20–22 Nov 2019

On Visions and Connections

Conceptual comments presented at the conference “Flows and Frictions in Trans-Himalayan Spaces”, Stockholm University

Martin Saxer

The India-China Corridor project team – Gunnel Cederlöf, Mandy Sadan, Arupjyoti Saikia, Dan Smyer Yü, and Willem van Schendel – invited me to provide conceptual comments on the session Visions and Connections of this high-profife conference. The papers are by Patterson Giersch and Joy Pachuau, respectively.

Here is the concept note outlining the aims of the conference:

Concept note

How do we understand interconnections, communications, and flows in territories as varied as Yunnan, Burma or Myanmar, northeast India, and eastern Bengal? Characterised by a dramatic topography formed across geological time by the massive pressures of colliding tectonic plates, these eastern trans-Himalayan spaces encompass terrains from tropical sea-level deltas made up of enormous rivers and low-lying fields to icy mountain peaks reaching more than 8,000 meters. Living organisms have adapted in many unique ways to the diverse ecosystems. Today the region is considered the meeting point of two of the world’s major biodiversity hotspots.

As the site of millennium-old trade routes (sometimes referred to as the south-western branch of the Silk Road network), the region has long been a hallmark of human mobility. Yet the past several centuries have been marked by clashes and imperial competition between British, Manchu, French, and Burmese forces. Such eighteenthand nineteenth-century rivalries were followed by a closure of borders. Regional revolts opened and closed mountain passes, and eruptions of violence during the World Wars merged with increasingly heavy-handed state control. Yet organic and inorganic matter continued to move across the region, and it continues to do so today. Natural conditions, animals, and people (and the goods and ideas people bring) continually transform places and landscapes. Sometimes this happens in spite of political border making and sometimes because of it. How can we identify the significance and logics of mobility within these historical trajectories?

This conference will be the culmination of a series of engagements with junior and senior scholars in the region, in workshops, ongoing conversations, and field site visits as part of the project ‘The India-China Corridor’, funded by the Swedish Research Council. A spring school (master class) was organized at IIT Guwahati, Assam, India (March 2017), a book workshop at YMU in Kunming, Yunnan, China (April 2018), and a research and publication workshop at Myitkyina in Kachin State, Burma (Nov. 2018). These collaborative engagements have contributed to identifying a new set of challenges that need to be addressed in order for research in the region to be more connected and constructive in its engagements with young researchers. Spatial analytical concepts – ways to define key socio-natural and political issues across time and space – have been critiqued for lacking empirical rigour and socio-spatial accuracy. Just as when nation-state borders or area studies define research, theoretical constructs can block analyses of trans-border societies. There is a need in this regard to decolonise, departition, and reconnect research.

In present debates, there is a maze of conceptual terms and metaphors that are used in an attempt at logically describing mobility and connectivity in the region. Willem van Schendel has organised the terminology by separating structured, sensory, spatial, and liquid terms. Concepts such as network, rhizome, web, and fractal thus highlight structures of communication, whereas friction, sight, sound and fragrance evoke sensory experiences. Process geography, contact zone, frontier, and all the spatial entities that are attached with the prefix ‘trans-’ put emphasis on action, interaction and motion most significantly as in the field ‘trans-Himalayan studies’. Liquid metaphors such as flow and fluidity reveal social connections that are hard to grasp, illusive, and unordered, as in Gunnel Cederlöf’s ‘protean landscape,’ indicating both climate and social relations (2014). All these terms arouse intellectual and affective associations, which are helpful in making sense of complex relations. However, they have challenging analytical consequences when shared across ecology, biology, and the social sciences – disciplines that inhabit disparate analytic worlds. Paraphrasing Kathleen Morrison, we need approaches and concepts that can handle entangled socionatural worlds in ways that neither reduce the complexity and diversity of human experience nor deny nonhuman agents their ‘voices’.

The geographical territories that form the focus of this conference encompass many political and ethno-social units. Looking across nation-state boundaries to investigate the social processes that remain from a time when the borders were not yet in place calls into question the validity of the nation-state as a frame of analysis. Borderland studies have long constructively advanced our thinking along these lines, with contributions from other fields. In 2002, Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller suggested the useful term ‘methodological nationalism’ to question anayses that steered studies into such preset forms. More recently Mandy Sadan spoke of ‘borderworld’ (2013:143), Sara Schneiderman suggested using ‘multiple state space’ (2010), and Dan Smyer Yü defined the concept as ‘multistate margin’ (2017). All of these are attempts to better describe the current cartographical practices of modern nation-states in the region.

We may need to take yet another step to free ourselves from the territorialised epistemology that leads to state-centred analyses. We need to find conceptual forms that facilitate a better understanding of the region’s varied polities, ethnicities, demographies, ecologies, climates, and their complex interdependency. Certainly, the state is still present, but not as the self-evident point of departure. Other ways of delimiting regions have been questioned on similar analytical grounds. It is now generally acknowledged that while the area studies framework – distinguishing South, Southeast, East, and Central Asia from – has brought much-needed scholarly attention to territories of the world that are underprivileged in research and research funding compared to the West, it has also brought Asian geographical political centres and margins into a framework that has not been conducive to the enquiries suggested here.

This conference addresses the challenge to re-establish contexts and conceptual tools of spatial interconnections in the Bengal–Northeast India–Burma–Yunnan territories that have been disaggregated for many generations. It asks how we can best conceptualise flows, frictions and identities in trans-Himalayan spaces.

The ‘India-China Corridor’ project started out by visualising the interconnections and flows in terms of a ‘Corridor’. It was discussed as dynamic conditions of ever-changing routes across large spaces. Like the webs of corridors in large buildings, there are places of conflict and manifestation of power. The routes and flows adjust to circumstances in organic ways in relation to events like war or phenomena like earthquakes. Flows of people, animals, plants, knowledge, habits, beliefs, social networks, etc. can reroute, bifurcate, and gravitate in new directions. Likewise, there are zones of friction that slow down movements or make them come to a halt, for example, customs and tax checkpoints, duties and charges, sites of attacks and raids, and forms of political and economic manipulation. ‘Corridor’ works through many layers and, to put it metaphorically, hosts backdoors, shortcuts, intersections, interconnections, impasses, and closed areas. By viewing interaction and connectivity in terms of a ‘Corridor’, we elaborated how the intensity of action varies across time and space.

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
martin.saxer@lmu.de | +49 89 2180 9639

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