The relocation of CSSAAME to Columbia University certainly offers its editorial board a great opportunity to rethink both the character of regionally specific scholarship and the possibility of creating linkages and conversations between such regions. I am in full agreement with the jour- nal’s mission regarding the limits of the postwar area studies model in the United States as well as the dangers posed by the new “scientism” of disciplines like political science and their quest for a universality that transcends place. The journal should indeed provide a forum for thinking critically about inherited models of regional knowledge while at the same time foregrounding new theoretical interventions in rethinking its categories. And Columbia is so well-placed to make such conversations possible that it is even possible to conceive of one of the journal’s tasks as being that of engaging its scholars and graduate students, especially in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS), in a set of collective debates on these subjects. I cannot think of another research institution where the task of a journal maps so well onto the interests of its scholars.
It seems to me that one of the implications of the increasingly visible limitations of area studies has to do with the revitalization of the discipline as a framework for study. Of course such disciplines are no longer the methodologically hidebound things they once claimed to be. Instead they appear to provide scholars with forms of inquiry and styles of narration that can inform other disciplines without being welded together into a single super-model of knowledge. The area, in other words, may no longer provide a home for scholars in different disciplines, which must now encounter one another afresh in a wider world of reference. This means that the journal will inevitably have to deal with the problem of disciplinary as much as regional knowledge. And what better way to deal with these intertwined problems than by thinking historically about region, context, and locality rather than in purely abstract terms about “the historical method” or “ethnography”? The interconnection and displacement of such questions is likely to give these debates a new richness of texture.
Crucial to the mission of the journal should be the possibility of restoring in the arena of knowledge those interregional relations that were cut apart by Euro-American political and economic dominance. Just as important is the task of making entirely new relations possible in the Global South that needn’t require mediation through the West. This is of course already beginning to happen in the political and economic spheres, but the production of knowledge from and about these relationships still lags behind. Will new forms of knowledge be produced from these sites and travel abroad? In contrast to this project is another that may be said to be its mirror image, the study of dislocation and mobility in the global arena. Removed from the ideal of neutral and universal knowledge that characterizes the new “scientism,” what makes this phenomenon important is the way in which the militant practices of Al-Qaeda, for example, proffer models of knowledge and communication that are global without being geographically defined in any strong sense. They have nothing to do with cartographic expansion, like that of commodities, or even with saturating a field of visibility seen as a flat and empty space.
If the globe is not the sum of its geographical parts, then, of course, the opposition between local and global falls apart, since what is most globalized might well be the most particular of practices or experiences. In other words, regional and local worlds are probably more likely than international organizations or large countries to be the homologues of or interlocutors for global movements. This way of thinking about the regional and the global permits scholars, in addition, to think beyond economies of scale and spatiality in general to redefine the area by aligning it with — rather than against — the globe. And this immediately makes the model of “scientistic” universality outdated and irrelevant as any kind of challenge to regional knowledge. For the countervailing tendencies to the uniformities of “scientism” are those discontinuities that attach locality to the global in geographically unmediated ways. The opportunity of thinking about regional knowledge outside a cartographic framework is one that should not be forsaken, as it may well provide an entirely novel way of considering the particularity of knowledge. This means that we are now able to question all those accounts of circulation and mobility that take the old- fashioned map as their ground.
If the journal’s editors want to think critically about expansiveness and spatiality, set against the global arena and its regional homologues, then the website and visual materials are crucial. Both works of art and visual studies, as well as scholarly interrogations of them, are able to grasp this dimension of discontinuity better than texts. But the journal should also host the kind of located historical analysis that might counteract the superficial fixation on mobility and circulation, where things, ideas, or persons are seen as metaphors for the movement of capital. But such movements are not capable of questioning region or locality conceptually, only of expanding or contracting their reach. Neither do they allow us to think about global discontinuity, apart from as a limitation, and can only reinstate the traditional cartographic conception of flat space. Is it possible to think about relations among South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in a way that doesn’t fall back into the logic of spatiality and expansiveness? This question, I believe, should pose a productive challenge for the journal’s editors and contributors.
© 2013 by Duke University Press