“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Christine Hatzky
What does Transregional Research mean? Who can learn from its insights? What are its limits? The 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.
Christine Hatzky, Professor for Latin American and Caribbean History at Leibniz University Hannover, continues the discussion. We look forward to your comments! Already published: Sebastian Conrad, Monica Juneja, Matthias Middell, Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Thomas Maissen, Barbara Mittler, Miloš Řezník, Philipp Lepenies, Michael Goebel, Roland Wenzlhuemer, Steffen Wippel, Julia Verne and Birgit Schäbler.
What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?
Like Monica Juneja, Barbara Mittler and Sebastian Conrad, I have worked for a long time on transregional topics and questions – but more or less unconsciousnessly. Only about 15 years ago did I start to think about what a transregional perspective means in methodological and conceptional terms for my academic research and for my discipline. Over the time I have been in a process of continuously rethinking and reflecting on it. Since the beginning of my studies of Iberian and Latin American History, European History and Romance Studies at the University of Cologne and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, I have been involved in an interdisciplinary area studies environment. All historians concerned with a former colonized region – even if they did colonial history or the history of European expansion – had to move intellectually between at least two world regions. The beginning of my studies coincided with a paradigmatical shift due to the fact that the European discovery of an unknown continent called America had its 500th centenary. Far from being celebrated only as a European success story, this anniversary raised many critical questions. Thus the descendants of the indigenous survivors of the contest questioned the right of the Spanish government to celebrate the conquest, pointed to the dramatic consequences for the indigenous peoples of the violence of the conquest, and demonstrated, regardless of their asserted extinction, their survival and their existence in difference.
This political and cultural opposition resulted in a further rethinking of the entanglements between Europe and Latin America and raised reverse questions like the impact and the consequences of this cultural encounter for Europe: What was interesting now was how the “new world” shaped the “old world” – this was the beginning of the entanglement perspective. Together with the rise of feminist approaches and gender studies, postcolonial and subaltern studies that came mainly from academics in other former colonized world regions challenged U.S. and Europe based history, and new approaches like poststructuralism or the “linguistic turn” also emerged. Altogether those requirements lead to a deep reflection on epistemology, knowledge production, the critical examination of essentialisms, cultural and spatial containers or cultural frontiers and spatial borders. Apart from that, during my studies I have also been involved with the history of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America, its consequences and aftermaths. The history of this forced migration of millions of Africans to the Americas, lasting over three hundred years, pointed not only to the entanglement of three continents but especially to its transcultural and transregional impact. It also pointed to the question of whether the Atlantic was a breach or a bridge between Africa and the Americas. Many related studies suggested that the Atlantic served as a linkage between the regions around the ocean, due to the circulation of people, goods, knowledge and ideas. It also pointed to the question of who shaped the Atlantic: European traders, empires, European ruling classes? Seamen, African rulers or African slaves? According to the conventional approaches of my discipline – imperial history and the history of European expansion – the Atlantic was a space formed through European imperial, commercial, and economic action. It was only in recent decades, with increasing consciousness that the history of the Atlantic slave trade cannot be explored exhaustively without involving the perspective of African history and without practicing transregional research on a microhistorical level and translocally following biographies, that “unsuspected ties” (Lara Putnam) became evident, and we realized the importance of the agency of Africans (rulers, traders and slaves) within the whole process.
The new insights won by a transregional historical perspective on the Atlantic are evident. They altered an important range of historical certainties, and showed that a transregional perspective has never merely had a spatial dimension, but always transcultural components too, and they demonstrate the time-related dimension of transregionality. Transregional interconnections, transfers, exchanges and interrelations existed long before we became aware of them. Conventional historical perspectives (notwithstanding the evidence that social, economic and cultural historians have carved out ever since these methodological approaches emerged) have long been dominated by the conviction that in the past or in “premodern” times only economically or politically powerful people were active protagonists. The so-called traditional societies, the “people without history” (Eric Wolf) on the other hand were considered static and unable to move – in the case of the Atlantic space, this was ascribed especially to the indigenous people of the Americas and to Africans. Transregional approaches were and are crucial to overcome these shortcomings. I support the arguments of Julia Verne, for whom a transregional perspective highlights the necessity to overcome classical regional demarcations, to demonstrate the evidence of the transgressions and the transcendency of spatial unities.
As part of the interdisciplinary Centre of Atlantic and Global Studies at Leibniz University, I am completely aware that “the Atlantic” as a region is as artificial as every other region that we define or take into consideration – and I strongly support Michael Goebel’s contention that we should scrutinize our comprehension of what a region is. As I tried to demonstrate above, the Atlantic space (a “transregion” – if we take the conventional spatial deliminations) nevertheless serves as an example for the scope and scale of transregional approaches. A transregional perspective – historically, spatially and transculturally – on the Atlantic helped to shift the suppositions of what is “center” and “periphery” in Wallerstein’s world system theory within this core region. Decentering is the keyword that comes to my mind when I think about what a transregional approach could promote; but decentering in the sense of Frederick Cooper, that this does not mean to relativize global power structures and hierarchies through a global (or transregional) paradigm. Or what Michael Goebel mentioned in his interview: imperialism has always been transregional, and so has anti-imperialism. Interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity is another tool tied indispensably to a transregional approach in order to explore sound the many different layers of its meaning, to strengthen the analysis of the phenomenon from very different “trans” angles, as Barbara Mittler has pointed out. In our research center we are lucky to have very long experience of transregional and interdisciplinary approaches on a global perspective; nevertheless it is often an arduous task to sit together and to bring together different methodological perspectives from different disciplines like African, Latin American and European history, social sciences, anthropology, literature and cultural studies, and religious sciences. We are still convinced that it is a fruitful undertaking – and here I agree with Roland Wenzlhuemer, who argued that we need even more subtle instruments to analyze and understand an entangled and globalized world. Speaking from my own practical, heuristical and empirical experience, transregional and interdisciplinary perspectives seem adequate tools and worthy of refinement.
What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?
Not all things are transregional … but having consciously used this approach in research, one becomes aware that many things are more transregional than we ever expected. The limits of transregional studies often lie in our own disciplinary limits and in our epistemological limitations. As I mentioned above, taking transregional approaches is a collective effort as all interdisciplinary approaches are. It therefore needs intensive teamwork: to sit together in interdisciplinary circles and to discuss what a transregional perspective can be and to translate the different methodological accesses to analyzing a phenomenon: “Shifting from linear paradigms to the rhizomic” as Barbara Mittler has expressed it in her interview. For me this means the disposition to transgress – interactively – the limits of disciplinary cultures in order to find an articulation (articulation in the sense of Stuart Hall) in work with other disciplines or regional perspectives without giving up our own expertise and specialization. It also means the disposition to translate terms that we use commonly but that have different meanings in other cultural contexts, and to enrich our vocabulary with words that reflect other cultural experiences – here I again support Barbara Mittler. This is probably less applicable to Latin American or Caribbean history, but it starts to apply if we move to African contexts. At the latest when Asia comes into play, we are forced to learn other and more languages in order to understand our sources. Or we need a narrow cooperation with colleagues who possess this expertise.
As Monica Juneja has emphasized, another challenge of transregional work is to move creatively on the scale between macro and micro, perspectives that historians often use. The problem begins with bringing together the “fragments and the whole” (Lara Putnam): what exactly do the results of a microhistorical analysis represent? How can they offer new insights or prove transregional connections that were previously denied? How to set them into a relationship with bigger structures? These questions, in my opinion, are at the core of transregional research. To emphasize this with an example from my own research and my attempt to transcend regional limits: the Cuban civil cooperation in education with the Angolan postcolonial government in the era of transition between colonialism and independence. Nobody but Cold War historians was interested before in this transatlantic South-South relationship. They took into consideration only the military cooperation between the two governments, and regarded this as a proof for a dichotomic view that Angola and Cuba were nothing but “proxies” of the Soviet Union. I wanted to leave behind these Cold War narratives as well as transcend concepts and theories of the interconnectedness between Africa and the Americas in order to examine how this works as a practical experience. I therefore followed the people, the biographies and histories of those Cubans and Angolans who had mutual encounters in Angola or in Cuba and the transfers of ideas, knowledge and experience. I wanted to know whether the connections of the transatlantic slave trade between western central Africa and Cuba still operated when this massive return movement of Cubans to Africa took place in the name of internationalism, anti-imperialism and solidarity. I was lucky to have access to many living testimonies without which I would not have been able to reconstruct the perceptions and experiences of this extraordinary encounter. I touched the limits of my discipline when I, trained a historian of Latin American and Caribbean history, had to deal with African contemporary history. But the biggest challenge was the lack of interdisciplinarity, e.g. by interpreting the literature that Cubans produced about their Angolan experience or vice versa, or in anthropological terms the traces of the religious encounter between Cuban practioners of Afrocuban religions and religions practiced in Angola. Or the encounter in sociological terms: which of the two societies was more affected by the encounter?
Another challenge for transregional research is the cooperation with colleagues from the regions on which we do research: overcoming the pattern that academics from Europe or the U.S. do research about a region or connections between regions, instead of researching in cooperation with experts from the region. I think there is still a lot to do. Yet another point I want to make is that there is still a lack of interconnection between different (trans-)regional researchers who are specialized in a specific region and others who work on the interconnections between other regions. If we want to overcome “imperial” demarcations of regions in order to change directions in transregional research and to establish other articulations, we have to move. To give an example: a reasonable connection for revealing new entanglements, contact zones, interconnections, transfers and circulations would be between researchers who work on the transregional connections around the Indian Ocean and those who work on the Atlantic region.
How did the field of transregional research develop in the last ten years? How do you envision its future?
The development of transregional research is a process – it is “work in progress”– and, as Barbara Mittler has pointed out, not a matter of ten years or so, but more a kind of paradigmatical change in our thinking. As I mentioned above, there have already been a lot of transformations within the humanities and social, literature and cultural sciences, due to many “turns” and paradigmatical shifts, in the last three decades or so. New narratives have been produced that “provincialized” our vision and turned it – in a way – upside down. But if I look around and see our everyday life, which is marked more than ever before, in my experience, by a transregional reality – I would say that we should go on promoting transregional research.
Michael Goebel mentioned an important point that pushed forward transregional approaches: the digitalization of documents and sources that has profoundly transformed our practice as historians in the past two decades. Digitalization enables us much better than ever before to trace the trajectories of protagonists, not only in the 19th and 20th centuries but even before, not only in Europe or North America but in Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean – although there is still much to do. But this technological innovation makes it much easier for historians to identify those unsuspected ties that we are always looking for.
For innovative and transformative progress in the field of transregional studies, platforms for discussion like the Forum Transregionale Studien and the association Crossarea are crucial, because they offer a space for a productive exchange and help to push transregional studies from the margins of academia more into the center and to ground them within the disciplines.
What academic works would you name as groundbreaking or trend-setting for the field of transregional research?
One of the most inspiring works in terms of a transregional approach is still Braudel’s Méditerranée. Other “classics” that do not truly constitute a transregional perspective but inspired me as historian to think about entanglements and interconnections are C.L.R James’s “Black Jacobins”, Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” and of course Fernando Ortiz’ “Cuban Counterpoint”. In the last-named work, the Cuban anthropologist offered in 1940 a groundbreaking definition of what is “transculturalism”; another work that inspired me is Stuart Hall’s “Racism and Cultural Identity”. All of them have Caribbean roots. It is absolutely not accidental that Caribbean intellectuals were pioneers in exploring transregional processes and interconnections, because of their personal experience as persons “in between” empires, regions and cultures. I am also fascinated by another Caribbean intellectual: the Haitian sociologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot (“Silencing the Past”, “The Otherwise Modern” or “Culture on the Edges: Caribbean Creolization in Historical Context”). And to mention one more, an inspiring “classic” for me is Eric Wolf’s “Europe and the People without History”. Other sources of inspiration were Marshall Sahlin’s essay, “What is Anthropological Enlightenment?”, James Clifford’s “Routes. Travel and Translation in the late Twentieth Century” and Mary Louise Pratt’s “Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation”, as well as more recent works like Lara Putnam’s “To Study the Fragments/Whole”, Marcus Rediker’s and Peter Linebaugh’s “Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic” and Laurent Dubois’ “Avengers of the New World. The History of the Haitian Revolution”; José Curto’s and Paul Lovejoy’s “Enslaving Connections: Changing Cultures of Africa and Brazil during the Era of Slavery”; Kristin Mann’s and Edna Bay’s anthology “Rethinking the African Diaspora: The Making of a Black Atlantic World in the Bight of Benin and Brazil”, and Olívia Gomes da Cunha’s essay on the production of historical and ethnological knowledge: “Exactly as People Tell; or an Ethnography of the (In)Visible Things of Mayajigua”.
Christine Hatzky holds a Chair in Latin American and Caribbean History at Leibniz University Hannover since 2010 and is Spokesperson of the Centre for Atlantic and Global Studies at Leibniz University Hannover. She began her studies of Iberian and Latin American History, European History and Romance Studies at the University of Cologne and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She has spent research periods in Mexico, Cuba, Angola, USA, Russia and Portugal. Her habilitation from University Duisburg-Essen focuses on “Cubans in Angola. South-South Cooperation and Educational Transfer 1976-1991”.
Citation: “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with…Christine Hatzky, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.12.2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5617.