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Cosmopolitanisms in the Plural – The University of Potsdam Launches the Research Training Group “Minor Cosmopolitanisms“

Photo: Pixabay.

Photo: Pixabay.

The Enlightenment took place in 18th-century Europe – or did it? Prof. Lars Eckstein and Prof. Dirk Wiemann, Anglicists at the University of Potsdam, argue that some phenomena of the Enlightenment also occurred at other times and elsewhere in the world, for example in 5th-century-BCE Greece, in India at about the same time, and in the 17th century in an area south of the Sahara in present-day Mali. The newly established Research Training Group (RTG) “Minor Cosmopolitanisms” at the University of Potsdam looks at such historical and present-day forms of knowledge production within but primarily outside Europe. “We want to explore the ideas and knowledge of transcultural life that have emerged in all parts of the world,” say the two spokespeople.

The Research Training Group started in October 2016: one postdoctoral and 12 doctoral fellows from Brazil, China, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Bulgaria, Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands explore global cultural and everyday practices. The project involves eight partner universities on four continents – in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. It will not only hold summer and winter schools, but young researchers also spend two semesters doing on-site research. Some of them will even be able to obtain degrees from both the University of Potsdam and one of the partner universities. The Research Training group will be receiving 3.9 million euros in funding over the next four and a half years from the German Research Association (DFG). Several professors from the University of Potsdam prepared the project together with researchers from Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

The Research Training Group will look at cosmopolitanism from a new angle

But what are these “minor cosmopolitanisms” that the researchers want to investigate? “The concept of cosmopolitanism has been around for a very long time. It can be traced back to the Stoics in ancient Greece,” Eckstein explains. The word is derived from the Greek words kósmos (“world” or “order”) and pólis (“place” or “politics”). In the 4th century BCE, Diogenes of Sinope was presumably the first to declare himself a cosmopolitan; and in doing so, he sought to show his obligation not merely to his city-state but to all of humankind. “Women, non-Greeks, so-called 'barbarians', and slaves were not part of the Polis at that time,” says Wiemann.

During the Enlightenment, the idea of cosmopolitanism became a distinctive aspect of modernity. “Cosmopolitanism”, however, also involves a shift and narrowing, “because with the ‘citizen’, a particular person is placed at the center of world history – the white, male subject with private ownership,” says Eckstein. This concept also influenced the US Constitution in 1787, which excluded women, indigenous peoples, and Africans. Nevertheless, philosophers explicitly formulated cosmopolitanism – which was supposed to be applicable to all people – in the singular. “The Northwest-European context of the bourgeois revolution was projected onto the whole world,” Wiemann says. Other local Enlightenment concepts and visions for global coexistence were marginalized or were only able to be formulated based on the prevailing bourgeois model of cosmopolitanism.

The Research Training Group wants to re-examine and relate global forms of cosmopolitanism. “The RTG asks about coexistence in the world in times of globalization,” Wiemann explains, because the promise of the Enlightenment has yet to be fulfilled. “The idea of equality of all human beings has not been realized,” says the Anglicist. Enlightenment ideology itself contained the problem. Enlightenment philosophy was directly connected with European imperialism and colonialism, whose racism remains potent today. “It categorized people as objects of knowledge into ethnic groups.” German philosopher Immanuel Kant proclaimed cosmopolitanism as a vision of peaceful coexistence on Earth, yet he also advocated in his anthropological writing for hierarchizing people based on ethnic criteria. “We want to address such contradictions and reflect on them from various locations in the world,” explains Eckstein. “We work within the matrix of cosmopolitanism but pluralize it from within.”

Knowledge is a crucial aspect in this context. “In classical Enlightenment, there was only one form of education,” says Wiemann. “Everything else was magic or superstition.” The researchers, therefore, want to investigate alternative forms of knowledge that have evolved worldwide and developed visions and laws of global coexistence. “We understand films, literature, theater, exhibitions, protest movements, and the like as forms of knowledge production,” Eckstein adds. “We are, therefore, well prepared to take on this task as literary and cultural scholars.”

The RTG researchers want to examine alternative forms of knowledge

Global “methods of demonstration and representation” examined by the group’s young researchers include, for example, films made by refugees with their mobile phones on their way to Europe. How do they experience the flight and the European border regime? What kind of pictures do they use for their cinematic self-documentation? Doctoral student Anouk Madörin addresses these questions in her highly topical research project.

Irene Hilden’s work deals with the sound archive of Humboldt Universität, which contains sound recordings of imprisoned colonial soldiers from a WWI prison camp near Berlin. “Among them were Tartars who had to fight for the Russian Empire, North and West Africans who fought for the French, and Indian soldiers who had gone to war for the British Empire,” explains Eckstein. Language and human sciences researchers from Germany forced the prisoners to speak a text in their language onto wax cylinders. The prisoners were also measured anthropomorphically, and plaster casts of their heads were made for anthropological “racial research”. “The legacy of such a sound archive is politically extremely difficult.”

Yann Le Gall explores how African states and communities deal with colonial-era bones that have since been returned from Europe to South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe or Tanzania. Are they buried there? Are they displayed in a museum? Do they serve a political purpose? “It is important in such projects that the fellows not only go overseas and do two semesters of research at our partner universities but that their work is supervised there as well,” say the spokespeople. “We closely cooperate with our colleagues in South Africa, India, Australia, the US, and Canada as well as Humboldt Universität and Freie Universität in Berlin.” The two researchers believe that the diverse and often controversial research projects also require experimental research methods. They want to give their doctoral students the freedom to bring diversity into the research group.

The research program organizes two annual summer schools at the partner universities. Three years from now, a closing conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin will combine the researchers' findings. In the final year of funding, the colleagues will also have the opportunity to organize outreach projects and to stage performances, exhibitions, readings, or plays. “We want to reach not only scholars,” explains Wiemann. "Our goal is to take a plurality of knowledge beyond the university and into the public.”

The Researchers

Prof. Dirk Wiemann studied English, German, and Political Science at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg. Since 2008, he has been Professor for English Literature at the University of Potsdam.

Universität Potsdam
Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: dirk.wiemann@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Prof. Lars Eckstein studied English, German, and Sports in Tübingen and the US. Since 2009, he has been Professor for Anglophone Literatures and Cultures outside of Great Britain and the US at the University of Potsdam. 

Universität Potsdam
Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: lars.eckstein@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Project

Since October 2016, the DFG-funded international Research Training Group “Minor Cosmopolitanisms” has been researching at the University of Potsdam. The international project includes Macquarie University (Sydney), the UNSW (Sydney), Delhi University, the EFLU (Hyderabad), Pretoria University, the University of Cape Town, York University (Toronto), and Duke University. The spokespeople, Prof. Lars Eckstein and Prof. Dirk Wiemann, applied for the research training group together with Prof. Anja Schwarz, Prof. Nicole Waller (British Studies and American Studies), Prof. Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile (German Studies), Prof. Sina Rauschenbach (Jewish Studies), Prof. Regina Römhild (European Ethnology, HU Berlin) and Prof. Sérgio Costa (Sociology, FU Berlin).

www.uni-potsdam.de/minorcosmopolitanisms

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen. http://www.uni-potsdam.de/en/explore-the-up/news-and-announcements/university-magazines/archive-portal-wissen.html