Congratulations to the new editors, editorial board, and home of this important journal, which has fostered global and trans-regional scholarship for more than thirty years. So many of the issues and themes raised and promoted in the journal remain crucially important in humanities and social science (HSS) scholarship today. For the next decade and beyond they will have to have a prominent place on the agenda, albeit in changing and different ways, as can be expected in any thriving and dynamic field or forum of debate and scholarship.
Despite the existence of this journal and a few others explicitly committed to fostering comparativist methods and transregional studies, the dominant trend in various fields of HSS appears to remain solidly national and single case in focus — the nation-state remains the object of study, or a question is framed in terms of its origins and complexity within a single country, comparisons across regions on the same continent or across continents are the exception, and there is a reliance on one dominant language (perhaps two) for sources and so on.
There are many reasons for this, among which is the persistence of the area studies model developed in the US academy during the Cold War, for instance, and therefore it shaped teaching, research, and generations of scholars unwilling or unable to take risks and go beyond expertise in a country, a linguistic area, or at most an ill- defined region (defined more by unquestioned convention than rigorous analysis, e.g., the “ Middle East”) as a secondary field of concentration. But cross-regional comparativism has not been encouraged as a field for deep, systematic research. We inherited the same approaches in the South; as we all know area studies took off with the decolonization of the South and the imperative to produce knowledge about its constituent parts.
There is then the problem of the cost of such research beyond the research ideology of “one problem, one country.” It is much costlier. In the South, resources are already stretched and HSS are very poorly funded. Our governments in the South have the same educational ideals set by the OECD and similar organizations, and HSS are recognized only if they can prove to be quantitative, or become massively so. Work on texts, on historical questions, or contemporary social processes without obvious relevance to developmental problems, or explicitly quantifiable through the establishment’s methods, do not really feature in national funding schemes for higher education. Thus to imagine a library even in the better resourced institutes in India, for instance, having the range of up-to-date secondary sources to allow a graduate student to construct a project proposal comparing an aspect of labor history between a South Asian and Latin American state is asking for much. This applies for the entire South.
In the mid-1990s Sephis (South-South Programme for Research in the History of Development) emerged precisely to enable researchers in the South with the means and opportunities — training and funding — to work in a comparative fashion focusing on diverse parts of the South. Sephis was modestly funded but put explicitly on the southern research agenda the possibility of thinking and doing research across regions in the South, of working outside the frame of the nation-state, and taking research traditions and theory in the South outside their national spaces to a Global South community.
This task is necessary and massive and requires organizations and funding far larger than what Sephis had access to. But in its fifteen years it moved young scholars and ideas beyond national frontiers and to areas beyond their and our imagination. The challenges are tremendous (library resources, language training, conservative patronage, inherited research traditions), but with the extension of Internet capacity and web tools there are more ways to address some of these problems. Large bodies of materials from the South, however, need to be put into circulation through web platforms. A range of problems persists that undervalues the HSS produced in the South unless it reaches the northern academies. The challenges remain in finding the will, intellectual curiosity, and capacity to take risks and explore beyond the canon, the established disciplines, and networks embedded in patronage and authority.
The nation-state frame has bred an insularity that is hard to shake off. Prominent publishers come out every few years with new series of “national histories.” This has the effect of promoting such intellectual work as an ideal: If a senior scholar devotes herself or himself to such a task then perhaps it’s both a worthy ideal and potentially lucrative? These histories are useful to have, up to a point. But should these be encouraged? Look at South Africa, for instance, and the surfeit of general histories and now histories of liberation. But I cannot call to mind a single regional history of southern Africa; there are a few collections of essays that pretend to address the region, but they mostly treat the individual states of the region prefaced by an introduction that attempts to integrate the essays. How would a regional, southern African history of apartheid look? All the colonial regimes had apartheid policies, or variations thereof, without the name. Popular struggles and liberation movements with bases outside the country overthrew all of them. So why have there been so few attempts to write the history of the region in an integrated and comparative fashion? There are key turning points that have had integrating powers in the region; for example, the impact of the mining revolutions of the last quarter of the nineteenth century brought labor from all over the region to the urban centers of South Africa; the Second World War was another turning point; liberation struggles in the early 1960s led to a flow of ideas and support among leaders and guerrillas of these movements; and the apartheid military attacked, threatened, and fostered rebels in all of the states systematically from 1975 onward.
We can raise similar questions for the Nile Valley where the histories of Egypt and Sudan cannot be written separately; the region includes Ethiopia and the Nile basin countries. The Levant, the question of Palestine, and so on all are issues that can productively be studied in comparative and cross- regional ways. There are a few cross-regional studies, but they are the exception to the rule of single- country emphasis. How to compare across these and other spaces? When the Arab Spring was in its early phases in 2011, TV pundits raised comparisons with Eastern Europe in the 1980s. But what about comparisons with other spaces and experiences from southern Africa to the Philipines?
Beyond region and cross-regional comparison there are entire processes that have for centuries spanned large-scale spaces and have in recent years generated exciting new work. We think here of the work done and still in progress on the Indian Ocean and various discrete parts of this vast space. This research has demonstrated the connections between Yemen and Indonesia, which is not an artifact of the past but a living history and reality. The same applies to the East African coast connecting Cape Town to Zanzibar and to Oman and so on. The work on the Indian Ocean shows how communities lived with and on the ocean. Yet the shore, the land, remains crucial in this experience where families and institutions established themselves by building local foundations and maintaining strong ties of religious heritage and other lineage networks to their regions of origin.
Such thinking that deepens analysis historically of a region and between disparate parts of a continent or between continents requires new kinds of training and collaborative work. It also requires linguistic skills to read bodies of literature in more languages other than the dominant ones in a country and region. The question of language leads to another set of issues that the new CSSAAME mission statement alludes to with “philological renewal.” This is a moment in HSS that is indeed witnessing glimmers of a return to philology but not as a style of scholarship that removes the text from its worldliness. The specific details of the European “discovery” of “other” languages and the construction of fields of knowledge from historical linguistics to a broader comparative philology are themselves now fields of study. But areas that were once considered not to have the materials for philological study, such as intellectual production in large parts of Africa, have earned increasingly more attention. African intellectual history was very much a history of writing in the Latin script (English, French, Portuguese) that emerged with the coming of missionary education in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rest was a problem of the reconstruction of oral tradition. “Mediterranean Africa,” as Hegel had it, was, and in mainstream work continues to be, cast as a world apart from the Sahara and the spaces beyond. We have seen just how connected these regions are today if we consider that the fall of Colonel Qaddafi in August 2011 had a direct impact on Mali by early 2012. This is one division that persists and that continues to require unlearning. It coincides with the misleading division of the continent into two distinct parts — orality in the North and literacy in the sub-Sahara.
But renewed work on the numerous, mainly family, manuscript libraries from Senegal to Ethiopia and northern Mozambique opens up new areas that require philological training at least in Arabic (and local languages in the Arabic script, ajami). These manuscripts are not in the standard Ara- bic script of, say, Damascus manuscripts (i.e., khatt mashriqi) but comprise a whole range of Arabic scripts with their own local inflections that have been dismissed as rather strange and at best mediocre Arabic calligraphy derived from maghribi, as has been the dominant argument. Yet the density of these materials requires that we look at these scripts as regionally diverse African reworkings of the Arabic script. Studies that can argue with the canon and place these scripts, and at another level, the huge and rich volume of work using these scripts, in context will entail philological skills but also reimagining the archive and the book in Africa. There are parallels and comparisons with other historical experiences where classical philological methods simply neglected bodies of work and in periods when the idea of an archive was extremely limited.
CSSAAME has done admirable work in the past; it has to continue pushing comparative frontiers and the dominant foundations in theory and method that genuinely open new pathways to think about the world.
© 2013 by Duke University Press