Conference Report: Fifth Congress of the European Network in Universal and Global History, August 31-Sept 3, 2017

Written by Stefan Huebner (National University of Singapore)

Click here for a copy of the programme.

2017 is a European Network in Universal and Global History (ENIUGH) year. The ancient Olympic Games took place every fourth year and lasted for more than a millennium. The triennial ENIUGH congress is younger, but already a very well-established event that has an important impact on the travel schedules of academics interested in global, world, and transnational history. When ENIUGH 5 concluded, about 600-650 scholars had presented their research in more than 150 panels, which was slightly less than the 700-750 participants in Paris (2014), but more than in London (2011). Not a record, but a very substantial demonstration of academic interest in the event.

2017 is also the year that marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution. Considering the long-lasting global implications of that event, it was no surprise that the organizers chose the theme of “Ruptures, Empires and Revolutions” for this year’s ENIUGH. While this theme left panel organizers sufficient space to find their own ways of reflecting on such phenomena, the plenary events corresponded to the organizers’ intention of including more scholars from or working on Central/Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The keynote address, given by Tamás Krausz (Budapest), reflected on Lenin and global history, while the first plenary roundtable, organized by Attila Melegh (Budapest), addressed the connections between socialism and global history. The second plenary roundtable on “Revolution and Religion”, prepared by Nadia Al-Bagdadi (Budapest), was the event that most obviously involved the study of the Middle East. Such thematic and geographical accentuations need to be seen in light of the fact that plenary events at the last Congress (Paris 2014) featured mostly French and African academics. It is without question desirable to use ENIUGH’s venue rotation system and shifting regional foci in plenary events to communicate to academics from Europe and all over the world that they are welcome. Long term impacts are difficult to measure, but in the case of French academia, which can be very skeptical of English language events, paging through the program (admittedly a problematic quantitative method) showed that scholars from a variety of French institutions were again present – not as many as in Paris, but there seems to have been a positive impact.

Such comparisons between plenary events can be discussed quite easily. Significantly more difficult is the question of summarizing the panels, considering that up to twenty of them took place simultaneously within one of the eight time slots. Consequently, this part of the report reflects my personal interests (and the necessity to attend my own panels). However, before addressing individual panels, I want to reflect on some broader trends in global history and related approaches that were brought up during the conference.

One first impression is the growing relevance of a transregional approach, the troublesome baby brother of older claims for a transnational approach. This is not unexpected. The limitations of history writing “trapped” within the borders of the nation-state are common sense among ENIUGH participants, even if, as Sven Beckert (Cambridge, MA) emphasized at one point, the nation-state itself was one of the modern era’s most important inventions and remains a central actor in modern history writing. In contrast, the problems related to stopping one’s analysis at the (disciplinary) borders of a certain area or region are also not unknown, but more persistent (also due to academic politics of funding and job market demands in a variety of countries, as we all know). Despite these concerns affecting individual scholars and their scholarship, overcoming regional fixations can be achieved by panel organizers in the composition of their panels. My impression was that pooling expertise on different countries and regions (and empires, if one wants to add “transimperial” to the exploding number of “trans”-terms) is increasingly being done – and contributed to lively discussions about, among other things, local impacts of global events such as revolutions and related connectivities between and within empires.

Another impression is the growing relevance of environmental history, which is often prone to being approached from a global history perspective. For example, the suggestion of the “Anthropocene” as a new (geological) periodization of human history goes beyond periodizations linked to national or regional histories and in most cases refers to the period since about 1800, when humanity, due to the industrial revolution, as a collective actor became powerful enough to transform the environment on a global scale – with the most often discussed outcome being climate change. In addition to climate change, topics such as energy production and consumption, environmental disasters and prevention, or commodity frontiers benefit greatly from a focus on global scientific, economic, political, and other entanglements. Related ruptures and revolutions, to return to ENIUGH’s main theme, can range from science and technology to political affairs and development policy concerns.

By discussing several panels, I want to expand upon these impressions in more detail: In the panel titled “Empires of knowledge: Networks, ideas, and infrastructures of science in a changing world”, Martin Mahony (Nottingham) addressed the global scale of meteorology’s infrastructures within the British Empire and connected it to the development of modern climatology. Afterwards, Wilko Graf von Hardenberg (Berlin), the organizer of the panel, discussed the lack of global consensus since the nineteenth century on how to measure sea levels, arguing that one of the central reasons is differences in the sea level globally. Talip Törün (Bremerhaven) concluded the panel by linking maritime imperial infrastructures to the growing number of specimens in natural history collections that stemmed from corresponding, easily accessible places. Altogether, the panel showed the importance of imperial mediation in the creation of connectivities due to the measuring of environmental conditions and the collection of specimens all over the globe.

Similar things can be said about the panel on “Ecological transformations and disasters in global environmental history”. Here, Moritz von Brescius (Constance), who organized the panel with me, analyzed the British, U.S., and German formation and failure of a global “rubber science” between 1870−1918 and the simultaneous emergence of natural rubber as an industrial commodity. Fiona Williamson (Singapore) then focused on governance and urban development in the British Straits Settlements with particular attention to floods and flood prevention in colonial Singapore. Succeeding her, Julia Mariko Jacoby (Berlin) scrutinized groundwater-related land subsidence and Japan’s relationship with nature as situated between a “Japanese tradition” and a Western industrialized modernity. Jan-Henrik Meyer (Copenhagen) then discussed European experiences in nuclear energy production, especially the practice of siting nuclear installations in border areas and the transnational protests that followed. Finally, I talked about the climate change-related threat of rising sea levels and the cooperation of U.S., Japanese, Dutch, and Tahitian politicians and architects in constructing floating houses and city extensions. Like the previous panel, this one brought together expertise on different regions and empires, and turned the discussions towards the global and transnational capitalist and scientific connections that accompanied environmental threats and disasters.

The cooperation between ENIUGH and the Asian Association of World Historians (AAWH) was highlighted by the panel on “Asian history in a global and comparative perspective”, organized by Jie-Hyun Lim (Seoul), one of the trustees of the Toynbee Prize Foundation. Michael Charney (London) started with an analysis of Burmese concepts of global history that were influenced by religious worldviews, Western imperialism, the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and corresponding pan-Asian thought, the Cold War, and the post-Cold War period. Kwangmin Kim (Boulder) then challenged Western notions of Central Asia as a region in decline since the sixteenth century by referring to new imperial connections with Qing China that improved trade during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before Shigeru Akita (Osaka) provided his comments, Hong Liu (Singapore) talked about the Chinese diaspora, the impact of global capitalism and education networks on migration flows, and the question of migrants’ loyalty to their host country versus China. While topics such as historiography, economic rises and declines, and diaspora networks have been studied for a long time, the panelists all expressed their belief in the importance of overcoming the limitations of area studies – here, East Asian studies – through the integration of global history approaches.

The next panel, themed “Educating Asia, awakening Asia: Education, training, and knowledge from the age of empire to decolonization”, was designed to implement such transregional approaches. Starting in the late nineteenth century, Teresa Segura-Garcia (Barcelona), who organized the panel with me, located the tutoring of aristocratic elites in the Princely State of Baroda in British imperial education networks and evaluated local agency. Afterwards, Catriona Ellis (Edinburgh) moved attention to the Madras Presidency and the introduction of compulsory education during the 1920s, which emerged out of British and Indian cooperation, but massively suffered from local conditions, ranging from financial problems to de facto permission for children to remain absent. Albert Wu (Paris) then compared the work of two French educational institutions in Shanghai – the Pasteur Institute and the Medical Institute of the Jesuit-governed Aurora University in the 1920s and 1930s – showing that the debates between them were largely the result of the Jesuits being more receptive than the Pasteurians to Chinese ideas of the body. Succeeding him, Dolf-Alexander Neuhaus (Berlin) discussed the role of Japan-based Koreans in the formation of liberal ideas of pan-Asianism after 1919 by examining their journal Ajia Kōron (The Asia Review), which featured articles by Korean, Taiwanese, and Indian authors. I then analyzed the institutional importance of the International YMCA College in Springfield, MA for the global activities of the North American YMCA during the 1910s-1930s, especially its physical education and muscular Christianity-related social engineering plans. Afterwards, Jana Tschurenev (Göttingen) emphasized the significance of globally connected women’s institutions on early childhood education in India during the 1920s-1960s. Taken together, as my co-organizers said during our final discussion, our aim was to create a space for scrutinizing education’s role in colonization and decolonization from a “pan-Asian” perspective that went beyond the borders of regions and nations by pooling expertise on several parts of Asia and different empires. Doing so allowed us to jointly reflect on the connections between local education practices and global phenomena such as anti-colonialism, increasingly global educational networks, and the globally growing scientificity of pedagogy.

Finally, I want to mention the panel titled “Revisiting 1919 from within East Asia: In search of a new narrative”. The first presenter, G. Clinton Godart (Sapporo), approached Japanese military officer Kanji Ishiwara (strongly involved in bringing about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931) from the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, arguing that his belief in a future war that would result in the unification of civilizations had a significant impact on his actions. Evan Dawley (Baltimore), the other presenter, talked about the Beiyang government’s appeals to Japanese authorities to protect overseas Chinese in peril from the 1910s-1920s, which was meant to strengthen its political legitimacy. In combination with the comments of Mahon Murphy (Kyoto), the panel introduced new views, partly global, partly transnational, to the interwar period in East Asia, showing how the British-American world order created in 1919, transnational labor and student migration, and religious visions of global war and unity shaped political activities and activism in Japan and China.

Moving on from the academic sessions and findings, some constructive criticism of the organizational dimension of the event is appropriate. Ordering panels into themes is, admittedly, an unthankful task. While such ordering is done at most big conferences, it normally serves to prevent a situation in which two or more thematically similar panels take place at the same time. This ENIUGH event ordered panels according to fourteen themes, which due to the number of panels meant that sometimes three or more belonging to one theme took place simultaneously. The organizers might want to rethink this. I got the impression that participants regularly skipped the nicely colored images showing the thematic distribution of panels, since even if they were interested in a specific thematic section, they still needed to check which of the parallel panels within this section they wanted to attend. In the end, one always ended up reading the more detailed time slot overviews. In contrast to the pre-defined themes used, for example, by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) to prevent overlaps, whereby panel organizers need to choose one or two in their proposal, ENIUGH’s themes are “invented” by the organizers after the selection of panels. Should the amount of themes be somehow increased at the next event, this would make it easier to notice and prevent thematic collisions. I also think that hosting the first two days at one university and the last two days at another caused an unnecessary amount of logistical work, not only for participants but also for the organizers.

If the task of the modern Olympic Games is to call upon the youth of the world to assemble for sporting competitions, an event like ENIUGH should, among other tasks, offer junior scholars a venue to present their work. Having also attended the World History Association’s (WHA’s) well-organized and interesting conference in 2016 in Belgium, I find that ENIUGH’s much lower conference fees certainly have a very positive impact on allowing junior scholars or scholars with limited travel budgets to join. Whether attendance was, despite such welcoming conditions, negatively affected by the tensions between the Hungarian government and Central European University is something that I leave open. In any case, when the next ENIUGH congress takes place in the summer of 2020, most likely in Turku, a new record in terms of participation may be broken – in any case, based on past experiences, one can expect that it will be another interesting event worthy of attendance.

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