From our friends at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and the Department of History, New York University, comes the Global Decolonization Workshop (GDW), a global forum for knowledge exchange the field of decolonization studies. The theme of the upcoming July 6-7 University of London in Paris workshop of the GDW is “Concepts and Connections.” The abstract explains more:
The fields of decolonization and postcolonial studies have hitherto been defined by a focus on the post-war dissolution of the modern empires of France and Britain. Consequently, the Cold War ‘last wave’ in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean has been privileged. Meanwhile, the earlier, ‘first and second waves’ of decolonization in the Americas, Eastern and Southern Europe, Russia, and parts of the Middle East play little, if any role in most general historical accounts of decolonization. A symposium held at the University of London in March, 2015, however, has confirmed Latin America’s vanguard role in the global history of decolonization. The July Paris meeting of the GDW will explore and debate the connections among and key concepts animating the three waves of decolonization.
We seek papers that address any of the following:
Key concepts of independence and decolonization movements
Intellectual history of independence and decolonization leaders
Connections among empires before decolonization
History of inter-imperial and anti-colonial warfare
Connections between global, imperial and local political concepts
Historical narratives of decolonization in the various ‘waves’
Translation and traffic in colonial and anti-colonial discourses
Archival sources of decolonization studies
Memory of colonialism and decolonization (monuments, museums, etc.)
A 200-word abstract, paper title, and one-page biographical note should be submitted to Professor Philip Murphy (email@example.com) or Dr. Mark Thurner (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 5 May 2017.
Tools like GPS and Google Maps are so embedded in most people’s lives today that they can hardly seem worth remarking upon. Want to get from “Work” to “Home”? Simply open up the preset path into your smartphone, and the app of your choice will be glad to show you—or rather, a large blue dot—its path through the maze of streets, subway junctions, and bus lines that separate you from home.
Few people, in 2016 at least, would think about using an actual paper map to navigate from A to B. Most of the information about the other parts of your city beyond your path home are simply irrelevant to you at that particular moment, and what matters most is the accuracy of your GPS-reliant device as it guides you and the blue dot home. Not least from the perspective of the directionally challenged, the advent of GPS and similar devices just seems like the latest chapter in a history of ever-improving (because ever more accurate) mapping technologies that allow users to track moving points in space.
But as our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, William Rankin, shows in his recently published book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, such a Whiggish account of modern mapping is itself far from accurate. It may be true that mapping accuracy improved over the course of the twentieth century. But such an obvious statement fails to say anything about the kinds of geographic knowledge that were produced over the same period. It also overlooks the story of how the kinds of tools used to generate said cartographical knowledge changed over the twentieth century.
If we accept the GPS beacons embedded in our smartphones—or guided missiles—as the exponent of “progress,” we risk overlooking how differently (and not just “better”) GPS’s relationship to territory and space is from those of earlier world-mapping technologies. After the Map seeks to provide, then, not just a technical history of different mapping tools over the twentieth century. It provides an analysis of how shifts in tools engendered shifts in what Rankin dubs geo-epistemology: “not just what is known about the earth, but how it is known— and how it is used.”
The story that Rankin, an Assistant Professor of History at Yale University, explores in After the Map (published with the University of Chicago Press) is thus a crucial intervention into more macro debates among historians about the importance of territory and territoriality throughout the twentieth century. It is a story of how printed maps on paper—once the sine qua non of military operations, with some fifty maps printed per British and American soldier during the 1940s—became less and less relevant in the face of new coordinate systems, radionavigation, and ultimately GPS over the course of the century. It is, in short, a story that encourages readers to go from thinking about maps merely as illustrations, or tools of centralizing political authority, to seeing them as a crucial tool through which makers and users were rethinking the meaning of concepts like territory and sovereignty. In order to discuss some of these questions, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently spoke with Rankin about After the Map.
We begin our discussion with a discussion of Rankin’s path to the historical profession. Mapping, he notes, played no special role in his childhood outside of Chicago. When he went to university (to Rice), it was to study engineering and architecture. There, part of his technical education encompassed training in drawing, and when he took a class at Rice on the history of cartography, he was spurred to begin making his own maps. Following graduation, Rankin worked at an architectural firm for approximately a year. This was followed by another stint working at an experimental physics laboratory. “It was only by talking to some of my professors from architectural school,” he explains, “that I began thinking about the history of science.”
This struck Rankin as a novel idea. “I never knew history of science was something you could do, and it was certainly nothing that I had studied in college.” Yet neither architecture nor physics had felt like optimal fits since graduation. Rankin began investigating history graduate programs, but he was accepted to Harvard to pursue graduate studies in both the history of science as well as the history of architecture. “I had been steeped in history while an undergraduate, since I had taken courses on the history of art, the history of architecture, and so on. But it was not until, perhaps, my early twenties that I realized that my style of thinking was historical. This didn’t come out of being exposed to academic history, or being a history major,” says Rankin.
Arriving in Cambridge, MA, Rankin worked with the historian of science Peter Galison. Much of Galison’s own work emphasizes the role of scientific tools and instruments as a kind of thinking unto themselves, and Rankin notes that many of his reflections in the introduction to After the Map bear traces of that influence. But beyond Galison and another advisor, Antoine Picon, Harvard at the time of Rankin’s studies was not a hub for digital history scholarship or the history of cartography, and Harvard had long ago abolished its geography department. Yet being lodged in two departments at once helped him keep his eye on broader questions, encouraged him to engage with critical theory, and opened up spatial history as an interdisciplinary method. And his earlier explorations into mapmaking as a practice between the academy and the public had, in the meantime, blossomed into one of the Web’s most successful cartography sites, Radical Cartography (www.radicalcartography.net). Radical Cartography had originally, Rankin notes, been envisioned as a side project—apart from and not integrated into his graduate work—but over time, he gained the confidence that he possessed both the critical tools and cartographic toolkit to make a useful contribution to discussions about the history of mapping.
The path to the dissertation that became After the Map, however, was not so straight as the path charted on a gridded map (of which more soon). His initial dissertation prospectus aspired to write an intellectual history of infrastructure—a term, he notes, whose current meanings only date from the mid-20th century (both in the original French and in English). “I thought that a history of infrastructure would get to questions of engineering and territory, but the more I looked, the more it pointed me to the history of economics.” While Rankin continued to work on mapping through Radical Cartography, he increasingly realized that the infrastructure project was not where he wanted to go. Hence, approximately a year and a half into his ostensible dissertation project, he decided to “pivot 90 degrees” to begin working on the technologies that play a central narrative role in After the Map.
We ask Rankin if he has any generalizable tips to offer to current or future graduate students based on his own research experience. He offers two. One, which isn’t just meant for those working on cartography, is simple: “collect as many maps as you can.” Unlike books, he notes, most university map libraries will only allow users to work with a single map at a time, and maps almost never circulate. But in his experience, just as with books or other textual evidence, his most productive engagement with maps has come when he has been able to work with multiple sources at once. If something looks good, he advises, take a photo—or download it, or scan it—in order to work with it later. The goal should be to amass a large digital collection that’s tailored to your own topic and interests. This can be great for research and writing, and it’s hugely helpful for teaching.
Second, however, Rankin cautions students away from the predetermined assumption that archives contain the key to all knowledge. After the Map does rely on significant forays into archives in France, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, including both state archives and private papers. But for Rankin, the most useful sources he worked with often turned out to be the trade journals of the engineers involved in the three major projects at the core of the book. While one could easily spend months, if not years, scouring the archives of the International Civil Aviation Organization (in Montreal) or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (outside of Washington, D.C.), the point is that top engineers for these institutions published in semi-trade journals when they wanted to announce to the profession that they had accomplished something novel. Understanding that there was not a direct line between difficulty of source access and the usefulness of said sources—however contrary to the legends historians tell about themselves—was a crucial intellectual step to make.
Having explored the intellectual biography behind the writing of the dissertation, we dive into the meat of Rankin’s book itself. One of the core macro-level historical discussions that After the Map seeks to contribute to has to do with how we understand the twentieth century. As the introduction to Rankin’s book explains, one could argue that the twentieth century marked the victory of territorializing processes. The century saw the fragmentation of all of the old colonial empires into territorial nation-states; what’s more, Rankin notes, virtually all of the new post-colonial states that were created were formed along existing administrative boundaries. If capturing and annexing territory had formerly numbered among the core components of European geopolitics, by the end of the twentieth century a number of treaties—such as the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the 1975 Helsinki Accords, and treaties concerning potential German claims to Central Europe—focused instead on preserving existing borders. Not only that, but treaties covering the use of airspace, continental shelves, and Arctic space all stressed the centrality of states’ territoriality.
At the same time, one could just as easily advance an interpretation of the twentieth century centered around globalization and the increased importance of transnational, non-territorial forces. Accounts like those of Charles S. Maier, or that of Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, emphasize the 1970s as a moment in modern history when the geographies of global capitalism began to exert a stronger effect on “regimes of world order” than did states or international organizations. Recent accounts of U.S. foreign policy, too, emphasize the 1970s as a moment when the United States was able to recast itself as a distinctly kind of “post-territorial” empire, able to exert hegemony not through brute force of conquest and annexation but through “nonterritorial hegemony.”
How to reconcile these two narratives? For Rankin, part of the answer came through engagement with scholars of critical geography who contested the tension between “network” and “territory” often embedded into sweeping claims about the master theme or trend of the twentieth century. Fewer, however, had engaged with the actual technologies whose histories would have to be integrated into critiques of how territory was reconstituted throughout the century. Rankin’s task then became, in his words, “not just looking at the history of particular devices, but trying to understand a new way of thinking.” Engaging attempts to actually represent and manage territory offered the key to intervene into the debates in both global history and critical geography.
After the Map enters this debate with two related arguments. One is that there was never “any clean dichotomy between the hardening of territory and the debordering of globalization. The very same technologies that were developed to make borders more permeable have also been used to make them more stable and enforceable.” While the twentieth century was, as his case studies show, marked by a turn toward making the globe universally legible through grid-based coordinates and GPS, these projects were advanced by large, powerful states—primarily the United States. Similarly, looking at the projects Rankin examines also dissolves any easy affinities between states and territory and markets and post-territory: as he notes, grids and GPS “were often developed in tandem with private corporations and enthusiastically embraced by a wide range of ‘nonstate’ users, domestic and foreign alike.”
The second intervention of After the Map is more conceptual. While Rankin concedes that the 1970s were replete with important changes, it is problematic to conceive of the decade as the alleged pivot away from an earlier moment imagined as primordially territorial. “From the point of view of geographic knowledge,” Rankin explains, “the major shift of the twentieth century was thus not a transition from national to planetary, but from one worldwide political-geographic framework to another.” The 1940s, he argues, were a crucial turning point in “global” thinking from the point of view of geographic sciences. But the “globality” of this moment is not primarily in contrast to the national, but to the ideal of the international that was embedded in many prewar mapping projects.
Crucially, however, even long after this turn towards the global, territory remained very important. “Both the national/international space of the early twentieth century and the global/regional space of the late twentieth century were equally territorial,” he explains. While it may be true that the importance of national jurisdictions compared to global networks did decline, Rankin stresses that it is crucial not to mistake national jurisdiction for territory. Systems that monitor the phone traffic and metadata of cell phone users worldwide, for example, may certainly be global in that they monitor activity beyond the boundaries of, for example, the United States of America. But such operations monitoring suspects in Pakistan or Afghanistan are undeniably interested in space and the management and monitoring of territories (even if these territories are conceived of not just as the national jurisdiction of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or elsewhere). Rather than territory being abolished, Rankin instead sees the twentieth century as marked by the emergence of “new kinds of territories: territories defined as frameworks of points—neither a block of space nor a network of flows—that organized knowledge in new ways and facilitated new kinds of intervention and new kinds of governance.”
Rankin is aware that these might seem like rather abstract claims. In order to make the argument more concrete, After the Map is organized around three large projects that neatly illustrate the turn from an international vision of mapping that reinforced national jurisdiction to what Rankin dubs the “pointillist” logic of GPS, which instead challenged borders of all kinds. In particular, Rankin examines one project in each of the three principle branches of the mapping sciences: the International Map of the World (cartography); Universal Transverse Mercator (geodesy); and GPS (navigation).
The logic of the first of Rankin’s triad of projects, the IMW, may be the most familiar and approachable for non-technical readers. Maps of the world per se were nothing new—think of the age of exploration—but the IMW is best understood, Rankin says, through “the ways geographers themselves saw it in the 1890s.” We ask him to elaborate. “By the 1890s,” Rankin explains, “the Age of Exploration was clearly over, and cartographers saw their sister disciplines like geology and astronomy defining themselves through collaborative projects that would, they thought, serve to finalize their knowledge—for example, having observatories around the world work together on a hugely ambitious multi-decade sky survey.” Entrepreneurial geographers like the University of Vienna professor Albrecht Penck argued that the time for standardized maps of the world, all at the scale of 1:1,000,000 and bounded by lines of latitude and longitude, had come. The idea was to create a base map of geographic knowledge at a more detailed scale than had ever been done—all the while formalizing geography’s status as a real science.
Yet in spite of the lofty academic ambitions of Penck and his colleagues, the international network of cartographers inevitably had to turn to states in order to produce new knowledge. “This wasn’t something that the instigators behind IMW had necessarily sought, or wanted. This wasn’t a story, then, of cartographers hatching a conspiracy to enforce state control.” Immediately prior to World War I, most of the states of the world—not just the US and European empires, but also Japan, China, and most of Central and South America—had been enrolled into this project. But the project, argues Rankin, became authoritative not just in a scientific but also in a political sense, since countries were tasked with mapping their own territories and the surrounding areas (as determined by the standardized sheets of the IMW). “The government of Egypt,” as Rankin puts it, “might not necessarily care about mapping their western border with Italian-controlled Libya, but the internationalizing impulse coming from elsewhere encourages them to do so, lest they lose control over their own mapping.” The IMW, in short, was not a grand plan hatched by states, nor was it a centralized effort by one state or one academic society to map the entire world.
Rather, notes Rankin, “it was about process,” whereby decisions about mapping in Tanganyika or Panipat were subject to international treaties signed in London. Similarly, when private societies like the American Geographical Society or individuals like the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin made excellent maps of territories in Latin America or Central Asia, these maps were forcefully deemed “provisional” within the logic of IMW, since they had not been carried out by their respective governments. Only national governments had the proper authority to carry out the mapping of IMW squares, the logic went, so maps of “their” regions had to be considered provisional until carried out in a politically legitimate way.
Granted, in reality, the hierarchies of world politics of the day were what mattered. These “provisional” maps were often prized for their quality and used to settle international boundary disputes, and little was made of the vast internal territories of “civilized” states like the USA or Australia that had not yet been mapped. “The most pressing need was for the uniform mapping of continents that would not otherwise be mapped. Producing maps of Latin America, Africa, or colonial Asia—or even central Europe—was perhaps illegitimate, but it was also seen as a gracious service to the international community.” The IMW very much reflected this civilizing logic. The pride that American geographers took in assembling their “provisional” sheets of the Amazon spoke more to a belief in the civilizing power of systemic geographic knowledge than the actual needs of anyone in the Amazon itself.
By the late 1940s, however, the lofty goals of the IMW were increasingly out of touch with actual mapping practice. Even the idea of a universal map had come to be seen as less than useful, since specialized professional audiences needed maps specific to their uses. And while the colored shading and symbolism of the IMW made it an attractive base map in theory, it didn’t address the new needs of aviation or other tasks requiring precise calculation. Even during the First World War, for example, what artillery divisions operating in the trenches really needed was a way to precisely aim at targets out of their sight. The careful politics of the IMW was simply irrelevant; instead what was crucial was being able to aim weapons at particular angles and knowing that those angles would connect them with the points at which their targets were located. As Rankin notes, the geographic questions that people were asking were gradually shifting. “Instead of trying to say ‘What does the terrain look like?’ it became more, ‘How do I know very precisely the distance between myself and my target?’ This is a kind of full-scale knowledge that you just can’t get through a paper map, or even through latitude and longitude.”
The technology that responded to these needs—and a core pivot in After the Map—was the grid. During the First World War, gunners could not use latitude and longitude coördinates to aim, and even a hypothetically perfect map, if printed on paper, would inevitably warp over time, making it useless (not to say clunky) to use in conjunction with cannons and compasses. Grid systems instead overlay locally bound (not relative to the Equator or Prime Meridian) coordinate systems over relatively small areas, and the projection is adjusted in such a way that the grid can provide very, very high accuracy for calculating angles and distances between any two points. Instead of trying to produce a miniaturized God’s-eye view of the battlefield at some arbitrary scale, grids strove to create a perfect 1:1 index of reality, and the grid—not a representational map—would become the primary space through which soldiers could orient themselves.
This shift to grid-like thinking might be confusing to grasp for the uninitiated. Indeed, mentions of a 1:1 scale map might cause readers to think of short stories by authors like Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, in which fanciful kings and rulers task their cartographers with creating a 1:1 map of their kingdom. The task predictably ends in failure, since any 1:1 representational paper map would simply reproduce the world itself. These stories, notes Rankin, are often cited as if to highlight the hubris of cartography and the failure of representational projects.
“And yet,” Rankin notes, “this is exactly what cartographers were doing by creating grids. Cartographers themselves spoke in these terms – ‘we’re creating a 1:1 map.’” Rankin notes that the real lesson that readers should draw from the Borges tale is a different one: “The key point in the Borges tale is that the 1:1 map is made of paper, and so it takes over the entire world. But thinking of managing space at a scale of 1:1 isn’t such a fanciful venture—it just means thinking in terms of coordinates rather than paper.”
The project of expanding and globalizing grid systems soon became a crucial strategic task. The shape of the earth meant that a grid projection for a chunk of the Western Front might not work if applied to territories deep into Germany. Hence, one crucial task for early grid-makers was to arduously calculate how to calibrate and connect different grid maps with one another. Such secrets were, of course, guarded jealously. Possession of high-precision grid data for an enemy country could make it susceptible to long-distance artillery properly calibrated to connect one grid with another.
By World War II, this problem took on another dimension. In World War I, reminds Rankin, much of the fighting had been concentrated along Germany’s flanks. But coordination of complex naval maneuvers and military aviation operations in World War II could mean coordinating actors everywhere from Dresden to Singapore. Several countries developed patchwork systems to cope, but it was obvious that a unified system would offer great advantages. Immediately after the war, the United States stood alone in possessing both the motivation and the technical means to develop such a system.
The solution the US Army embarked upon was the so-called Universal Transverse Mercator system. UTM divides the globe into sixty north-south grid zones, each using a Transverse Mercator projection so that there is no distortion through the middle north-south axis of a given zone. This solution had the advantage of practicality, but as Rankin notes, UTM marked a decisive shift from the multilateralism of the IMW. According to the IMW’s conception of political space, individual countries (or empires) ought to be responsible for mapping “their” space.
In contrast, the United States spearheaded UTM entirely on its own, even volunteering to perform surveys in Latin America, Asia, and Africa free of charge, before delivering the final system to its allies. The full-scale coordinates, of course, were not declared “provisional,” and national élites found them useful tools for organizing statist development projects. Likewise, the UTM “slices” or “slivers” that were created by the projection were just that—slices of the entire globe, rather than jigsaw-puzzle pieces of an international map. So even through the system was created and maintained by national governments, it was an inherently global system—not an international one. In this sense, argues Rankin, UTM can be seen as a turn toward a transboundary geoepistemic well before any supposed global turn of the 1970s.
The introduction of UTM raised serious questions about nations’ sovereignty, and arguably in ways more primal than did the IMW. It was one thing for the United States and the Soviet Union to possess nuclear weapons and be able to drop them on one another via fleets of bombers. But as both Moscow and Washington developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, being on the grid (via UTM or the Soviet equivalent) meant that being mapped could tie them in to the logic of nuclear war. Observers at the time, including one British colonial official in East Africa, could not but wonder if the nations signing up to be mapped via UTM were entering into a fool’s bargain.
Rankin is, however, skeptical about any straightforward American imperialism or suspicions that the US was strong-arming poorer nations against their will. Rather, UTM is perhaps best seen in terms of mid-century American efforts to create universal systems (albeit technically monopolized by the USA) that other countries would voluntarily sign up for. Countries that allowed UTM to come in, says Rankin, understood the basic questions: “They said, ‘I think we’re going to come out ahead if we have the United States train our people and do this for us.’ There is some real reflection on the tradeoffs, and I don’t think it was an underhanded move. The United States spent tons of money, after all, doing serious work for other countries. And not everyone said yes.”
At the same time that grids were expanding for missile targeting, “grids were being technologized,” says Rankin. Perhaps most importantly, during the war both the British RAF and the German Luftwaffe experimented with radionavigation techniques that also relied on the logic of the grid. Many different systems were attempted, but the broad shift is similar to the one Rankin describes for earlier artillery systems. Rather than navigating using a map and the lay of the land beneath them to locate targets, bomber pilots could instead use a full-scale system of electronic coordinates (again, the map a scale of 1:1). Pilots could simply fly to a point in the grid, any time of day, regardless of weather. Although the technology was very different—radio waves and precise time measurement rather than the mathematics of map projections—the conceptual approach was remarkably similar.
Following from these new navigation technologies, the final project examined in After the Map is the now-ubiquitous GPS. In the final chapter of his book, Rankin explains the unlikely rise of GPS within the American military bureaucracy. While various agencies—especially the Navy, the Department of Defense, and the civilian NASA—could agree on the benefits of a universal radionavigation system that would work anywhere in the world, the three actors had different needs. Early attempts at satellite navigation systems were often designed primarily for branch-specific tasks—helping Polaris submarines, for example. Other Navy systems involved ongoing political headaches. In the case of the Omega system, for example, the huge ground transmitters sometimes had to be moved in response to political pressure or instability—from Panama to Trinidad to Liberia—and there was major grassroots pushback in Australia.
GPS, in contrast, emerged out of the Department of Defense, and was altogether more ambitious, both technically and politically. Rankin explains the basic principle:
each orbiting satellite continually broadcasts a signal giving its location and the time when the signal was sent. Since the signal travels at roughly the speed of light, calculating the precise distance between the satellite and a receiver just requires knowing how long the signal took to reach the earth. But because GPS only uses one-way communication, this is only possible if all GPS clocks, on the satellites and in the receiver, are synchronized within only a few nanoseconds, since a time error of just one millisecond would mean a coordinate error of nearly three hundred kilometers.
The solution was to equip each GPS satellite with an atomic clock (accurate to about three seconds over a million years) and to always have at least four satellites in view from any point on earth. Because the clocks in most receivers are not nearly as accurate as those in space, these four satellites are used to solve for four unknown values: three for distance and one to synchronize receiver time with satellite time.
While it’s tempting to marvel at the engineering triumph and take its success as a foregone conclusion, bureaucratic infighting complicated the design of GPS and political buy-in from different institutional actors was not easily won. “The essential dilemma of GPS was that it had the potential to be useful for everyone, but it was required by no one,” explains Rankin. Ultimately, key actors within DOD ensured the program’s survival by advocating a “go for broke” approach: a system that would solve all the problems of all key stakeholders, and also be able to solve problems that did not exist in the mid-1970s (for example, new more precise smart weapons). This was a risky and expensive gamble that was altogether unpopular outside the DOD. The project, for example, was subject to major budget cuts in the early 1980s. Huge sums were being invested into an ideal system, but with few stakeholders particularly interested in its success.
Yet outside shocks kept the process moving. When the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines flight that had veered off course into Soviet airspace—killing a US Congressman on board—President Ronald Reagan vowed greater support for the program. Steps were taken by the early 1990s to use GPS as the standard for international civilian aviation, making it an open-access, dual-use system used by civilian airliners as well as the military. It also allowed for dramatic military successes during the Gulf War. Normally, armies would have struggled to maintain formation while navigating through the featureless deserts of southeastern Iraq. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s armies counted on this fact and expected to engage coalition troops along better-mapped axes running from Kuwait to central Iraq. But GPS-armed US troops were able to sweep through the desert to trap Saddam’s armies and end the war in one blow. The logic of the grid—with all of its implications for weaker states’ sovereignty—was brutal, as GPS allowed users “to replace a local system of (nonexistent) physical landmarks with a new local system of electronic coordinates.”
The advent of GPS meant not only a new kind of navigational hegemony for the USA but also, Rankin argues, a new kind of “pointillist” geoepistemic mapped on to the globalism of UTM. When he was looking through his sources, Rankin explains, “I started to look at the first uses people had for GPS. What were they doing, and what did they care about? And what I found wasn’t things like driving directions or tight integration with digital maps. Instead what early users wanted was secure points. They wanted to be able to set a waypoint, and then later get back to their waypoint. Or geologists wanted to put a stable point on an island and track its drift due to plate tectonics over time. Sifting through dozens of journal articles and technical reports, the core theme was the need for stable reference points.”
Points, in other words, had replaced even the grid as the most important optic for processing space. “That’s even what the blue dot on our cell phones is about,” says Rankin. “It locates us as a point, and it allows us to connect ourselves to other points. The stability of points is the crucial thing.” Whereas mid-century aviators would navigate with grid lines printed prominently on their maps, now our GPS-equipped phones simply place us as points, and the grid disappears.
As Rankin concludes in a series of open questions at the end of After the Map, what GPS means for state sovereignty is not yet settled. When states signed up for UTM, they knew they were buying into a US-designed system that could easily be militarized. The only “customizability” of UTM, so to speak, resided in its applicability for national development programs, offshore surveys, and international boundary treaties. On a smaller scale, UTM systems could be “hacked” (colloquially speaking) by hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. But the system has remained relatively close to its US military roots.
Whether the story is the same with GPS is less clear. “GPS is useful for normal, everyday activities in ways that UTM just isn’t. When taxi drivers want to move around Bangkok, they use GPS. And I’m not so sure that they’re only participating in a US military project when they do so.” And with increasing use of GPS for civilian aviation, “the US military can’t just turn it off—thousands of people would crash. Much of this has happened against the military’s wishes, and the core point is that GPS really is a hybrid system.” After the Map leaves it an open question whether systems like GPS give greater proportional advantage to “local” uses over the “global” uses of the US military. For example, how do we weigh the bottom-up, GPS-driven countermapping of natural-disaster sites or informal settlements against the precision bombing of air bases during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan? But even as GPS throws into question the importance of national borders today, what remains clear in all cases is the enduring relevance of territory, albeit constituted and engaged in novel ways through the pontillist geoepistemic of GPS.
As our conversation approaches its end, we ask Rankin about the projects he has on his desk now that After the Map has been successfully guided to print. One is a methodological book about mapping at the juncture of digital humanities, spatial history, and visual communication. Ever since he started Radical Cartography, Rankin notes, “I’ve been trying to think conceptually about maps and diagrams and the argumentative work they can do.” In this book, which draws on research he has been collecting for the past several years, Rankin says he hopes to engage a range of questions: “How do we actually do our work spatially? How are we using mapping to advance our arguments? How can we use maps to engage academic and non-academic audiences at the same time?” As anyone who has ever dipped their feet into digital humanities or mapmaking will know, these are far from simple questions. This first project, Rankin notes, has a relatively short time horizon—perhaps a couple of years.
A bigger project altogether is his anticipated second major research project, which Rankin describes as “a spatial history of the environmental sciences.” Rankin notes that too often, histories of environmental thinking are told without any attention to the actual techniques used to generate environmental knowledge. Rankin seeks to correct this by exploring how spatial knowledge is created about the skies, waters, forests, and other parts of the planet defined as “the environment.” “For example,” Rankin explains, “right now I’m interested in spatial modeling and how a hodgepodge of diverse measurements are combined to create a smooth-looking map. Or how satellite measurements are used to create images that look like photographs, but aren’t. When we confront an environmental dataset, what exactly are we seeing? How did this knowledge come into being, and how did it become spatial? What assumptions are embedded within it?”
Beyond simply providing a useful history of these techniques, Rankin hopes to demonstrate the transnational lives of many tools used for the environmental sciences today. He notes that “the article that I’m working on right now starts with South African gold mining in the 1950s, but their techniques are picked up by French engineers in the 1960s and are used in the environmental sciences around the world by the 1980s. There’s also someone in Russia developing similar techniques in meteorology, and his work gets picked up in Jerusalem and is later deployed in all the meteorological systems in the West. Today, these same algorithms are available as one-click solutions everywhere from soil management to global warming.”
Yet more than just making the observation that such techniques were developed transnationally, Rankin’s account will revise embedded clichés about the relationship between ecology and capitalism. “There’s a strong sense that environmental thinking,” says Rankin, “is divorced from capitalism, or opposed to capitalism somehow. But even in just this one case, we see how new kinds of environmental knowledge come directly from mining, and of course weather modeling was heavily supported by the US Navy. I’m still interested in many of the same players—military, commercial, and academic—that readers will encounter in After the Map.”
While research on the second project and a busy teaching schedule stand to occupy a fair chunk of Rankin’s schedule for the next several years, he still finds time to engage with recent work in several fields. When we ask him what he has been reading recently, he notes that much of his recent reading time has been devoted to understanding the legacy of the neo-Marxist geographic theory of the 1970s. “Much excellent spatial history is anchored in the work of Henri LeFebvre and David Harvey,” he notes, “but their approach leaves a lot of questions unasked.” Given how many other branches of academia have moved on from the neo-Marxist intellectual project, Rankin is trying to understand the enduring appeal—and possible responses to—the work of the aforementioned scholars.
Much of this is part of a broader intellectual re-tooling for the his spatial history of the environmental sciences, but beyond that, Rankin notes that he has enjoyed the work of Northwestern University historian (and Global History Forum guest) Daniel Immerwahr. Immerwahr’s first book, which we discussed with him for the Global History Forum, focused on the history of community development as a part of U.S. modernization efforts in the Third World. However, Immerwahr’s ongoing research on the history of the United States’s “hidden” or post-territorial empire is what Rankin has found most generative recently. He also highlights the work of Rachel Rothschild, a former Yale PhD now at New York University, whose work explores the history of transnational acid raid pollution during the Cold War. Both of these projects, like Rankin’s, combine “tight empirical work” with attention to the politics of space and how space was negotiated, whether within the framework of U.S. hegemony or Cold War Europe.
Our conversation with Rankin may not allow us to look at the GPS in our pocket, or its friendly bulging blue dot, in the same way again. The very fact of using GPS may mean that we are all, in some sense, invested in the military infrastructure of the American global project. Unless we all start drawing our own maps, we are likely to be unable, as are most states today, “to claim exclusive authority over the knowledge they rely upon” for our daily spatial existence. But as Rankin’s account shows, there are plenty of ways that individual users can appropriate GPS for their own ends. Further, the very depth and breadth of GPS’s penetration may make it a system where its makers and operators can never simply shut it off, so manifold are its uses. Users, communities, and states can respond by creating new tools or adapting old ones, but only with a historically grounded sense of the geoepistemic stakes of their choices.
Works like Rankin’s represent a crucial intervention for achieving that kind of awareness, and we thank him both for authoring After the Map as well as participating in this installment of the Global History Forum.
Here’s a conference announcement on the global history of violence. Organized by Oxford University, the conference is to be held on June 29 –July 1, 2017. The conference abstract explains more:
This conference brings global approaches to the history of violence, reassessing the nature of violence during the early modern period. Integrating warfare and other crucial forms of large-scale violence with recent scholarship on the history of collective and inter-personal violence, this three-day conference will probe historical assumptions about the limits of violence and its decline during the early modern period.
Speakers include: Wayne Lee, Anthony McFarlane, Stuart Carroll, Pratyay Nath, Brian Sandberg, Cécile Vidal, Lauren Benton, Adam Clulow, Richard Reid, and James Belich
For further information and to register, please visit their website.
For scholars interested in questions of historical periodization in a global context, see this call for papers for a conference to be held in Berlin in early December:
The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung invite submissions for a three-day conference in Berlin on concepts of historical periodization in transregional perspective. The conference is convened by Thomas Maissen (Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris, DHIP), Barbara Mittler (Heidelberger Centrum für Transkulturelle Studien, HCTS), and Pierre Monnet (Institut franco-allemand de sciences historiques et sociales, Frankfurt am Main). The conference will feature a keynote lecture on December 7th and several topical panel sessions on December 8th and 9th. It is arranged in cooperation with the Einstein Center Chronoi and the Graduate School Global Intellectual History at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Epochal divisions and terminologies such as “antiquity”, “baroque,” the “classical age,” the “renaissance,” or “postmodernity,” the “long 19th!” or “short 20th” centuries are more than mere tools used pragmatically to arrange school curricula or museum collections. In most disciplines based on historical methods the use of these terminologies carries particular imaginations and meanings for the discursive construction of nations and communities. Many contemporary categories and periodisations have their roots in European teleologies, religious or historical traditions and thus are closely linked to particular power relations. As part of the colonial encounter they have been translated into new “temporal authenticities” in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as in Europe. German historians in particular, in C.H. Williams’ ironic description, “have an industry they call ‘Periodisierung’ and they take it very seriously. (…) Periodisation, this splitting up of time into neatly balanced divisions is, after all, a very arbitrary proceeding and should not be looked upon as permanent.” In producing and reproducing periodisations, historians structure possible narratives of temporality, they somehow “take up ownership of the past,” (Janet L. Nelson) imposing particular “regimes of historicity” (François Hartog). Accordingly, periodisations are never inert or innocent, indeed, they have been interpreted as a “theft of History” (Jack Goody).
The aim of this conference is to uncover some of the dynamics behind particular cultural and historical uses of periodisation schemes, as concepts for ordering the past, and thus to reconsider these terminologies “devised to think the world” (Sebastian Conrad). Periodisations are culturally determined. They beg for systematic comparison in order to identify the contextual specificity and contingency of particular understandings of particular historical epochs. An interdisciplinary and transregional perspective allows for a reconsideration of the (non-)transferability of historical periodisations and the possibility to work out categories of historical analysis that go beyond nation-bound interpretative patterns. The conference aims to show where and how periodisation reveals clear cultural, social, and national leanings and predispositions. We will discuss the making of these chronologics, the variable systems and morphologies it takes, e.g. religious, spatial and other models (e.g. linear, spiral, circular). We will focus on different agents and modes involved in the making of periodisation schemes (institutions ranging from the university to the school or the museum but also genres such as the documentary, the historical novel or local communities). We will discuss how European attempts at structuring the History, and along with them, particular chronotypes have been translated worldwide into universal and/or national, and communitarian models. At the same time, we will also focus on alternative, complementary and or silenced models of periodisation and epoch-making. By bringing together scholars with an expertise in different regions of the world, we hope to better understand the importance of temporality in the making of global history.
This call is open to emerging as well as established scholars on all levels. Abstracts should address themselves to some of the following issues and questions:
1. The Making of Periodisation Schemes
2. Morphologies and Models of Periodisation
3. Axial Times and Epochal Breaks
4. Time and Power: Periodisation in a Global Context
5. Popular and Pedagogical Dimensions of Periodisation
As the institutions involved have French, German and English as working languages, papers can be held in all of these three languages while the working language at the conference will be English. Abstracts should not exceed 300 words for paper presentations of 20-25 minutes. Please submit, along with a brief biographical statement, to email@example.com by April 30, 2017. Selection of papers will take place in May, applicants will be informed by the end of May. The Forum Transregionale Studien will cover participants’ travel and accommodation expenses. Participants invited for presentation will have a version of their paper published online at “Trafo – Blog for Transregional Research” and may have the option to publish their papers in an edited print/open access format as well.
For readers interested in global histories of socialism and development, see this call for papers for a conference to be held from October 13-14, 2017 at the University of Bayreuth:
After years of neglect, a burgeoning scholarship has recently emerged on African socialism, Second-Third World relations, anti-colonial radicalism, and state-directed modernization. This new research turn has productively revisited the history of socialism in the postcolonial world from various angles to reassess its historical dimensions and significance.
This workshop builds on this scholarship with the aim of pushing this broad investigation further. We seek to explore the intellectual transformations that have occurred since the end of “scientific”, “African” or “Arab” socialisms—political ideologies that were once confident, but have since faded. Though neither a universal red line nor a mono-causal explanation exists, this decline gained momentum during the 1980s through growing disillusionment with socialist experiments and the New International Economic Order, the promising luster of East Asian economic achievements, China’s gradual turn to capitalism, and, finally, the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, which dealt the strongest blow. This demise of a socialist utopianism left a big void. And yet the socialist option has remained an approach and strategy at the grassroots level, as seen in popular movements in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia against growing discontent over forms of ultra-nationalism and global inequality.
In light of these past and present considerations, the workshop intends to address two sets of questions.
The first aims to study how political actors, social groups, intellectuals, and artists experienced these developments during the Cold War period, reacted to their demise, and, at times, reinvented themselves after the end of the Cold War. We are particularly interested in investigating conversions from socialism to new futures or alternative utopias, including the options of religion, human rights, liberal/social democracy, and more broadly within the field of culture. We seek to understand these new rationales as embedded in particular historical settings. What new ideas and futures that filled the void of socialism and how did they relate to it? And how did socialism – for some a political religion, for others a secular master narrative – pave the way for what came next? How were these shifts reflected in the academia, the media, literature, and arts? Furthermore, we seek to examine whether the demise of forward-looking, future-oriented political ideologies, like socialism, fostered a change in time regimes and temporal orders in a broader sense.
For instance, did linear notions of time lose currency? Or did they remain in force, but geared toward another “end of history”? Was the space of the future and its horizon of expectations diminished in favor of the present, or of the past? To what extent were these changes in time regimes transnational or a global phenomenon? Beyond these questions related to temporal orders, we are also interested in concurrent geographical orders (respatializations) triggered by these wide-ranging processes.
A second set of questions focuses on the afterlives of socialism. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this component of the workshop intends to reflect on the broader impact of the Revolution through Third World socialisms. Despite later disillusionment, Third World socialisms left an important and sometimes unexpected legacy. The democratic movement, Le balai citoyen, which brought down the corrupt government of Burkina Faso in 2014, drew inspiration from the socialist icon of Thomas Sankara. The Kurdish fight for democratic federalism in the Middle East and for the emancipation of women, which has historically drawn and still draws on Leninism, is another important example. Besides these political afterlives in social and national liberation movements, we encourage participating scholars to think of other connections and their complex legacies within present-day struggles for democracy and human rights, education and economic justice, as well as in the realm of popular culture, literature and arts. The question of socialist legacies and representation in current political, social, and cultural movements is a central topic, be it as fragmented symbols, such as the red beret in South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party, or as direct reference to political icons such as Samora Machel and the usage of his speeches as mobile ring tone.
Following the path of our fellow historians and cultural scientists of Sudan (South Atlantic Quarterly 109, 2010), we wish to pursue the question: “What’s Left of the Left?”.
Practical information – Calendar
Abstracts (max. 500 words) and full papers (8,000-10,000 words including references) may be submitted both in English and in French to firstname.lastname@example.org. The workshop language will be English. The papers will be published in a special volume in the first half of 2018. Accommodation and travel costs will be covered (tickets may exceptionally be booked) by the Bayreuth Academy for Advanced African Studies.
Abstracts (max. 500 words, in English or in French) should be emailed to email@example.com by April 30 . Accommodation and travel costs will be covered by the Bayreuth Academy for Advanced African Studies.
The Yearbook of Transnational History (YTH) is a newly established peer-reviewed annual journal published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. This annual is dedicated to publishing and disseminating pioneering research in the field of transnational history for an (maybe add interdisciplinary and diverse) international audience.
Exile and Refugee
The focus of the second volume of YTH, is “exile and refugees.” Political changes, revolutions, and military conflict have always forced individuals of very different political orientation, religious belief, and ethnic belonging to leave the country of their birth. In some cases, people’s refugee status has been temporary, in other cases permanent. Often exiles and refugees became citizens of the country to which they fled. Exile and refuge are an important, and yet understudied, phenomenon of modern history. The French Revolution forced both royalists and revolutionaries into exile. The European-wide Revolution of 1848/49 created a stream of refugees who exerted significant influence on the political and social life of the United States. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Josef Stalin’s terror, Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, the defeat of Nazism in 1945, the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1950, the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, Pinochet’s putsch in Chile in 1973, the defeat of the United States in Vietnam in 1975, and the fall of European Communism in the early 1990s, to name just the most prominent events, created a steady stream of exiles and refugees across the globe and turned citizens into refugees and exiles. The group of exiles and refugees included men and women of very different political, social, and economic backgrounds. Among them were Friedrich Hecker, Lajos Kossuth, Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Wernher von Braun, Adolf Eichmann, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michelle Bachelet, Dean Reed, and Margot Honecker.
In the last five years, academics, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and individuals from several other professions have fled countries such as Turkey, Russia, North Korea, China and settled in countries that offered them a new home. Individuals from developed democracies like Australia and the United States also sometimes seek exile abroad as the examples of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden indicate. As the conflict in Syria and the threat of ISIS persist, refugees from the Middle East are fleeing to Europe and North America. Today, the United Nations estimates that there are about 4.8 million Syrian refugees and 6 million displaced Syrians.
We invite submissions from scholars who work on the phenomenon of exile, refugees, and asylum seekers from the eighteenth century to the present day. We are especially interested in manuscripts that discuss the contributions made by exiles and refugees to the political, cultural, and economic life of the countries that accepted them. We are, of course, also interested in articles that deal with the impact diaspora communities formed by exiles and refugees had back in their home countries. We hope to receive papers that deal with individuals and their contributions to their second home country, papers on groups of exiles and refugees and their impact on their host countries, and systematic papers that provide a theoretical approach to exile and refugee studies as part of the transnational paradigm.
We welcome articles from both professionals and advanced PhD students that are based upon original research. Articles should be between 7,000 and 10,000 words (including footnotes) and follow Chicago Style.
Submissions should be emailed to the editor, Professor Thomas Adam, firstname.lastname@example.org by November 1, 2017 to be considered for inclusion in the second volume. Please ensure that you have included all relevant contact information on a separate page, including your name, your professional or institutional affiliation, and a permanent e-mail address. The main document should be prepared for blind review and not include any author information.
The universities Externado de Colombia, Rosario and Los Andes as well as the History Section of the Latin American Society of International Law, the Network on Rethinking International Law Teaching in Latin América (REDIAL) and the Red de Aproximaciones Postcoloniales al Derecho Internacional have joined in a collaborative effort to convene a three day symposium on “Rethinking and Renewing the Study of International Law in/from/about/ Latin America”, taking place September 26-28, 2017.
The event looks to address three main topics of concern: 1) the colonial/postcolonial heritage and structures of international law in the region 2) the revised or untold histories and historiography of Latin America’s international law 3) the past, present and future of teaching international law in the region and its relation to both its colonial/post-or neo-colonial dimensions as well as its history and historiography.
Some general questions that we are interested in: Is there a “Latin America” in international law today? What did “Latin America” mean in international legal histories in the past? Is a regionalist perspective still an effective way to examine our past, present and future in relation to international law and global governance? How should scholars re-engage with the regions colonial past and neo-colonial present? What histories are told about the region’s role and how should they be re-examined? In what ways are we teaching international law today and how do our pedagogy re- inforce blindspots and bad legacies? How should we teach international law from Latin America today?
Paper proposals, due April 3, 2017, may be submitted in Spanish, Portuguese, French or English and presented in either language but we cannot guarantee simultaneous translation for all events. Proposals should include the day in which the applicant wants to present, a 500 word (max) abstract description and a biographical paragraph of the applicant’s education, current institutional location, and relevant publications.
Email information to email@example.com. And visit http://dip.uexternado.edu.co/call-for-papers-rethinking-and-renewing-the-study-of-international-law-infromabout-latin-america-september-26-28-2017/ for more information.
For readers interested in East-South relations during the global Cold War, see this call for papers for a conference to be held at the University of Leipzig from October 26-27 2017:
International studies on Cold War history have overcome the simplified model of two superpower–dominated blocs defined by a rivalry along an impenetrable Iron Curtain. Transnational history approaches have reintroduced the explanatory axis of an economic divide between the Global North and the Global South. Other than in previous Cold War approaches, the (semi-)peripheries have taken centre stage. The recent debate has highlighted the significance of relations between Soviet bloc and developing countries in shaping the spatial order of the Cold War. “Socialist globalization” has become an integral part of the global post-war economic expansion. Contributing to this debate, our conference will focus on concrete spaces of economic East-South interactions. Transnational hubs, institutions, and infrastructures will be taken as a starting point to identify actors, interests, and power relations.
The conference is organized by Project B3 “East-South Relations during the Global Cold War”, which is part of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199: “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” at the University of Leipzig. The SFB is developing a historical narrative about the change of spatial orders under global conditions and a systematic approach that establishes a typology of spatial formats by exploring different scales of territories, networks, chains, enclaves, corridors, (special) zones, as well as the various indications of virtual and transnational spaces. Within this framework, Project B3 “East-South Relations in the Global Cold War” aims to challenge Cold War perspectives that take “Moscow’s” hegemony and centralized control by national communist parties for granted. To this end, the project asks to what degree were the borders of the Soviet bloc actually blurred and redrawn as a result of relations and interactions between the socialist camp and the Global South (with a special focus on African countries).
In what we call “spaces of interaction”, we intend to examine contact and exchanges of actors from the Soviet bloc and from the Global South. These spaces, to a certain extent, emerged and functioned beyond – or at the margins of – national control and opened up pathways into “the world”. Examples include, but are not limited to, ports, transport ships and fishing vessels, international train traffic infrastructure, construction sites, trade fairs, stock markets, joint multinational enterprises, international banks, international economic organizations, scientific conferences, international expert journals, etc.
We invite speakers to present research on such tangible spaces. Taking these examples as a starting point, we would like to discuss how in (the making of) these spaces different scales such as the local, the national, the bloc, and the global were intertwined and to what extent they became platforms of competition and of negotiation of interests between different actors. Furthermore, we want to discuss in which way the “global condition” played out and was addressed there. The guiding questions are the following: Who were the protagonists of these interactions and what were their interests and motives? How did they choose or create such spaces of interaction? Did these spaces become a relevant platform for negotiating different interests? To what extent did the interactions replicate seemingly dominant spatial order of the global Cold War? Did they blur or redraw the borders of the dominant spatial formats – that is to say the bloc and the nation-state?
The conference is organized into three main sections:
-Section 1 “Knowledge production” deals with the transfers of models of development and more generally of economic knowledge in fora of experts, ranging from scientific conferences to expert journals to international organizations.
-Section 2 “Trade and its infrastructures” looks at the exchange of goods and capital between socialist and “Third World” states and more specifically focuses on the infrastructures of international trade from transport facilities to trade fairs to negotiation rounds about trade contracts as a meeting point of the “Second” and “Third World”.
-Section 3 “Scientific-technical cooperation/Development aid” examines the sites of negotiations over and the realization of technical assistance, which consisted of large construction projects, more decentralized developmental measures in rural areas, and the training of specialists.
While we are aware of the overlap between the three topics, we think that a discussion about the dividing line between trade and assistance, for example, will be fruitful for developing a better understanding of the tension in the socialist states’ foreign economic activities between political claims of an “internationalist solidarity”, on the one hand, and economic interests, on the other. We especially welcome proposals focused on the interconnections of European socialist countries with African states. A roundtable discussion about the role of socialist countries in the UN project of a “New International Economic Order” (NIEO) with experts who participated in the NIEO-debate in the 1970s will be held on the first evening of the conference.
Proposals with title of the presentation, abstracts of 200 to 400 words, as well as information about the status and progress of the research project and affiliation of the participant should be submitted to Bence Kocsev, firstname.lastname@example.org by 30 April 2017. The selected participants will be notified by mid-May 2017. Although funding opportunities for travel and accommodation are expected to be available to a certain extent, we ask potential contributors to explore funding opportunities at their home institutions as well.
Working language of the conference is English. A selection of contributions will be published in a collective volume. We will ask contributors to send short draft papers (10 pages max.) at the beginning of October in order to circulate them among participants in advance.
During the middle of a troop and advising “surge” to Afghanistan following the election of Barack Obama, U.S. Defense Department officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a blockbuster announcement: Afghanistan, formerly best known for its export of opium, was said to be on the brink of becoming the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a rare mineral essential for the production of modern computers and smartphones. American geologists had stumbled onto dusty old Soviet maps of the country produced during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their quality was not terrific, but they hinted at enormous mineral deposits hitherto untapped that could turn Afghanistan from a large net recipient of foreign aid to a state flush with extraction-based revenues, like neighboring Turkmenistan, or Caspian Sea oil and gas giant Azerbaijan. American geologists soon conducted aerial surveys of Afghanistan that allowed them to photograph the interior of the Central Asian state. Thanks to American-made “advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment,” the U.S. had produced “a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface” and “the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.”
The announcement, made in 2010, seemed like good news for the Afghans. But beyond obvious ongoing questions about when (if?) security conditions in Afghanistan will ever permit mining corporations the confidence to make major investments in that country, the episode also raises questions about the role of the United States in th world and the nature of sovereignty in which access to mining data may be just as crucial as political sovereignty over the piece of real estate in which this niobium deposit or that lithium bed might be located. What does political sovereignty mean for a post-2001 Afghan state if its main real hope for self-financing comes from the interface of U.S.-produced data with an international bidding process over which an Afghan people may have only limited say? While the contradictions are perhaps particularly vivid in the case of Afghanistan, the drama of how extractive industries are entangled with the sovereignty of less powerful states and nations—not least Indigenous Peoples—is an ongoing story. Recent events such as the Standing Rock protests make this ever more clear.
The work of our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Megan Black, makes clear the history behind episodes like these. A Lecturer in History at Harvard University and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Black studies the United States Department of the Interior as an institutional prism through which to see a new history of U.S. global reach since 1890. Often misunderstood as an obscure branch of the U.S. government, the Department of the Interior, in Black’s account, turns out to be a crucial agent of American power toward the outside world in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Rather than seeing Interior as a mere manager of that which was already “inside” the U.S. polity, she sees it as the crucial actor in a process of “interiorization” whereby resources once external to the American homeland (whether in the North American West or anywhere in the world) were made legible and potentially extractable.
While one might expect Interior’s mission to have ended once the frontier was closed and the American West swelled with settlers, Black’s account shows how Interior reinvented itself as a crucial agent for the discovery and management of “strategic minerals” around the world — first in nearby theaters in the Americas, and later globally. Studying the rise and fall of the Department of the Interior and the logics of “interiorization” it relied upon, then, constitutes not just a lens to understand the nature of American hegemony in the 20th century. It’s also a crucial story for understanding how what it meant to be sovereign changed in light of the discovery of new aerospace, computing, and nuclear technologies, and the complex mineral chains required to maintain them. While our conversation with Black therefore provides a lens into one of the most dynamic historiographical literatures today—namely that of U.S. foreign relations—it also provides a terrific example of what it might mean for scholars of global history to take minerals and mining more seriously as subjects for investigation. Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Black to discuss her research as well as her forthcoming book manuscript, The Global Interior. Continue reading →
For scholars interested in the transnational history of blackness, see this call for papers for a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara to be held from 4-5 May 2017:
The presence of Black people in Europe dates back to the early medieval period. Since then, Black people in Europe have contributed significantly to the archives of radical Black epistemologies in various ways. Within this contribution, distinct points of departures exist with regards to socio-historical conditions and divergences of anti-blackness in European nation states. However, academic scholarship on the articulations and formations of Blackness in Europe have gained more attention in the last decades. Recently, the multiplicities of European Blackness (as ontology, identity, and/or alignment) are often subsumed under the framing of “Black Europe.” The attention given to this area of study is due in part to the resistance of Black people rendered non-citizen within Fortress Europe, urban insurrections in the aftermath of police killings of Black youth in Paris and London—as well as other cities in European countries—mobilizations against anti-black imagery, and representations in public spaces such as those against Zwarte Piete in the Netherlands.
The symposium “On the Matter of Blackness in Europe: Transnational Perspectives,” which will take place at the University of California, Santa Barbara 4-5 May 2017, aims to trace the articulations of transnational Black solidarities and struggles for Black lives in the European context by foregrounding less explored paradigms of Black formations, creations, improvisations and Black struggles throughout Europe and beyond, putting a focus on the multiplicities of what has become taken for granted in contemporary discussions of “Black Europe.” With the aim of dismantling the homogeneity of the Black transnational experience in European contexts while simultaneously attending to how the various struggles for Black lives unfold, we will engage with lived experiences of Blackness and Black political struggles in various European contexts and geopolitical dynamics. Further, the symposium will interrogate the power relations at work within academic scholarship that determines what becomes monolithically referred to as “Black Europe.”
This call is for junior scholars, early career researchers, and/or independent researchers to present and discuss their respective research projects, either on panels or on roundtables to enact intergenerational, transnational and collective discussions. We invite proposals for papers and roundtable presentations that address any of the following:
What can Blackness mean in/for Europe?
How have contemporary contributions to the transnational continuations of the Black radical tradition been brought to bear in various European contexts?
How do various Black struggles unfold in the face of genocidal border regimes, urban policing and surveillance, neoliberal austerity policies and the current rise of right-wing extremism and Islamophobia?
What geographies and elements of Blackness or Black diasporic identity are privileged in European discourses and how can we unsettle these asymmetries?
How do marginalized experiences of Blackness within Europe, especially the interventions of Black Muslims, LGBTQI*, and/or those rendered non-citizen (e.g., refugees or asylum seekers), challenge one-dimensional conceptualizations of Blackness. How can we be more accountable in centering them?
Which kind of Black aesthetics, creative formations and emancipatory poesis are challenging the colonial legacies of Europe?
How does Blackness shape and reconfigure space and how is Black place-making maneuvered alongside the intersectional lines of postcolonial urbanism?
How do the politics of Black Lives Matter travel to and depart from these contexts? What can BLM mean in contexts that do not meaningfully contend with “race” as a recognized category of difference and subordination?
300 word abstracts including affiliation and a short bio should be sent by 20 March to Vanessa Thompson and SA Smythe at email@example.com.