Locating the Mediterranean. Connections and Separations across Space and Time

Rommel, Carl; Viscomi, Joseph John
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£ 27.54
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Christoph Lange, MESH - Multidisciplinary Environmental Studies in the Humanities, Universität zu Köln

There has been an immense resurgence of Mediterranean scholarship in diverse disciplines such as anthropology, history, human geography, sociology, political science, migration studies, but also in environmental studies since 2020. The reasons highlighted for that surge are often the same and are summed up by the editors of the edited volume Locating the Mediterranean: Connections and Separations across Space and Time (2022) with “the Mediterranean [again] has reasserted itself in the world” (p. 1). This reassertion does neither come from the different academic fields involved nor in form of a revised revival of the Mediterranean as an analytical or regional category. Rather, it is a result of a very tangible, powerful, and deadly Mediterranean reality experienced by those who are located in, try to cross, or are enmeshed with the “multiple Mediterraneans that come to be (un)made and (re)worked through situated evocations of location” (p. 98). Due to these multiple Mediterranean socio-political urgencies, what most of the new approaches share and what sets them apart from earlier ones is a strong emphasis on separation and disconnection, and how to deal and think with those Mediterranean disconnectivities as simultaneously immobilising and enabling.

The editor’s main critique is directed towards Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s extremely influential historical work, The Corrupting Sea (2000)[1], which sparked the last wave of Mediterranean scholarship starting in the 2000s (see p. 12). Back then, Horden and Purcell’s work put forward the idea of Mediterranean connectivity to conceive the Mediterranean “as a large zone of net introversion or involution”.[2] Now the editors of the present volume Locating the Mediterranean re-read the idea as “an overemphasis of connectivity [which created] gaps and biases in our knowledge of the material conditions of social life in the region” (p. 15). According to Rommel, Viscomi and others, Mediterranean connectivity leaves the question open if it is “an analytic predisposition” or “an empirical result” (p. 15). This critique of analytical vagueness and an overemphasis of connectivity was addressed already many times throughout the turbulent reception of Horden and Purcell’s book and lead to the publishing of the Boundless Sea, a recent collection of twenty years of assorted reactions and critics towards the Corrupting Sea and Mediterranean connectivity (see Horden and Purcell 2020; also Horden 2020).[3] However, despite their critical re-reading, the present volume’s editors also take the work of Horden and Purcell as an “inspiration” for their own approach and for the anthropological-ethnographic explorations of the contributing authors (p. 13). The alternative approach, that Rommel and Viscomi promote and persuasively deploy, focuses instead on “Mediterranean locations” as “an attempt to rethink regional constellations by taking locations, always relative and constituted by particular connections, separations, and spatial logics” (p. 12). Herein, one starting point of the editors is the discussion of the “local” and “locality” in context of situated place and claim-making practices as well as analytical and geopolitical region-makings. This discussion of locality, as they show throughout their introduction, is as old as Mediterranean anthropology itself, but yet apparently is still unsolved and potentially fruitful (for the discussion of both see pp. 6–12).

In the present volume, apart from the above-mentioned connection to Horden and Purcell, primarily two close anthropological affinities can be identified. The first one is the work of Sarah Green and her idea of “relative locations” as the result of various practices of overlapping bordering and locating regimes (p. 7; see also her chapter in the volume: pp. 199–221). Most of the contributing authors also use “relative locations” as their referential points of departure for their ethnographic explorations and analysis. The second, central connection for the volume’s theoretical foundation invokes Matei Candea’s “arbitrary locations”[4], and, with reference to the Mediterranean as a regional constellation of „relative locations”, scrutinises the role and significance of comparison as the prime methodological approach in (Mediterranean) anthropology.[5] It is quite striking that the critical discussion of comparison as prime methodology occupies also a central place in two other recent Mediterranean Special Issues of Ben-Yehoyada, Cabot, and Silverstein[6] and Holdermann et al.[7] In this sense, the editors of the present volume offer the solution to “foreground empirical connections or processes that lead to comparison rather than begin with conceptual prefigurations” (p. 20). Apparently, the renewed engagements with the Mediterranean also reflects critical readjustments within anthropology.

According to the editors, each of the chapters takes a “unique vantage point in concrete locations” from where the authors approach Mediterranean constellations to “partially unravel the ‘knotted’ temporal and spatial threads (Viscomi 2020) that compose the constellation under consideration” (p. 17). In doing so, the different contributions are arranged in four thematic sets of two chapters, encompassing the following themes (pp. 16–17): The first two chapters explore remote or isolated locations. In his chapter, Laust Lund Elbek highlights Lampedusa as both the political center stage of the EU border regime and as a marginalized periphery for its inhabitants. While Elbek draws on the multiplicity of marginal and central identities through the lens of Doreen Massey’s “simultaneity of stories so-far”[8], Laia Soto Berman approaches Melilla through Edwin Ardener’s idea of “remote areas”[9] and, thus, as a liminal, singular “space in-between removed from the world” (p. 67). Both authors demonstrate that it is more valuable to acknowledge this simultaneity symmetrically than to resolve it in favour of one or the other.

The following two chapters focus on infrastructures. Phaedra Douzina-Bakalaki crosses the Rio–Antirio Bridge, which connects the peninsula of the Peloponnese to mainland Greece leading to the small town of Nafpaktos. Here, she describes how imaginaries of the famous 16th century Battle of Lepanto and present Nafpaktos are entangled in EU-Mediterranean heritage identity discourses and best understood in terms of a performative „mutual co-production of relative location and historical events” (p. 78). In a similar way, Claire Bullen, in her chapter, visits three eateries at Marseille’s Boulevard National and interrogates the socio-spatial diversity associated with Marseille as a ‘Mediterranean city’ in terms of a “multiplicity of open, discontinuous social spaces, social systems and/or imaginaries situated differently within social, cultural, political, and economic spheres” (p. 109).

With chapters six and seven the thematic and regional focus shifts to (post)colonial locations in Tunisia and Lebanon. Carmelo Russo visits the multi-faith site of La Goulette in Tunisia, where in 2017 for the first time after 55 years the procession of the Virgin Mary of Trapani took place again. Russo investigates the well-stablished theme of sacred topographies as one particular (post)colonial Mediterranean constellation and asks “how location and religious symbolism are deeply entangled with historical trajectories in the Mediterranean” (p. 130)? In a similar historical trajectory, Samuli Lähteenaho follows an actual line drawn in the sand during a conflict between an environmental NGO and the local municipality on the last public beach of Beirut in the summer of 2019 back to a French land registry reform of the 1920s. He explores how this line in the sand embodies colonial traces across the Mediterranean that “become reactivated and relevant in contemporary urban politics in Beirut” (p. 171).

The last two chapters tackle mobility. In her chapter, Janine Su offers a “socio-historical analysis of constellations of relative location and understandings of spatial movement” (p. 193) that explores distinct subjectivities of Turkish young males in Istanbul’s touristic Sultanahmet district and how these relate to contemporary place-identities of manhood disconnect from former Ottoman Mediterranean socio-spatial constellations (pp. 179–183). In the last chapter, Sarah Green follows a hedgehog crossing the border from Jordan into Israel in June 2019, which in itself was a non-event of no one’s concern (pp. 201–205). Nonetheless, the hedgehog on the move illustrates how overlapping locating and classification regimes for animals intersect with human bordering regimes and thus “creating a ‘crosslocation’ of animal habitat and political borders” (p. 200). This example of an overlapping, coexisting nonhuman crosslocation leads to her final recourse on “Mediterranean partial connections” which should equally focus on “disconnection as well as connection [that] places emphasis on the hierarchical and power-inflected way that differences between people and places are effected, which is anything but random” (pp. 205–206).

In the volume’s epilogue, Matei Candea uses the idea of the “topic-location” as a “profound structuring device of anthropological knowledge production” to turn the volume’s call to study Mediterranean location inside out, and instead to raise the question of “is there something distinctively Mediterranean about the topic of location” (pp. 223–224)? In search for an answer, he returns to the volume’s central issue of comparison, ironically stating: “Comparison is like a boomerang: the harder you throw it away, the harder it comes back” (p. 227).

The edited volume compellingly deals with the tensions and “dialectics of fragmentation and unity”[10], that have informed much of the heated debates in different anthropologies in/of the Mediterranean for more than seven decades. The authors demonstrate that these legacies can once more fruitfully be taken up and turned into a powerful heuristic of ethnographically locating the spatio-temporal “connections and separations” that make, unmake, and multiply, rather than erase Mediterranean constellations. What is in particular most intriguing, is the way how closely the volume’s contributions as a whole follow the theoretical trajectory of “Mediterranean locations” outlined by the editors in their introduction. Moreover, the wide range of topics and locations touching also the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean present in this volume makes the reading an extremely worthwhile exploration. Lastly, Rommel and Viscomi demanded and promised an “ethnographic insistence” (p. 8; p. 17) and to my delight with the support of a very diverse and excellent group of early-stage and senior anthropologists, they were able to deliver this ethnographic insistence.

[1] Peregrine Horden / Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea : A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford 2000.
[2] Peregrine Horden / Nicholas Purcell (Eds.), The Boundless Sea – Writing Mediterranean History, here: pp. 1–21: The Mediterranean and ‘The New Thalassology’, London 2020, p. 12.
[3] Horden / Purcell (Eds.), The Boundless Sea; Peregrine Horden, ‘Knitting Together the Unconjoined’: Mediterranean Connectivity Revisited, in: Zeitschrift für Ethnologie / JSCA (Special Issue: Rethinking the Mediterranean) 145,2 (2020), pp. 197–218.
[4] Matei Candea, Arbitrary Locations: In Defence of the Bounded Field-site, in: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13,1 (2007), pp. 167–184; Matei Candea, Corsican Fragments: Difference, Knowledge, and Fieldwork, Bloomington 2010.
[5] Matei Candea, Comparison in Anthropology: The Impossible Method, Cambridge 2018; see also the volume’s epilog: pp. 223–231.
[6] Naor Ben-Yehoyada / Heath Cabot / Paul A. Silverstein, Introduction: Remapping Mediterranean Anthropology, in: History and Anthropology 31,1 (2020), pp. 1–21.
[7] Simon Holdermann / Christoph Lange / Michaela Schäuble / Martin Zillinger, Rethinking the Mediterranean: Extending the Anthropological Laboratory across Nested Mediterranean Zones, in: Zeitschrift für Ethnologie / JSCA (Special Issue: Rethinking the Mediterranean) 145,2 (2020), pp. 175–196, here pp. 184–185.
[8] Doreen Massey, For Space, London 2005, p. 9.
[9] see Edwin Ardener, Remote Areas – Some Theoretical Considerations, in: HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2,1 (2012), pp. 519–533.
[10] Thomas Hauschild / Martin Zillinger / Sina Lucia Kottmann, Syncretism in the Mediterranean: Universalism, Cultural Relativism and the Issue of the Mediterranean as a Cultural Area, in: History and Anthropology 18,3 (2007), p. 312.