New Year Lecture: Figuring out How to Reconfigure African Studies
On 16 January 2020, the Dean of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Seesemann, invited the interested public to the cluster’s first annual New Year Lecture. He took it upon himself to hold the inaugural speech titled “Figuring out how to reconfigure African Studies”, providing illuminating insights into what the Cluster is trying to achieve.
In late 2019, the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence decided that the Cluster’s yearly line of activities were in need of a proper kick-off event. The idea of the annual “New Year Lecture” was born. The Lecture was envisioned as a platform where members of the Cluster could exchange and develop ideas that may provide leads for the joint work in the months to follow. For 2020, none other than the Dean of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Seesemann, presented the first inaugural Lecture in a series of yearly events.
“Teenage period” of the Cluster begins
The first New Year Lecture took place on January 16, 2020. While conceived as the first get-together of all cluster members in each calendar year, invitations also went out to the wider interested public. Dr. Markus Zanner, the Provost of the University of Bayreuth, delivered a welcome address to a rather big crowd: more than 150 people had followed the invitation and attended the highly anticipated lecture in person, with many more watching via live-stream. Dr. Zanner congratulated the Cluster on its first year of existence. Comparing the Cluster’s life-span of seven years with the lifetime of a person, he mused: “With one year gone, the infancy of the Cluster is now almost over. I wish the Cluster a good ‘teenage period!”
An ongoing process
After being introduced by Prof. Dr. Ute Fendler, the Cluster’s co-spokesperson and Vice Dean of Internationalization and Public Engagement, Rüdiger Seesemann first reviewed the previous months of the Cluster’s existence, from the establishment of the African Cluster Centres in July 2019 to its kick-off event, the first networking conference and concert in the Margravial Opera House in late October 2019. He then reflected on the Cluster’s logo which can be read as a metaphor for the multiple forms of connective knowledge production the Cluster aims to achieve. The Dean went on to mull over the Cluster’s motto “Reconfiguring African Studies”, describing it as “a lofty objective” echoing the Cluster’s overarching aim, “which is no less than the reconfiguration of African studies, on both the conceptual and the structural level.” Seesemann explained that the Cluster, as stated in the original proposal text, “is conceived as a transformative space, within which to systematically advance the study of African and African diasporic ways of life and world-making via the pursuit of cutting-edge research and theory-building based on new inter- and transdisciplinary formats of research cooperation.” However, Seesemann continued, “developing a blueprint for the reconfiguration of African Studies is one thing, and implementing it is another.” The first year had taught the members of the Cluster an important lesson: Reconfiguring African studies was a process that required perseverance: Rather than taking a few straight-forward steps, the Cluster members need to figure out over and over again how to reconfigure African Studies.
Necessary tools to reach the Cluster’s goal
According to Seesemann, the Cluster is using two important structural tools in order to reach this goal: First the establishment of new research partnerships with African academic partners through the African Cluster Centres, thus complementing the existing research networks; and second, the gradual creation of a Digital Research Environment designed to take over three essential tasks: to connect all segments of the Cluster’s research infrastructure, to offer tools that allow the Cluster members to work jointly with shared databases, and to provide working formats that reflect the heterogeneity, complexity, and dynamism of the Cluster’s research. Rüdiger Seesemann also stressed the importance of the Cluster’s agenda for the promotion of gender and diversity, where structural and conceptual components are closely intertwined.
Multiplicity is key
The Dean of the Cluster later went into detail about the very object of the Cluster’s research agenda and asked whether “Africa” could be defined in the first place. He scrutinized this question by using the example of Islam as object of study in Islamic Studies – the area of his main expertise. In order to introduce a substantial change of perspective, he emphasized the need to overcome binary models inherited from the colonial gaze by zooming on the multiplicity of the research object. The conceptual reconfiguration of African Studies, he argued, means to explore and analyze the multiple, relational, and reflexive ways in which the African lifeworlds we study intersect and co-constitute each other. In conclusion, Seesemann summarized: “As we embark on the reconfiguration of African Studies it is of paramount importance to continuously reflect on the various layers, levels and intricacies of our endeavour. At the same time, we need to keep our focus on the conceptual shift required to steer the study of Africa in new directions.” (sg)
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- The speech was recorded and may be watched following this link.