On the Influences of the Networked World

6 May 2019

The Munich Centre for Global History marks its official opening with a symposium. The spokesperson, historian Roland Wenzlhuemer, clarifies the institution’s goals.

What is global history and what is special about it? Wenzlhuemer:  Global history is a comparatively new approach to historical research, which is concerned foremost with the meaning and impact of global interconnections. Global historians examine why and how people have built up such connections across continents and how their lifeworlds have been impacted by them. At the Munich Centre we tend to understand this approach as a research perspective, one which asks specifically about the meaning of such interconnections. Other researchers claim that global history actually has a specific research object. As a result, they are more focused on examining periods in time when these objects became particularly visible. This means—and rightly so—a strong focus on the 19th century. We do not have such limitations and we are glad to have on board colleagues with broad epochal interests from contemporary history to archaeology.

Global history is thus something other than a history of the whole world. It is something completely different. Global history can also be pursued—and this is, by the way, often the case—in the context of absolutely small places. The subject of research can be cities, villages or even the life of an individual who was impacted by the global context. The field of research does not have to be strictly global and in most cases it is not. It is more about embedding the subject in a global or transregional network. There are innumerable terms used in connection with it. In Munich we quite consciously use the relatively neutral German term “Verbindung,” or the English one “connection,” because it allows for the widest possible scope of research.

In the past few years global history has attracted criticism as having slightly exceeded its mark, because it feels responsible to account for the entire networked world. According to this line of critique, not everything is linked with each other, nor can you see everything from the perspective of globalization. When things like Brexit happen, when there is a resurgence of nationalism taking place in many countries, these are clearly processes of disintegration. There is, of course, something to that. But at the same time this perspective rests on an evident misunderstanding about what global history seeks to elucidate. Global history does not claim that everything is converging, and that the world is fully globalized and now consists of one homogeneous mass. Part of its research agenda is therefore to also look closely at processes of disentanglement, at examples of disintegration, at non-connections.

Can you illustrate this difference with examples? There are many examples from the present, if you think about the flows of migration. I would, however, like to choose a historical example from my own research. I have worked a lot on the history of the telegraph. That is a classic in the history of interconnection. The telegraph allegedly brought everything together, made the world more integrated and faster. But there are cases, for example, in which telegraphers, were stationed on remote islands and maintained the infrastructure there. They were globally connected in the communication network, but they could not leave these islands. If they had a tooth ache, it was months before they could see a doctor. And if they ran out of food, because the supply ship failed to appear, then they indeed starved. This discrepancy shows the backdrop against which both entanglement and disentanglement, interconnection and disconnection takes place.

What is the new Centre for Global History supposed to accomplish? In the past twenty years the field has developed at an unbelievably dynamic pace. A phase of consolidation is now underway, which also means a return to intense reflection on questions related to theory and methodology and a sharpened focus. At the Centre one of our goals would be to host completely different types of research. But the projects should share an interest in the theoretical and methodical foundations of global history. One of our organizational tasks is to bring together the incredible amount of global historical research that is already taking place at LMU.

What themes, projects, and disciplines come together at the Centre? History is one of the Centre’s main focuses. But there are also projects coming from the fields of archaeology, theatre studies, art history, geography, ethnology, or sociology. Some of these are projects already existent at LMU, some are our own research projects that we brought with us. And thirdly, we have funded new ones, and we hope that together these form a meaningful ensemble.

You have also started a fellowship program. That is an important component of the Centre’s connection to the outside world. It makes it possible for colleagues from outside to come to Munich for a certain period of time and use this freedom for their academic work. The first cohort of fellows is already here. The program has been very, very well received. An important point about that: global history originated in the academic Centres in the northern hemisphere, as you might term it today, and it is still largely based there. For several years now, however, an interest in research related to global history has emerged in South America, Asia, and at African universities. The fellowship program could help foster and support the slow opening-up of this still rather one-sided geographic division. After all, research on global history also seeks to contribute to overcoming a Eurocentric perspective. In addition, at the Centre we are also pursuing two research projects, which are decidedly directed at a broader public: an exhibition for kids about globalization and an app that shows places related to globalization in Munich. Strictly speaking, these projects do not aim to contribute to academic discourse: they aim to communicate.

Global History is already connected with the Centre for Advanced Studies. This fall it will host an inaugural event, a conference announcing a new focal point of its work, “Global Dis-connections.” What will this be about? The conference with the theme “Waiting” is only sponsored by us in part. A whole host of different partners are coming together for it. The theme grew out of the LMU-Cambridge partnership, which just formed, and brought together colleagues from Cambridge and Munich, and from the Institute for Advanced Study CEU in Budapest. We are hosting this conference together. Why “Waiting”? That fits very well within the context of connection and disconnection. Travel, for example, has had, and has, a lot to do with waiting, with uncertainty, with transit. Especially when we look at the current situation with migration, in which refugees are often stuck for months or even years in these interstitial spaces. “ Waiting,” you might say, functions as a focal point for making visible the interplay between connection and disconnection.

Roland Wenzlhuemer is a professor of Modern and Contemporary History at LMU and spokesperson for the newly opened Munich Centre for Global History.

The Munich Centre for Global History will officially open with a ceremony and a reception in the Historisches Kolleg on Thursday, 9 May. To mark the opening of the Centre on Wednesday, 8 May, and on Thursday, 9 May, the international workshop “Consolidating Global History: Perspectives and Challenges“ will also take place in the Historisches Kolleg.

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