Speech by Prof. Dr. Cilja Harders about META

Speech by Prof. Dr. Cilja Harders about META, July 10, 2014

In July 2014, Prof. Dr. Cilja Harders honored META in her speech on the occasions of META’s first anniversary and the launch of issue #2. The speech was delivered at a celebration party with the editorial board, members of the advisory board, authors and friends of META.

 

Cilja Harders, Berlin, in the Summer of 2014

 

Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to be here with you and to celebrate 1 year and 2 issues of META.

Let me briefly outline what I would like to speak to you about in the next 30 minutes.

My initial focus will be on my understanding of sense and nonsense, on the possibilities and limitations of regional research and its public and academic role. Against this background, I will reflect on our digital birthday boy—what does META want to accomplish something, and what should META accomplish, in today's research environment? Finally, I will look specifically at the newest issue and ask the question: has META lived up to its goals? Here, I can already reveal to you that the answer will be a resounding "Yes". With that, the birthday gifts may be unwrapped and the cake can be cut.

What does META really mean? Fortunately, upon giving it a second and deeper thought, one must determine that the chosen name and the acronym of the journal have been perfectly selected. Let me explain why.

The use of the prefix META often implies a spatial or mental superiority such as in metacommunication, metalanguage or meta-level. I read these as points of contact for META’S own goals for the journal, such as overcoming disciplinary boundaries, or identifying common, overarching issues (topics) and examining them from unique angles. This is meant to apply to both empirical and theoretical questions. The journal should appeal to young academics as well as the more established scholars, Arab as well as European or American readers— essentially, it seeks metacommunication in the best sense of the word.

In the term metamorphosis, lies a reference to transformation—an aspect, which seems to me, to be especially important for understanding regional research and which is reflected in the objectives of the editors. It is about looking beyond exceptionalism and Orientalism, and instead looking toward that which is common, unifying and comparable, but doing so, without falling into the trap of globalist relativism. The metaphor further reminds us that, because it springs from certain intellectual, social and economic contexts, knowledge is in need of careful translation. So much now for the subtleties of META’s meaning, which simultaneously reveal some of the fundamental considerations for regional research. On these considerations, I would now like to focus.

I must first however, ask you for a moment of forgiveness as I briefly indulge in a political science digression.

In my understanding, regional research, both historically and modernly speaking, has continued to grow in the direction of a trans- and interdisciplinary approach, and here, I believe a distinction is commonly made between either a humanities/philological-based and a sociological-based orientation. These described subject areas, theories and methods frame regional research as a question about economic, political, social, cultural, and religious developments as well as a question about historical roots in different regions. Narrowing focus solely to political, economic, or cultural factors seems, in the age of inter- and transnational interdependence, reductionist and inappropriate.

This being said, where do the current challenges and contributions now lie? I see them in alienation, translation, criticism, and positioning.

 

Alienation

The central contribution of regional research for the core disciplines and the wider public is, in the spirit of Said's position, the capacity for astonishment and fundamental questioning of the normative and empirical as standard law. Current critical postcolonial theory deals with this as the needed provincialization of Europe—the centers. In the era of emerging powers/BRIC, this has not only theoretical implications, but also describes empirical processes of the global restructuring of the relationship between North and South and between center and periphery. These processes also destabilize, on a material level, securely-held power relations, without revolutionizing them completely.

 

Translation

Theoretically, therefore, the question of translation and problem of "fit" are closely linked. Firstly, this concerns the specific problem of intersubjective understanding of the stranger. But there is a second problem of "fit". Under what conditions can, for example, political science properly describe, understand, and explain, when it believes itself to be a phenomenon. And conversely, there is the problem that regional research must be able to communicate its findings inside the discipline. On the one hand, this is not evident, but it does highlight the necessity of meaningful engagement with the debates and concepts of each discipline. On the other hand, therein lies a compulsion to unify and to respect the great narratives of the subject such as: democratization, development, civil society, periphery and center or globalization with its associated methodological and conceptual boundaries. Especially problematic is if what we see through the eyes of these great disciplinary narratives is simply described as deficient, deviating, as „not-yet-reached“—which is often the case when the discipline looks at the region. A good example of this is the discussion of statehood, which implicitly or explicitly, OECD law takes as a model and which can, in the light of these categories within the Arab world, only reveal deficient statehood. This does not mean that there is no state failure or poor governance with SWANA, but this perspective obscures the political dynamics beyond the formal institutions.

The theories must therefore travel, but in both directions! And this requires active translation work, which a journal like META can and should achieve.

Of course, an important shortcoming in the interpretation of Area Studies by the respective disciplines must not be concealed. The knowledge we generate becomes "local" knowledge as it were from the perception of the discipline.  It can only receive the honor of being considered relevant knowledge, when it is communicated in the form of disciplinarily-relevant criteria.  Therein lies the provincialism of political science, which constructs itself as though it were general in the mirror of the special/local. This also applies to regional studies: when it detaches from the methodological and theoretical discussions of the subject, it  instead needs to remain provincial and self-referential. In this as well, META can and should contribute to the Metacommunication.

 

Critical self-reflection - what is the subject area?

Herein lies an interesting analogy to the question of what constitutes the regional in  regional research. This is an eminent political question and it is most typically answered with the statement that area is everything which is not one’s self (Europe, USA). The areas are the foreign and the outside. Here, we clearly see that which Edward Said strongly reminded us of so long ago—namely that "the Orient" is an extremely lively and productive construct—a political invention of the "other". Reflecting on these historical contexts of knowledge production and the associated structures, exclusions and renewed power relationships are, for me, a core component of any critical regional research, which is also reflected in the self-expressed mission of our birthday girl.

This is in no way trivial because a brief reference to the positionality of the speaker's spokesperson is hardly enough. The terms and concepts, the empirical findings and their producers alike must give answers about the product of current conditions and what those realizations imply for the possibilities of knowledge.

A look at the past and present of our subject shows how intertwined politics and science are. And with that, it carries special responsibility for critical reflection, but also the responsibility to take a position, where perhaps advice accompanies concrete political action. This is shown through a brief look at the history of my own Institute, the Otto-Suhr-Institute of Political Science. My office is housed in a building in which until 1945, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics was located (KWI-A). Here“research" was done to legitimize the NZ-racist ideology and working researchers here were involved in Nazi crimes.

The historical predecessor of the OSI is the "Deutsche University of Politik", founded by Carl Heinrich Becker, who is also considered one of the fathers of modern Islamic studies. Becker was convinced that the democratic elites of young democracies should be trained in political science. Post-war political science joined in this democratic tradition by re-establishing itself as democracy science.

Historically, regional research on the Middle East has left a difficult legacy. The ethnographic, linguistic and political mapping of alien others served, as we have know since Foucault and Said, as containment and description, and as monitoring and control through description and categorization: With words as facts, the stranger becomes understandable and therefore controllable. With Edward Said, it became clear that the Middle East had become a project area that the West required in order to rationally design itself as modern, advanced, and orderly.

Regional research not only describes but also creates knowledge. That knowledge is diverse, useful and instrumentalizing . This applies to enlightenment and anti-racism as well as warmongering, divisions, incitement and closures of horizons.

What does all this mean for the relationship between research and policy today: should we avoid the advice? The interference? I believe: No. With the privilege of knowledge comes the obligation for communication and mediation. That says nothing of the chance to really be heard or even to generate a possible positive effect.

 

What does this mean for META?

You may have already sensed that (in the context of such assessments) I view projects like META and its goals positively. Marburg University and the CNMS are ideal examples how the language, culture, history, economics and politics of a region can be thought about, taught and researched. The CNMS is perfectly equipped to produce a project like the digital open-access journal META - Middle East Topics and Argument. The CNMS is perhaps currently the only place in Germany, where there is enough critical and creative mass for such a task, and where the needed time, energy, money and stable organizational framework is available. In Germany, there are presently two social science journals, the "Orient" and the INAMO and a handful of islamic studies works such as the "World of Islam". There are no English and no interdisciplinary projects that would be in a better position to achieve the kind of translation work, which I have discussed thus far, from the provincialism of the discipline and the nation state. META has set high standards and goals for itself, but a look at the two editions published thus far, proves that such aims can be achieved. Consistently stimulating, innovative and at the height of debate, META simultaneously sets the topics for current discussion. Quite intentionally, intellectuals were made the focus of the first edition. Here, the title says it all, as META seeks to stimulate intellectual debates. "Middle class" as the theme of the new issue, "Area Studies and" Cultural Heritage "show that the aim to combine the thinking of social and cultural sciences, and to thereby find the commonalities, can be thematically implemented with ease.

After so much META what is role of the SUB, if you like, the opposite of META.?

Here, I see development potential for META. I believe the contributions of the journal should examine the excluded and subordinate and politics from below. But what about the exclusions in the heart of the "self" such as poverty, injustice or political violence in the heart of Europe? How is that connected with the phenomena that we study as regional researchers from a distance? On this subject, I wish for a META journal in the near future.

I close with Schopenhauer, who once remarked that any stupid person can crush a beetle, but all the professors in the world cannot create one. This I read as a call for modesty, something truly important to keep in mind. The same applies, as Said noted: "My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can therefore be rewritten be unmade and, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated." - Edward W. Said

(Translated from German)