Time is of the essence: The Transregional Academy “Histories of Migrant Knowledges in and across the Transpacific”

Andrea Westermann, GHI West, Berkeley

Transregional Academies offer scholars a workspace to present and connect their work with international peers, and to question and experiment with concepts and methodologies. This summer, 24 scholars took part in such an Academy hosted by UC Berkeley − a week-long exploration of Histories of Migrant Knowledges in and across the Transpacific. Hosts for this event: The Forum Transregionale Studien and Max Weber Stiftung (Foundation German Humanities Institutes Abroad), the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington DC (GHI PRO), The Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CALAS), and the Institute of European Studies. On the Steering Committee: Simone Lässig (Professor of Contemporary History, Braunschweig, Director of GHI PRO), Andrea Westermann (Historian of Science, Technology, and the Environment, Head of Office at GHI PRO, UC Berkeley), Akasemi Newsome (Associate Director of the Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley), Ryan Jones (Professor of History, Environmental History, University of Oregon), Katerina Teaiwa (Professor of Anthropology, Australian National University Canberra), and Albert Manke (Historian of the Americas, Bielefeld University).

Reading the blogs on this experience by three colleagues, Daniella Trimboli, Emma Powell, and Bianca Hennessy, cast my mind straight back into this “parallel universe” of our Academy that Daniella remembered like an “excellent dream, happy but hazy”. For me, as one of the organizers, the spell lasted for several days. Yet in my everyday work, I typically archive away for later consideration what we read, saw, and discussed about standard (or not so standard) vs. decolonial scholarship that together form today’s humanities. I sincerely hope that we all think and write slightly differently about “the Transpacific” the next time we venture into research contributions.

What struck me as an environmental historian and a historian of geology was how often we got a sense of the importance of “time” for our research. We recurrently discussed the culturally specific meanings and realizations of time or divergent notions of “the past” different societies maintain(ed). What was more perhaps: the discussions highlighted the time-consuming workload ahead of us when it comes to embracing all the knowledge in and contradicting academia.

We might agree with what Brazilian scholar Eduardo Viveiros de Castro stated in 2004: “common sense is not common. That is why anthropology exists. The incommensurability of clashing notions is precisely what enables and justifies it … Since it is only worth comparing the incommensurable, comparing the commensurable is a task for accountants, not anthropologists”.[1] But how do we as scholars come to terms with incompatible knowledge underlying (indigenous or imperial) science, history writing, community building, or the Pacific islanders’ dancing? We questioned: do any narratives or media make the task easier? How do the very actors we study deal with contradictory logics? And something that niggled us all week: how do we not just compare and comprehend the incommensurability between ways of thinking and apprehending the world, but make this understanding the starting point for true collaboration across academic landscapes and cultural geographies?

The Academy put the topics of migrations and knowledge center stage. Scholars of migration studies have focused on questions of knowledge for a long time. Consider the well-analyzed logics of bureaucratic and societal classification and reclassification of those who newly arrive. In yet another field of migration studies the epistemological dimension has gained some prominence: refugees and migrants not only make visible but also liquify state territoriality. Perhaps even more so in the spread-out archipelagic states of the Pacific. Issues of territory, place, or soil take on specific meanings here. Migrations, islands, and seascapes have been closely linked via seafaring, trade and family networks; as have migrations and radical environmental change ­– from resource extraction through nuclear fall-out to global warming. Consequently, we kept questioning: How do people assess and assert their options and navigate the entangled scenarios of flight, migration, and mobility? Why do people leave in the first place? Why do they stay put or routinely return?

We went on a field trip to Angel Island, once an immigration station. We stretched our bodies and minds during extra sessions, we had curated conversations about academic blog posting and watched three films, including one by Berkeley-based filmmaker Vanessa Warheit (The Insular Empire, 2010) who joined in our conversation. The final screening marked the end of a film series taking a ‘history from below’ look at migration. The Pacific Regional Office organized this series over the spring with our Berkeley colleague and DAAD-professor Isabel Richter from UCB’s department of history in collaboration with the Goethe-Institute San Francisco. We enjoyed the reception after the show at the beautifully located Goethe-Institute.

Read what my co-contributors have to say about our program and week-long discussions in groups.

Andrea Westermann earned her PhD in history from Bielefeld University for her dissertation Plastik und politische Kultur in Westdeutschland. She is a research fellow of GHI Washington DC and head of the Pacific Regional Office of the GHI in Berkeley. She specializes in the history of earth sciences, environmental history, environmental migration, and the history of material culture. She is H-Soz-Kult editor for history of knowledge. Her latest article “A Technofossil of the Anthropocene: Sliding up and down Temporal Scales with Plastic” will soon appear in the edited volume Power and Time, University of Chicago Press 2019.

[1] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation”, Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2 (2004)1, 10-11.


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