This thematic issue of Comparativ examines the relationship between place and cultural encounters in conceptual as well as empirical respect. The introduction delineates the discussions revolving around the concepts of place, space, and encounter. It proposes a reappraisal of the concept of place, which had almost been pushed off the agenda by the spatial turn and globalisation debates. The authors of the introduction and of the other thematic contributions argue for a perspective on place which connects spatial configurations and practices of encounter, understanding places as products of social, material, and conceptual relations. In doing so, they take up theoretical reflections about the relationality of place or space as put forward by Tim Ingold (in social anthropology), Doreen Massey (in geography) or Karl Schlögel (in history). All of their approaches emphasize that places are formed in relational processes, often spanning across time and space. In this sense, places are not mere stages or contexts for events of encounter but are being constituted by them. From such a perspective, the room for manoeuvre, which opens up through interaction, becomes apparent: Neither identities nor (hi-) stories are inalterably bound to pre-existing places, but they are just as dynamic as the relations forming particular sites. The great diversity of (cultural) encounters only emerges jointly with the respective places of interaction. Such lines of thought also allow for new approaches to past and current forms of global connections and mobility. In this sense the contributions united in this interdisciplinary thematic issue examine case (or: place) studies from the 17th century up to the present. Grounded in historiographical, literary- and religious-studies scholarship, they undertake to further refine the process-oriented perspective presented in the introduction.
Room for Manoeuvre: (Cultural) Encounters and Concepts of Place
Vol 28 No 2 (2018)
While the siege of Ostend (1601-4) is not overly prominent in modern historiography, it did raise immense attention across Europe in the early 17th century. The operation, which formed
part of the Eighty Years’ War of the rebellious Netherlands against the Spanish Habsburg monarchy,
was represented as a bloody encounter of inconceivable length in various published
formats. Contemporary sources such as broadsheets and printed siege accounts contributed
to Ostend’s becoming one of the iconic places of the formation of a new Dutch identity – in
spite of its capture by the Spanish. The story of the siege thus substantiates Michel de Certeau’s
metaphorical likening of warfare and story-telling as spatial practices. Yet, it is also a reminder of
the physical, existential dimension of war. Practices and representations of violence contributed
to the making of a “war landscape” (Kurt Lewin), of places, in which new boundaries of identity
and alterity were produced. As the muddy trenches of Ostend call to mind early-20th-century
war experiences in Flanders, they invite comparative approaches to the general characteristics
of “spaces of violence” (Jörg Baberowski). Yet, as will become clear, this massive siege operation,
which mobilized thousands of people, can also be regarded in the light of new conceptions
of “place,” which emphasize particularities created in the crossing of individual trajectories. An
analysis that unites these different concepts of spatial constructions is able to link the physicality
of violent encounters and the daily life of the siege to the emergence of the new Dutch state
within early modern Europe.
William Beebe was an American naturalist and travel writer, who is nowadays regarded as a
founding figure of the scientific field of tropical ecology. This essay understands his contribution
to this field in terms of place-making activities. Starting point is one of Beebe’s observations
that representations can never depict the material experiences that made up the essence of a
place. Peter Turchi has called this problem “the challenge of representation”. For William Beebe,
this challenge opened up a tricky room for maneuver: Various activities can happen in one spot
and create different notions of place – as narrated landscape, room for bodily experience and
site of research. In framing the scientific approach to nature, Beebe had to deliberately reduce
the complexity of the place by silencing its imaginative and sensuous notions. The essay uses the written accounts by Beebe as keys to disentangle the different notions of place, guided by the theoretical approaches of Peter Turchi, Yi-Fu Tuan, and John B. Harley.
The contribution explores the significance of European locations in the writings of Aleksey
Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1883–1945), a neo-realist writer and prominent figure between 1910 and
1945 of Russian respectively Soviet literature. The more the author deals with questions of national identity in his writings, the more important become his encounters with other cultures,
as they give him the chance – or force him – to glance at Russia from an outside point of view.
Presenting some of the author’s journeys to Germany and France between 1908 and 1935, this
contribution demonstrates how his topographies of the visited European cities oscillate between
explicitly subjective descriptions, references to literary topoi and an instrumentalisation
for geo-cultural purposes in the Soviet context: Over the years, the first, allegedly productive
encounter with European cultures changes into an experience of deep estrangement combined
with the claim of the Soviet Union’s cultural superiority. Yet, there are other texts that give
Aleksey Tolstoy “room for manoeuvre” to express a much more personal view on Europe than
in his official writings.
The theoretical framework of the analysis is based on Detlef Ipsen’s definition of places, underlining
both the concrete experiential character as well as the meaning-making potential of
places. For tracing Tolstoy’s changing interpretation of the visited places, Susanne Frank’s works
on geo-kulturologija and its relation to geopoetics gave important impulses.
The contribution examines transcultural place-making and the search for Brazilian identity,
Brazilianness, in Jorge Amado’s (1912–2001) writings. Amado’s preferred setting is the Brazilian
federal state of Bahia, known for its strong cultural ties to Africa and its large Afro-Brazilian popu-
lation. In Amado’s novel Tenda dos milagres (Tent of Miracles) (1968), Bahia’s capital, Salvador, is
portrayed as a place where cultural influences of African, Brazilian indigenous and European
origin meet. Amado compares Salvador da Bahia’s historic centre, also known as the Pelourinho,
to a kind of Afro-Brazilian “university”. The Pelourinho thus becomes a place where Brazilian culture
as transcultural culture, in the form of Mestizo culture, develops, where it is practised and
where it can be directly experienced. In describing Salvador da Bahia as the cradle of Brazilian
culture, thus locating culture in a specific place, Amado contributes to defining Brazilianness.
Transcultural place-making helps to construct Mestizo identity within a national and a cultural
framework. Searching for Brazilianness moreover means to reevaluate and emancipate the former
colony in attributing to Brazil a pioneering task: Salvador da Bahia is made into as the
world’s umbilicus, and “the mulatto”, the result of intercultural encounters there, becomes the
“man of the future”. This raises the question how a place takes shape in transcultural processes.
The contribution thus connects to Paul Gilroy’s statement that transculturality accentuates not
only dynamics and restlessness but above all the creativity of transcultural processes.
In reference to theoretical approaches by Tim Ingold, Doreen Massey and Christopher Powell,
the contribution develops a relational perspective on place and missionary practices in Madagascar.
The article focuses on current South-South mission contacts and the attempts of a
Malagasy pastor to establish a branch of his church in a small town in the central highlands: The
pastor works for Winners’ Chapel, a Pentecostal-charismatic church from Nigeria, and is tasked
with “winning the place for Jesus”. After numerous failures, a ritual is supposed to help him finally
break connections with territorial spirits, renew the covenant of the inhabitants with God
and bind himself to the local web of relationships.
The article understands “place” not as a given entity, but as an emerging and changing product
of relational processes. A place is therefore not a pre-set arena for stories, identities and
encounters that are bound to it or take place in it. Rather, place constitutes itself as a dynamic
meshwork of relationships through different practices of relating. In this way, place comes into
being as a taking place of relations. Finally, the article shows that a relational perspective not
only invites us to take a new look at the “objects” of ethnographic research, but also at academic
knowledge production itself.