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Connectivity and its Discontents: the Sahara, Second Face of the Mediterranean?

Judith Scheele, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin / École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris

Braudel once called the Sahara ‘the second face of the Mediterranean’: a region also marked by a history of connectivity, but on a ‘colossal’ scale that inverted the density of the Mediterranean, turning it into an ‘anoekumene’ where ‘the superabundance of empty space condemns societies and economies to perpetual movement’ to the point where ‘towns exhaust themselves’. This Braudel explicitly contrasted with the Western Mediterranean, marked by abandoned villages: the loss of rurality in one region throwing into relief the inability to go beyond it in the other. The Sahara’s shadow also overlooks Horden and Purcell’s Corrupting Sea, less keen on such contrasts, but whose promise to treat it in a second volume, Liquid Continents, still stands unfulfilled; and it is at the heart of contemporary imagination as Europe’s most vulnerable (and deadly) boundary, in terms that would speak to Braudel’s darker side. Horden and Purcell’s ideas about ‘Mediterranean connectivity’ make intuitive sense in the Saharan context, where movement comes before place, diversification is key, and micro-regions coalesce in often unexpected ways, throwing historic shadows over contemporary events and in some cases – regional jihad for instance – indicating an imagined future. But, as is perhaps inevitably the case with a model derived from mathematics, it lacks moral and political depth. Connectivity might be a fact of life, but, as Horden and Purcell recognise in their title,  it is not necessarily always equally welcome, or equally good. Openness might spell corruption and vulnerability, and closure represent a desirable although impossible goal. Villages and towns might be ecologically similar, but they are morally distinctive. ‘Exchange’ takes the form of trading, but also of raiding or taxation; the emphasis can be on predation and structural disequilibrium as much as on reciprocity. This lecture proposes to take arguments from connectivity one step further, and describe different moral micro-ecologies in the Sahara, how they coalesce, or indeed refuse to do so, and what the political, analytical and methodological implications of this might be.


May 22, 2019


Tagungsraum, Neues Seminargebäude, Universität zu Köln
Universitätsstraße 37
50931 Köln