Past Prologue: In Between Conferences

Past Prologue

Easter saw me returning from a trip across Europe for two back-to-back conferences, the biannual conference of the International Association of Inter-American Studies, Reinventing the Social: Movements and Narratives of Resistance, Dissension, and Reconciliation in the Americas at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and Imagining the History of the Future: Unsettling Scientific Stories at the University of York in England.


I presented two very different papers. One, concerned with the idea of the outlaw in the American West that I gave at Coimbra connected to my dissertation research on the nineteenth-century American Southwest. One on the history of the future in York was tied to my current project on the history of popular books describing and diagnosing society in Germany and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

Coimbra University
Coimbra University

Hindsight is indeed 20/20 (which, sidebar, is a wonderfully accurate expression because 20/20 vision is not perfect, but average). What I could not see during the past years became clear and now is obvious: one is quite influenced by one’s surroundings. In this case, my presentation on legality and extralegality in the American Southwest benefitted from a recent volume that emerged out of my former employer, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (Jens Beckert and Matías Dewey’s The Architecture of Illegal Markets: Towards an Economic Sociology of Illegality in the Economy).

Though it is concerned with markets, I found the ideas presented in this volume a very useful jumping-off point for thinking about legality and legitimacy in the American Southwest. The American West has, bewilderingly, been described at the same time as especially lawless and violent, and as relatively tame compared to the cities of the US East Coast.

Much of this is, of course, down to how one interprets sources and which statistics one deigns to trust. There is a fundamental discrepancy here, though, which to me comes down to how people perceived the place they were living in as opposed to how it compared to other places in terms of recordable data. It would not have occurred to me that this work, despite being done in close proximity to me, could so directly influence my thinking on something entirely unrelated.

As for my paper at York, at what was the most singularly insightful and fascinating conference on the broad topic of “science” and “future” I will likely attend during this Saturnian year, it benefitted from recalling a comment by Roger Launius that he was reminded of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth when hearing about my project. At the time, four or so years ago, I filed this away as interesting, but couldn’t quite place it. In the York paper, things had finally congealed and came together.


None of this is especially surprising, but it bears reminding oneself that research is a strange and meandering journey, and that those of us who embark on it should sit in the crow’s nest scanning the horizon, but also climb down and talk to people every once in a while.

In ten days, I will head off to the next conference, The Production of Information: Technologies, Media Markets, and Labour in the Twentieth Century in Hamburg. This will be the third new paper I’ll present in as many weeks, and I’m especially excited because I will be talking about Amazon’s analog forebears. If the past is any kind of reliable prologue, this meeting, too, should be very much worth the trip.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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