“As a Historian, the Archive Remains the Foundation of My Practice” – 5in10 with Pascale Siegrist

Pascale Siegrist joined the GHI London in October 2020. She is an intellectual historian interested in the margins of the canon; her first book project deals with the ‘global’ thought of fin-de-siècle anarchists. At the GHI London she is developing a new project on the worlds of invented languages. Prior to coming to London, Pascale was a Fung Fellow at Princeton University and a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. She holds a BA from Paris-IV Sorbonne, an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from the University of Konstanz.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I guess one of the things that got me interested in history in the first place is how it forces us to question the things that we take as given; a kind of anthropology in time that treats even the most basic aspects of everyday life – such as language – as the result of conscious and unconscious, individual and societal interactions. In my project, I look at a very extreme case of such interventions, namely the deliberate attempts by philosophers, linguists and novelists to create new languages from scratch. The case of artificial languages is exceptional in that language here emerges not as an ex-post and descriptive marker of historical change, but as a normative and prescriptive attempt at past world-making. I am especially interested in how intellectuals developed these initiatives as a response to linguistic globalisation: my project is thus focused on the English-speaking world and asks how the emergence of global English raised questions about the relationship between language and culture – the language invention projects by native English speakers that I look at have in common that they all address the issue of linguistic relativism versus universalism in some way, and sometimes explicitly so. 

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

In my PhD thesis (which, by the way, I wrote in Konstanz, home of the inventor of Volapük …), I looked at nineteenth-century anarchists and their ideas about ‘the global’. One of the more surprising finds was the strong overlap between anarchist and Esperantist circles in different places all over the world. Now, while Esperanto is currently the focus of a number of fascinating ongoing research projects, I wanted to explore this notion of imagining possible worlds through language invention more broadly. Esperanto is normally associated with an idealistic kind of internationalism and experiences a rapid decline with the rise of English as a global language, but the latter is of course far from neutral in terms of its associations. The language invention projects that emerge in the twentieth century in the English-speaking word often exploit the connection between language and its non-linguistic implications in creative ways – either by inventing a language to give plausibility to a fictional universe, or quite the opposite, the attempts to create a strictly logical language pruned of all cultural references. For scholars in turn, this means that artificial languages can be used as a lense for looking at past worldviews.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

As a historian, the archive remains the foundation of my practice. Intellectual historians tend to work a lot with published sources and I do as well, but if you study figures outside of the canon, good scholarly editions can be difficult to come by. Also, I’ve found that going through the correspondence and notes of past thinkers really changes your perception of how their ideas came about, what more immediate concerns they were addressing, how friendships and petty feuds fuelled certain arguments and we learn about paths not taken, crossed-out passages and drafts that landed in the bin. Studying this process can help us make sense of the result. All of this, I guess, is hardly news to the kind of context-sensitive intellectual history in which I inscribe my research. What I am hoping to do is to use this approach to eventually challenge the canon itself, to draw attention to the often-neglected intermediary figures whose role sometimes only stands out if we re-establish their position within a larger intellectual network.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

This has obviously been the year of cancelled events, so it’s been a while since my last in-person exchange. I do miss being able to meet colleagues, and I don’t think that online meetings can ever fully replace the different levels of interaction happening at conferences and workshops. This being said, I am impressed with how historians have adapted to the circumstances and responded to the situation in a way that underlines the importance of historical perspectives in times of crisis. There have been excellent pieces on past pandemics (such as this) and on what Covid-19 means for (global) historians (here). The situation has also encouraged scholars to try out new formats; I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to Danny Evans and Jim Yeoman’s podcasts on anarchist history and look forward to the series of book talks hosted by Robert Kramm at the LMU. The upside of online events is that they bring together people from different places much more easily – and that they are more inclusive for those who found it difficult to take part in events for financial or family reasons. But the fact that you can now attend talks all over the world has only worsened the problem of the academic version of the ‘fear of missing out’ …

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Having studied and worked in seven countries, academic mobility has become central to my biography – to the point where it’s difficult to look at its impact independently. I’d be a hypocrite for claiming that it hasn’t shaped my thinking in profound ways. The fact that we can more easily access sources and publications from different parts of the world, as well as the increased opportunities for conducting research abroad and meeting scholars from different academic traditions have had an obvious bearing on research questions, even at the PhD level. Empirically grounded research in transnational and global history has arguably only been made possible through such channels. At the same time, I believe that we have to take Jeremy Adelman’s astute criticism very seriously, that increased mobility has also led to effects of convergence, reaffirming the predominance of Anglo-American scholarship. These effects go beyond language itself and come with a whole baggage of assumptions about the kinds of questions we ask, the style of writing, and, not least, they have done little to challenge existing hierarchies. All the more a reason to take a keen interest in the connection between language and intellectual culture. 


Citation: “As a Historian, the Archive Remains the Foundation of My Practice” – 5in10 with Pascale Siegrist, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25663.


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