Emerging Topics – Insights from “Behind the Scenes”
Interview with Dr. Steffi Marung
Which topics are currently being debated in the academic and scientific community? Which ideas are contemplated, tried out, and discussed? Which questions does transregional studies tackle at the moment, which fields are expanded, and which aspects will be central in emerging research?
Our series “Emerging Topics – Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’” puts the spotlight on current issues within transregional research. By highlighting selected recent and upcoming workshops and other academic events, we are putting into focus what is being debated within the field of transregional studies at the moment.
This blog post was first published on the TRAFO Blog, Link.
Interview with Dr. Steffi Marung
- The third annual conference of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB 1199): “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition”, focuses on “Imaginations and Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition”, suggesting that imaginations can be considered as a productive force in processes of spatialization under the global condition. In which way could this be the case?
Global historians argue that around the middle of the nineteenth century a new quality of global connectivity emerges, also as an effect of new technologies such as railway, steamship, and telegraph, but also due to simultaneous transformations in many world regions, which brought them into much more intense relations from which no society could any longer withdraw. This global condition is something else than “globalization”, which is the result of many and often competing projects of dealing with this global condition – of managing, controlling, profiting from it. Yet, in many cases, the global condition is not experienced directly – in most cases it needs to be interpreted, narrated, and visualized in order to make sense of it and in order to forge alternative globalization projects. Hence, imaginations are an important dimension and force of space-making under the global condition, but a force which has profoundly changed in the course of time.
Very roughly, one could say that in the nineteenth century we come across powerful tools of imagination in the context of a world of empires, such as maps like the many “Empire in Red”-variations, suggesting the global power of the British. In many countries, geographers became key actors for “discovering” and “taking stock” of the world and translating these into effective imaginations which have then legitimated, fuelled, or inspired global ambitions of national and imperial leaders. Historians and writers contributing to the “invention of the nation” have equally taken part in the production of effective spatial imaginations. In “human zoos” as well as in world fairs, the “global” has been powerfully imagined, situated, inventoried, related, evaluated, and compared – thereby always suggesting specific agendas of how to deal with “the foreign”, the “uncivilized”, or the “modern”.
The twentieth century then has obviously seen a proliferation of spatial imaginations on a global scale as well as the rise of new powerful imaginaries going beyond and challenging the imperial. The Cold War has been, for example, a powerful spatial imagination in countless movies, novels, mass media, maps, school and university curricula, military agendas, etc. Furthermore, decolonization has led to a multitude of new spatial imaginations, such as those suggesting the existence of a “Third World”. The fair trade movement in many Western European countries since the 1960s has effectively contributed to imaginations of global economic order and how to relate to it from a European perspective, which has not necessarily been congruent with the imaginations of activists in the Global South of a New Economic World Order they fought for in international organizations. Communist internationalism and Western Third World-ism have suggested diverging arguments about how to reconceive the global order, how to change geographies of connections between different world regions, as well as the distribution of power and wealth. Global threats, such as the atomic bomb or global environmental collapse, have found their powerful reflections in spatial imaginations, too, which in turn have always communicated arguments of “where” they are and how to deal with them.
In the twenty-first century, in turn, we seem to witness a further proliferation of spatial imaginations – now very often together with their commercialization – when, e.g. “global cities” are created as brands not only for London and New York but also for Singapore and Hong Kong. New forms of mapping and visualization through new technologies such as GIS on the one hand “democratize” the production of spatial imaginations, they on the other hand become ubiquitous and easily accessible tools in the hands of economic and political elites aiming to manage and control, e.g. real estate buyers or electorates. New, often digital, infrastructures seem to facilitate the production as well as circulation of new spatial imaginations for political elites as well as for subaltern groups. Often, spatial imaginations are used in conflicts about competing claims on spaces, conflicts resulting from different globalization projects, such as new imaginations of “land” in struggles against land-grabbing or “rights to the city”-campaigns.
- “Imagination” is a term that has a host of different meanings in various disciplines. How do you approach and understand “imaginations” within the context of the conference?
Developing a common conceptual framework is one of the challenges we want to address in our centre, which brings together different disciplinary and area studies perspectives and languages. That is something we want to foster more broadly with our annual conferences. We would like to start from an understanding of “imagination” not just as mental images or representations of the world – and exactly not as the opposite to reality– but as a creative human faculty to react to the world, to put oneself into a relation to it, to define one’s position. This can be linked to the realization of ambitious projects or to undertakings which have not turned out to be successful. We emphasize that imaginations are powerful instruments to produce spaces as a way to react to a world which is characterized by multiple connections across longer and shorter distances, but certainly beyond the frameworks we can physically experience in our everyday lives. A world also shaped by ruptures and inequalities as well as by visions of how to expand power and wealth. Spatial imaginations are key dimensions of processes of spatialization, because they activate actors, provide “scripts” for their actions, mobilize them to challenge existing spatial formats and fight for the establishment of new ones, and question the dominant spatial order or legitimate it.
That is a common ground we have developed in the course of now two years of joint conceptual and empirical work among geographers, cultural studies scholars, historians, anthropologists, political scientists and area studies experts on Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe. Methodologically, this also means that representations are not only to be investigated in the field of the arts and culture, although literature, theatre, paintings, media, and popular mass culture, etc., are certainly very productive in this regard. But spatial imaginations can also be found in the memoranda and action plans of international organizations, strategy papers of multinational companies, speeches of politicians, intelligence reports, data gathered by drones, statistics of banks, operation schedules of police and military, and the like.
- In emphasizing the productive force of “imaginations”, what kinds of questions and debates do you seek to address at the conference? And what kind of contributions are you looking for?
What we would like to understand together with colleagues from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences as well as from different area studies is, firstly, how spatial imaginations have changed over time as reactions to the global condition. We have developed some hypotheses, which I have hinted at above, but this has to be further developed. What was specific about the way actors have developed, communicated, utilized, and struggled with spatial imaginations in the nineteenth century, in the course of the twentieth century, until today? Secondly, it is a Eurocentric trap to assume that the way spatial imaginations are produced and used has been and is the same at all places in the world. Therefore, we need to engage in a communication across different area studies to come to terms with variations as well as circulations of these modes. Furthermore, we need to ask if, e.g., religious actors develop and mobilize spatial imaginations in a different way than, let’s say, “business people” or staff of international organizations or writers of fictional texts. This brings us then to queries about actors and institutions and the way they impact on the formation, effectiveness, and transformation of spatial imaginations or are products of these. Power and questions of inequalities are omnipresent in all these themes.
We are looking for empirical and conceptual contributions addressing these questions and which would complement the expertise at our centre – either by providing a further comparative perspective or by deepening foci of our work.
Steffi Marung gained a PhD in global studies from Leipzig University with a study on shifting border regimes of the expanding European Union since 1990. Prior to earning her PhD, she had studied political science and German literature in Halle, Berlin, and Prague. From there, she further developed her interest in processes of (re-)spatialization into an ongoing book project on the transnational history of Soviet African studies during the Cold War. In the framework of the international collaborative project “Socialism Goes Global”, she has extended this research towards more general questions of the geographies of East-South encounters during the Cold War. Teaching global history courses at the Global and European Studies Institute at Leipzig University and being involved in further book projects (one on the transnational history of East Central Europe since the nineteenth century, another one on the global history of area studies, and a third one on transregional studies), she contributes to the SFB’s programme with research on the historiographical background of and multiple disciplinary theoretical foundations for the investigation of spatial formats and spatial orders. To this end, she endeavours to facilitate and promote joint cross-project discussions and the formation of a common theoretical language and framework.