“The World Encompassed?” Scales and Challenges for a Global History. International Conference on the Occasion of Susanna Burghartz’ 60th Birthday

“The World Encompassed?” Scales and Challenges for a Global History. International Conference on the Occasion of Susanna Burghartz’ 60th Birthday

Eva Brugger / Sonia Calvi / Maike Christadler / Anja Rathmann-Lutz / Sarah-Maria Schober, University of Basel
Vom - Bis
03.06.2016 - 04.06.2016
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Cornelia Knab, Europainstitut, University of Basel

The international conference „‚The World Encompassed?’ Scales and Challenges for a Global History” paid tribute to Susanna Burghartz on the occasion of her 60th Birthday. In the past decades Burghartz has decisively shaped the intellectual profile of the University of Basel’s humanities with her broad spectrum of research. As a specialist in renaissance and early modern history, her research foci have in many ways anticipated the trans-boundary characteristics of the newest debates in global history. Amongst many thematic fields, Burghartz has advanced critical approaches to the study of global entanglements by investigating notions of temporal and spatial scaling, thereby pointing out the significance of transepochal, interdisciplinary perspectives. Her research interests include a focus on gender-related topics in combination with transtemporal questions (e.g. a history of the uses of veils). Her investigations into the historical budget of the city government of Basel combine methodological innovation based on digital history with a new approach to the history of municipal institutions. In addition, Susanna Burghartz has combined a historical methodology with questions of cultural exchange and transcultural entanglements on a global scale. The inspiration for the conference title “The World Encompassed?” came in part from a posthumous edition of 1628 of Francis Drake’s account of his voyage around the world. The conference organizers added a question mark to signal contemporary challenges and questions in the conceptualization of present and past entanglements of the world, mindful of Susanna Burghartz’ efforts to promote novel perspectives on the links between European societies and the “new worlds.” The conference reflected her research interests with a program that explored current approaches to global connections with a focus on material transformations in global-local contexts across several centuries. This thematic emphasis allowed for an in-depth conversation between multiple perspectives of global history and global art history. This included debates about the ‘traditional’ construction of academic disciplines, their boundaries and fringes in humanities and social sciences in the wake of new interdisciplinary pathways of research.

MAXINE BERG (Warwick) gave a keynote address titled “Microhistory and Global History: Where Can They Meet?” where she surveyed core arguments of microhistorians and global historians while asking whether they could “learn a common language.” The microhistory project, according to Berg, with its aim of promoting a more total view of history, was especially critical towards all forms of macro-scales of observation. In the view of microhistorians, these scales seemed to forfeit a clear focus on the complex agencies and individual contexts of human beings. Berg suggested to include the spatial element as an area of intersection to stimulate conversations between the two directions of research. As an example, she outlined the history of encounters at the Nootka Sound at Vancouver Island in the eighteenth century. Combining microhistorical and global levels of analysis, she referred to the Nootka Sound’s qualities as a “globalized” space and examined trade-oriented contact zone of different regions. The Nootka Sound appeared as a place both “to connect and divide” with its links to India, China, the Pacific, and Europe. This “microglobal” approach highlighted complex local-global trading practices and the dynamics of commodities exchange at multiple levels. As Berg outlined, the approach enables a redefinition of social networks and hierarchies in view of dynamic changes. Thereby it provides in-depth insights into the local implications of experiences with regional and global encounters.

REBEKKA HABERMAS (Göttingen) thematized in her paper “Global Materialities – Local Perspectives: The Life of a Thing” the consequences of shifting categorizations and connotations attributed to objects on a transepochal and global-local level. A core objective was to highlight the political dimensions of global history including problems related to the colonial heritage. For Habermas, today’s museum experts could not ignore any longer the extended history of silences and silencing, even more so since they were dependent on close collaboration with postcolonial societies. Taking the example of the Benin Bronzes, Habermas followed the multiple shifting attributions and categorizations of these objects: in twelfth-and thirteenth-century Benin, they were created and venerated as symbols of rulership; in late nineteenth century, after their invasion of Benin, the British transferred the Bronzes to European museums. Habermas outlined how the Bronzes became objects of scientific research for the new academic discipline of anthropology. The twentieth century saw further levels of transformation: at first, the Bronzes were exhibited as pieces of art in Europe in the context of an increasing interest in “primitive art” in the 1930s. In West Africa, they appeared in an exhibition of Picasso in the 1970s, in a controversial function to link European and African art. Legal disputes about the return of such symbolic colonial objects followed. With her case study, Habermas outlined the difficulties of a decentralized narrative and highlighted the problem of responsibilities for global history approaches, namely not to lose the production of silence and global “misunderstandings” out of sight on both the methodological and the narrative level.

In his talk on “Scales and Challenges for a Global Art History” HANS THOMSEN (Zurich) delineated the development and the new thematic foci of global art history. Since the early 2000s global art history has made use of transcultural concepts and approaches in order to adequately deal with the complexities presented by objects beyond their categorization in specific national and cultural terms. Thomsen showed how artwork beyond standard canons was by now increasingly in the focus of global art history. These objects were (and still are) typically ignored or misunderstood. They were characterized by their largely undefined state as well as by their fluid and transformative nature. Their analysis frequently required a micro-approach on a local level, but with an eye to transcultural relations lasting over centuries. With case studies from “East Asian” art history, Thomsen inquired how acts of violence in the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1590s reverberated even centuries later in the creation of regional ceramics situated between and across “cultures”. Thomsen also demonstrated that continent-spanning trading connections, such as those between Switzerland and East Asia, resulted in astonishing globally-entangled consequences for the respective local levels. In the Swiss case, artworks with a complex regional Chinese-Korean background appeared in the collection of the local ethnographic museum of Burgdorf. Ultimately, such intercultural exchanges shed further light on questions about the mechanisms of commissioning, trading, and the attribution of connotations of meaning as well as the construction of entities and scales of measuring value and quality of objects.

MONICA JUNEJA (Heidelberg) further investigated the future intellectual potential of global art history with her contribution on “Gold: A Eurasian Story of Material Transformations”. Juneja presented a study of the material culture of gold by tracking multiple strings of translations and transmutations of gold and its meanings across different temporal and spatial settings. In different discursive fields, gold appeared in multiple appearances: as a raw material, a medium of payment, a symbol of religious or political or societal significance, a material of artworks etc. Juneja explained how normative frameworks, symbolic connotations, as well as discursive, ethical, and material practices shaped and reconfigured understandings of the quality and value of gold. With a series of case studies with a special focus on Moghul India, Juneja outlined paradoxical characteristics of the materiality of gold: its material instability appeared as contrary to multiple symbolic connotations of stability, consistency, and balance. The value of gold and its different scales of transformation appeared also as related to its modes of circulation within and beyond very plural societies. Gold was thereby, Juneja argued, of central significance for numerous non-material instantiations of meaning and dimensions of power, capable of reinforcing symbolic and normative narratives about rulership and justice.

The presentation of RENAUD MORIEUX (Cambridge), titled “The Infinite Frontier: Delimiting and Defining the English Channel in the Eighteenth Century”, focused on the conditions and consequences of defining spatial units, in this case with the example of the Channel as a maritime junction. Morieux concentrated on one of the key questions of new maritime and oceanic history, the problem of constructing delimitations. Maritime straits such as the Channel were important corridors of circulation and gateways of trade, encouraging transnational encounters and exchanges. Morieux focused on the different denominations and the visual representations of the Channel as a political, economic, and cultural frontier region in the eighteenth century. He showed how the region became the object of efforts of categorization and delimitation in theory and in practice, mainly from the side of governments, administrations, scientific experts, and navigators. As Morieux demonstrated, the consequences of framing such categorizations could be far-reaching. They involved not only economic but also political dimensions. Morieux demonstrated how, at the same time, the Channel functioned as a multi-scale region, inhabited maritime space, and fluid social contact zone, all of which contributed to the self-identification of the populations on all sides of the Channel.

The conference concluded with the round table discussion “Scales and Challenges for a Global history – Transepochal Perspectives” with SUSANNA BURGHARTZ (Basel), MADELEINE HERREN (Basel), MAXINE BERG (Warwick), and SIMON TEUSCHER (Zurich), chaired by MARTIN LENGWILER (Basel). A central question was: How should scholars work with the multiple notions of scales of observation and their intersections (the micro-level, local, regional, national, global, and macro-level)? The panelists agreed that we live in the midst of a profound realignment of academic disciplines; and the critique on disciplinary traditions has important implications vis-à-vis many levels including structural, methodological, and thematic ones. One of the most important consequences, which global history has brought especially to the fore in the recent years, was the broad spectrum of perspectives from different disciplines to enrich historical analyses. The panel highlighted the importance to conceptualize global history as a non-linear perspective of research without epistemologically privileging (and constantly reflecting on) the role of Europe. The panelists warned of global history becoming a new history of elites. Instead, they argued, how global history should analytically focus more on diversity, thematize the missing parts of history, and consider the numerous (often silent or silenced) voices and alternative master narratives.

With its focus on materiality and the transformative quality of objects in global contexts, the conference generated valuable insights into the immense potential of local-global scales of observation as part of global history. Indeed, the analysis of the local and the micro-level appear as promising fields to better understand processes of translation, transformation, and agency in global contexts. This could in the future also lead to a more thorough consideration of semi- or non-mobile forms of living and their global connections: global history could certainly benefit from a critical questioning of the currently centralized role of mobility. Furthermore, the conference highlighted the potential of transepochal perspectives by analytically bringing together contradictory elements of research, and global history’s impact on challenging temporal scales of analysis. To consider transepochal and temporal dynamics would indeed allow us a more critical view on the theorization of connections in their multiple directions. In short, the current challenges of a global history are multifarious. These include the importance of locating hierarchies and structures of power and suppression in their complex appearances in global contexts to properly accentuate the inherent political dimension of global history.

Conference Overview:

MAXINE BERG (Warwick): Microhistory and Global History: Where Can They Meet? (Keynote).

REBEKKA HABERMAS (Göttingen): Global Materialities – Local Perspectives: The Life of a Thing.

HANS THOMSEN (Zurich): Scales and Challenges for a Global Art History.

MONICA JUNEJA (Heidelberg): Gold: A Eurasian Story of Material Transformations.

RENAUD MORIEUX (Cambridge): The Infinite Frontier: Delimiting and Defining the English Channel in the Eighteenth Century.

Round table discussion: Scales and Challenges for a Global history – Transepochal Perspectives


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