From owner-h-world@H-NET.MSU.EDU Wed Sep 10 08:00:06 2003
Date: Wed, 10 Sep 2003 06:55:30 -0400
Sender: H-NET List for World History <H-WORLD@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: David Kalivas <kalivas@COMCAST.NET>
Subject: World History from the Periphery: Reply

<Cross-posted from H-SAfrica>
Date: 29 Aug 2003
From: Fernando Rosa Ribeiro <>

World History from the Periphery

By Fernando Rosa Ribeiro, 29 August 2003

I am a lecturer and researcher at a Caribbean Studies Centre in Central Brazil, located at a central government university (what we call a ‘federal’ university). I have lived and carried out research in South Africa (and that is why I am on this list), besides the French and Dutch Caribbean.

I have not read Patric Manning’s book. This has a lot to do with both my institutional and geopolitical location. The book is simply not available here, either through local libraries or in bookshops. I would have to buy it through and pay dearly for it (our currency is currently far less valuable than the dollar). I guess no colleague of mine has even heard about the book. This is not an English-medium university—the closest English-medium university is thousands of kilometers away from here, in Georgetown, Guyana. None of us has ever been there. As far as I know, nobody from there has ever come here. Of course, many of us have lived abroad, usually in Europe or—less commonly—North America. In my own immediate circle, people have studied in Japan, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. They have also carried out research in Mexico, Cuba, and Suriname, besides Brazil. The reason for this is that in the past fifty-odd years the Brazilian government has consistently invested a lot of money in order to create an academically-trained class of scholars minimally conversant with the European and North American scholarly world outside our borders. We are virtually all the product of that endeavour.

I guess that in a way I am a scholar from the periphery, due to my location, my language, not to mention my origins. It might even be said that I am at the periphery of the periphery, as my Central Brazilian location, in spite of its name, is not really academically central even for Brazil. I must confess nonetheless that I simply hate the idea of being a scholar from the periphery, not to mention that I hate the word itself. I believe that possibly the vast majority of my colleagues here and perhaps also elsewhere in Brazil would be loathe to describe themselves as scholars from the periphery. Also, we are weird hybrids, to borrow a term from Homi Bhabha. We are in a way far more privileged than most of our Africa-based colleagues, for instance (perhaps with the exception of South Africa). This is so due to the academic ‘safety-net’ that the government has put in place for us (the federal university sytem and related funding agencies).

Nonetheless, though a few of my colleagues often go abroad (‘abroad’ usually meaning in this context some countries in Western Europe plus the United States and Canada), and most of us have been abroad at some point, the truth is that we are not fully conversant with what is going on outside of our borders. This is not wholly unlike the situation in China, say (though academic freedom of the kind we know here seems to be unknown over there): we speak and write our work in a language that hardly anybody understands except for its native speakers. Besides, we live in a huge continental country that has an imperial past (yes, this was an Empire for most of the ninenteenth century, though not a colony). Also, there are many millions of us (though far less than there are Chinese). It is fairly easy for us to live in our cozy huge world and converse with the outside world in more or less equal terms.

Many of my colleagues would strongly disagree with me, but a good deal of the Brazilian academia (especially in the human sciences and letters) is somewhat provincial. We mostly talk to ourselves and among ourselves, and to selected guests from the outside world, particularly those with an interest in Brazil. We are not like Indians—local and yet very cosmopolitan. Neither are we stricly provincial, to use a loaded term. We are really hybrids. Our work is far from unknown outside our borders, but it is also usually far from widely read, let alone revered, as is the work of many Indian scholars. Knowledge about Africa is sketchy. Brazilian African studies are still only a fledgling field and standards are currently well below international ones.

Now, back to Peter Limb’s e-mail. In what concerns ‘world history’, this discipline has never been institutionalised under that name in local academia. However, there has been recently a modicum of interest in ‘transcontinental’ histories, especially related to Africa. The central government has established by law that African history has to be taught at all Brazilian schools (eventually, that is) as a compulsory subject. This is directly related to Brazil’s past as the largest slaveholding society in modern history and to its present as the second largest black nation in the world (after Nigeria). A few universities have hurried to establish chairs in African history, notably the prestigious Universidade de S=E3o Paulo (USP).

The result has been mixed so far. There are currently three lecturers in African history at USP, for instance. None of them had had direct experience of Africa when they took office (or of Africa-related archives for that matter). None of them speaks an African language, even though USP is the only Brazilian university to offer Arabic as a full course (another university has Yoruba, but only as an outside course. African languages are not yet institutionalised here). In fact, hardly any Brazilian scholars can speak any non-European language. Usually we only speak English, French, and Spanish (and there is the odd scholar who speaks German or Italian). Brazilian interest in history outside of its borders has been paltry, though it is growing.

Even Latin American studies are not a fully developed field in this country (in history departments, you usually have a chair in ‘Hist&3243;ria da América’, for instance, but that does not mean that there is a well-developed field in that area). There is no Asian history worth the name. Brazilian students (to my surprise when I started teaching a few years ago), even postgraduate ones, usually cannot read English or any other foreign language. The Brazilian book market is still somewhat parochial as far as translations are concerned (it took years before Said’s Orientalism was translated, for instance. To give another example, even to this day, even someone like Wole Soyinka remains mostly untranslated. If the author writes in a non-European language, the matter is even worse, as in the case of Naguib Mahfouz who, in spite of a Nobel Prize and a reputation in Europe, has had one of his books translated only recently. Translation of Chinese authors, for instance, is usually done from the English or French translation....).

Also, when we look outside our borders, it has often been towards our own history abroad: Africa, for instance, because of the slave trade and the strong colonial connections, especially in what concerns Lusophone Africa and parts of West Africa. Slavery studies have become a largish field in the past twenty years, and they provide a link to Africa. This has invariably meant Luso-Brazilian links.

South Africa is almost invisible in Brazilian academia, not to mention very large sections of the African continent. Asia leads a shadowy existence, usually related to Japan (we have the second or third largest Japanese population in the world) and comparatively tiny, former Portuguese Asia (Goa, Macau and Timor), and, to a lesser degree, China and Korea. The rest of Asia is hardly visible. The Caribbean leads an even more shadowy existence, even though we have a northern border with the Guianas. Subaltern studies are increasingly well-known here, and a few works have been translated (though many remain untranslated). Bhabha is widely read now. Spivak is well-known too, but only in postgraduate courses. K.N.Chaudhuri and others are not known. ‘Atlantic Studies’ do not exist either (let alone Indian Ocean or Pacific Studies...).

If it is not about slavery or Portuguese Africa or Brazilian former slaves returned to Benin or Lagos, there are no studies related to Africa here. As for Asia, the situation is even worse. I only know three senior colleagues who are either historians or anthropologists and who have spent some time in Asia. Two of them have spent time in former Portuguese Asia (Goa and Macau), and one in India in general. None of them speaks an Asian language.

That said, the picture has been brightening up lately. Boubakar Barry from Senegal taught in Campinas (one of our major universities) last year. There are new links to non-Lusophone Africa (and links to Lusophone Africa have improved, including air links. It is now possible to travel directly from Brazil to the Cape Verde Islands, whereas until recently it was only possible to fly to Johannesburg or Luanda). There is a trickle of students going to Africa for fieldwork and archival work, and, surprisingly, this time not only to Mozambique or another Lusophone country, but also to South Africa, for instance. A doctoral student is flying to Goa, India, for fieldwork, and another is presenting a paper in China next year. A couple of students have done fieldwork in the Caribbean itself. Also, scholars from Africa and Asia have begun visiting Brazil less infrequently. South Africans have been here too. I am talking about tiny numbers of people, but all the same it represents quite a change from the recent past. We usually only receive scholars from a few countries in Europe and the US. Even Latin American scholars, bar Argentineans, have traditionally been scarce here ... This means that there is an increasing interest in ‘world history’ here.

However, it is clear that interest in the rest of the world is historically strongly rooted in past imperialism and the European expansion overseas. We never had an overseas empire. We were also never economically successful enough to dominate others. Therefore, there was never a strong need to know others, learn their languages, study their histories. A modicum of knowledge and a modicum of contact was usually enough. Therefore, we have always had fairly wide-ranging connections to other continents (surprisingly or not, especially in past centuries), but we never felt that we had to institutionalise these inside academia. I do not want to imply that area studies or current world history in the US and Europe are related to imperialism and economic dominance. They are clearly not. However, as Said showed for ‘Oriental’ studies, the connection was there once. Also, when colleagues from the US and Europe look at other continents, they do so from a vantage point that always fascinates me. They let their curiosity wander far and wide. I remember a senior colleague telling me how amazed she was to learn that her classmates at Harvard, who were also anthropology PhD students, could choose where they wanted to carry out their fieldwork, whether it was Thailand, Nigeria, or Mexico. She, on the other hand, was going to do work on Brazil as a matter of course.

It is very hard to guess the shape of things to come. Basically, whoever is interested in Swahili literature or Bengali historiography might as well exile himself or herself. Brazilian academia has little or nothing to offer such people, not to mention Brazilian libraries (our collections remain incredibly poor for things non-Brazilian: far poorer than South African collections, in fact). Even someone who can read and speak, say, Arabic, continues to be a very rare bird in Brazilian academia (though, not unsurprisingly, not necessarily so outside the campi, as I am reminded almost everyday here. My city has what is relatively the largest colony of people descending from - mostly Christian—Syrian and Lebanese anywhere in Brazil. You can hear Arabic spoken at local shopping centres, shops, etc). To go to Africa or Asia for fieldwork (or even for a visit) remains an exotic, though not impossible, choice. And conversing regulary with many outsiders, though far from impossible, remains a problem. As far as I am concerned, my own experience in South Africa remains paradigmatic in that regard. I have been unable to find myself in South African academia. I simply do not identify enough with local discourses, varied as they are. Also, the overwhelming orientation towards the English-speaking world, natural as it may be in a former British colony, bothers me a bit (and Afrikaans academia, though occasionally interesting, is often too parochial to be a powerful counter-influence. Besides, it is very small and has a past link to the apartheid government. However, I have enjoyed Afrikaans-language literature occasionally, and also my conversations with Afrikaans colleagues).

Lack of knowledge about Brazil—and, worse, about the ways in which Brazilian scholars talk about Brazil—bothers me too. I was often under the impression that I was expected, because I could speak English, was learned, etc, to share a lot of references (bibliographical and otherwise) with colleagues there. Often however there was comparatively little to share. This was so even though there are many gifted scholars in South Africa, and people doing outstanding work that is internationally acknowledged. That is another problem that may come up as we increasingly get to know each other—being in some way ‘subaltern’ or ‘peripheral’ does not mean that we have a lot in common. Rather, to me it basically means that we are somehow open to each other in a way that is somewhat different from the way we are open to US scholars or Europeans. We will have to weave our own networks, though. Also, we will have to get to know each other much better (even after all these years, I still occasionally discover how ignorant I am about South Africans, for instance).

Though suggesting this now is almost raising the stakes far too high, I also believe that at least some among us will have to face the admittedly arduous and time-consuming task of learning some out-of-the-way languages, be it Gujerati, Afrikaans, Zulu, or Yoruba, not to mention Créole or Papiamentu. Having been born and brought up in what is, in world terms, a linguistic minority, I have been keenly aware that knowing English is simply not enough (though it will have to do for the vast majority of us). Also, there is scholarship in other languages too. In Cape Town, I was amazed to learn that at the time many colleagues had never read even major French-language scholars that are well-known in Brazil and elsewhere.

There is no way of knowing what the academic world will look like once we get to know each other better, at the same time that we keep our links to the US and Europe (as we inevitably must do). It is my impression that we all remain too parochial in more senses than one. It is still very easy to insulate ourselves in our own little academic worlds (and we are almost compelled to do so in certain cases, due to a perverse combination of geopolitics, the tyranny of distance and lack of funds). However, I am fairly optimistic. If anything, ‘world history’ will yield new, unexpected insights. As far as Brazil is concerned, the overwhelming orientation (abundantly clear in our African studies, for instance) is towards the former Portuguese colonial world. There are even people who have gone to Timor for research (a student I know). This is both natural and, as I have attempted to show in an article, regretable. First, it encases students and scholars in a fairly claustrophobic world of references, usually Portuguese-language. It is my contention that you cannot do proper African studies only with Portuguese as a medium. You also have to be conversant with scholarly literature in English and French. Portuguese-medium academia is too parochial. The situation becomes much worse for Asia. As I told a Timor-bound student, some of the issues he had raised about East Timor were actually very common issues in all of Eastern Indonesia, not to mention insular Southeast Asia in general. However, having been trained only in Brasília and Lisbon, he had no way of knowing that. I suggested that he spend some time at an Australian university (a country where knowledge about Indonesia is high). A colleague or two raised their eyebrows (Australia is not an academic reference in this country, even though there are many Brazilian immigrants there).

Finally, last but not least, the former Portuguese empire was linked together in the twentieth century through powerful imaginings related to race and nation. As Brazilians venture out towards the former Portuguese world, they do so with a heavy luggage—as some of those imaginings have become, for various reasons, linked to Brazilian notions of nationhood also shared by scholars. As I discovered in my own work related to South Africa, that may pose some thorny problems. Those problems—heuristic ones especially—are unlikely to be solved inside Brazilian academia. It is simply not varied enough to provide enough different perspectives that would allow a wider-ranging debate. Its specialty remains Brazil and Brazil-related things. Only by engaging ‘foreign’ scholarly discourses in other languages will it be possible to develop a field of non-Brazilian studies that is internationally acceptable.

As a parting suggestion, I would like to propose that instead of ‘world history’ (a name that down here smacks of ambitiousness and even imperial imaginings), we employ a term like ‘connected histories’. This last was suggested by Indian historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam (a Lusophone Indian historian, by the way. Yes, based in Paris, and a fairly frequent visitor to Brazil...). It sounds much better to me. As Subrahmanyam proposes, we do not need to always take account of colonialism or the European expansion in order to write histories that somehow interconnect.