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Chronologics. Periodisation in a Global Context

From 7 to 9 December 2017, the Annual Conference 2017 “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context” of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung took place at the Maison de France, Berlin. The conference was convened by Thomas Maissen (Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris), Barbara Mittler (Heidelberger Centrum für Transkulturelle StudienForum Transregionale Studien), and Pierre Monnet (Institut franco-allemand de sciences historiques et sociales). It brought together scholars from various disciplines and countries with the purpose to uncover some of the dynamics behind particular cultural and historical uses of periodisation schemes, as concepts for ordering the past, and thus to reconsider these terminologies.

Epochal divisions and terminologies such as “antiquity”, “baroque,” the “classical age,” the “renaissance,” or “post-modernity,” the “long 19th” or “short 20th” centuries are more than mere tools used pragmatically to arrange school curricula or museum collections. In most disciplines based on historical methods the use of these terminologies carries particular imaginations and meanings for the discursive construction of nations and communities. Many contem-porary categories and periodisations have their roots in European teleologies, religious or historical traditions and thus are closely linked to particular power relations. As part of the colonial encounter they have been translated into new “temporal authenticities” in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as in Europe.

German historians in particular, in C.H. Williams’ ironic description, “have an industry they call ‘Periodisierung’ and they take it very seriously. (…) Periodisation, this splitting up of time into neatly balanced divisions is, after all, a very arbitrary proceeding and should not be looked upon as permanent.” In producing and reproducing periodisations, historians structure possible narratives of temporality, they somehow “take up ownership of the past,” (Janet L. Nelson) imposing particular “regimes of historicity” (François Hartog). Accordingly, periodisations are never inert or innocent, indeed, they have been interpreted as a “theft of History” (Jack Goody).

The aim of this conference is to uncover some of the dynamics behind particular cultural and historical uses of peri-odisation schemes, as concepts for ordering the past, and thus to reconsider these terminologies “devised to think the world” (Sebastian Conrad). Periodisations are culturally determined. They beg for systematic comparison in order to identify the contextual specificity and contingency of particular understandings of particular historical epochs. An interdisciplinary and transregional perspective allows for a reconsideration of the (non-)transferability of historical periodisations and the possibility to work out categories of historical analysis that go beyond nation-bound interpretative patterns.

The introduction to the conference, a report and more articles about the conference are published on the TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. The conference was part of the strategic cooperation between the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland. It is organized with kind support of the Institut français Berlin and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF). Over thirty international researchers in history and related disciplines approached these topics from different academic and regional angles during the conference. It was arranged in cooperation with the Einstein Center Chronoi and the Graduate School Global Intellectual History at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

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