It is a pleasure as well as an honor to respond to the editors’ statement about their plans for CSSAAME. As they write, the present is exciting in both its opportunities and perils; area studies’ half-empty glass can spur new and important scholarship. I agree that much of the most exciting scholarship of the past decade transcends region — from the brilliant scholarship of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to the ever- expanding literature on diasporas, much of the best work has moved among regions and balanced cosmopolitanism with a grounding in many localities at once. However, it seems to me the defunding of area studies maps onto the perilous state of Western universities, recently compounded by their governments’ insistence on austerity. More than a shift in academic emphasis, scholars based in the West face an accumulating set of contradictions: the casualization of the academic labor force, increasing demands on candidates for hiring and promotion, and the difficulty of publication especially for junior scholars. While one might simply conclude that CSSAAME could play a productive role in mentoring young scholars as they make their first publications and in consolidating its position as a high-quality venue for them to aspire to, a wider lens suggests additional possibilities for CSSAAME’s future.
The editors’ call to recast areal focus can be sharpened and clarified by looking at the crisis of area studies with a wider lens. If the crisis of area studies is of a piece with a worldwide crisis of higher education, we might date this less to austerity policies enforced in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries as a result of the economic crisis of the 2000s than to the debt crisis of the 1980s and the rise of neoliberalism. Almost everywhere, universities and researchers have regularly been faced with ever- shrinking budgets and with demands for productivity gains incompatible with the current model of university education. Area studies was particularly hard hit by such demands. While US government funding and canny Rockefeller grants were crucial in establishing and consolidating their intellectual vigor, area studies has always depended on links between universities in OECD countries and in the “areas” being studied. Scholars circulated among universities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and in Euro- America, to the benefit of all. Dependency theory, the Dar es Salaam school of historiography, and subaltern studies are almost random examples of the critical importance of global intellectual exchange. The circulation of scholars became more difficult during the 1980s and 1990s as structural adjustment policies strangled academic life in many countries. “Circulation” became “brain-drain,” following cutbacks, which often occurred in rich countries as well.
Within my own field of African studies, one of the most exciting developments of the 2000s was an easing of conditions at many African universities. Speaking impressionistically, it seems to me intellectual ties have greatly strengthened in the past decade. At the same time, more universities are attempting to serve international constituencies, teaching students and sponsoring research about South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and significantly contributing to the transnational and transregional trends the editors cite. Thus, the “explosive growth” the editors foresee in non-Western universities is a promising return to earlier periods of intense exchange. All of this, of course, is simply to say that the political economy of higher education and research will be critical to CSSAAME. The past half century of higher education has demonstrated that periods of plenty are followed by dearth. Programs once cut are often difficult to revive. The patterns of funding that undergird today’s intellectual excitement will not last forever, and we must be prepared for whatever comes next. But if anything, this can be more an opportunity than a sign of ultimate futility. How can truly global exchanges be sustained given the feast-then-famine quality of our institutional politics?
The greatest hope may lie in another terrible danger, that of the crisis in academic publishing. I would urge the editors to consider the problems of copyright and of access to journals, which of course is one of the greatest barriers to international scholarship for scholars in poor countries and for people outside the academy. How might it be possible for more people to get access to articles published in CSSAAME, and how might scholarly discussion be made more accessible to those without current academic affiliation? Similarly, scholars in many places have difficulty getting access to up-to-date scholarly debates and therefore face difficulties in taking international scholarship into account. Even if the current moment is relatively conducive to journal access for scholars in many locales, we can be quite certain it will not always be.
Additionally, in the United Kingdom at present, the government is considering requiring all research funded by the public research councils to be published in open-access venues. It is not clear yet what ultimate policies will result from this, but the initiative poses grave dangers to academic research in the UK and to journals like CSSAAME, which might want to publish UK-funded research. The more optimistic way to think about this, however, is to wonder whether CSSAAME and Duke University Press might be able to find a way of making work accessible that did not also destroy the journal’s ability to pay for itself. To its very great credit, the press offers radically discounted subscriptions to institutions in poor countries and to students, and of course scholarly norms are increasingly adapting to a world of e-mail and PDF attachments. Perhaps this is a moment to think carefully about how such norms can be systematized and institutionalized.
Clearly, neither CSSAAME nor the press can solve the problem of unequal access to scholarly publishing. But I wonder whether the journal might consider going farther in the direction of accessibility in its plans for special projects, commissions, and conferences than the editors describe. Would it be possible for CSSAAME to broaden the mandate of a scholarly journal to make itself something of a social network as well? Would it be possible to make the journal’s website a message board as well, to maintain a database of the e-mail addresses of published authors, to create a set of suggestions for the ideal CSSAAME conference that might include relatively inexpensive forms of teleconferencing such as Skype, which might enable wider participation and might enable organizers from a wider range of institutions and backgrounds? It seems to me that a relatively small number of innovations at the center might make it possible for the journal to address broader constituencies and to do so without violating the copyrights that enable to press to publish.
To shift gears radically, let me illustrate the suggestions I have made with a problem and an example of great concern to me. At the time of this writing, ongoing violence in northern Nigeria has been somewhat eclipsed in international coverage of West Africa by the civil war in Mali, but the two situations have overlapped in uncomfortable and problematic ways. Outside commentators have often taken both as instances of “Islamist violence,” local outbreaks of a more general process radicalizing Muslims and part of an ongoing struggle between Islam and the forces of democracy, modernity, stability. Needless to say, such a view is desperately oversimple and indeed no longer serves any coherent goal, even to the extent Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” paradigm fed a particular neoconservative approach to international relations. Needless to say, the bombings and shootings in Nigeria bear little resemblance to Malian secessionist violence, nor do Tuareg rebel groups and Salafist militias discernibly parallel the murky history of Nigeria’s Bok’o Haram or volatile intersection between vigilante organization and party politics. The broad spectrum of political violence in West Africa is simultaneously local, regional, and global. Local leaders with deep-rooted constituencies come into conflict over resources, ethnicity, and patronage, and these conflicts have their own long histories. Mali’s troubles cannot be understood without a grasp of the intricacies of Tuareg politics, nor is Bok’o Haram comprehensible without a longer- term appreciation of the role Islam has played in Nigeria’s regionalized and ethnicized politics. Local political interests come into conflict with local rivals and with opponents from elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, international networks circulate ideas, weapons, fighters, and religious figures. In such circumstances, it is unproductive to label conflicts “religious” or not. Western tendencies to take these complex processes as a kind of religious frenzy do little justice to their deep historical roots and leave little hope for productive engagement.
It would be easy to conclude from this that what one really needs at such junctures is a revivified area studies, albeit one perhaps more attentive to the role regional and global forces play in influencing and sustaining local conflict. But there is something more important to be teased out. Because as frustrating as so much Western journalistic coverage and policy analysis is, one cannot discard it entirely: such narratives are themselves a form of local knowledge. Such paradigms influence many profoundly influential actors and thus are necessary to take into account. While many scholars are well situated to debunk particular reduc- tive narratives, the most useful intervention might be one that simultaneously provided accounts of local conflicts and of the various systems of understanding that comprehended them. Narratives of “global jihad” or “Islamism” are more than a paranoid, Orientalist fantasy, in part because they do correspond with universalistic aspirations invoked by groups with international contacts and aspirations. But more than that, the narrative of religious danger describing West African violence channels national and international responses to them into a mode of opposition that can heighten conflict rather than resolving it. Obviously CSSAAME cannot somehow create an area studies simultaneously attentive to local complexity, the convoluted epistemic twists of international systems of knowledge, and desirable policy outcomes. Nonetheless, I wonder if a sustained commitment to international dia- logue and accessibility would not enable a series of publications that achieve academic rigor while addressing multiple constituencies in a manner that enables the imagination of alternative futures. A careful attention to local particularity and to the analytic potential of grand theory is both precondition for and consequence of sustained conversation between Global South and Global North. More than a forum to engage in both the nomothetic and idiographic, CSSAAME might facilitate a series of dialogues that more profoundly engages the multiple constituencies knowledge about the region must necessarily serve.
What would this look like in practice? In the case of northern Nigeria, one might attempt to bring together a variety of forums — civil society organization and research groups in Nigeria, counterparts in Euro-America, perhaps also online fora such as Naija Net to provide a broad spectrum of commentaries. An international array of scholars exists to help coordinate such a project, from the most senior to the most junior, and with Skype and teleconferencing, the costs of an international conference could be kept to a minimum. If CSSAAME were to recruit several such figures to coordinate forum meant to encompass both academic papers and more general commentaries, and to provide them with a set of templates for potential publication, the intellectual payoff could be profound. The result would not only be a series of distinguished publications but a set of discussions around them that might have more profound consequences. My space here is limited, and thus my prescription is necessarily vague and somewhat utopian. Nonetheless, in the end CSSAAME will make its greatest contribution through boldness and through taking advantage of the limitations that might otherwise stifle it. The editors’ statement suggests they have precisely the vision that might make such endeavors possible.
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