Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context

Thomas Maissen, Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris; Barbara Mittler, Heidelberger Centrum für Transkulturelle Studien / Forum Transregionale Studien; Pierre Monnet, Institut franco-allemand de sciences historiques et sociales
07.12.2017 - 09.12.2017
Milinda Banerjee, Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata / Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

What are the ”prime motors” which drive schemes of periodization?[1] The ambition of the conference “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context”, convened by THOMAS MAISSEN (Paris), BARBARA MITTLER (Heidelberg / Berlin), and PIERRE MONNET (Frankfurt am Main) was to place this question at the heart of current debates in global history. This report shall draw out and connect some of the main arguments offered by the speakers, show how they braid with each other in their common focus on how the organization and government of time mediate varied dialectics of power and resistance, and finally offer some concluding analytical reflections.

The opening roundtable on chronotypes in East Asia oscillated between two poles. On the one hand, the speakers critiqued the epistemic violence of periodization which secured regimes of sovereignty, justifying European imperial power in Asia, or Japanese and Chinese models of aggressively nationalist counter-power. On the other hand, the speakers also valorized models of co-production of knowledge and transcontinental circulation of meaning which partially exceeded and disrupted the verticality of the sovereignty-periodization nexus. The question and answer session created a wave of dissensus. In particular, the question “what next” raised by Maissen, threw a provocative challenge about how future historians might create less Eurocentric (or Sinocentric or Japanocentric) narratives.

The next day, Mittler’s opening speech related periodization schemes to cartographies of violence, and underlined the ethical need for reducing inequalities of knowledge. The presentation by HEATHER FERGUSON (Claremont) and DAVID MOSHFEGH (Madrid) highlighted how modes of periodizing Islamic history have been embedded in impositions of violence. Ferguson went to the extent of suggesting that an imposition of periodization is generally an act of colonization, and involves the imperialization of time: this was as true for premodern regimes (for example, the use of messianic-astrological temporalities by Ottoman rulers), as for colonial-modern ones. In the question and answer session, Sebastian Conrad (Berlin) wondered whether all periodizations were driven by colonizing needs, or whether non-imperializing chronologics were also possible. Responding to this, and drawing in part on Hegel (as interpreted by Alexandre Kojève), MILINDA BANERJEE’s (Munich / Kolkata) presentation suggested that periodization schemes carried both the signs of imposing mastery and the apertures for insubordination. Analyzing discourses produced by Rajavamshi peasants through lenses of recent debates in global intellectual history, Banerjee argued that forms of collective organization that drew on specific modes of agrarian labor propelled new ways of imagining the periodized transition from a past of heteronomy to a future of material and ethical autonomy.

In general, one of the major achievements of the conference was to highlight that changing modes of periodization are linked to changing ways of organizing the politico-economic. JUSTUS NIPPERDEY (Saarbrücken) showed how the ”early modern” as a category blossomed in the Cold War era at the very moment when the Western bloc sought to underline its creativity in industrial capitalism and to draw a line against an inadequately industrial, and thus inadequately (hence, ”early”) modern, past. BODHISATTVA KAR (Cape Town) showed how British colonial actors produced periodization schemes to justify the coercive ”pacification” of indigenous populations. Such periodization travelled from colonial archives to international organizations like the League of Nations and finally influenced the emergence of structuralist thinking. In contrast, ALESSANDRO STANZIANI (Paris) argued that, following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union struggled to disrupt the relation between archival organization and the domination of ruling classes. Yet new hierarchies, and new periodization schemes, emerged as the organization of archives was related to the conceptualization of modes of production, especially in relation to Central Asia.

The many richly textured papers in the conference played on the dialectics of mastery and resistance in thinking about periodization schemes. Such dialectics sometimes invoked political theology, as in the links between political anxieties, messianic expectations, and the systematic chronicling of historical events in premodern Sri Lanka, in the use of Biblical time by Ethiopian actors, and in the transformation by Jewish actors of space/times of confinement and ghettoization into space/times of imagining freedom. Such dialectics involved negotiating the early modern for the non-European world; they involved the expropriation of the concept of Renaissance by African-American actors to refer to their own cultural-political production. Speakers who focused on quotidian political (including pedagogic) controversies brought out the explosive social depth of such debates about periodization, from Turkey by ÖZLEM CAYKENT (İstanbul), and India by ANUBHUTI MAURYA (Delhi) to Palestine by SUSYNNE MCELRONE (Washington / Amman).

One of the illuminating tensions in the conference was between ”optimistic” and ”pessimistic” appraisals of periodization. On the one hand, a significant focus was placed on non-European agency in thinking alternate universalisms and related chronologies, as emphasized by MELTEM TOKSÖZ (Providence), and on the possibility of inscribing modernisms in plural, beyond Eurocentric chronologies, as emphasized by ÖZEN DOLCEROCCA (Istanbul). MICHAEL GEYER (Chicago) demonstrated how Marshall Hodgson, inspired in part by Gandhi, saw the de-Europeanisation of chronology as non-violent resistance. This strand of thinking in the conference also stressed the limits of the hegemonic modern.

ACHIM LANDWEHR (Düsseldorf) in fact argued about the continuing lived presence of past epochs, and thus of pluritemporality.
JÖRN RÜSEN (Witten) emphasized the human propensity to fill time with ethical meaning. Dialogues about periodization could thus connect people, and not merely create disruption between them.

On the other hand, other speakers offered a greater sensibility of loss about the precolonial and the ”indigenous”. FEDERICO NAVARRETE (Mexico City) thus showed how the premodern was often instrumentalized to legitimate the national-modern in the Americas; pre-Columbian antiquity was thus translated into the time of the modern state. IHEDIWA NKEMJIKA CHIMEE’s (Nsukka) paper, and Andreas Eckert's (Berlin) comment on it, disclosed the economic asymmetries which hindered the decolonization of periodization schemes. The lack of funding faced by scholars based in Africa – especially those working on the precolonial era – imply that the colonial period receives a disproportionately high focus in scholarly enquiry, creating a foreshortening of African history. It is obvious that until global politico-economic inequalities are reduced, and scholars working in non-European parts of the world (particularly in funding-intensive areas like archaeology) receive far greater financial support, much of the Euro-American hegemony over production of periodization schemes will continue unchecked.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the conference was the focus on the non-human. GERRIT JASPER SCHENK’s (Darmstadt) presentation on Anthropocene debates and WILLAM DEJONG-LAMBERT’s (New York City) paper on theories of evolution drew the attention of the audience beyond the realm of human time to temporalities produced by alternate species.
ULRIKE KIRCHBERGER’s (Kassel) presentation on the Indian Ocean world in the high noon of colonialism illumined the dissonances between human time, especially of colonial actors who carried out transfers of flora and fauna, and the temporalities of non-human species (such as in relation to reproduction and growth) which often disrupted imperial drives. In the end, imperial arrogance about unending progress was often checked by a growing sense of unpredictability and lack of control vis-à-vis ecological chronology.

To return to Maissen’s “what next” question, where does all this leave us? Should we be satisfied with critiquing the power-assumptions behind existing periodizations, or should we strive for new, more just and equitable, syntheses? Can there even be a ”just” periodization? The present author was especially inspired by SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAM’s (Los Angeles) keynote presentation. One of Subrahmanyam’s main arguments was that we should think about varying scales as requiring varying periodizations. Taking examples from South Asian history, he denounced the tendency to straitjacket the empirical record into tendentious presuppositions about periodization, occluding thereby the variegated histories of particular communities and regions as well as their translocal connections. Instead, he urged, by working through the archives – and, for those with global history interests, through ever-expanding and heteroglot archives – one should produce periodizations which do justice to the sources. Studying different modes and scales of circulation, for instance, might necessitate working through variant periodization schemes.

The conference has ultimately revealed, with brilliant granularity, that schemes of periodization – like any conceptual work – carry both traces of domination and the possibilities of labor to overthrow such domination. It has re-affirmed the need to give equitable importance to different social actors, spaces, and scales. Rather than one periodization (like Tolkien’s fabled ring) “to rule them all”, one needs multiple periodizations to imbricate time with multiple political meanings: this is equally relevant for practitioners of multi-scalar global history. The materiality of periodization draws on the materiality of organizing labor, production, and sovereignty in society, from very local to absolutely planetary scales. It is thus obvious that the work of destabilizing dominative periodizations cannot be dissociated from the revolutionary work of unbinding other impositions of servitude anywhere and everywhere: much of recent global history work has after all alerted us to the connectedness of regimes of power and inequality. In the end, the government of time has always been a goal of ruling elites; classification and hierarchization in society have propelled the stratification of time. But this also implies that counter-periodizations, like any tool of political production, need to be forged ever sharp and anew to fight collective battles for more just futures.

Conference Overview:

Welcoming Addresses:

Andreas Eckert (Berlin)

Hans van Ess (Bonn / Munich)


Thomas Maissen (Paris)

Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg / Berlin)

Roundtable: Tracing Chronotypes in East Asian Perceptions of the Past
Chair: Hans van Ess (Bonn / Munich)

Pablo Blitstein (Heidelberg): An East Asian History of the “Multiple Renaissances” Thesis

Jon Chappell (London): Finding ”Imperialism” in China: Power and the Politics of Periodization in Chinese History

Martin Dusinberre (Zurich): Maritime: The "Pacific Age" and the Japanese Chronotype of Expansion

Joachim Kurtz (Heidelberg): When Were the Chinese “Middle Ages”? East Asian Travails of a Colligatory Concept

David Mervart (Madrid): The Four Monarchies and the Three Dynasties: Translating European Past in Japan

Birgit Tremml-Werner (Zurich): Translation and Temporalities in Transcultural Diplomacy

Panel 1: The Making of Periodization Schemes
Chair: Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (Berlin)

Heather Ferguson (Claremont) / David Moshfegh (Madrid): Producing Islamic History: Schemes of Medieval and Modern and the Racialization of the Past

Justus Nipperdey (Saarbrücken): Modernity’s Early Modernity - Periodizing European History in Europe and the United States

Milinda Banerjee (Munich / Kolkata): Mastery, Servitude, and the Dialectics of Conquering Time: Periodization and Counter-Periodization in South Asian and Global Intellectual Histories

Panel 2: Morphologies and Models of Periodization – Part 1
Chair: Andreas Eckert (Berlin)

Eloi Ficquet (Paris): L’entrée de l’Ethiopie en modernité comprise à travers les découpages de l’histoire biblique

Bodhisattva Kar (Cape Town): Since Time Immemorial: Connect Histories of an Anti-Period

Andrew Fearnley (Manchester): Periodization and Place: The ‘Harlem Renaissance’ and the American Racial Imagination

Panel 3: Axial Times and Epochal Breaks
Chair: Hans van Ess (Bonn / Munich)

Gerrit Jasper Schenk (Darmstadt): Ende der Unschuld? Periodisierungsversuche des sozioökologischen Weltsystems für die „Vor-moderne“ in der Anthropozän-Debatte

Achim Landwehr (Düsseldorf): Where have all the ages gone? Trouble with the European 17th century

Alessandro Stanziani (Paris): Periodisation and the Culture of Histories. The Bolchevik Revolution

Panel 4: Time and Power – Periodization in a Global Context – Part 1
Chair: Thomas Maissen (Paris)

Tatiana Artemyeva (Moscow / St. Petersburg): The Epoch of Enlightenment in Russian and Soviet Periodisation Schemes

Youngmin Kim (Seoul): Politics of the Early Modern: The Dynamics behind Periodization Schemes in East Asian History

Federico Navarrete (Mexico City): Fighting over the Pre-Columbian Period: The Past, the Present and the Future in the Americas

Keynote Lecture: Region, Nation, World: Scale and the Problem of Periodization

Introduction: Sebastian Conrad (Berlin)

Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Los Angeles)

Panel 5: Popular and Pedagological Dimensions of Periodization
Chair: Margrit Pernau (Berlin)

Özlem Caykent (İstanbul): Nationhood and its Imposing Power over Time and Chronology

Anubhuti Maurya, (Delhi): The Mythical Medieval: Periodization, Historical Memory and the Imagination of the Indian Nation

Susynne McElrone (Washington / Amman): The Paradox of Palestinian National History: Colonized Periodization

Panel 6: Time and Power – Periodization in a Global Context – Part 2
Chair: Kris Manjapra (Medford / Berlin)

Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee (Nsukka): African Historiography and the challenges of European periodization: A Historical Comment

Bernard Cooperman (Maryland): Inventing Jews by Periodizing Jewish Time

Özen N. Dolcerocca (Istanbul): Transnational Modernism and the Problem of Eurochronology

Panel 7: Morphologies and Models of Periodization – Part 2
Chair: Manu Goswami (New York City / Berlin)

William deJong-Lambert (New York City): Neo-Darwinism, Synthesis, Neo-Synthesis: The Problem of Periodizing Evolution

Tilman Frasch (Manchester): Time, Teleology and History: “Metteyyanism” in Theravada Buddhism

Meltem Toksöz (Providence): Periodization in Late Ottoman Universal Histories, Re-Modeling Time and Empire

Concluding Roundtable: World History Reconsidered – Time, Space, Material
Chair: Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg / Berlin)

Ulrike Kirchberger (Kassel): Chronologies of Ecological Change in the Indian Ocean World, 1850-1920

Jörn Rüsen (Witten): Making Periodization Possible. The Concept of the Course of Time (Zeitverlaufsvorstellung) in Historical Thinking

Michael Geyer (Chicago): After the “Provincialization of Europe”: The Time of World History in Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s Work on Islamicate Societies and World History

Comment: Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Los Angeles)

[1]: For the documentation of the conference (articles, papers, interviews), see: (13.04.2018).

Tagungsbericht: Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context, 07.12.2017 – 09.12.2017 Berlin, in: H-Soz-Kult, 16.04.2018, <>.
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