Report of the Joint Center's Annual Conference 2023
June 15-17, 2023, Heidelberg University
Who and what determines whether an event is remembered as ‘epochal’? Which media as well as rhetorical and visual devices are employed to construct ‘turning points’ in history? Are they fixed or shifting in their temporalities, their importance for community-building and sense-making?
This year’s annual conference of the Joint Center “Worldmaking” engaged with questions of narrative periodization across a broad range of disciplines, from history and philosophy to literature, political and social sciences and art history. Bringing together the different approaches of the subprojects, it tackled questions of how certain media, ideas and concepts serve to create and change conceptions of epochal order; it scrutinized how in urban and rural physical and virtual spaces, networks and communities are (re-)structured, and it shifted the perspective from a mere anthropocentric view towards the entanglement of human and non-human actors and actants and their representations in times of crisis.
The conference was opened by welcome addresses by Jens Brandenburg and Michael Sondermann from the Federal Ministry for Education and Research as well as by Björn Alpermann and Barbara Mittler for the Joint Center and the Heidelberg sub-project respectively. Brandenburg and Sondermann highlighted the timely choice of the conference theme in light of the current global crises as well as the importance of a dialogue with the sinophone world under such challenging circumstances. Alpermann and Mittler illustrated how this conference theme relates to the larger topic of worldmaking, i.e., the construction of multiple worlds and world orders that our Joint Center sets out to investigate. They pointed out how specific events, such as the 1911 revolution, can be represented in differing and sometimes contradictory terms, depending on the viewpoints of specific actors, thus indicating how the construction and recognition of epochal events hinges on and yet also shapes specific visions of the world.
The two keynote lectures provided further insights into thinking ‘epochal changes’ and situating them in history:
In his lecture entitled “Epochal Events and Historical Narration”, Zoltán Boldizsár Simon introduced the notion of the “epochal event” as an emerging category of a new kind of historical thought taking into consideration the entanglement of the human and natural worlds through advanced technologies. In Simon’s view, this entanglement characterizes the period since the middle of the twentieth century and is embodied, in particular, in the technological singularity, the transgression of planetary boundaries, and the ongoing human-induced extinction event of species. The epochal nature of these entangled developments fuel radical transformations into “more-than-human” realities that might need modes of representation, narrative and non-narrative, different from the patterns employed for the reflection of historical events in human history. While he thus differentiated the new epochal from historical events – such as the French Revolution – Simon also stressed that epochal events unfold over time and thus have a historical character. Accordingly, many of the talks at the conference touched upon specific historical developments, such as technological innovation or natural exploitation, which might be seen as contributing to the emerging of the epochal event as defined by Simon. Simon thereby offered a rich and thought-provoking framework for understanding historical (and future) events to which the presentations returned throughout the conference.
In the second keynote speech, “Imagining Social Change”, Andrew Kipnis conceptualized four ways of imagining social change: replacement, transformation, transition, and reconfiguration. By analyzing political policies and campaigning modes of three separate, yet interrelated events, the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese birth control policy and the political response to the Covid pandemic, Kipnis looked at the ‘haunting’ quality of past events that underlie the experience and fundamentally shape reactions to new times of crisis and change. He thus stressed (oftentimes problematic) patterns of repetition that bring about a specific dynamic of change and continuity even against rhetorics of transformation.
The two keynotes were complemented by a number of panels that shed light on different aspects of Chinese epochal events. They included speakers from all subprojects, as well as external researchers, thus creating opportunities for a real dialogue around the conference theme. The conference started off with a roundtable under the theme “Periodization and Master Narratives: Situating East Asia in Global Twentieth-Century History”, which took a deliberately transnational and global historical angle towards twentieth-century East Asian history, considering how turning points are constructed and questioned and how in the entanglement of continuities and change, ‘epochal’ dates and periodization attempts may prove highly fragile and contentious structuring schemes.
The panel “Narrating Environmental Histories: Actors, Discourses, Devices” placed a focus on aesthetic devices, language, visualities and media of representing epochal transformations of life-worlds as spaces of entanglements of human, animal and plant living and acting spheres. The presentations, which all had a historical focus, illustrated some of the discursive formations that continue to shape the problematic human engagement with nature until today – such as the belief in the transformative power of human civilization, but also pointed towards innovative forms of conceptualizing the human-nature entanglement in literature and art.
As such, it was closely connected to another panel entitled “Between Continuity and Epistemic Rupture: Negotiating Change in the Chinese History of Science and Technology”, which engaged with the introduction of novel scientific concepts, theories and disciplines during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and how this introduction was conceptualized. Rather than constituting a complete “rupture,” many actors tried to carefully negotiate the relationship between the novel knowledge and premodern traditions by appropriating scientific concepts and discourses. Yet, the presentations also pointed towards the evolution of new forms of knowledge production and utilization – in the form of universities, surveys or experiments – that significantly transformed the Chinese epistemic landscape.
Two panels focused on the complex interrelationship between place and travel/migration. The panel “Urban/Rural Futures: Narrating Changing Worlds in City and Countryside” looked at different ways of telling the stories of Chinese urbanization, highlighting, in particular, the curious interplay between urban representations in the digital sphere and the concrete physical reshapings of space in both rural and urban contexts. It shed light on how urban projects – whether malls, restaurants or urban (and rural) gardens – can become fashionable on the internet – or wanghong – and how this plays out in the lives of local people. The panel “Worldmaking in Motion: Encounters and Ruptures in Travel and Exile” considered the spatial and temporal dynamics of epochal transitions by shaping channels and imaginations of mobility through technological innovation or the new routes of travel emerging in a colonial and post-colonial context. The presentations looked at both secular and religious travelers and sojourners that through their journeys acted on constellations of social worlds and produced idealized spaces and notions of the ‘global’ that were in a complex and sometimes conflictual relationship with discourses of the ‘nation’.
The last thematic panel of the conference, “Making World Health —Local Moments and Global Moments”, looked at ‘multiple worlds of health’ or concepts of ‘global health’ as they are shaped by, and in turn shape, experiences of rupture such as the Covid-19 crisis. By providing historical context and depth, the presentations also highlighted recurring concerns in health and health crises, such as non-human animals as carriers of zoonotic diseases, that will likely continue to ‘haunt’ health professionals in the future.
The conference ended with a methodological workshop on “Rethinking Religion(s) in China - Theories, Methods, Practices” led by Sen Tansen and Vincent Goossaert, with a commentary by Mohammed Alsudairi. The workshop presented novel conceptual and methodological tools for the study of religions in China. Tansen Sen emphasized the trans-regional circulations and contestations as an important lens to navigate Chinese religious history. In particular, he emphasized the entanglements and differentiations of Buddhisms in the travellings of people, texts, artefacts, thereby constituting what he terms the ‘Buddhist Ecumene’. Vincent Goossaert introduced participants to the digital humanities resources of the “The Chinese Religious Text Authority” (CRTA, https://crta.info/wiki/Main_Page) project, an online database that attempts to provide a comprehensive map of Chinese religious writings in China up until the middle of the twentieth century through a collaborative effort. Goossaert vividly illustrated the richness of the Chinese religious textual heritage and its potential value for scholars working in various other fields such as economic, social or environmental history who can hopefully use this tool to navigate this rich library. The two presentations were followed by a commentary by Mohammed Alsudairi who drew on his own research on Muslim communities to reflect on the global entanglements of religious discourses but also to point to problematize discourses on the ‘Chineseness’ of religious practitioners and traditions.