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Cypher on the Future of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African/a Studies

Nautical Map of the Indian Ocean c.1544

WM: At its inception, the area-studies paradigm offered itself as an answer to geo-strategic questions made obvious at the beginning of the Cold War. Given that we live in a world with political horizons markedly different from the world in which area-expertise needed to be produced, is the area-studies model useful? What should it be used for? What other institutional arrangements (structural, practical, and conceptual) might we imagine in its place?

AY: One of the latest historiographical trends has been the turn toward global or transnational history. In particular, this has meant a turn toward the study of networks and an abandonment of what was once termed “World History” with its focus on distinct civilizations. In interesting ways, then, the move away from civilizations and toward networks has paralleled innovations in the ways in which war is conceived. If the Cold War, for example, was thought of as a battle between Capitalism and Communism (the Western and the Eastern blocs) in the age of Bush and Obama, the war on terror was often depicted as a battle against rogue networks, dangerous precisely because of their hybridity and ability to cross boundaries. As the metaphors which scholars use to understand the world have changed, we have also seen a crisis in area studies that focus on retrieving a particular civilization, even as we see the growth of Diaspora Studies focused on networks of various scales.

SD: It certainly cannot be skipped! Most of us have trained at institutions where area-studies centers and interdisciplinary programs were, despite a growing existential crisis, integral to the university and to the study of the world. After departing from graduate programs with advanced levels of language training and course offerings, it is striking that many institutions in the United States seem to have skipped over area studies altogether, suddenly discovering world history or global studies, at times just to keep pace with the politics of representation, or, even more inexplicable, simply for the sake of coverage. To where, then, does one turn, for example, when undergraduate pedagogy at least requires proficiency in foreign languages beyond Europe and the United States?

KW: As Subah points out, there is a certain amount of inertia that results from the way we are trained. Like Alden, however, I am struck by the influence of the transnational turn and the rise of global studies within my discipline (history). African Studies has also been shaped by the recent trend toward studying oceanic regions (Atlantic and Mediterranean studies are perhaps the most robust, but there is also a growing body of literature on the Indian Ocean world). A response to the changing political climate of the post-Cold War era (and the emergence of “globalization” as a dominant concept), transnational and global history has opened up new and exciting possibilities for historians, even as some of its central assumptions have come into question (I am thinking, for example, of Jeremy Adelman’s recent piece in Aeon on global history). I don’t think there is a single future for area studies and, constrained as we are by the corporatization of the university and by funding bodies that are often structured around an area-studies model, we will probably have to be pragmatic. I do think it is worth considering what is imaginable within the (now increasingly dominant?) framework of transnational and global studies. Can the turn toward the “transnational” and “global” help to further internationalize the American university? Will it simply reproduce older shibboleths (like modernization theory)? If our goal is to decolonize thought (and not simply incrementally further representational diversity), we should think long and hard about what global studies can offer us. It’s also worth considering how existing institutional structures can be adapted and retooled. It’s my understanding, for example, that Columbia’s MESAAS program evolved out of efforts to rethink what was once known as Oriental Studies.

WM: I am quite partial to the necessity of thinking these kinds of questions through specific institutional cases. In other words, the future of the study of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia cannot be determined as a general or generalized abstraction. It requires institutionally specific strategies. Here my thinking on the university and its relation to knowledge production is very much influenced by Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins. He proposes that the university is very much like an old city with antique ruins that should not be simply done away with; instead, they must be used constructively and built around. A specific institutional history might demand an African and Africana studies model, another might demand Ethnic and Diaspora Studies, and another still might demand something like the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies model you see at Columbia University, in which Africa is put in relation to and in analogy with other “areas.” The specific history of MESAAS is too complex to go through here, though I would suggest that it was not simply an effort to rethink Oriental Studies, but really the product of a specific group of people with interests that converged sufficiently in a moment of institutional opening. Nothing about this arrangement is inherent to their objects of study but rather imbued with a spirit of provisional experimentation. Perhaps that is the most we can ask for in a moment in which “the Global” has increasing purchase in institutions with fewer resources and fewer scholars with the training (linguistic and otherwise) to make sense of a globalized world.

KW: How can scholars move outside the boundaries of Area Studies while still keeping Africa “centered”?

WM: I’m struck by the difference in meaningfulness of this question if we replaced “Africa” with “Middle Eastern” or “South Asian.” In the question, I hear echoes of the debates in the American Academy of the 80s and 90s around Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism, which were not fields of knowledge but claims on knowledge itself. As I see it, it is largely from the African-American demand of centering the Black experience in the world that African Studies saw the need of centering Africa, even though its understanding of Africa differed greatly from the Afrocentrics. While there has recently been work in American and Ethnic Studies that has highlighted the histories of so-called Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans, their lived histories of struggle have yet to make the kind of demands on disciplines and institutions that would render a “Middle Eastern-Centered” or “South Asian-Centered approach” possible or at least meaningful. That being said, I understand and accept the spirit of Afrocentric critique of scholarship that produces knowledge about Africa and would instead propose the development of a knowledge-production from Africa. Following Mahmood Mamdani, who distinguishes African Studies from the study of Africa, we should recognize that the discrete field of knowledge known as African Studies in the US does not correspond to the debates or concerns of scholars on the continent. The first step in moving beyond the boundaries of area studies is to take seriously the scholarship of those areas that we want to study.

AY: The question of Black Studies lurks behind the anxieties raised by this question. In the American University in particular (though with “Rhodes Must Fall” one could extrapolate similar arguments to Britain and South Africa) there are two potential homes for the study of Africa, each is racialized: one is white (African Studies); and one is black (Black Studies/African American Studies/Africana Studies). (Here I am speaking broadly in terms of which races are hegemonic in each discipline.) Because the study of Africa in the American academy is largely independent of the study of Africa in Africa, racial projects in the United States have largely tried to deploy knowledge of Africa in ways that are at best orthogonal to the politics of knowledge production across the continent.

SD: Perhaps implicit here is the assumption that all US-based “diasporas” (South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, etc.) are either all the same thing or that they lie on a seamless continuum with their purported area studies categories. In a sense, the shadow of American Studies and “identity studies” looms large not just upon area studies, but across all disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. One way to move beyond area studies may be to move beyond the very idea of centering. I agree with Wendell’s critique that “African studies in the US does not correspond to the debates and concerns of scholars on the continent,” and I think that it could extend, at least partially, to the case of South Asian Studies.

KW: Tensions between Black/Africana Studies and African Studies have led to heated debates over the politics of knowledge production on Africa in the American academy. Africanist scholars have been accused of obscuring the Cold War politics that shaped the discipline, suppressing alternate intellectual genealogies and approaches to the study of Africa, and relegating black and African scholars to marginal or secondary roles. Scholars of the Atlantic world and African diaspora, on the other hand, have been accused of failing to seriously engage with the continent, ignoring the coevality between Africa and its Diaspora, and reading “everything” through the lens of American race relations. Studying Africa through a Pan-Africanist lens offers an alternative to the area studies paradigm that is coming under increasing question within the American academy. To what extent it will be more fully embraced will depend on numerous factors (including the institutional culture of specific universities). As Wendell points out, a Pan-Africanist approach that centers the concerns of scholars on the continent has much to offer. However, making that a reality (especially given the global structures of power that determine the flow of resources to and across universities) will prove far from simple. Yet another task for scholars will be to center Africa within global studies and the study of world history.

SD: How transferable are our reading practices within and across these three geographic zones?

KW: At Stanford (where I was trained in modern African history), I also did a secondary field in modern South Asian history and postcolonial thought. Reading the work of Subaltern Studies scholars (and their interlocutors) had a particularly profound effect on my thinking. Many of the methods these scholars had developed for reading and approaching the archive were highly applicable to my own work on colonial East Africa. Hence, I do think that our reading practices are often transferable. I also think that many of our reading practices have much to offer students of other geographic regions, including Europe and the United States. Perhaps one way to think beyond the limits of area studies is to consider the types of sources and methodologies that cut across our different disciplines and regions of study. Could one possible post-disciplinary, post-area studies model entail training graduate students in particular methodologies and reading practices (rather than specific geographic zones)?

AY: My training as a historian began in the African history program at Princeton, a program with strong ties to the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Many of the concepts I took for granted there were challenged when I became a member of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and they continue to be challenged in my role as Director of Africana Studies here at Drexel University. The discontinuities between these two intellectual projects (African and Africana) have highlighted to me the different possible meanings of Africa when it is combined with different geographies. Does the history or anthropology of Sudan look different if one arrives from Amman, Dubai, Cairo or Nairobi, Kampala or Accra? Do certain regions/time periods of the African past simply fit in better with the methodologies of Islamic Studies versus Diaspora Studies? What would happen if we simply enlarged the canvas? I have always been intrigued by Columbia University’s attempt to combine the study of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa (MESAAS), and I’m curious about what the additional study of the Americas or Europe, for examples, might offer such a program. Which comparisons are we privileging? Which ones are we silencing/neglecting? One solution to this problem would appear to be the turn toward the global. Yet how many times has the turn toward the global resulted in a familiar universal-historical narrative which banalizes and/or erases the histories of entire continents?

WM: As a student of African textuality, I have depended on the methodological and theoretical interventions of the fields of knowledge that are known, for want of better terms, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies largely because there is so little Africanist work. I am especially thinking of the practices associated with philology, which the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock generously defines as “the making sense of texts.” To be sure, the old philology, with its eternal search of imagined but authoritative origins through dubious linguistic reconstruction and its Orientalist representation of the other within a set of asymmetrical power relations, was deeply problematic. Connected to the denial of the old philology vis-à-vis Africa, the dominant discourses of post-Enlightenment thought have often painted Africa as the continent without writing. While this has re-enforced the idea of European exceptionalism and functioned so as to justify the civilizing mission, even so-called postcolonial thinkers have embraced the myth of a primordial African orality as a point of pride. But in fact, texts from many phases of African history abound especially (but not exclusively) in parts of Muslim Africa. (I was once told but have not been able to confirm that the volume of Islamic manuscripts in West Africa dramatically outnumber all of the documents we have in Ottoman archives.) The trick is to approach the world philologically with the kind of sensibility that postcolonial critique has engendered. In that vein, the transferability is not one-sided. Africanists such as Karin Barber, who calls for a comparative historical anthropology of texts and challenges us to think about the oral dimensions of all texts, or Isabel Hofmeyr, whose attention to global reception history and the materiality of reading practices forces us to consider the complexity of the social lives of texts, has a lot to offer students of South Asia and the Middle East.

AY: What can Black Studies offer Area Studies?

KW: A more progressive politics.

WM: Having already given so much without recognition, I’m thinking that the only thing left to give is its soul.

SD: Or its blood.

AY: At first glance, I would argue that black studies offers area studies a question: is black studies an area study?; or, is “blackness” an area? While there are departments, centers, and programs within the University that might make it tempting to argue that there are parallels, I would argue that these parallels are essentially cosmetic, having to do with little more than the administrative politics of the university. Black studies references not the study of a geographic space (or the study of a specific people), but rather, as Wendell has suggested, a genealogy of texts—a specific tradition of knowing the world. Here its analogues are not African Studies, South Asian Studies, or Middle Eastern Studies, but rather what might be termed “White Studies.” Black studies, on the other hand, asks us to alter the very vantage point from which we ourselves try to make sense of our reality.


Subah Dayal received her Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 2016. In August, she will join the faculty at Tulane University as an assistant professor of South Asian History.

Wendell Marsh is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) at Columbia University.

Keren Weitzberg is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania; she received her Ph.D. in History from Stanford University in 2013. Her first book, We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya, is forthcoming in the New African Histories series at Ohio University Press. In September, Keren will join the University College London (UCL) as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS).

Alden Young is an assistant professor of African History and the Director of Africana Studies at Drexel University; he received his Ph.D. in History from Princeton University in 2013. His first book, Transforming Sudan: Decolonisation, Economic Development and State-Formation, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.


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