November 29, 2016
Watson Institute, Joukowsky Forum


What if we were to replace conventional maps – which generally distinguish political units, land and sea – and instead draw a world, like the woodcut on the right by the artist Zarina, with only itineraries? Histories of migrations have challenged nation-bound imaginaries of the world, with routes and networks reconfiguring our geographies of enquiry, and interrogating even the conventions of larger historical framings of empires and cold-war area-studies. However, at the same time as we begin to conceive and give an account of a world on the move, the “world” too, surely, cannot be taken for granted either. Since globalization and with growing interest in histories of capitalism and climate change, global history and planetary thinking are pushing on the “world” in new ways; once conceivable as both a macrocosm and a microcosm, large scale movements and processes are demanding us to reconfigure and rethink our visual and conceptual maps for historical change.

This seminar takes the work of a historian of migrations and the Indian Ocean as a starting point for conversations. Sunil Amrith’s book Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (2013), for instance, pushes us off to sea, and as Karen Wigen, a historian of cartography, has argued, thinking out from connected waters can generate improvisations for writing and comparing transnational and trans-regional histories (for example, instead of borders, think with rims; instead of border-crossings, think with disappearances), and arguably this may help us elucidate the stakes of “world-ing” and mapping a new global commons.

While Sunil Amrith will speak from his award-winning book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal, and new trends in Indian Ocean historiography, he will be joined by interlocutors from around the “world”: they include Tamara Chin (the silk road and historicizing Bandung), Meltem Toksöz (Mediterranean Studies from the Ottoman perspective), Diogo Ramada Curto (slavery and the south Atlantic world), Ketaki Pant (domesticity and the Indian Ocean archive). Some of the questions that the seminar will grapple with include:

1) World-Scaling: What is rendered visible by the long duree and the long distance? What new questions are being generated by economic and environmental history that require new geographies of enquiry, and can Indian Ocean/Mediterranean/Atlantic/Pacific studies  etc. respond distinctively? What distinctions if any might we make between “inter-national,”  “trans-regional” and “global” in configuring time and space, as well as locating state/institutions/power?

2) Scapes from Land to Sea: As it becomes necessary to track a world on the move, not just across landscapes but across tumultuous bodies of water, how do oceanic-centered histories elucidate a different historical and political problematic for the world? If we cannot territorialize water, as we do land, what kinds of mappings have historians been using, and what conceptual improvisations are needed?

3) Forces: This is a large question about how does one give an account of violence at sea – but within that there is a specific one that is embedded in current social science distinctions being made between forced and voluntary migrations, the refugee versus the migrant, political and economic forces of dislocation and the human and legal dispensations that ensue. Can histories of migrations, including the history of slavery, complicate these distinctions? Does environmental history change how we account for displacement and violence?

4) Archives: What are the archives for itinerancy, oceanic histories and world-ing? As we expand conventional nation-bound and imperial archives, are economic, scientific or family archives a different order of material archives?

Amrith’s lecture (30-45 minutes) will be followed by commentaries by each of the interlocutors (15-20 minutes each), and an open discussion.

amrithSunil Amrith is the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. His research is on the trans-regional movement of people, ideas, and institutions. Areas of particular interest include the history of public health and poverty, the history of migration, and environmental history. His most recent work has been on the Bay of Bengal as a region connecting South and Southeast Asia. He has a PhD in History (2005) from the University of Cambridge, where he was also a Research Fellow of Trinity College (2004-6). Professor Amrith’s 2013 book Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants integrates environmental, economic, and political histories to explore waves of migration and trade connecting the shores of the Bay of Bengal and serves as the seminar’s common reading.

tamara.jpgTamara Chin, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University, received her BA from Harvard College in Classics and Literature and PhD from UC Berkeley in Comparative Literature (classical Chinese, Greek, Latin). Her first book, Savage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination (Harvard, 2014), received the American Comparative Literature Association’s Harry Levin Book Prize and Honorable Mention for the Associaton for Asian Studies’ Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize. She works on comparative approaches to antiquity, with a focus on: Han dynasty China; ancient interculturality and the Afro-Eurasian “Silk Road”; and with broader interests in early and medieval China, modern conceptions of antiquity; economic and environmental history; literary and aesthetic form; gender/sexuality studies.

s200_meltem-toksozMeltem Toksöz is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Asian Studies at Bogaziçi University and joins Brown as Visiting Associate Professor of Middle East Studies and History for the 2016-2017 academic year. She holds a PhD in History from SUNY Birmingham and has published widely on Ottoman economic and social history, economic thought, and historiography. Her monograph Nomads, Migrants and Cotton in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Making of the Adana-Mersin Region in the Ottoman Empire, 1850-1908 (Brill, 2011) traced processes of forced settlement, land reform, and the development of the cotton trade in late Ottoman Çukurova.

cortoDiogo Ramada Curto has been teaching and researching since 1981 at the New University of Lisbon (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Portugal and is now David R. Parsons/Gulbenkian Foundation Research Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library. He works mainly on Portuguese history in a global and comparative perspective during the early modern period, with particular attention to the following fields: history of books and written cultures, patriotism and political cultures, colonial projects and imperial cultures. Between 1998 and 2005 he founded and edited a series of books combining history and social sciences, where he published more than thirty books. In 2010, with two younger scholars, he launched a new series called “História e Sociedade”, where ten books have been already published.

s200_ketaki-pantKetaki Pant, Postdoctoral Associate at Brown’s Cogut Center for the Humanities, is a historian with anthropological leanings whose research interests center on South Asia as part of the Indian Ocean world. Her first book project “Homes of Capital: Merchants and the Historical Imagination across Indian Ocean Gujarat” examines nineteenth- and twentieth-century intersections of political economy and the historical imagination among Muslim and Parsi merchants of Gujarat. This project explores the perseverance of a long-historical imagination of Indian Ocean itinerancy within historic merchant homes, in texts, artworks, material objects and historical memories. It shows that this imagination was an important form of capital to Gujarat’s merchants and shaped their engagement in oceanic and global trade. Her second project is an ethnographic history of the nineteenth-century Muslim zanana (harem) of the Indian Ocean. Pant’s other interests include the oceanic journeys of the Gujarati language and ethno-memoir as a genre of analytic writing.

Mellon Sawyer Seminar

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