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global dis:connect summer school 2022 – a connected view

david grillenberger
  From 2 to 5 of August 2022, 20 scholars – PhD students, organisers Anna Nübling & Nikolai Brandes and student assistants – gathered in Munich during a scorching heat wave for global dis:connect’s inaugural summer school. Our engaging discussions and presentations emitted as much energy as the sun itself. Titled Postcolonial interruptions? Decolonisation and global dis:connectivity, our very first summer school at global dis:connect focused on dis:connectivities in processes of decolonisation. The topic was apt, as decolonisation in itself is a very sudden (or sometimes very slow) interruption. It admits literal disconnects between former colonies and the empires that conquered them and simultaneously maintained connections to these empires. The process of decolonisation emphasises the colon in ‘dis:connectivity’ that, in this case, might represent the tension between independence and the continuation of relationships. After a (literally) warm welcome from co-director Prof. Christopher Balme and a get together in our garden on Tuesday (2. August), we gathered in global dis:connect’s library the next morning to hear the first master class by UCLA’s Ayala Levin. In her talk about Continuity vs. discontinuity from colonialism to postcolonialisms, Levin emphasised African actors’ agency, as, for example, when choosing Israel and China as partners for architectural projects. Both nations have framed themselves as former colonial subjects and ‘developing countries’ fit to help African nations’ ‘development’.
Ayala Levin's master class (Image: Annalena Labrenz & David Grillenberger)
Following Ayala’s master class and a short coffee break, Seung Hwan Ryu presented the first PhD project of the day, speaking on the relationship between North Korea and Tanzania. In his talk (Surviving the disconnection. North Korea’s social internationalism in Tanzania during the Cold War for a closer look, check out Seung Hwan’s post summarising the talk on our global dis:connect blog), Seung Hwan posed the question how North Korea was similar but different from other socialist globalisation projects. He emphasised ‘North Korea’s in-between geopolitical position’, between China and the USSR after the great disconnect that was the Sino-Soviet split. For some, Seung Hwan’s talk might have evoked memories of the fantastic Danish documentary The Mole, which features present-day North Korea and its dealings in Africa, which have attracted the UN’s attention in 2020. Next among the presentations was Lucas Rehnman, a Brazilian visual artist and curator, who presented his curatorial project. His project (Unfinished Museum of Peripheral Modernity) on postcolonial modernist architecture in Guinea-Bissau poses an interesting what-if question: what if Bissau-Guineans did not simply follow external influences in the context of ‘foreign aid’ and ‘technical cooperation’ but instead worked actively and creatively as architects, establishing an architectural legacy that deserves attention? After the lunch break, Adekunle Adeyemo presented his project on Israeli architect Arieh Sharon’s Obafemi Awolowo University Campus in Ile-Ife. Adekunle argued that the campus is a good example of modern architecture in Africa. He emphasised dis:connectivity when he argued that it was precisely the decolonial disconnect from the British empire that led Nigeria to look for new connections to Israel, as Ayala Levin also pointed out that morning. Adekunle framed the processes that led to Sharon’s designing the campus as a ‘Fanonian rupture’, as a crack in existing structures, which allows new things to fill the void. The last to present her project on our first full day together was Rahel Losier. Rahel spoke on the topic of ‘Sahrawi educational migration to Cuba from the 1970s to the present’. Chris Balme, one of the discussants, pointed out that the conflict in Western Sahara central to Rahel’s talk was one of our time’s ‘forgotten conflicts’ and that the relationship between Sahrawis and Cuba is a forgotten story. It is absent in history, one might say. And what could be more fitting than absences for the questions of global dis:connect? Rahel approached her research topic artistically as well and created a brilliantly unique comic out of the interviews she conducted for her project. The presentation of her first comic also initiated an interesting discussion on whether and how artistic practice could help to better formulate research questions. After an extended coffee break – much needed after engaging discussions and scholarly debates – Maurits van Bever Donker finished the day with a lecture, unintentionally representing the topic of ‘dis:connectivity’ in that he had to give his lecture remotely from South Africa. At 7:30 p.m., we all met for dinner and reflected on a long day of interesting projects and our new acquaintances. The next day, Thursday, 4 August, started with decolonisation and epistemology. First up was another master class, this time held by Prof. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni of Bayreuth University. He focused on three meta-topics: epistemology, decolonisation and dis:connectivity. Sabelo emphasised especially how knowledge itself could also be colonised and – referring to Dipesh Chakrabaty – suggested provincialising Europe in an institutional sense too, meaning that Western universities must reflect on the relationship between knowledge and power and how non-Western universities can get a more equal footing in global science. The perfect follow-up to Sabelo’s talk was Tibelius Amutuhaire, who spoke on The realities of higher education decolonisation: possibilities and challenges to decolonise university education in East Africa. Tibelius noted that, in most African universities, continuing eurocentrism is apparent in the exclusive use of Western (often foreign) languages to disseminate knowledge. Although, as Tibelius argued, African universities should lead the decolonisation efforts. In his master class, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni also referred to the role of peer-reviewed journals, of which the most prestigious are still located in the West. Tibelius’s takeaway was that one of the main problems today is the continuous re-education of ‘false’ knowledge. It was not only African countries and peoples who were subjected to colonialism, but also Asian countries like Pakistan, which was the focus of Talha Minas’ presentation. By focusing on the case study of Pakistan’s construction of its nationalist project, Talha discussed the theoretical and methodological challenges global history faces. He analysed the ‘master narrative’ of a Muslim claim to their own state in South Asia, especially in opposition to the British Empire. In the following discussion, gd:c co-director and one of this day’s discussants, Roland Wenzlhuemer argued that Talha’s topic could very well be a self-observational project that could tackle global history and its problems. The afternoon started with Hannah Goetze’s presentation. Her talk focused on weaving, whose own literal connectivity makes it all the more interesting from the perspective of disconnections. Hannah analysed two different subjects: Lubaina Himid’s artpiece cotton.com and Amalie Smith’s book Thread Ripper. Weaving, Hannah argued, is closely connected to the internet as well as history and the future of computers in both works. So, in a way, they are stories about networks, be they woven or digital. Up next was Flavia Elena Malusardi, whose research project aims to look at the cultural space Dar el Fan in Beirut and how women’s identities were shaped there between postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism. For example, the anti-establishment movements of the 1960s also resonated in Beirut and intersected with decolonisation and the Cold War. Founded in 1967 by Janine Rubeiz, Dar el Fan also promoted ideas of gender equality and visibility and offered women a space where they could enjoy extensive freedoms in an otherwise often still conservative society. The last of Thursday’s presentations focused on post-apartheid in South Africa. In his project, Brian Fulela analysed the novels of three different South African authors: K. Sello Duiker, Lgebetle Moele and Sifoso Mzobe. He examined the role and place of psychoanalysis in these novels and what psychoanalysis can bring to research on post-apartheid South Africa. Central to his project are feelings of trauma, loss and the subjectivity of post-apartheid, which are very much emotions and feelings of dis:connectivity. The next day, Friday, began at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in the centre of Munich. We were greeted by Stefan Eisenhofer and Karin Guggeis, who are responsible for the museum’s Africa and North America exhibitions. They showed us through the Africa exhibition and spoke on the difficulties of provenience research. Both also accompanied us back to global dis:connect to attend the remaining presentations.
The gd:c summer school takes a field trip to the Museum Fünf Kontinente. (Image: Annalena Labrenz & David Grillenberger)
The first presentation of the day came from Lucía Correa, who is researching the ethnographic collections of French-Swiss Anthropologist Alfred Metraux. Ethnographic museums, Lucía argues, were a new way of thinking about human history with an emphasis on material culture. Meanwhile, Latin America is in the process of deconstruction and working with native communities to decolonise museums and their collections, since the colonialist perspective that motivated the founding of ethnographic museums is no longer viable. Metraux considered his collections a way to ‘remember’ the indigenous populations, which he perceived to be rapidly disappearing as a result of Western expansion in the 1930s. It is easy to see how absences – one of the key concepts informing dis:connectivity – play an important role in Lucía’s research and the future of ethnographic museums in general. Next up was Claudia di Tosto’s talk on Austerity and muddled optimism: the impact of decolonisation on Britain’s participation at the 1948 Venice Biennale. Claudia spoke on the recontextualisation of Britain’s exhibition in the context of decolonisation after World War II. In her presentation, she focused on one case study, namely 1948 and two artists that were prominently featured at the exhibition: J.M.W. Turner – a 19th-century artist – and Henry Moore – a 20th-century artist and contemporary painter at the time of the Biennale. Claudia argued that Britain used its 1948 pavilion to project the image of a nation that was using humanism as a rhetorical tool to both cover the demise of the empire and still lay a claim of superiority over its former colonies. After our lunch break, Johanna Böttiger presented a very eloquently written essay in which she spoke on the topic of black dolls during the years of the Jim Crow laws in the USA. Children, argued Johanna, were an embodiment of coloniality and different stereotypes came with the colour of children’s skins – even in dolls, as black dolls were subjected to violence by white children. Certainly no child’s play, learned behavioural patterns like segregation or racism were also expressed in the form of children and dolls. The last presentation of our time together was testament to the breadth of backgrounds the participants brought with them. Franziska Fennert, a German artist living in Indonesia, presented her project Monumen Anthroposen as a film. The project consists of a ‘temple’, a monument complex, that is built in Indonesia and made from waste that is being transformed into a new product. Franziska’s aim was to redefine the relationship between humans, the planet and each other. In the long run, the ‘Anthropocene Monument’ should act as an infrastructure for upcycling that benefits its surrounding region. Franziska’s presentation concluded our time together in Munich – at least from a scholarly perspective – and heralded the beginning of a convivial get-together with some traditional Bavarian music, beer and Brezen (soft pretzels). The participants agreed that the concept of dis:connectivity informed their research, and their varied backgrounds made for an engaging discussion and a lot of valuable comments. It is almost staggering that a phenomenon such as decolonisation, which is so essentially dis:connective – the simultaneity of severing ties while still maintaining some and sometimes the stress they cause for the people involved – waited so long for the dis:connectivity treatment.
One, yet many (but not too many). (Image: Annalena Labrenz & David Grillenberger - the author in the back left with the snappy Hawaiian shirt)
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Looking back at global dis:connect’s first annual conference, 20-21 october 2022 (by hanni geiger & tom menger)

@Annalena Labrenz & David Grillenberger

The first annual conference of global dis:connect, entitled Dis:connectivity in processes of globalisation: theories, methodologies and explorations, took place in Munich on 20-21 October. As the title indicated, the conference aimed to ground the vast field of research on global dis:connectivity by probing what theories and methodologies might be fruitful. The conference sought to start the discussion rather than to formulate definitive answers, laying the groundwork for further reflections on these issues over the coming years in conversation with our current and future fellows at the centre. This international conference brought together different disciplines: historians, art historians, theatre scholars and others in conjunction with creative professionals from the arts, including architecture, design and theatre. The dialogue between theory and practice, each with its own distinctive approaches, induced productive friction. Artistic and philosophical approaches showed their potential to offer new modes of studying a phenomenon as complex as global dis:connectivity. The conference featured three panels: interruptions, absences and detours. The presentations revealed how researching these modes of dis:connectivity can mean very different things. Such research can mean asking about tradition and modernity and their relation to globalisation; it meant looking at the interplay of nationalism and globalisation in societies marked by stringent national, ethnic and religious demarcations; it meant searching for connections and disconnections simultaneously in such bounded contexts such as the global interactions of the Cold War era. Many papers also looked at how individuals negotiate global connections and disconnections in their own personal biographies, revealing the affective attributions, emotions and ideological influences that make globalisation processes significant in the first place. Such research also entails recovering the agents and groups that were effaced by later hegemonic narratives. Some participants even sought to understand experiences of  dis:connectivity beyond our conventional Western understandings of linear time and Euclidian space in ways that might enable more personalised modes of dealing with forced or trauma-induced immobility.

@Ben Kamis

Dis:connectivity is an expansive research object and always threatens to elude us. The papers and unconventional presentations of this conference emphasised both the need to refine the term and the extent to which unconventional methodologies and theories allow us to approach dis:connectivity. The complexity of globalisation processes that the conference sought to explore affect our present in dramatic ways. As was highlighted in the conference’s wrap-up, seeking to better understand this complexity can tangibly affect society. The original announcement and the full programme of the conference can be found here. Continue Reading

Breaking water: the dilemmas of dis:connection in the global-South city

sujit sivasundaram
  In this blog, I investigate the work that went into the making of  breakwaters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, around 1900 as a way of meditating on the relations between the environment, urban change, labour and politics in a global-South city.[1]

Arms stretching to sea

After the opening of the Suez Canal, Colombo became the second-most-used port in British Asia. By 1910, it was slightly behind Hong Kong and the seventh-busiest of the world’s ports by tonnage, easily ahead, for instance, of Calcutta/Kolkata or Bombay/Mumbai. At the heart of this transformation were infrastructural arms stretching out to sea, taming the winds and waves, and allowing steamer ships to dock in calm water for re-coaling. These arms were the breakwaters of Colombo. A south-west breakwater was constructed by 1885, followed by a further bout of infrastructural consolidation in the late 1890s and early 1900s and the building of a north-east and north-west breakwater. More recently, when I returned to Colombo in 2021, after being stuck in Britain over the course of the early pandemic, it was a shock to see another new arm stretching out to sea from Galle Face Green. This is Colombo’s $15 billion dollar Port City Development Project, an attempt to make it compete with megacities such as Singapore and Hong Kong and financed by China.[2] Meanwhile, Galle Face Green, on the seafront, was first formally laid out by the British as a parading and sporting ground in the mid-nineteenth century. One tradition is that the Dutch, who preceded the British, needed this level lawn to aim their cannon at the Portuguese. The new port city development project that faces this lawn has proceeded regardless of protests from environmental groups, fishing communities and from those concerned with the huge debt-burden to China which it will create. It is also at Galle Face Green that the wide-scale protests against the Sri Lankan government, in the midst of a pandemic-inflected economic crisis, arose. ‘Gotagohome village’, calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, became a permanent site of protest on Galle Face Green in 2022.[3]  

Image: Dhammika Heenpella

Staging connections and the reality of disconnection

The breakwaters of the past and the Chinese-financed project of the present are attempts to make Colombo a connected node of global capitalist trade and politics. If so, thinking with the underside of this infrastructure, meaning the work that goes into its making and the way it changes the environment, takes us in turn to the interrupted dynamics of projects like this. It also takes us to why the sea face of Colombo continues to be a place where politics is appropriately staged and performed even in our present. The projected connections of capitalism lead into both the realities of disconnection and the generative possibilities that follow for political movements and resistance. In arguing like this I develop my claims in a book, Islanded, which came out about a decade ago, where I argued that disconnection and connection lie at the heart of the contradictory origins of the Sri Lankan state as an island set apart but linked with a mainland. I ended that book with this line:
a connection is a disconnection when viewed from another direction.[4]  
In what follows, I juxtapose a series of vignettes, firstly related to the interventionist power of the breakwaters, over nature, people and disease; secondly, I attend to resistance and consequences of various kinds, environmental and social included, which came from these infrastructural interventions. And then, at the end, I return to the contemporary moment.

A breakwater in the sea

In the late-nineteenth century, the work of making a breakwater was hard, and it also required work beneath the sea. The nature of the work changed according to whether the monsoon was in force or not. During the monsoon, stones and blocks and quantities of sand could be washed away unexpectedly. Additionally, the nature of the waves changed dramatically. The importance of keeping an eye on the sea in making plans for breakwater-making was especially evident in how records were kept on this seafront on wave heights, wave periods and winds. It was supposed at first that nine feet was the greatest height of waves at Colombo, but subsequent measurements determined that where the breakwater was being built waves rose to twelve feet and fifteen feet.

Image: KHK global dis:connect collection

Line of control

The breakwater is a line, a line of attempted control between sea and land. But it also served this purpose for the control of disease.[5] In the 1890s a large number of vessels were put under quarantine as fears of plague spread. By 1905 disinfection was undertaken ‘at the root of the breakwater’ with ‘an Equifex disinfector [a boiler and three disinfecting chambers]’[6] which was erected at that point alongside an immigration depot. The Bombay steamer was a particular target: all Bombay water was emptied off the ship rather carefully. Each individual on the Bombay steamer was allegedly inspected; their temperature taken, and ‘the state of the glands of his (sic.) neck, groins and armpits’ were examined; while ‘[f]emales are examined by a female examiner.’[7]

Beach reorganisation

The growing harbour of Colombo would not have expanded the way it did without the new breakwaters. For this was not a site with a significant natural harbour; the breakwaters made it possible for Colombo to become a site of trans-shipment at the centre of the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, their construction and the resulting expansion of the city saw urban reorganisation. For instance, the harbour was emptied of ‘native vessels’[8], used by fishermen and a separate fishery harbour arose to the north of the main port in 1902. But once again, like in the assault of the waves on those who were building the breakwaters, this programme of managing the sea-face did not work. Fishing communities were incensed by their relocation. In one petition of 1906 with 11 signatures, for instance, they wrote against how their boats were forbidden to fish in the harbour area where they had traditionally done so. ‘True it is the Government have provided for us outside the Colombo Harbour, a place called ‘Fisher’s Harbour’... during the SW Monsoon the entrance of the harbour is not safe and the room for the accommodation of our fishing boats …  is quite insufficient’[9]. Various catamarans, fishing boats, that sought to continue operating in the harbour were seized by the harbour police. Meanwhile, the beach that was allocated to fishing communities was divided up so that different groups, demarcated by place of worship, had access to different stretches of the shore.


In late 1894, when the railway line was being laid along this stretch of shore, there were ‘disturbances’ at St. John’s Beach, and the accusation that some men had incited ‘a riot’ and turned on government officials.[10] This resistance was not only human; it was natural too. A fishermen’s petition from 1901–  from a group who had beached their boats close to Mutwal and the mouth of the Kelani River since ‘immemorial’ times – complained of all the functions occurring on their beach. The result was that:
[The] flow of water in the river is greatly obstructed by the large number of timber lying in the bed of the river and fever is spreading amongst the poor families of the fishermen who use the river for bathing purposes, the water being stagnant, the mud at the bottom has become putrid and the smell very offensive. [11]  
By 1912, the problems of space had affected fishing communities to the extent that one Sinhalese group, taken to be the majority ethnic community in the island today, asked that ‘Tamil’ fishermen be ousted from Colombo, on the basis that Tamils ‘are not residents of Ceylon’ and also since these fishermen were using types of nets prohibited by the state.[12] Modes of attempted management, to allow the port to connect, allowed inter-community relations in turn to deteriorate to ethnic tussles.

The stage of dis:connection

To move from the early twentieth century to the present and the sustained protests on this stretch of beach, there are various geopolitical reasons for their emergence. Grand schemes by the Chinese and Indians and others, including the Japanese, dictate the present and future of Colombo as well as the whole island. The pandemic and the loss of tourist and migrant labour incomes, for instance in the Middle East, have played a role too. In addition to this, it is also about the hold of an older generation of corrupt male politicians, who adopted supposedly populist tax cuts and new fertiliser policy for agriculture. If these reasons can be taken to indicate de-globalisation, strikingly, the protests of our moment have been led by the young and by those who did not grow up in the midst of the island’s civil war, between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. The protests have crossed ethnic boundaries and seen the rise of new forms of solidarity. Muslims, one of the most discriminated communities, have broken fast in the midst of the protests. I want to end simply by stressing that these protests have also occurred on a stage facing the ocean. This is a lawn that repeated governments have struggled to keep green and struggled to convert into an iconic landscape of nationalism. It is fitting also that the protesters who stormed the president’s residence were seen swimming in a pool of water. It was this recording, together with others of the protests movement on the stretch of shoreline, that went viral when the news first broke.[13] Going into the water was a way of bringing a political movement to its sweet result: Colombo is a specific ecology, which has faced connection and disconnection, over centuries and not only at the hands of the British, but also the Portuguese and the Dutch and now various other superpowers. It is in the gap between connection and disconnection that Colombo has given rise to new political forms. The breakwater or indeed the lawn or harbour, have been effective places from which to rethink the political in a global South city. Meanwhile the performative possibilities of sites facing water carry on apace.   [1] This blog returns to an earlier article while bringing in lots of new dimensions: Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘Towards a Critical History of Connection: The Port of Colombo, the Geographical “Circuit,” and the Visual Politics of New Imperialism, ca. 1880–1914’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 2 (2017): 346–84. [2] For an excellent introduction to the story see: Kanchana Ruwanpura, Benjamin Brown, and Loritta Chan, ‘(Dis) Connecting Colombo: Situating the Megapolis in Postwar Sri Lanka’, The Professional Geographer 72, no. 1 (2020): 165–79. [3] For some recent commentary on the protests and their causes, see for instance: J. Uyangoda, ‘The #GotaGoHome Protest Movement: Significance, Potential, and Challenges’, Social Scientists’ Association, 2022, http://ssalanka.org/gotagohome-protest-movement-significance-potential-challenges-jayadeva-uyangoda/; and: Shamara Wettimuny, ‘Protests in Sri Lanka: A Historical Perspective’, Medium, 10 April 2022, https://shamara-wettimuny.medium.com/protests-in-sri-lanka-a-historical-perspective-289e58908c5a. [4] See: Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); See also: Zoltán Biedermann, ‘(Dis)Connected History and the Multiple Narratives of Global Early Modernity’, Modern Philology 119, no. 1 (2021): 13–32, https://doi.org/10.1086/714972. [5] For references to the primary material in this paragraph and that following, please see: Sivasundaram, ‘Towards a Critical History of Connection: The Port of Colombo, the Geographical “Circuit,” and the Visual Politics of New Imperialism, ca. 1880–1914’. [6] Sivasundaram, 'Towards a Critical History'. [7] Sivasundaram, 'Towards a Critical History'. [8] Sivasundaram, 'Towards a Critical History'. [9] ‘Petition to the Hon’ble Government Agent of the Western Province’, 25 October 1906, Lot 33/3964, Sri Lanka National Archives. [10] ‘Documents’, n.d., Lot 33/3961, Sri Lanka National Archives Colombo. [11] ‘Petition’, 3 December 1901, Lot 33/3481, Sri Lanka National Archives. [12] ‘Petition to the Master Attendant from Signatories Who Sign in Sinhala’, 27 March 1912, Lot 33/3976, Sri Lanka National Archives. [13] ‘Sri Lanka Crisis: Protesters Swim in President’s Pool’, BBC, 9 July 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-62105698.


Biedermann, Zoltán. ‘(Dis)Connected History and the Multiple Narratives of Global Early Modernity’. Modern Philology 119, no. 1 (2021): 13–32. https://doi.org/10.1086/714972. ‘Documents’, n.d. Lot 33/3961. Sri Lanka National Archives Colombo. ‘Petition’, 3 December 1901. Lot 33/3481. Sri Lanka National Archives. ‘Petition to the Hon’ble Government Agent of the Western Province’, 25 October 1906. Lot 33/3964. Sri Lanka National Archives. ‘Petition to the Master Attendant from Signatories Who Sign in Sinhala’, 27 March 1912. Lot 33/3976. Sri Lanka National Archives. Ruwanpura, Kanchana, Benjamin Brown, and Loritta Chan. ‘(Dis) Connecting Colombo: Situating the Megapolis in Postwar Sri Lanka’. The Professional Geographer 72, no. 1 (2020): 165–79. Sivasundaram, Sujit. Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. ———. ‘Towards a Critical History of Connection: The Port of Colombo, the Geographical “Circuit,” and the Visual Politics of New Imperialism, ca. 1880–1914’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 2 (2017): 346–84. BBC. ‘Sri Lanka Crisis: Protesters Swim in President’s Pool’, 9 July 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-62105698. Uyangoda, J. ‘The #GotaGoHome Protest Movement: Significance, Potential, and Challenges’. Social Scientists’ Association, 2022. http://ssalanka.org/gotagohome-protest-movement-significance-potential-challenges-jayadeva-uyangoda/. Wettimuny, Shamara. ‘Protests in Sri Lanka: A Historical Perspective’. Medium, 10 April 2022. https://shamara-wettimuny.medium.com/protests-in-sri-lanka-a-historical-perspective-289e58908c5a.  
citation information:
Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘Breaking Water: The Dilemmas of Dis:Connection in a Global-South City’, 2 November 2022, https://www.globaldisconnect.org/11/02/breaking-water-the-dilemmas-of-disconnection-in-the-global-south-city/?lang=en.
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Mars and the urge to connect around 1900

anna sophia nübling
  What do you think this drawing depicts?

Marsland from Les Terres du Ciel (1884)

It might seem a strange question. Isn’t the answer obvious? We see a cloudy sky. The viewer’s gaze is drawn to the horizon where the sun is either rising or setting. The mood is calm and peaceful. In the foreground, we see a marshland streaked with channels, though seemingly untouched and natural. Something is peeking into the immediate foreground. It could be rocks or a wooden fence, imparting the impression of looking down on the lonely landscape from a hill. But the motif is very different from what it appears to be. It is no peaceful marshland. Rather, it’s Marsland: a depiction of the surface of Mars. And it is by no means as untouched and unspectacular as it may appear.

Theories about connected life on Mars around 1900

The drawing is taken from a book titled Les Terres du Ciel, published in 1884 by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion.[1] In this publication, Flammarion argued (as in many other books he authored[2]) that Earth was not the only inhabited planet. Life on other planets, he was convinced, was highly probable. Whether or not life exists elsewhere is an old debate,[3] but as for Mars, there seemed to be proof, since in 1877 the astronomer Giovanni Sciaparelli claimed to have seen channels on the surface. Other astronomers, like Flammarion in France or Percival Lowell in the USA, reaffirmed this observation and argued that these channels must be artificial, interpreting them as huge canals created by Martian creatures.[4] Mars seemed especially suitable for life, as it appeared geographically and chemically very similar to Earth.[5] Lowell in particular propounded the thesis that Martians were building vast canals, as ever more seemed to be appearing over time. Referring to Lowell, the New York Times from 27 August 1911 headlined: Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years. Vast Engineering Works Accomplished in an Incredibly Short Time by Our Planetary Neighbors.[6] Lowell, according to this newspaper article, had detected canals of which there had been no trace two years before. No natural reason for their existence, such as ‘seasonal changes’ on Mars, could explain these new canals. They must have been built! Their geometric arrangement encouraged this interpretation — ‘of most orderly self-restraint’ and ‘wonderfully clear cut’, as the author of the Times article quoted Lowell.[7] Therefore, they must have been the result of engineering. Around the turn of the twentieth century, this theory found considerable resonance in popular culture, as is well known. It inspired works of literature and film such as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and fuelled an imaginary of Mars that remains vivid today. A depiction of the imagined system of canals on Mars. Title of Cosmopolitan Magazine XLIV, 4 (March 1908). https://www.loc.gov/item/cosmos000114. This theory about life on Mars featured prominently in the discussion around 1900 about whether the new wireless communication technology could be used to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings — a discussion electrified by pioneers of that technology, like Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi, as well as the keen interest of the press. Already in 1892, Flammarion was convinced that the prospect of communicating with extra-terrestrials was ‘not at all absurd’.[8] In fact, Tesla published an article in 1901 claiming that he had actually received extra-terrestrial signals with a wireless device. They must have been signs of intelligent life, as they gave a ‘clear suggestion of number and order’. Tesla also prophesied that ‘with the novel means […] signals can be transmitted to a planet such as Mars’,[9] rendering interplanetary conversations thinkable. According to the press, Marconi, too, revealed in 1920 that he believed some of the signals he had received during his experiments ‘originated in the space beyond our planet’ and had been ‘sent by the inhabitants of other planets to the inhabitants of earth’. He even explicitly referred to the inhabitants of Mars when he stated that he ‘would not be surprised if they should find a means of communication with this planet.’ As ‘our own planet is a storehouse of wonders’, nothing seemed impossible.[10]

Connectivity as a feature of progress

The story of the nineteenth-century fascination with Mars has been told many times.[11] Of course, as far as we know there were and are no real connections at all, neither canals on Mars nor signals from Martians. But around the turn of the twentieth century, people started to imagine them, and this is no less interesting. The whole story about Martians building infrastructure and communicating is about them being connected to each other and even to the inhabitants of other worlds. Obviously, this tells us less about Mars than about the significance and valuation of connections and connectivity as they were perceived on Earth at that time. Imagining extra-terrestrial beings is, therefore, not about imagining the other, as is often argued in scholarship,[12] but about imagining oneself.[13] Here begins historians’ interest in Martian canals, at least those historians seeking to offer a more nuanced and less normative history of the role connections have played in making of the modern world. They offer an unusual point of departure for a critical history of the euphoria induced by connectivity and its implications. First, the obvious: discussions about canals on Mars and communicating Martians reflect recent experiences on Earth. Martian canals would have been unthinkable without the impressive technological developments of the nineteenth century. Flammarion, for instance, explicitly mentioned alpine tunnels, the Suez Canal (opened in 1869), the Panama Canal (opened in 1914), and, more generally, railways, telegraphy, electricity, photography and the telephone.[14] Around 1900, speculation about communicating with Mars became a fanciful extrapolation on the future use of the new wireless technology. More abstractly, however, visions of infrastructure-building and communicating Martians reveal a lot about late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century assumptions about the significance of connectedness for the idea of progress. Tesla took for granted that Mars was best suited for communication with Earth because ‘its intelligent races […] are far superior than us.’[15] The planet’s beneficial climate, but especially its age, supported that widespread conviction.[16] Flammarion, for example, found it ‘naturel’ and ‘logique’ that the greater age of  ‘humanité’ on Mars made it ‘plus perfectionnée’ than that on Earth.[17] Evolution, according to Flammarion, occurred on all inhabited worlds the very same way. A ‘long-period comet passing in sight of the Earth from time to time’, he envisioned, ‘would have seen modifications of existence in each of its transits, in accordance with a slow evolution […] progressing incessantly, for if Life is the goal of nature, Progress is the supreme law.’ And this law of evolutionary progress, he was convinced, was ‘the same for all worlds’.[18] For observers on Earth, Martians’ ability to build huge canals and to communicate with wireless was the ultimate proof that evolution had led Martians to a higher stage of development. The famous inventor Thomas Edison, for example, in 1920 equated technologically assisted communication with advancement, stating that: ‘If we are to accept […] that these signals are being sent out by inhabitants of other planets, we must at once accept with it the theory of their advanced development’.[19]  And as for the canals, the writer H.G. Wells made use of the typical argument in an 1908 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine about Things that live on Mars. Referring again to the correlation between age and advancement, he speculated that ‘Martians are probably far more intellectual than men and more scientific’. He attributed this alleged Martian advancement to the fact that they were, according to him, ‘creatures of sufficient energy and engineering science’, who were able ‘to make canals beside which our greatest human achievements pale into insignificance’.[20]

Outer space and global history

Discussions about life on Mars around 1900 are, therefore, more than mere fanciful speculation. Reading them as reflections about the familiar rather than the other, they reveal deep-reaching assumptions about the nature of connectedness and its normative implications. They indicate that connectivity had become an important marker of progress. Both a state of being connected and the ability to build connective technology became signs of the evolutionary advancement of a particular place, territory, or even an entire planet. Global historians should take this as a reminder that connectivity often had and has normative implications as an indicator of advancement in a progressive teleology. Those without connections or broken connections were perceived as laggards in the scheme of evolution — be they in Africa or Mercury. The drawing that opened this essay, we may conclude, is not a romantic scene, but an important sign of a cosmological theory of progress by means of connectivity where technological infrastructure is the most important factor (and evidence). It is a vision that, in cosmological terms, extends beyond Mars and in which outer space is potentially full of communicating empires. Such assumptions suffuse not only science fiction, but were also formative when the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence became a state-funded scientific enterprise in the 1960s in the USA and elsewhere — but that’s another story.   [1] Camille Flammarion, Les terres du ciel (Paris, 1884), 65. [2] Flammarion published his first book, La pluralité des mondes habités in 1862 at the age of twenty. Especially for Mars, see also Camille Flammarion, La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité (Paris, 1892). [3] For the history of the idea of extra-terrestrial life, see Michael Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900. The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell (Cambridge, 1986). [4] Helga Abret and Lucian Boia, Das Jahrhundert der Marsianer. Der Planet Mars in der Science Fiction bis zur Landung der Viking-Sonden 1976. Ein Science-Fiction Sachbuch (München, 1984), 44. Lowell published his ideas about Mars in his books Mars (Boston et al., 1895), Mars and Its Canals (New York, 1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (New York, 1908). [5] Flammarion, La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité, 589. [6] Mary Proctor, ‘Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years’, The New York Times Sunday Magazine 1911 (27 August 1911). [7] Ibid. [8]  Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900, 395. [9] Nikola Tesla, ‘Talking with the Planets’, Collier’s Weekly 1901 (9 February 1901): 5–6. [10] ‘Hello Earth! Hello! Marconi Believes He Is Receiving Signals from the Planets’, The Tomahawk 1920 (18 March 1920). One of his recent biographers, however, clearly understates Marconi’s belief in extra-terrestrials Marc Raboy, Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World (Oxford, 2016), 471. [11] Most comprehensively, Mars has been studied as a topic of literature and film. See, for example, Justus Fetscher and Robert Stockhammer, eds., Marsmenschen: Wie Die Außerirdischen gesucht und erfunden wurden (Leipzig, 1997). [12] As, for example, John D. Peters argues in his book John D. Peters, Speaking into the Air. A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago/London, 2000), 230. [13] I agree with Roland Barthes, who put it thus: ‘Der Mars ist […] bloß eine erträumte Erde’. And more boldly: ‘die Unfähigkeit, sich das Andere vorzustellen, ist einer der durchgängigsten Züge jener kleinbürgerlichen Mythologie [des ‘Mythos des Selben’].’ Roland Barthes, Mythen des Alltags. Aus dem Französischen von Horst Brühmann, trans. Horst Brühmann (Berlin, 2010), 54, 55. [14] Flammarion, La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité, 586. [15]  Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900, 395. [16] Beyond those mentioned, see, for the typical argument, Elias Colbert, Star-Studies. What We Know of the Universe Outside the Earth (Chicago, 1871), 78. [17] Flammarion, La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité, 586–87. [18] Camille Flammarion, Astronomy for Amateurs, New York 1904 (First Published in French in 1894) (New York, 1904), 331. [19] ‘Hello Earth! Hello! Marconi Believes He Is Receiving Signals from the Planets’. [20] H.G. Wells, ‘The Things That Live on Mars’, Cosmopolitan Magazine XLIV, no. 4 (March 1908): 342.
Abret, Helga, and Lucian Boia. Das Jahrhundert der Marsianer. Der Planet Mars in der Science Fiction bis zur Landung der Viking-Sonden 1976. Ein Science-Fiction Sachbuch. München, 1984. Barthes, Roland. Mythen des Alltags. Aus dem Französischen von Horst Brühmann. Translated by Horst Brühmann. Berlin, 2010. Colbert, Elias. Star-Studies. What We Know of the Universe Outside the Earth. Chicago, 1871. Crowe, Michael. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900. The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell. Cambridge, 1986. Fetscher, Justus, and Robert Stockhammer, eds. Marsmenschen: Wie Die Außerirdischen Gesucht Und Erfunden Wurden. Leipzig, 1997. Flammarion, Camille. Astronomy for Amateurs, New York 1904 (First Published in French in 1894). New York, 1904. ———. La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité. Paris, 1892. ———. Les terres du ciel. Paris, 1884. ‘Hello Earth! Hello! Marconi Believes He Is Receiving Signals from the Planets’. The Tomahawk 1920 (18 March 1920). Peters, John D. Speaking into the Air. A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago/London, 2000. Proctor, Mary. ‘Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years’. The New York Times Sunday Magazine 1911 (27 August 1911). Raboy, Marc. Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World. Oxford, 2016. Tesla, Nikola. ‘Talking with the Planets’. Collier’s Weekly 1901 (9 February 1901): 5–6. Wells, H.G. ‘The Things That Live on Mars’. Cosmopolitan Magazine XLIV, no. 4 (March 1908): 342.  
citation information
Nübling, Anna Sophia. ‘Mars and the Urge to Connect around 1900’. Blog, Global Dis:Connect (blog), 6 September 2022. https://www.globaldisconnect.org/09/06/mars-and-the-urge-to-connect-around-1900/?lang=en.
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