

What Makes Health Special?

Guest Post by visiting fellow Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia

I had the good fortune and great privilege of spending a month as a visiting fellow at the Reluctant Internationalists project earlier this year. As someone who has only recently started to work on the history of health, I found our discussions tremendously helpful for understanding how to think about health as an international phenomenon. One of the main recurring questions throughout our discussions revolved around the place of health in international interactions. What, if anything, made health different from other international concerns like labour, communications, war or trade?

Health stood for me as an area that bureaucrats often designated as “technical” to enable broader participation in health-related organisations. The designation of “technical” allowed experts to claim that health concerns existed beyond politics and could thus include non-members of international organisations.

In the interwar period, countries like Germany or the Soviet Union were critical players in the League of Nations Health Organisation. Germany continued to send out epidemiological bulletins over wireless after Hitler rescinded the country’s membership of the League in October 1933. The Rockefeller Foundation provided the majority of funding for the Health Organisation, even though the United States never joined the League. Similarly, David Brydan’s recent PhD thesis has shown how Spanish health officials remained deeply involved in the World Health Organisation although Spain was not allowed to join the United Nations until 1955. Disease crossed borders and did not discriminate between members and non-members of an international body. Despite political differences, nation-states often recognised that and cooperated accordingly.

Our discussions about how labels like “technical” enabled broader participation in health matters reminded me of my earlier work on the history of communications, where the label had performed a similar function. Calling communications standards “technical” enabled officials from the nineteenth centuries onwards to reach agreements about cross-border connections. A special issue that I co-edited for Journal of Policy History found that communications standards have succeeded historically when they regulated technical issues like frequencies, but not when they tried to regulate content.

If I apply that distinction back to the history of health, it implies that standardisation in health was likelier to occur when officials could designate something as “technical” (like causes of death) than when it required agreement on broader social issues. Social issues took health out of the purportedly technical into the very definitely political.

What made health different than communications was the very obvious stakes of life or death. In this sense, health was more like war. Health and war have long been linked metaphorically. We talk about “battling” disease or the “war on AIDS.” Conversely, health metaphors are tremendously virulent. We talk about the “health” of the economy or memes going “viral” online. These metaphors had real consequences. Robert Peckham’s work has shown, for example, how the metaphor of contagion in financial crises affected assessments of risk and responses to stock market crashes. Within the world of the military, some countries stopped supplying health data to the League of Nations around 1940 because they feared that the information could be misused by enemy nations for war planning.

Health, then, could be both as “technical” as communications standards and as “political” as war. By comparing health with other areas of internationalism, we gain a far more nuanced picture of how, when, and why cross-border interactions made reluctant experts into enthusiastic participants or vice versa.