Periodization as Mastery, Periodization as Resistance

A Report of the Annual Conference 2017 “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context

by Milinda Banerjee

What are the ‘prime motors’ which drive schemes of periodization? The ambition of the conference “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context” (Berlin, 7-9 December 2017), convened by Thomas Maissen (DHI Paris), Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies/Forum Transregionale Studien), and Pierre Monnet (Institut franco-allemand de sciences historiques et sociales/EHESS) was to place this question at the heart of current debates in global history. In this report, I shall draw out and connect some of the main arguments offered by the speakers, show how they braid with each other in their common focus on how the organization and government of time mediate varied dialectics of power and resistance, and finally offer some concluding analytical reflections.

(From left to right) Hans van Ess, Pablo Blitstein, David Mervart, Birgit Tremml-Werner, Martin Dusinberre, Jon Chappell, Joachim Kurtz at the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Luise Illigen

The opening roundtable on chronotypes in East Asia (Pablo Blitstein, Universität Heidelberg; Jon Chappell, LSE; Martin Dusinberre, Universität Zürich; Joachim Kurtz, Universität Heidelberg; David Mervart, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Birgit Tremml-Werner, Universität Zürich) oscillated between two poles. On the one hand, the speakers critiqued the epistemic violence of periodization which secured regimes of sovereignty, justifying European imperial power in Asia, or Japanese and Chinese models of aggressively nationalist counter-power. On the other hand, the speakers also valorized models of co-production of knowledge and transcontinental circulation of meaning which partially exceeded and disrupted the verticality of the sovereignty-periodization nexus. The question and answer session created a wave of dissensus. In particular, the question “what next” raised by Maissen threw a provocative challenge about how future historians might create less Eurocentric (or Sinocentric or Japanocentric) narratives.

The next day, Mittler’s opening speech related periodization schemes to cartographies of violence, and underlined the ethical need for reducing inequalities of knowledge. The presentation by Heather Ferguson (Claremont McKenna College) and David Moshfegh (IE University Madrid) highlighted how modes of periodizing Islamic history have been embedded in impositions of violence. Ferguson went to the extent of suggesting that an imposition of periodization is generally an act of colonization, and involves the imperialization of time: this was as true for premodern regimes (for example, the use of messianic-astrological temporalities by Ottoman rulers), as for colonial-modern ones. In the question and answer session, Sebastian Conrad (Freie Universität Berlin) wondered whether all periodizations were driven by colonizing needs, or whether non-imperializing chronologics were also possible. Responding to this, and drawing in part on Hegel (as interpreted by Alexandre Kojève), Milinda Banerjee’s (LMU München/Presidency University, Kolkata) presentation suggested that periodization schemes carried both the signs of imposing mastery and the apertures for insubordination. Analysing discourses produced by Rajavamshi peasants through lenses of recent debates in global intellectual history, Banerjee argued that forms of collective organization that drew on specific modes of agrarian labour propelled new ways of imagining the periodized transition from a past of heteronomy to a future of material and ethical autonomy.

Impression from the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Luise Illigen

In general, one of the major achievements of the conference was to highlight that changing modes of periodization are linked to changing ways of organizing the politico-economic. Justus Nipperdey (Universität des Saarlandes) showed how the ‘early modern’ as a category blossomed in the Cold War era at the very moment when the Western bloc sought to underline its creativity in industrial capitalism and to draw a line against an inadequately industrial, and thus inadequately (hence, ‘early’) modern, past. Bodhisattva Kar (University of Cape Town) showed how British colonial actors produced periodization schemes to justify the coercive ‘pacification’ of indigenous populations. Such periodizations travelled from colonial archives to international organizations like the League of Nations and finally influenced the emergence of structuralist thinking. In contrast, Alessandro Stanziani (EHESS) argued that, following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union struggled to disrupt the relation between archival organization and the domination of ruling classes. Yet new hierarchies, and new periodization schemes, emerged as the organization of archives was related to the conceptualization of modes of production, especially in relation to Central Asia.

The many richly textured papers in the conference played on the dialectics of mastery and resistance in thinking about periodization schemes. Such dialectics sometimes invoked political theology, as in the links between political anxieties, messianic expectations, and the systematic chronicling of historical events in premodern Sri Lanka (Tilman Frasch, Manchester Metropolitan University), in the use of Biblical time by Ethiopian actors (Eloi Ficquet, CéSor EHESS), and in the transformation by Jewish actors of space/times of confinement and ghettoization into space/times of imagining freedom (Bernard Cooperman, University of Maryland). Such dialectics involved negotiating the early modern for the non-European world (Tatiana Artemyeva, Herzen Pedagogical University, on Russia; Youngmin Kim, Seoul National University, on Korea); they involved the expropriation of the concept of Renaissance by African-American actors to refer to their own cultural-political production (Andrew Fearnley, University of Manchester, on the Harlem Renaissance). Speakers who focused on quotidian political (including pedagogic) controversies brought out the explosive social depth of such debates about periodization, from Turkey (Özlem Caykent, İstanbul 29 Mayıs Üniversitesi) and India (Anubhuti Maurya, University of Delhi) to Palestine (Susynne McElrone, CAORC Washington/ACOR Jordan).

One of the illuminating tensions in the conference was between ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ appraisals of periodization. On the one hand, a significant focus was placed on non-European agency in thinking alternate universalisms and related chronologies (Meltem Toksöz, Brown University, on the Ottoman world), and on the possibility of inscribing modernisms in plural, beyond Eurocentric chronologies (Özen N. Dolcerocca, Koç Üniversitesi). Michael Geyer (University of Chicago) demonstrated how Marshall Hodgson, inspired in part by Gandhi, saw the de-Europeanisation of chronology as non-violent resistance. This strand of thinking in the conference also stressed the limits of the hegemonic modern. Achim Landwehr (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf) in fact argued about the continuing lived presence of past epochs, and thus of pluritemporality. Jörn Rüsen (Universität Witten-Herdecke) emphasized the human propensity to fill time with ethical meaning. Dialogues about periodization could thus connect people, and not merely create disruption between them.

Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee at the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Luise Illigen

On the other hand, other speakers offered a greater sensibility of loss about the precolonial and the ‘indigenous’. Federico Navarrete (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) thus showed how the premodern was often instrumentalized to legitimate the national-modern in the Americas; pre-Columbian antiquity was thus translated into the time of the modern state. Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee’s (University of Nigeria Nsukka) paper, and Andreas Eckert’s (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin/Forum Transregionale Studien) comment on it, disclosed the economic asymmetries which hindered the decolonization of periodization schemes. The lack of funding faced by scholars based in Africa – especially those working on the precolonial era – imply that the colonial period receives a disproportionately high focus in scholarly enquiry, creating a foreshortening of African history. It is obvious that until global politico-economic inequalities are reduced, and scholars working in non-European parts of the world (particularly in funding-intensive areas like archaeology) receive far greater financial support, much of the Euro-American hegemony over production of periodization schemes will continue unchecked.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the conference was the focus on the non-human. Gerrit Jasper Schenk’s (Technische Universität Darmstadt) presentation on Anthropocene debates and William deJong-Lambert’s (Columbia University) paper on theories of evolution drew the attention of the audience beyond the realm of human time to temporalities produced by alternate species. Ulrike Kirchberger’s (Universität Kassel) presentation on the Indian Ocean world in the high noon of colonialism illumined the dissonances between human time, especially of colonial actors who carried out transfers of flora and fauna, and the temporalities of non-human species (such as in relation to reproduction and growth) which often disrupted imperial drives. In the end, imperial arrogance about unending progress was often checked by a growing sense of unpredictability and lack of control vis-à-vis ecological chronology.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam at the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

To return to Maissen’s “what next” question, where does all this leave us? Should we be satisfied with critiquing the power-assumptions behind existing periodizations, or should we strive for new, more just and equitable, syntheses? Can there even be a ‘just’ periodization? The present author was especially inspired by Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s (UCLA) keynote presentation. One of Subrahmanyam’s main arguments was that we should think about varying scales as requiring varying periodizations. Taking examples from South Asian history, he denounced the tendency to straitjacket the empirical record into tendentious presuppositions about periodization, occluding thereby the variegated histories of particular communities and regions as well as their translocal connections. Instead, he urged, by working through the archives – and, for those with global history interests, through ever-expanding and heteroglot archives – one should produce periodizations which do justice to the sources. Studying different modes and scales of circulation, for instance, might necessitate working through variant periodization schemes.

The conference has ultimately revealed, with brilliant granularity, that schemes of periodization – like any conceptual work – carry both traces of domination and the possibilities of labour to overthrow such domination. It has re-affirmed the need to give equitable importance to different social actors, spaces, and scales. Rather than one periodization (like Tolkien’s fabled ring) “to rule them all”, one needs multiple periodizations to imbricate time with multiple political meanings: this is equally relevant for practitioners of multi-scalar global history. The materiality of periodization draws on the materiality of organizing labour, production, and sovereignty in society, from very local to absolutely planetary scales. It is thus obvious that the work of destabilizing dominative periodizations cannot be dissociated from the revolutionary work of unbinding other impositions of servitude anywhere and everywhere: much of recent global history work has after all alerted us to the connectedness of regimes of power and inequality. In the end, the government of time has always been a goal of ruling elites; classification and hierarchization in society have propelled the stratification of time. But this also implies that counter-periodizations, like any tool of political production, need to be forged ever sharp and anew to fight collective battles for more just futures.


Citation: Milinda Banerjee, Periodization as Mastery, Periodization as Resistance. A Report on the Annual Conference 2017 “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.02.2018,

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