Talking Periodization, or: Too Short a Blanket

A comment on the Annual Conference “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context” of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung, Berlin, 7-9 December 2017.

by Lorenzo Andolfatto

When the organizers of Chronologics asked Milinda and me if we were interested in writing a commentary that would “sum up the central questions of the event,” what I initially pictured in my mind was a form of press-pass-hatted, on-site reporting of the intellectual debates that were going to unfold in Berlin (please find Milinda Banerjee’s report here). Luckily, as I am writing these lines, almost one month and a half has passed since the conference’s conclusion, and the scrambled notes of my initial reporting had time to sediment into a well-needed “recollection in tranquility.” Considering the spectrum and variety of the discussions that actually took place at the Maison de France last December, as well as the many (and at times admittedly erratic) tangents that blossomed thereupon, delayed recollection may be the best way to account for such an event.

Andreas Eckert at the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Luise Illigen

Periodisierung may very well be, as Andreas Eckert quipped in his welcoming address, “something that only German scholars are concerned with,” yet it seems to be the case that the perceived precariousness of this subject outside German academia rather hints at an underlying fundamental discomfort—the ultimately, literally unsettling effect of questioning periodization. Connecting the three days of lectures and round tables 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), is a question as important as it is, to some extent, unsolvable—or better: a riddle that calls for ongoing negotiation instead of definite answers. For questioning periodization is a Münchausenian bootstrapping endeavor, insofar as it highlights two opposite yet equally necessary directives in the practice of contemporary historiography: the practical need to draw chronological boundaries as coordinates of epistemological reference; as well as the necessity to put these boundaries sous rature in order to foreground their inherent one-sidedness—that is the one-sidedness of the part that traces the boundary. As Chronologics’ keynote speaker Sanjay Subrahmanyam after all remarked, “All forms of periodization are bound to carry ideological vestiges.”

Joachim Kurtz at the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Luise Illigen

Such a conundrum is not always evident, at times willfully evaded, and certainly hard to tackle. Nevertheless, it is always there. I surmise that for a scholar having to work his or her own way out of the Orientalist mold that has long structured the apparatuses (faculties, departments, research institutes) legitimizing the area studies as a field of implied centers and peripheries, the issue of questioning spatial and chronological boundaries that are otherwise given for granted emerges early on. It is for this reason, I believe, that the opening round table on the “East Asian Perceptions of the Past,” chaired by Joachim Kurtz from Heidelberg University and animated by the sinologists and yamatologists[1] of the HERA project “Uses of the Past,” tackled the theme of the conference—“periodization in a global context”—more pertinently. By building upon the notion of “chronotypes” elaborated by Bender and Wellbery in The Construction of Time, Chronologics’ opening round table exposed what can be defined as the fallacy of uncritical colligation, that is the metonymical reduction of composite historical phenomena into functional rhetorical constructs—“The assemblage,” in the words of the panelists, “of disparate historical events under single labels.” Is it possible, instead, to redefine the notion of Renaissance as an instance of global co-production (Blitstein)? Does the notion of “Empire” function to explain Japan’s and China’s pre-republican configurations and expansionist politics (Dusinberre, Chappell)? And finally, how do multiple regimes of historicity interact and mutually affect each other in the context of institutional transculturation (Mervart, Tremml-Werner)? Ultimately, questioning periodization may imply, as Kurtz suggested, “abandoning the idea of “unidirectional transfer” in favor of a “branching of the concepts in the framework of a global history.”

It seems to me that in ignoring such a call for restructuring the way we think about periodization—that is, in terms of rhizomatic co-production instead of univocal cooptation—leaves the historian’s flank open to two kinds of methodological impasse. On the one hand, the lack of self-awareness and (economic, political, social) self-positioning from the part of the periodizing subject may empty out the tool of periodization of its heuristic value—that is, of its purpose. On the other hand, schemata supporting periodization risk transforming into self-fulfilling prophecies—wholly self-referential endeavors that posit in and by themselves the conditions for their own tautological existence, and which as such are inherently ill-equipped to resist any kind of structural criticism. In fact, these two shortcomings were addressed by Subrahmanyam in his keynote lecture on “Scale and The Problem of Periodization”: What is the scope, range, and scale of periodization, once such a critical practice is enacted? Does this practice work at the microhistoric level in the same way it operates in the sweeping statements of global history? As he argued, if these methodological vices are not properly addressed, they invalidate the practice of periodization itself, whose schemata are then bound to fall apart either by lack of coherence (“Chronologies fall apart when we move from nation to region, from region to province, etc.”) or by obsessive hypercorrection (that is “in the mushrooming of subperiodizations”).

Alessandro Stanziani at the Annual Conference 2017 in Berlin, Photo: Maurice Weiss

Chronologics was not immune to this kind of fallacies, though I want to argue that their very presence highlighted the conference’s intellectual relevance and success. What marked the importance of this conference in the first place (at least to my historiographically-untrained eyes[2]) was the collective attempt of its participants to work out an array of theoretical issues that once were given as tenets of their very own discipline. This multifocal attempt at the recalibration of discourses and related epistemological instruments unfolded not only in the mutual resonating of the panels, but also in the ensuing debate with the public. By questioning the reliability of archives and sources (Stanziani), positing necessary anti- and counter-periodizations and narratives (Kar, Banerjee), or by the sheer force of subaltern rejection of the existing schemata (Nkemjika Chimee, but also Navarrete), Chronologics managed to bootstrap itself out (or at least outside enough) of its own ever-present, ever-enmiring ideological immemorial. Given the almost paradoxical nature of such an effort, this is quite a success from the part of the organizers of the event.


[1] Who, I am sure, have collectively cringed at these labels. I, for one, did while using them.

[2] I am a literature and translation scholar, not a bona fide historian.



Citation: Lorenzo Andolfatto, Talking Periodization, or: Too Short a Blanket. A comment on the Annual Conference “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context”, Berlin, 7-9 December 2017, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.02.2018,

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