Prehistories of the Global Present – Processes, Actors, Practices, Ideas

Prehistories of the Global Present – Processes, Actors, Practices, Ideas

Martin Deuerlein, Tübingen; Johannes Großmann, Tübingen; Andreas Plöger, Bonn
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
06.10.2022 - 07.10.2022
Valentin Ebert, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

“Contemporary history begins when the problems that are actual in the world today first take visible shape”. If we take this quotation from Geoffrey Barraclough seriously, the current crisis of our global present with war and sanctions, supply chain problems, and widening energy shortages warrants a closer examination of the global aspects of the prehistory of current problems and developments.

As Martin Deuerlein (Tübingen), who organized the workshop together with Andreas Plöger (Bonn) and Johannes Großmann (Tübingen), made clear in his introductory remarks, the framing of our present as an “age of globalization” after 1989 has conveyed an understanding of the prehistory of our present that focuses heavily on economic issues, particularly the integration of markets and world trade. In contrast, recent events have spurred a reevaluation of our present with a new focus on ruptures and deglobalization.

Instead of narrating a linear story of ever-growing global interconnections, the event, which was decidedly conceived as a workshop, therefore aimed to look not only for precedents, but also for ruptures, and alternatives to this understanding of our time that has emerged around the concept of globalization and the global. In doing so, it aimed to uncover a more complex, self-reflexive prehistory of contemporary events that does not construct linear success stories, breaks the analytical dominance of the North Atlantic region, and re-considers the role of non-Western actors in and for globalization. This approach was productively reflected in the international and interdisciplinary composition of the workshop.

The first panel focused on Migration and Borders and their role in shaping our present condition. ERZSÉBET ÁRVAY (Budapest) gave a first insight into global interconnections across the Iron Curtain and illuminated the relationship of the Hungarian state to the Hungarian diaspora, especially in Western states. The fragile governance of the émigrés oscillated between the taint of political suspicion and usefulness for the regime.
MOKUA OMBATI (Eldoret) then presented his research on the border fence with Somalia built in the aftermath of the Al-Shabab attacks on Kenyan territory and its dual character as a barrier and bridge. The border fence represented an attempt to channel and control interactions and to guarantee the sovereignty of the state in the face of transcending forces of regional and global entanglements.

The second panel on Networks and Transfers was unfortunately missing one participant, but VINCENT AUGUST’s (Berlin) contribution on a shift in the history of ideas, away from notions of sovereignty to network thinking in the 1970s, provided much food for discussion. Using examples such as the Macey Conference and the Club of Rome, he showed how the spread of network thinking was rooted in cybernetics even before the technological revolution of the Internet age and still influences, for example, ecological debates of our present day.

The first day of the workshop was concluded by a first Keynote Lecture. GLENDA SLUGA (Florence) gave a dense account of her argument that a planetary perspective emerged in the sixties and seventies that sought to address global interdependence, social, and environmental problems within a broad, technologically informed framework. She illustrated this project through the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. But while the planetary emerged simultaneously, in part even before a global perspective oriented toward trade and market liberalization, it was unquestionably displaced by that perspective.

The second day of the workshop opened with a panel on Global Concepts & Concepts of the Global. THEODORE CHRISTOV (Washington DC) traced the development of the idea of self-determination, which took hold in the course of decolonization. In a story without a clear origin, Christov nevertheless identified several threads from which the concept fed, evolving from a notion of duties to a notion of rights and increasingly focusing on states instead of individuals as bearers of these rights. Afterwards, ALEXANDER GEPPERT (Shanghai) presented an early trajectory of imaginations of the planetary. Even before the famous images of the earth, “Blue Marble” and “Earthrise”, first images of the planet inspired the imagination of a larger audience in the second half of the 1940s, quasi as a by-product of the post-war tensions and technological developments.

In the second keynote, JAMES MARK (Exeter) drew a broad panorama of a socialist, (semi-) peripheral globalization, challenging the role of Western capitalism as the sole engine of global entanglements. Rooted in anti-colonial thinking and ideas of international solidarity, Eastern Bloc world thinking entered a state of crisis in the seventies, accompanied by tensions between the North and the South amid the formulation of demands for a New International Economic Order. Now ideas of a distinct in-betweenness arose, trying to leverage socialist solidarity but with greater market integration, thus hoping to manage the challenges of growing indebtedness. 1989 brought these socialist projects to an end, marking the integration of now post-socialist countries in the Western economic system as well as a certain form of deglobalization from an eastern perspective.

The fourth panel centered around Resistance & Alternatives. JONAS KREIENBAUM (Rostock) yet again marked the seventies as a hinge decade for a prehistory of globalization. Ideas of a New International Economic Order were presented particularly as an alternative to the so-called “neo-colonial order”. But the project also marked a path not taken, as the proposed management of global markets failed to succeed against what could be called a real new international economic order with its neoliberal focus on free trade and markets. Afterwards, a specific case of resisting and at the same time making use of global processes was brought up by the anthropologist CAROLINA TYTELMAN (Corner Brook). Deemed by white settlers to inhabit an empty land, the Innu people of Labrador were a part of global fur trade networks early on. Falling victim throughout history to various forms of marginalization, they showed remarkable “indolence”, as Tytelman put it in a positive appropriation of a description used pejoratively by white settlers. In recent time, the Innu established and made use of international networks furthering their case against misuse of the land they inhabit.

In the last panel on International Institutions & Global Governance, JAN NIKLAS HUHN (Siegen) looked at regional actors and showed how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union were shaped by colonial experiences and Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism, respectively. The resulting conception of sovereignty in the case of the ASEAN is built less on regional substructures and more on state-centered sovereignty. Pan Africanism on the other hand legitimized the idea of what is sometimes called ‘African solutions to African problems’ by involving more regional actors and at times leaning towards the idea of sovereignty of the people concerned.

In the discussion between the presentations, a number of points was raised repeatedly. First, a periodization emerged that suggested that talk of a “planetary age” preceded the discourse of a “global age”. In a certain period of time, the late nineteen-sixties and especially the seventies, both ideas existed simultaneously. But while global thinking took off and, especially since the nineties, became a dominant trope in the perception for the presence under the term of globalization, as Glenda Sluga put it, the planetary at a certain point was not an ambition anymore. It collapsed into globalization, and in this process the ambitions of ecological and social justice it had once encompassed were lost. The same development can be observed for other notions of globality, for example discourses revolving around internationality and socialist solidarity. Another recurring theme was the notion of state sovereignty. In an intertwined world it appeared at the same time as fragile as well as surprisingly assertive. The discussion fueled concerns about whether relating various bordering processes to globalization too lightly might risk asserting a strong notion of state sovereignty that never existed in the first place.

In addition, exclusionary elements, or how Theodore Christov put it regarding the various threads of self-determination, the ‘dark history’ of the global turn was a subject of discussion. While ideas of self-determination concealed a subject imagined as a white male, James Mark pointed out that even in the socialist notion of North-South solidarity, racialized ideas persisted that could build up to a rejection of and violence against immigrant workers, especially after the transformation of 1989.

Finally, a new understanding of globalization focused on tensions and pitfalls requires a new perspheective on the concept of a prehistory of the present. As Ewald Frie poignantly noted, the roads not taken, the past futures that never came to be are not alternatives to, but constitutive parts of a prehistory of the present, as more successful concepts and policies were themselves shaped in engagement with such potential alternatives. Leaving the participants with the general thesis of these two days, that we might live in a world that has no direct connection to the past or at least that the task of discussing a prehistory of the present is very different in 2022 than in 2015.

This observation, all the discussants agreed, makes it all the more necessary to write a reflective and multifaceted prehistory of the ‘present’, which can look very differently depending on situation, location, or positionality and whose definition is constantly shifting. “The problems that are actual in the world today” might be perceived very differently from the perspective of 2022 than only a few years previously.

Conference overview:

Martin Deuerlein (Tübingen) / Johannes Großmann (Berlin / Tübingen) / Andreas Plöger (Bonn): Welcome & Introduction

Panel I: Migration & Borders

Erzsébet Árvay (Budapest): The Actors of Globality: Émigrés and their Governance in the Cold War

Mokua Ombati (Eldoret, Kenya): Challenging State Sovereignty? The Forces of Globalization in Kenya’s ‘Border-Wall’ Policy

Panel II: Networks & Transfers

Vincent August (Berlin): The Rise of Network Thinking

Alison Downham Moore (Sydney): Global Medical History of the Present (cancelled)

Keynote I

Glenda Sluga (Florence): The Emergence of a Planetary Perspective

Panel III: Global Concepts & Concepts of the Global

Theodore Christov (Washington DC): The Globality of Self-Determination

Alexander C. T. Geppert (Shanghai): Planetizing Earth, ca. 1946

Keynote II

James Mark (Exeter): The Rise and Fall of Socialist Globalization: A View from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

Panel IV: Resistance & Alternatives

Jonas Kreienbaum (Rostock): The Road not taken. The New International Economic Order as a Third World plan for an alternative Globalization

Carolina Tytelman (Corner Brook, Newfoundland): The Globalization of Others: Innu People Resisting Global Processes

Panel V: International Institutions & Global Governance

Johanna Sackel (Paderborn): Environmental Politics of the Oceans (cancelled)

Jan Niklas Huhn (Siegen): How Colonial Experiences Shape the Workings of Contemporary Regional Organisations

Concluding Remarks and Final Discussion