Interview with Jun.-Prof. Dr. Manuel Borutta (Fellow)

Written by Yanda T. Bango, March 24th, 2015

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

“I think history is great because it has a critical dimension, it is a weapon; you can historicize everything in nature, culture, common sense arguments, and so forth. Historians have a responsibility and they have different options whether they want to stabilize or try to criticize power relations and perceptions. I think this is the political relevance of history and that’s exciting!”

Manuel Borutta, an assistant Professor for Mediterranean History   at the Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, is also a fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research. His project at the centre is on Mediterranean Entanglements: France and Algeria between Colonization and Decolonization. Having noticed his current research, one of the directors at the centre encouraged Borruta to apply for a fellowship with them.

Of the wealthy and diverse research issues that the fellows at the centre tackle, Borutta’s research is relevant and sparks much critical and needed dialogue about postcolonial society today. In particular, for Borutta, the Mediterranean is interesting because it is in-between Europe, Africa and Asia. This makes it a contact zone and in his words “Europe has tried to Europeanize it during the modern imperial age and this project of assimilation failed but it also had a strong impact on the region”. At the same time, Borutta adds that when parts of Southern Europe tried to Europeanize North Africa, parts of Southern Europe were Orientalized. “This is a very paradoxical representation of the European South and Mediterranean is in-between Europe and non-Europe. This is very interesting and challenging because normally global history is dealing with non-European societies which are very far away from Europe where the distinction between Europe and non-Europe can be easily made. In the case of the Mediterranean this is more difficult”.

Borutta believes that postcolonial literature is changing the Social Science perspective on society, modernity, religion, etc. What he tries to do in his research is to apply postcolonial theory to European history. He says the theorists he reads and applies are criticizing the West; he believes that it is important to have a closer look on Europe and to discover the power asymmetries within Europe as well.

Borutta’s academic journey is interesting and shows how the process of receiving an education is dynamic, enriching and certainly transforming. Coming from a non-academic background, he found university to have been a very exciting experience which was also destabilizing his world-view in the sense that it made him aware of the fact that  there is no direct (scientific) access to truth.

Before he branched off to a deeper focus on History, Borutta also studied literature. Referring to the study of history, he expressed that his first introduction to it was a very positivistic and factual approach. At this point in his life he was still undecided which direction to take. He admits that there was a time, early in his academic journey, that he found history to be quite boring. Regarding literature, he found it very destabilizing because his initial perception was that there is only one meaning of a text and having this assumption disproved was a critical stage. In his words, “discovering that there are plural approaches to meaning and different theoretical approaches put me in a crisis and I also thought about doing something else but then I met a very good professor who showed us that all these different theories and approaches have different benefits, chances and potentials, this was kind of a liberating and decisive moment”.

His decision towards studying history was when he met historians who were debating about theory.  Berlin was a hotspot of theoretical debate during the mid-90s between social and cultural historians who were discussing all the problems of postmodernity and its effects on the social sciences, history in particular. This was the moment he first realized that the things he had learnt in literature could be applied in history as well.

In response to the question of what needs to be done to put history out there and make it more appealing, more especially to young people, Borutta asserted that the critical dimension of history has to be emphasised and shown that history as a discipline can be used to defend the marginalized, to criticize power relations and to show alternatives because the victors always say there was no alternative and they have ideological explanations of their explanations and this is where critical history comes in, where it can criticize and deconstruct narratives.

Responding to the issue of topics that need to be researched more, Borutta expressed that historians, in particular, still have much to do especially in critiquing and historicizing the economy. “The great thing about the post-modern and culturalist approach was to take culture more seriously but the blind spot was the economy: class issues and economic interests were neglected so I think the challenge for historians now is to use the same methods and theories they’ve developed and also develop new methods and theories in order to historicize the market economy, capitalism, neo-liberalism because this is the most powerful ideology and system at the moment which is saying that there is no alternative”. He added that the challenge and duty of historians is to show that there have been alternatives in order to deconstruct this narrative.

Finally, on the critical question of how his academic work bridges the gap between social research and practical life, Borutta feels that in the discipline of History there aren’t many options to influence practical life for historians but also rightly pointed to the fact that teaching is one social impact a practitioner can contribute in. Through teaching, he expressed that he tries to give students the freedom to think, “to enable them to think differently and develop their own creativity and personality”; this for him is very important. He added that the other way Historians can have a social impact is by going to the media and communicating the insights to the public and trying to convince decision makers in politics and the economy to make better decisions.

Book Challenge:

Professor Manuel Borutta’s top ten books

  • Franz Kafka, The Trial
  • David Wellbery, Positionen der Literaturwissenschaft
  • Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History (Article)
  • Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology
  • Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History
  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
  • Edward W. Said, Orientalism
  • Margaret Lavinia Anderson, Practicing Democracy
  • David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature
  • Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean

More from Jun.-Prof. Dr. Manuel Borutta


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