“All things transregional?” in conversation with… Leyla Dakhli
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.
Leyla Dakhli, historian and researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin, 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, Birgit Schäbler, Christine Hatzky, Ulrike Lindner and Martin Dusinberre.
What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?
I didn’t suddenly decide to investigate transregionally. Initially, I was on the classical position of the orientalist, coming from a European Academic perspective and investigating on Syria and Lebanon. The first transregional perspective I started to adopt was the one made necessary to capture and understand the Arab intellectuals I was describing and following for my PhD. These people were often spread in different parts of the world and constituted a diaspora that I decided to take in the full sense of the world, meaning that I decided to try and understand what transregional perspective on this topic could bring something new for the debates on the “Nahda” (Arab cultural Renaissance of the modern era). This brought me to focus on the connection between what is called “Adab al Mahjar” (culture-literature of the migration) and the Nahda and also to question the very notion of “arab culture”. It is still one of the questions I’m dealing with when I’m now working on the languages of “Arab” modernities, on the “Arab” revolutions.
The debates on post-migrant societies, very much centered on Europe or on regions that can be seen through the lenses of the melting-pot (Americas), is very much absent from the studies on the Middle East and North Africa. The transregional perspective is a way for me – and others – to show that this Mediterranean region is not a home for authenticity and purity, but for complexity, diversity. I suppose it is also a way for me to re-assemble my multiple belongings and give an intellectual sense to them.
What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?
One of the limits I can see is the extension of the use of transregional studies. Everything can be transregional or global, and obviously, somehow, everything is transregional. I am myself very cautious in my use of these terms when writing. It is a tool, not a concept. This is why I like more the term transregional, because it contains the very idea of a process, a movement, a transformation (through the prefix “trans”). I like to see the transregional as a tool that is not comprehending everything but effectively showing how things are connected. In a sense, transregional approaches are related to ecology, if you understand ecology as the necessary connection between all the elements that constitute our natural sphere.
One of the lasts I can think of is the one that followed the publication of a volume like “L’Histoire mondiale de la France” this year in France. I was one of the 122 contributors of what is in my eyes a very refreshing and solid proposal for a global history of France. The book ended up to be quite a success (with more than 85.000 copies sold), but also generated a national polemic on the question of French “identities”. The authors – and specifically the director of the volume, the medievalist Patrick Boucheron – were accused by right-wing polemists to be “diluting France”.
This is one of the problems that this approach brings, but in my sense it’s also a very strong tool, a way to discuss and understand very sensible contemporary questions. Transregional approaches are not a mirror of our modern world, they are not specific to our “global context”. For historians, they can show that the world of women and men was always inter-connected, even for those who never travelled. Understanding the common destiny of men is contesting the idea that there is something completely specific and authentic, radically different somewhere on the planet. We do, as social scientists, in the same time want to access the specificity of each social situation, and bring it back to the common experience of manhood. This is why transregional approaches are helpful because they can give proofs that there is no such thing as an “authentic identity”, and that, for example, France was always a “diluted” entity.
This misunderstanding between some conservatives and my conception of the profession of historians leads quasi entirely on the fact that most people expect historians to deliver a truth about the “origins” of a nation. This is how the discipline was born and celebrated for in the 19th century. This is how it is still very much taught in many parts of the world. But it’s not what (good) historians do. Their curiosity doesn’t lean only on this question of the origins, but on the processes and the routes. And these routes are often full of surprises.
How did the field of transregional research develop in the past ten years? How do you envision its future?
Being a historian in the age of globalization leads us to adapt our tools to be able to understand our global world. But there are many possible ways to do it. One of the most powerful tools proposed in the last decades was the microstoria, a completely different approach that was focusing on the micro scale as a way to reveal a larger level of analysis of the world. On the other hand, the first steps of the “global approaches” tended to be limited to analysis that see the world from very far, putting very much emphasis on phenomena like international relations. In the past decades, we managed to bring these approaches to another level by developing new methodologies and investigating objects specifically concerned by this approach: ecology, global labour, migrations and mobilities, etc.
I’m not very good at telling the future, but one of the seeds I would like to grow is the connection between different areas in between languages, that is to say that I would like to see researchers, not only “use” different languages to access different realities but integrate this very linguistic tool in the analysis. It’s not a completely different approach, just an extension of our perspectives in between languages. For me, this attention to languages (translations, importation of words, transformations, accents, polyglossia, inventions…) is a way to study transregionally the circulation of people, ideas, goods in their own words, which means with the ambition of being the closer possible to the shared and embodied social and political emotions. Somehow, it’s a movement that connects microstoria and global history, looking at global connections with a close eye on words, images, sounds.
What academic works would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?
I will definitely first mention Sanjay Subrahmanjam, especially for the figure of the Alien in history, the Armenian Merchant on the Indian Ocean, a character that helps a lot to think without the nation, or beyond the nation. It was for me, combined with the work of Ian Hacking on the Mad Travelers of Ancien Régime France, a way to capture movement in history, not only migration and multiple mobilities, but also the use of mobile identities, uncertainty, illegality. These texts are not immediately connected to transregionality, but they deeply interrogate the very raison d’être of the territories, the identifications, the norms.
Then for me the contribution of the so-called subaltern and postcolonial school has to be recognized as a major step in understanding a world of connectivity, hybridity and complexity: Dipesh Chakrabarty is definitely on my bookshelves for the inverted perspective (between Europe and the “Global South”, in Provincializing Europe) and the attention to social classes and political economy, but also to ecology and post-humanity; Homi K. Bhabha brought me a lot for the comprehension of what is Culture, specifically with the powerful notion of “mimicry”; and I owe a lot to Arjun Appadurai’s “fear of small numbers” and his use of the articulation of scales.
Finally, I have to say that my professional approaches to transregional connectivity is very much embedded in the work of the Italian medievalist Carlo Ginzburg, one of the founders of microstoria. Obviously, as a specialist of the Italian medieval period, he can’t really be considered as a global historian. But the very methodology of the microstoria, and his specific understanding of scales and distance was of great importance for me. It helped me turn the sources we can access – even the smallest one – to a wide (distorting) mirror of the world, confronting them to the multiple “refutations of reality”. As he says, “Sources are neither open windows, as the positivists believe, nor fences obstructing vision, as the skeptics hold: if anything, we could compare them to distorting mirrors. (…) the projection of desire, without which there is no research, is not incompatible with the refutations inflicted by the principle of reality,” (C. Ginzburg, History, Rethoric, and Proof. Hanover and London 1999, 25).
Leyla Dakhli is a full-time researcher in the French Center for National Research (CNRS), presently settled in the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin. She is a historian, and her work focuses particularly on the study of Arab intellectuals and cultural history of the South Mediterranean region. She has a special focus on the social history of intellectuals – and specifically on Women Intellectuals; and on the question of languages in the MENA region, considered as a way to understand the entangled history of the region. Leyla Dakhli was one of the convener of the transregional academy 2016 on “De-Framing the Mediterranean from the 21st Century”.
She is member of the scientific comittee of the International Review of Social History (Amsterdam) and Le Mouvement social (Paris), both are of the mostproeminent journals in Social history, and she contributes regularly to of the Lebanese journal Al-Safir al-Arabi, the web-journal La Vie des idées, and Jadaliyya. She is part of the “Open Jerusalem” team (European Research Council Grant). She founded the European Society of Authors, dedicated to promote translation and ideas’ exchanges all around the world.
Citation: “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Leyla Dakhli, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.07.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7312.