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Response to Review of Transnational Patriotism in the Mediterranean 1800-1850: Stammering the Nation

I am grateful to Michalis Sotiropoulos for his thoughtful and creative reading of my book. His generous review has inspired some further reflection regarding the stance of the book in relation to global history, which I would like to share with him and with readers.

The book does well, I believe, in the placing of itself within the field of transnational history (nothing more telling in this regard than its title!); much less so, I fear, within that of global history. And yet this book was deeply informed by the global (and specifically maritime) turn in historical studies. Sotiropoulos’s critical comment that

By constructing the history of the modern age as an order of analogous and space-specific cultural processes—which did not draw upon the West—the ‘multiple modernities’ framing tends to obfuscate the global interactions and the contingencies that made the modern world possible

helped me realize that I could perhaps have done better in steering the book in the direction of global history tout court. Unfortunately, it was only after publication that I came across a deeply enlightening piece, which revealed to me that missing global perspective pertaining to the developments described in my book. I am talking about Sebastian Conrad’s ‘A Cultural History of Global Transformation’ (in Id. and Jürgen Osterhammel, eds, An emerging modern world, 1750-1870, Harvard University Press, 2018). Conrad praises the ‘multiple modernities’ paradigm—which I use in my book in order to challenge a now venerable tradition of ‘Neohellenic Enlightenment’ studies—for dispensing with the ‘diffusionist myth’, but he also points out its shortcomings. Historians deploying the notion have, in his judgement, failed to place the global conditions and interactions which shaped these indigenous realities centre stage. In other words, Conrad suggests that we should go beyond the ‘multiple indigenous modernities’, to a paradigm that will look at local history as a constantly and globally entangled history. I could not agree more. And I could perhaps have done a better job in emphasizing this point in my book, particularly where I endeavour to turn our gaze away from the one, all-encompassing ‘Neohellenic Enlightenment’, towards a more fragmented and complex view of what I see as the multiple Ottoman, Venetian, Russian, and Mediterranean Enlightenments of the Greek world which spanned the long 19th century.

Crucially, however, Conrad’s reading made me realise that I could have pushed my arguments further towards global history. As I state in the opening pages of the book, at its broadest, this is a history of the processes by which premodern, multiethnic empires were replaced by modern nation states. In the Adriatic, as elsewhere in the world, this transition amounted to the dissolution of a common regional space and to the shattering of its centuries-old cultural continuum. It involved a shift in political and cultural geographies. In the case of most of the Ionians, for example, described in this book, loyalties shifted from the centre that Venice used to be to the centre that Athens was now becoming, while there was a liminal phase during which the statelet of the Ionian Islands was configured as an autonomous space protected by colonial empires. I did my utmost to show all of these processes at work. What I omitted to stress, however, is that all this restructuring of the geopolitical and cultural space did not only assume the guise of dissolution (the separation of the Venetian Adriatic into different states and cultural spheres), but also that of integration (the fact that regions and states gradually gave way to a more closely interconnected planet). In short, modern states (national or imperial) would not only separate the old world, they would also unite it anew—by way, along with much else, of the expansion of European empires and the consolidation of an international state system based on the notions of territoriality and sovereignty. By writing the stories of my book into the entangled framework of the Mediterranean Sea and the global empires that this region nurtured during the first half of the 19th century, I did much to liberate Italian and Greek histories from their national framework. I could have done more, perhaps, to liberate them also from their regional one.

I want, therefore, to thank Michalis Sotiropoulos for urging me to engage more deeply with these issues. The best reviews are those which help us understand that we could have written a better book. By the same token, the best reviewers set out with us on the path towards the next book we hope to write.