Thinking With and From Archipelagos in Global Humanistic Studies

Presented by: Olga Blomgren

When: 8:15 – 9:15 am Section 1: Humanities Concepts and Disciplines; Panel 2, 2B

If comparative global humanities demand geographic boldness, the need for a new cognitive mapping marks a significant opportunity. In many facets of humanistic work, “the continent (over and against the island) continues as a fetishized geographical object” (Roberts and Stephens 9).  At the same time, characterizing islands as rural and remote has minoritized the study of island-centered creative production and been used to rationalize imperial and colonial projects. Designating a geographic space or language as small often prevents the corresponding cultural production from garnering global recognition and research. It is imperative for comparative global humanities to unsettle this practice and mode of thought by advocating for a humanistic study which maps in novel ways.  This objective is likewise important to archipelagic studies.  In addition to reorganizing how we think of the continent and island, archipelagic studies seek to free epistemologies from colonial and imperial nationalisms, and considers waterways and not only landed territory in interdisciplinary research. Here I outline how my literary research in archipelagic studies can contribute to this significant re-mapping effort.

Archipelagic scholars identify three specific objectives of the field.  First, archipelagic thinkers provide a [counter-] narrative of spatial equity.  Archipelagic thinking nullifies, rather than perpetuates, hierarchies between land masses.  As such, even former colonial or imperial powers are considered other islands among many which constitute an archipelago. These may be literal or metaphorical islands, though if we consider etymologies, continents are in fact very large islands, we just do not think of them that way.  Next, scholars highlight the less-studied relations between islands as vital to understanding archipelagos (Stratford, et al 114).  In this research, islands and entanglements between islands are the focus.  The less-frequently examined island to island topological relation “is characterized by repetition and assorted multiplicity, acting to intensify, amplify and disrupt relations of land and water, island and continent/ mainland” (Stratford, et al. 117).  Focusing on relations between islands can emphasize histories and experiences which are not enmeshed in colonial and imperial hegemonies.  Islands have histories of relation and exchange with one another that are often unrecognized beyond their shores. The third goal of the field and a key feature of thinking with the archipelago is consciousness of a linked multiplicity. This way of thinking means not prioritizing the status of any one single entity.  Geographer Elaine Stratford notes “the idea of the archipelago suggests relations built on connection, assemblage, mobility, and multiplicity” (Stratford 3), identifying themes that are echoed throughout archipelagic scholarship.  Contemplating connections and multiplicities may be read as a wider goal of archipelagic studies and suggests a starting point for comparative research.  Thinking in terms of relations and multiplicities is a means of epistemically delinking from pervasive narratives of singularity, as in the individual, the nation, the language, etc. For instance, some archipelagic configurations, like the Caribbean, are multilingual spaces which exceed the boundaries of any one country, and predate entities which today are recognized as nation states. As such, when thinking archipelagically, ideas of singularity, purity, and the root give way to multiplicities and mixture.  Furthermore, flux, movement, and mobility are to be expected. 

A starting point for a global field must be to include the world.  The challenge is that scholars are currently trained to specialize and avoid working and teaching in areas where their knowledge is considered general.  As a result, many voices need to contribute to this effort until humanities departments around the world can train scholars in the practice of comparative global humanities. We need to open humanistic work to many conceptual approaches.  This does not require eliminating existing concepts, but it involves opening research with a sense of equity to new and unfamiliar concepts on a non-hierarchical basis. The ways we make knowledge should prioritize studying the widest range of the world’s creative, methodological, and conceptual production.