Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


Global History v Area Studies #LostTeddyBears

By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 7 2015 04:55PM

Last week, the Transnational and Global History Seminar, run by postgraduate students in the Oxford Faculty of History, invited me to engage in a debate entitled "Who is wasting their time? Global historians or area studies?" I was arguing that global historians are wasting their time, i.e., in favor of area studies-- a position to which I have some tendencies, although my argument was more to play a role for the seminar than to lay out my own nuanced view.

I thought it might be interesting and/or informative to put in the public zone my opening gambit of the debate. Again, I emphasize that I was arguing the position put to me by the students, but it was a fun position to argue. Also, I am anxiously anticipating the hashtag #LostTeddyBears to go viral in the global history community.

My text:

Global historians are not just wasting their own time; worse yet, they are wasting my time.

Before I go down that road, however, I want to start with a positive note about the virtues of Area Studies. Area Studies does not sound much like a methodology, but I think there are elements here that we can and should recognize as methodological preferences, and that I am confident are not wasting our time.

Area Studies as an approach emphasizes deep knowledge of a specific region. This deep knowledge is achieved by fluency in the relevant local language or languages, an interdisciplinary approach to the search for knowledge (encompassing, at the very least, anthropological, literary, historical, political, and economic elements, if not more). Furthermore, deep knowledge of a specific place emphasizes the local interests, local factors, local individuals—and indeed the consequences on the locals, even when looking at phenomena that may span more than one geographic region.

I happen to work on a region that—despite a real tradition of area studies—is very often overlooked or appended to other zones, and generally left out of discussions. Indeed, Southeast Asia is so tricky as a region to study that even the current name for this region (‘Southeast Asia’, indigenously adopted by the Association for Southeast Asian Nations that brings 10 of its countries together) was fundamentally a neologism forged in the wake of the Second World War, to replace other names that inherently overlooked the region. Traditionally the peninsula was called ‘Indochina’, despite being neither India, nor China. The archipelago carries the indigenous Malay name of ‘Nusantara’, meaning the ‘Archipelago In Between’, explicitly seeing this as on the way to somewhere. Even the great public intellectual and father of the modern Indonesian language Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana suggested calling mainland Southeast Asia ‘Bumantara’, or ‘Land In Between’—a name that felicitously never stuck.

The idea of Southeast Asia as a place in between, or on the way to somewhere, but not as a destination in and of itself is in fact grimly reflective how global historians have treated it lo these many years. Global history, facing Southeast Asia and elsewhere, does not learn the local languages, does not engage with the other methods for gathering local knowledge, does not prioritize the interests or experiences of the locals in a particular geographic community. Instead, global history—whether the tokenistic connective variety that follows an individual (or organization, or lost teddy bear, or what have you) who happened to set foot in seventeen disparate places, or the modular kind that tries desperately to force phenomena happening in different parts of the world for different reasons at different times into the same mould—looks right past anything local in Southeast Asia if it does not offer itself up as ripe fruit to be plucked up. Global history loves Chinese and Arab traders passing through the Straits of Malacca, but it only cares about the actual Straits of Malacca if some worthwhile local historian has done the legwork of research and analysis and writing to provide good grounding in history, that can then be quickly and mercilessly distorted by global historians to fit their picture. The deep linguistic work, the insights gleaned from thinking comparatively through archaeology and literature and anthropology, are blithely squeezed into a frame of the global, with any bits that do not fit left on the table to rot as though they are unworthy.

Even worse, in the wake of global history sweeping through and trying to fit local phenomena into some kind of externally dictated pattern, Area Studies experts are left trying to defend their local region’s relevance if (or more likely when) it does not conform to or feed or facilitate some global pattern. Area Studies scholars, who have the skills and the methods to accurately capture what is going on in any given place and time, are instead dancing around, squandering these skills responding to interests and patterns and narratives introduced from outside the region—i.e., not arising from real local situations. In this way, Global History is not only wasting the time of global historians (one can imagine parallels to Marx’s non-productive capitalist class, who merely push around the fruits of other men’s labour), but it is causing hard-working Area Studies scholars to waste their time by asking them to respond to or engage in debates that are not relevant to their areas.

We should not pretend that these debates come from some neutral zone of international egalitarianism, either. Should we not remind ourselves of the danger of global history as the history of how other places are relevant to the West, or relevant for the global great powers? Area Studies is methodologically inclined to check this tendency; its imperative to study the local, the indigenous, the organic issues arising from a focused population militates against the urge to find communities irrelevant because they are not participating in some transnational story. Global History, on the other hand, thinks only of those communities, and individuals, and corporations, (and, why not? lost teddy bears) that have parallels and connections and importance across borders and communities, thus alienating large swaths of the world’s population.

At the risk of repeating myself, Area Studies could happily exist without Global History. Global History could not exist without historians in Area Studies doing their legwork. Pushing this further, though, Area Studies should exist without Global History wasting our time, forcing us to argue in favour of prioritizing the local realities that, in any just world, would be our natural focus.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.