Holger Weiss

Inspired by space

About a year ago my colleagues and I decided to establish the Global History Laboratory. It was at a point when I had reached a crossroads in my own attempt to locate and position myself as a global historian. I had witnessed the expansion of global history as a vibrant and exciting perspective during the last decades. For me as an Africa(n) historian it was a rather typical step to take – several of my mentors, colleagues and friends belonged to the forerunners in the field and were leading advocates of challenging methodological nationalism and Eurocentrism. Questions, such as analysing global flows, networks or connections and their local articulations, opened hitherto closed spaces. Africa became part of the global story of human kind and ‘the global’ emerged as a complex factor that had to be defined and analysed. Was it only one of the new buzzwords that had been created, fluid and amorphous without any clear substance, or was there something more in it? What, then, was this ‘something’?

Of equal importance was my first encounter with texts that integrated space and time. For me, Karl Schlögel’s Im Raume lessen wir die Zeit was the key text of how to use a spatial approach in reading the past. More than that, combining global history with a spatial approach opened for me a forward reading approach to the past: the past as an open space, past present times and past futures as open spaces. Space, it turned out, became complex, too. This I realized when I challenged my students to combine a spatial and a global reading in a course on history and the spatial turn. I asked my students to imagine a point on earth where they could read changes in time and space. One of my students chose London and turned up digging tens of meters in the ground, unearthing 2000 years of history without moving from one spot, ending up by telling the story of an unseen underground London in his essay. Another, inspired by Marc Augé’s Non-Place, asked where the shots in Sarajevo in 1914 took place – everyone knows what happened but where exactly stood Gavrilo Princip? And who was remembered – the victim or the assassin/terrorist/hero? In several classes, I used my self the example of standing in front of the statue of the Swedish king Karl XIV Johan at Slussen in Stockholm. Turning in a circle, I told my students the history of Sweden without moving from the spot. Starting with the Old Town (Gamla stan) – remnants of the medieval town but also the houses of the rich merchants of the 17th and 18th century (the so-called Skeppsbroadeln) and the export trade of iron and tar, to the north Norrmalm and Östermalm, to the west Kungsholmen, representing the changes in Swedish society in the wake of industrialisation during the nineteenth century, to the south Södermalm with its cottages, protoindustrial works and working-class misery from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Slussen itself represented the new era of the Social Democratic welfare state. Symbolically or not, the 1935 functionalist cloverleaf interchange was praised by Le Corbusier as ‘the modern era’s first large project’. Today, the interchange is turned down and will be replaced by a new passage, representing a new era. Last, but not least, if we would have stood in front of the statute during the 1970s, we might have spotted ‘Pekka’ who was one of those 300,000 Finns who emigrated to Sweden during the 1950s and especially the 1960s and constituted Sweden’s largest but mostly voiceless minority.

The spatial, the forward reading and the global challenged my perceptions of how to approach the past(s). Imagine a multidimensional space: how many relations (or if you want, spaces) exists there at any fixed time? Infinite. This is certainly a dilemma for a historian: where to start? Which point should one chose as a starting point if there are infinite points and all are equal? In praxis, you could argue, not all points are equal and perhaps there exists only a limited amount of points in the multidimensional space. Still, you must decide which point to choose as a starting point.

My then students (most of them are now members of the GHL) and I started a study circle where we read and discussed classical texts on space and time. For me, both Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Ed Soja’s Thirdspace gave crucial insights on how to interpret the social production of space as well as to come into terms with the “spatial dilemma” above, namely the existence of parallel if not multiple and at the same time simultaneous activities in the past (and the present). If you chose to focus on kings, rulers, state authorities or those in power – in Hausa you would use the words sarauta (kingdom) and iko (power) – you end up telling a certain story. If you highlight the lives of those without power – the talakawa or those whose voice is not heard at the gatherings – you end up with another story. Both stories existed at the same time in the same place. But was it the same space?

For now, I leave the question open as I will return the topic in my next blog.

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