Transoceanic American Studies

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the international conference “Transoceanic American Studies”, which will take place on May 17-18, 2018 at the German Historical Institute Washington. The event is organized by Juliane Braun and Benjamin Fagan.

You are organizing the upcoming conference “Transoceanic American Studies”, which aims to bring together researchers working in both Atlantic and Pacific Studies: In your opinion, what are the main differences between Atlantic and Pacific Studies? Do they put their emphasis on different centuries, work with different approaches or have other methodological differences that you noticed and that inspired your conference?

1536 map of the Caribbean. Public Domain.

We have found that Atlantic studies scholars have predominantly focused on the relationship between the spaces surrounding the ocean and thus created the concept of an interconnected Atlantic world where people living in diverse locales such as England, West Africa, the Caribbean, and the eastern United States interact with and influence one another. Pacific studies scholars, by contrast, resist the notion of a single Pacific world and emphasize instead the sometimes-stark differences between Pacific spaces. A transoceanic lens might be able to chart a middle course between these two approaches by exploring potential connections between and among seemingly separate spaces in both oceans without ignoring the importance of local particularities.

Typically, Atlantic and Pacific studies scholars also focus on different types of geographic spaces. Work on the Atlantic world tends to explore connections between the lands and peoples that exist on that ocean’s rim, while scholarship on the Pacific often centers upon the island communities scattered throughout that ocean. In other words, Atlantic studies often connects spaces around the ocean, while Pacific studies explores spaces within it. In addition to prioritizing islands over continents, we have found that scholars of the Pacific have spent far more time than their Atlantic counterparts recovering the experiences of the ocean’s indigenous communities. Atlantic studies scholars typically focus their work on the people who traveled, willingly and in chains, from Europe and Africa to the Americas rather than the indigenous populations who met the white colonizers and their black slaves. By drawing from the methodologies and priorities of both Atlantic as well as Pacific studies, a transoceanic lens emphasizes as much as possible the voices of indigenous and enslaved communities in the Atlantic and the Pacific worlds.

Given their sheer extensiveness, were the Pacific and the Atlantic historically rather dividing or connecting different world regions? Or could they potentially be both?

Map of the Pacific Ocean, circa 1754. Public domain.

For us, the word “transoceanic” foregrounds the ocean and the role it plays for the creation of connections between different lands, peoples, and products. A number of scholars have noted that the division of water spaces into discrete oceans, seas, and basins is a relatively recent invention. Seafarers in the early modern period, for example, thought of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans as “knit together” because they had to traverse all of them to get to, say, China. Ocean waters also do not stop at borders or geographic demarcations, but rather flow into each other, mix and merge. So by choosing to look at our objects of study through a transoceanic lens, we want to highlight relations between far-away and disparate world regions that emerged because of the connections oceans and waterways enabled.

What would be the best outcome of your upcoming conference? How would you like to shape the debate on transoceanic approaches in the future?

Ideally, our conference will stimulate an interdisciplinary conversation about how events in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds influenced one another and how that affected the Americas. But we are also thinking in broader terms. Thinking “transoceanically“ does not necessarily mean that we only consider the relationship between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. We would also like to explore how a transoceanic approach could connect multiple oceanic sites, such as the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. Questions we would like to raise during our conference are, for example,

  • What kinds of archives could lend themselves to studying transoceanic connections?
  • What could be the benefits, and the potential costs, of a transoceanic approach?
  • How can we make sure that we do not overlook the agency and perspective of the people that have lived in the geographic and oceanic sites we study?
  • How important is the ocean itself, and in what way could oceanic studies and “beneath the waves approaches” help us to think “transoceanically”?
  • In what ways is a transoceanic approach different from a global or even planetary framework?
  • And finally, what kinds of insights could a transoceanic approach to literature, culture, and history produce?

Ultimately, we hope to develop a transoceanic methodology or a set of practices and principles that helps us to think about our respective objects of study and our disciplines in different ways.

Juliane Braun specializes in multilingual and transnational literatures of the early Americas. She is currently a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., where she is working on her second book, tentatively titled “Translating the Pacific: Imperial Imaginations, Nature Writing, and Early Modern Print Cultures“. Her first book on the francophone theatre in antebellum New Orleans is forthcoming with the University of Virginia Press. Juliane Braun is also the co-editor of America After Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment (Winter, 2016) and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the journals Early American Literature, Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, and Cambridge University’s African American Literature in Transition Series. Benjamin Fagan is an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University, and a specialist in early African American literature and culture. He was the 2016 Fulbright Visiting Professor in American Studies at the University of Graz, Austria, and has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His work has appeared in journals such as African American Review, Legacy, and American Periodicals. His first book, The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (2016), explores the relationship between the early black press in the United States and concepts of black chosenness, and received an Honorable Mention for the Research Society in American Periodicals Book Prize.


Citation: “Transoceanic American Studies – Interview with Juliane Braun and Benjamin Fagan”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.05.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10044.


 


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