Konstanz workshop: ‘Flows and Orders: A Tension in Global History’, 13-15 October 2016

Date: 13-15 October 2016
Venue: University of Konstanz
Organisers: Professor Juergen Osterhammel, Dr Moritz von Brescius and Dr Cornelia Escher (Konstanz)

We propose to take the current crisis over the refugees arriving in Europe from a wide arc spanning the space from Maroc to Afghanistan as a starting point to inquire about the more general relationship between the dynamic and the static, between flows and orders. The crisis over refugees shows that motion does not automatically lead towards a more connected and peacefully entangled world society. Mobility may just as well trigger legal and economic protectionism and a hardening of mental rigidity in the political and social domain.

Conventional historiography, often for good reasons, has mostly privileged stable structures or even, for pre-modern times, a model of ‘l’histoire immobile.’ It tends to analyse change as something that happens to these structures. Global history, by contrast, sees the movement of peoples, ideas, and goods along a broad range of spatial distances as ‘normal’ and non-deviant, paying special attention to stability as emerging from the ‘crystallisa­tion’ of the manifold phenomena of mobility. Their study is a foundational principle of the field and a signal contribution offered by global historians to a complex understanding of the past that takes account of the huge variety of processes and patterns of change occurring in history.

We argue that the study of flows, crucial as it is, cannot constitute global history alone. Rather, historians and historically minded social scientists have to engage with the dialectic between movement and stability, statics and dynamics which was already familiar to the classics of the social sciences. More specifically, we have to address the ways in which movements provoked the emergence and consolidation of institutions and regimes (in the wide sense of current regime theory), and vice versa. In other words, the attention of the workshop should turn to the processes through which movement is ordered and transformed, through which it solidifies into more rigid systems of political, economic and social power, but also into elaborated and more or less durable systems of knowledge, imagination and expression.

To take up the example of current trans-continental migration, such an approach would lead us to explore issues of border maintenance and border subversion, of migratory regimes aimed at containing and subduing the movement of people, and of the enforced stagnation of refugees in camps or at national borders. In other words, we propose to study the interplay between the mobile and the immobile in global history, and the ways in which orders were imposed by different means, from legal norms to coercive practices, in most cases involving an intricate interaction of internal dynamics and external influences. These orders in turn are liable to destabilisation and erosion. Global history is not content with the trivial observation that no order lasts forever. Rather, it investigates specific conditions of stability and precarious­ness and focuses, in particular, on effects operating across long distances in constructing, maintaining and destroying order in general and specific orders in particular.

As has been rightly remarked at the inaugurating Leverhulme conference, it is often outsiders who are most acutely aware of such borders and orders, to a lesser extent the people ‘within’ – even though in cases of more abstract constructions of order (such as in the realms of religion, political imaginaires or the arts) it might be difficult to draw a sharp distinction between inside and outside, between the self and its ‘other,’ between native and alien elements. We think that awareness is an absolutely, and much underrated, category in the analysis of globality and that it should play a prominent role at the workshop. Returning to our example, attention will be paid to the dimension of human awareness of the regimes established to channel, divert, or stop the diverse flows of human beings and things that have shaped the world in recent centuries. We thus refute the simplistic and ‘Whiggish’ idea of an ever-increasing connected­ness of the globe, drifting inexorably towards a fictional vantage point in the present or the near future. Rather, we take interest in counter­vailing trends, in moments of stagnation, ruptures, and dead ends – and in structural factors and political decisions that led channels of circulation to peter out and or that made them subservient to special interests and harmful objectives.

Putting the interplay of statics and dynamics at the centre of our concerns responds to changes in general sensibilities that have been taking place since the 1990s, a decade of globalisation euphoria when the basic principles of the theory of globalisation, and perhaps global history, were worked out. A recent resurgence of nationalism and imperial power politics, the proliferation of ‘failed’ states unable to attain minimum standards of good governance, as well as the manipulative potential of planetary systems and businesses of information control cast doubt on optimistic expectations of a new ‘global age.’ Moreover, at the current stage of globalisation, spheres or levels of circulation seem to operate in growing disjunction: The movement of commodities is not coordinated with that of people, and the global flows of information (see WikiLeaks, Panama papers scandal) undermine flows of capital and illicit money. In short, Global History should temper its penchant for connectivity with a fresh look at the contradictory record of growing globality during the past centuries.

Download programme:Flows and Orders: a Tension in Global History programme

See conference report: ‘Flows and Orders: a Tension in Global History’ report