by Namia Akhtar (University of Heidelberg)
The WeberWorldCafé ‘Transoceanic cultures: The sea in the past and present’ took place on October 28, 2018 at the Karl Jaspers Center of the Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg. It was jointly organized by the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies. Monica Juneja, Professor of Global Art History at the Cluster „Asia and Europe in a Global Context“, made the opening remarks emphasizing the historical background of the event. Her remarks were followed by Dr. Johanna Beamish, one of the curators and organizers of the event, who explained the proceedings of the event to the participants.
The Mediterranean as an Interconnected Space
The discussion tables were organized around six topics. Each table had two discussants to lead the conversations. The first table centered its discussion on ‘Connecting Ocean Rims,’ and the discussion was led by Carlo Taviani, Research Associate of the Harvard Center for Italian and Renaissance studies and the German Historical Institute Rome and Roberto Zaugg, Associate Professor of Early Modern History in the University of Bern. They argued that the Mediterranean is an interconnected, protected as well as an ecologically homogenous space. Since the Mediterranean acted as a hub for multiple contacts, many West African practices were transmitted into Europe. The slave trade is particularly noteworthy. At the beginning of the slave trade, Europeans tried to individually kidnap Africans as slaves. However, the procedure failed as the Europeans were not familiar with – among other things – the African climate or geography. Rather than individual kidnapping, booming West African slave markets were the places through which slavery was transmitted into Europe. The table hosts also revealed that studying pre-colonial Africa is challenging due to the lack of written sources, besides many African objects and materials are dislocated in other continents. In addition, researchers working on this theme need to master many European and African languages to study the sources. Therefore, the study of pre-colonial Africa will only be made possible if there is greater collaboration between the scholars from multiple disciplines.
Natural Resources and Political Conflicts
The third table focused on the future of the deep sea beyond the underwater world. The discussants were Felix Lüttge, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Basel, and Dr Laurence Publicover, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol. The discussants stressed that our knowledge about the deep sea is very limited; hence we have little idea about the implications of our activities. Internet traffic going through the ocean bed, for instance, had negative implications for the underwater world. Hence, our interaction with the ocean is important as it sets parameters on how we use it. The table moderators stressed that the deep sea needs to be protected from commodification as it can pose a greater risk for a large-scale environmental disaster. The deep sea contains objects that are beyond our imagination. They further mentioned that one major danger of preserving the ecosystem of the ocean lies in mining as corporations find it economically more viable to pollute than resorting to eco-friendly methods such as recycling. The contestation for natural resources could lead to political conflict. The South China Sea and the Artic are some of the examples of geopolitical conflict over the contestation of resources. The deep sea will never specifically belong to one country, as cities or lands are, it will always remain an area of contestation between multiple states. Perhaps a viable way to preserve the sea would be to create awareness among the general population. Marine scientists and those working in the ‘blue humanities’ can interchange ideas, interact with one another and gain excitement about the topic in common people.
The Sea as a Social Space
In the remaining tables, various other topics were discussed. The discussion topic in the second table was led by Dr Susann Liebich, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cluster Asia and Europe at Heidelberg University and Daniela Egger, a researcher at the Chair for Modern History at Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich. Their discussion offered a historical perspective on maritime travelers and the way traveling shaped ideas and identities of both sailors and travelers.
The fourth discussion table was led by Felix Mallin, a Political Geographer at the National University of Singapore and Carsten Wergin who currently leads the Interdisciplinary Research Group “The Transcultural Heritage of Northwest Australia: Dynamics and Resistances” at Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg. They focused their discussion on islands and beaches. They argued that islands and beaches are geopolitical spaces. These are spaces for territorial contestation, or the contestations of natural resources. They further added that islands are spaces of connectivity and acts as a hub for economic activities.
The fifth table focused its discussion on ‘Oceanic images and imagination.’ The discussion on the table was led by Hannah Baader, a Permanent Senior Research Scholar at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut and Hester Blum, an associate professor in the English department at Penn State University. They argued that there is a strong need to study oceans from multiple disciplines such as anthropology, and that the study of oceans can create a bridge between different disciplines. The ocean serves as a space for cultural exchange which is independent of its function as a passage for travel since it is reconstructed constantly with a variety of elements that consists of both human and non-humans.
The discussion in the last table was led by Annika Raapke, Public Relations Coordinator for the Prize Papers Project, and Lucas Haasis who is a Ph.D. candidate at Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg. They stressed the need for new methodological approaches to deal with the narratives of the sea. Furthermore, they also recognized the need for digitizing and categorizing the sources to make it more accessible.
The event ended with closing remarks from Dr Susann Liebich, a discussant as well as one of the curators and organizers of the event.
Namia Akhtar is a postgraduate student at the South Asia Institute of Universität Heidelberg. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org