“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Monica Juneja
What does Transregional Research mean? Who can learn from its insights? What are its limits? The new interview series “All Things Transregional?” addresses these issues to launch an open discussion. We invite researchers to share their experiences, assess key issues and future perspectives of transregional research. Monica Juneja, professor for Global Art History at the University of Heidelberg and member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Forum since 2014, continues the discussion. We look forward to your comments! Already published: Sebastian Conrad
What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?
I have been working “transregionally” for as long as I can remember – certainly long before the term has become a paradigm of sorts. Like Sebastian Conrad, I too, had my apprenticeship both in European studies (modern France) and South Asia – having studied at Delhi University actually allowed me to follow this two-pronged course! I also worked for long at the disciplinary interstices of history and art history. Such early training of crossing borders and engaging with different languages, scholarly cultures and disciplinary practices sharpens a sense of criticality that, in my case, was nurtured by the theoretical approaches of my younger days – the linguistic-cum-cultural turn, gender studies and postcolonial studies, all of which have which have formed the groundwork for more recent perspectives – the transcultural and now the transregional. These latter – it is a truism to say – build on earlier critical insights, and also refine them. The enabling potential of a transregional approach is that it allows you to accommodate material that would seem extraneous to your subject if framed according to the logic of modern geo-political units, or to address seeming anomalies that refuse to fit into existing explanatory patterns.
As an art historian one is confronted with the baggage the discipline has accumulated over generations: the separation of individual objects – that may at one time have partaken of a shared setting – into genres, hierarchies, distinct sites of display and neat chronological sequences. Art history deploys the category of style as a convenient tool to stabilize the continuous metamorphoses of objects and forms that come in the wake of processes of transculturation. The idea of stylistic development – more akin to a biological, evolutionary construct rather than a tool to study culture – has been grafted on to a scheme that is artificially maintained by attending to a geographic location as self-contained. Framing an investigation transregionally allows you to discard models of centres and peripheries and explore deeper, complex, perhaps more multidirectional histories of globality and bring back human agency in place of the well-worn art historical category of “influence” or “transfer”.
What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?
Sebastian’s point about the pitfalls of a binary logic while pursuing the “transregional” is well taken. In other words, it is a trap that we are more likely to walk into if we proceed on the basis of pre-existing units, defined as regions. One of the tasks that await transregional studies is to rethink our understanding of the region itself as a unit that is contingent upon the specific logic of a research agenda. Here scholarly and institutional divisions have over the years reinscribed each other. The important call to “provincialize Europe” many years back has also resulted in a congealing of regions as “area studies”. While impulses from globalization studies – with their celebration of flux and dissolution of boundaries – have meant opening the “areas” to new questions, the problem of how we constitute a region as a unit of investigation in the first place has still to be systematically addressed. The challenge is to make the concept of the region itself a subject of reflection, to constitute it as a product of spatial and cultural displacement, to define it as a participant in and as contingent upon the historical relationships in which it is implicated. This would further mean approaching time and space as non-linear and non-homogeneous, defined through the logic of circulatory practices.
Focusing entirely on regional relationalities while losing sight of global structures – to go back to Sebastian’s intervention – is one hazard, the flip side of which might be to float somewhere between different levels of meta-analysis, while leaving it to practitioners of micro-histoire to negotiate their way through the thicket of localities. One of the challenges to – and the potential of – transregional studies might be to think in more nuanced ways about scale, beyond the standard oppositions of “global” and “local” or “macro” and micro”. What are the methodological challenges of moving between several different scales within our research, how do we use the notion of scale productively?
Misunderstandings? One does encounter now and then the romantic belief that any paradigm that critiques the nation-state as its defining frame automatically brings with it an ethical corrective to ethnocentrism or xenophobia: the hope that approaches that carry the prefix “trans-“are somehow endowed with an inherent normative and emancipatory mission to produce knowledge about a world where differences cohabit in harmony. While transregional investigations do bring forth rich examples of cosmopolitan exchange and syncretic experiments, this does not rule out the production of discourses of irreconcilable alterity or practices of violent exclusion. In fact transregional research often confronts us with the paradox whereby the very intensity of entanglement that produces experiences of sharing also precipitates a need to redraw the lines of difference. Often we may even use a shared language – such as one to be encountered within the global circuits of contemporary art, to take one example – though that common usage conceals conflicting interpretations informed by the lives of earlier, distinct and subliminally present regional/ local understandings and experiences. Again, a critical transregional perspective is best equipped to historicize and theorize such seemingly paradoxical situations, given the plurality of linguistic and cultural competences it can draw on.
Though my discipline – art history – has long been complicit with national frames and therefore slower than other disciplines to respond to the challenge of regional connectivity, the recent years have seen fresh scholarly ventures driven by transregional questions, which are now fortunately making their impact. One approach has been to follow the trajectories of mobile objects, works of art and practices of representation and collection. Some important investigations have taken as their starting point the work of a single artist or the study of certain objects, but then the focus does not remain confined to these and their “lives”, but moves beyond to a field spanning distances across regions and continents, to study intersecting and conflicting currents, as they unfold across time and space. Studies of mobile objects and practices draw upon Bruno Latour’s notion of “mediation“ to unravel the processes of transformation and reconfiguration that take place in new localities and in the longer term interrupt existing matrices of geography and aesthetic practice. Research into the dynamics of mobile materiality also works to unsettle established canons and hierarchies of genres by bringing materials such as textiles, lacquer or prints centre stage and according them the status of an artistic genre; further they uncover the problematic nature of labels that classify objects as “Christian” or “Islamic” or “classical”.
A more nascent development that holds much promise for the future is the initiative taken from within the domain of “Western” art history to open its canonical categories to transregional questions. Till now the “areas” have largely referred to regions outside of the North Atlantic West, while that itself remained the unmarked “mainstream”, the assumed centre from which novel artistic currents were believed to spread to absorptive peripheries. The extent to which the “West” was as much constituted through its transregional connections has been a question largely elided by art history, given the value ascribed to uniqueness and originality in the domain of artistic creation. Scholarly initiatives to “reframe” the Renaissance – the heart of the European canon – by investigating the formative role of objects collected from across the globe in shaping taxonomies and concepts of the aesthetic and the “grotesque”, have produced a handful of pioneering studies authored by Claire Farago and others. This is a direction whose exciting potential holds a promise for the coming years.
A question which remains open for the future is whether Transregional Studies too would end up with its own canon of privileged themes that offer “evidence” of a success-story – the favourite subjects/regions would be early modern imperial contexts – Mughal, Qing or Ottoman – or accounts of Buddhist/Gandhara art, art practices in colonial regimes, diasporic communities or the vibrant field of contemporary art, that is by definition cast as “global”? While canons, we tend to agree, invite us to dismantle them, they might also serve to orient us within a new field, as it takes shape and sharpens its methods and analytical tools.
What academic works would you name as groundbreaking or trend-setting for the field of transregional research?
Among the most inspiring examples of transregional research in my field is Objects of Translation. Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounters by Finbarr Barry Flood, whose focus on South Asia actually recasts the region and throws up a fresh geography that is shaped by the complex processes the book analyses. Yet many years back, Mrinalini Sinha’s book, Colonial Masculinity. The “Manly” Englishman and the “Effeminate” Bengali, was exemplary of how to practice a rigorous and nuanced transregional history, though the term never figured there. For a different time and place, Anthony Cutler’s writings, such as Image Making in Byzantium, Sasanian Persia and the Early Muslim World, have broken new ground by thinking of space relationally and enabling a more dynamic conception of style and practice. A significant, recent field of transregional investigation in art history has been histories of modernism that look at this important artistic movement “from the periphery”, calling into question the “purity” of the canon and the “derivative” qualities of modernist experiments beyond the West. The “view from the region” has indeed brought forth evidence of complex transregional entanglements where biographies of artists, the circulation of works and the attempts to define an “avant-garde” all participated in global constellations. Books that have made this move to rethink modernist art from a transregional perspective include those of Partha Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947, Alicia Volk, In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese Modern Art and Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia. Though each of these studies is grounded in a regional/national unit – India, Japan or modern Pakistan – the analysis of undertaken by their authors does more than simply extend the boundaries of “national histories”; it effects a dissolution of that unit per se, by revealing its inadequacy to plausibly accommodate a deeply polyglot history. Newer studies in the making – such as Atreyee Gupta’s work in progress – hold the promise of a more far-reaching revision of modernism’s conceptual foundations, once the still hidden transregional tracks are uncovered.
Two further, recently published works deserve mention as examples of skillful transregional practice: Christine Guth, Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon and Natasha Eaton, Mimesis across Empires. The latter takes a seminal concept of art history – mimesis – and studies its transversal movement as it gets imbricated in relationships with human actors, practices and works of art to emerge as multi-dimensional, and many times re-configured by the regional contexts it crosses and which it transforms in the process.
Monica Juneja holds the Chair of Global Art History at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg. She studied at the University of Delhi, India and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. She has held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Vienna, Emory University, Atlanta and most recently, the University of Zurich. She is presently completing a Scholar Residency at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Monica Juneja is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Forum since 2014.
Citation: »All Things Transregional?« in conversation with… Monica Juneja, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.07.2015 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/2487.