Technology and the Material Turn in Transnational History: A Roundtable

AHA Session 55
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Lynn M. Thomas, University of Washington Seattle
Ontologies of Waste
Gabrielle Hecht, University of Michigan
Geographies of Toxic War
Toby C. Jones, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Disconnecting the Undersea Cable Network, 1850–2015
Nicole Starosielski, New York University

Session Abstract

In recent years, historians have increasingly moved from nationally or regionally grounded research to work that spans nations, regions, and continents. An important goal has been to move beyond comparative analysis in order to explore connections and circulations, as well as discontinuities and interruptions. The (re)turn to materiality has proved especially generative, leading scholars to follow objects, technologies, and their conduits around the globe. One particularly fruitful path has taken the direction of historical ontology: the study of how things come into being, how they become certain kinds of things (and not others), and how they go out of being.        This roundtable will explore how a focus on technologies, and especially on material connections/discontinuities and circulations/interruptions, opens new ways for historians to think about political arrangements (such as citizenship, capitalism, or neoliberalism) and spatiotemporal scales. The discussion will draw on our research on undersea cables, "coalonialism," biometric citizenship, depleted uranium, and toxic trash. It will take us across oceans, through the Middle East, and down to the southern tip of Africa. We are interested in connections and circulations: which things travel, how they travel, how traveling transforms them, and the conduits for their motion. Equally important, we will also discuss discontinuities and interruptions: how connections are formed between some places and not others, the dialectical relationship between knowledge and ignorance, and how traveling challenges or changes ontologies. We will explore how attention to materiality shows scale (whether spatial, temporal, or both) emerging as an effect of historical practice, rather than an independent, structuring entity. The individual abstracts signals the work that each panelist will be drawing upon in the conversation. We do not, however, envision, the roundtable as a series of short papers. Rather we will each show 4‐5 images, photo essay style, to illustrate the research described below. We will use these to spark discussion, first among the panelists, then between the panelists and the audience.

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