11 September 2018

Michael Goebel: from Latin American history to urban ethnic studies

Newly arrived at the International History Department of the Graduate Institute, where he will inaugurate the Pierre du Bois Chair Europe and the World, Professor Michael Goebel will teach two courses this semester, on nationalism and cities. A historian of Latin America by training, he is the author of a prize-winning book on anti-imperialism in interwar Paris that has ignited his growing interest in the intersection of global and urban history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This portrait traces the evolution of his research interests, the publications that have inspired him, and his motivation for joining the Institute.

How would you introduce yourself? You have such a wide range of research interests; which of these do you consider to be your specialised “research” identity?

goebel_portrait.jpgI started as an intellectual historian of Latin America, particularly of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina. However, the research for my last book, which dealt with anti-imperialism in interwar Paris, drew me geographically into the history of the French Empire and towards social history. I started with the intention to examine Paris as a place where many Latin American intellectuals congregated, but during the course of the research it pulled me into other directions, especially relating to migration and urban space, which resonated with some of my earlier work on immigration in South America, a topic you invariably have to engage with if you are interested in nationalism in Argentina.

Could you tell us about this book and its significance?

Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism was about interwar Paris, as the title suggests, but the larger explanatory horizon is connected to post-WWII decolonisation and nationalism. The initial question driving my research was how to explain that so many individuals from across the colonies who later became prominent nationalist politicians had spent large parts of their intellectually formative periods in major European centres like Paris. The conventional answer to this question – given by Elie Kedourie, for instance – was that the activists of colonised countries “learnt” nationalism in Europe, whether from books or in classrooms, and later went on to import such ideas in their home countries. I soon grew uncomfortable with this explanation because I think it provides an unrealistically anaemic view of why people may aspire for nation-states. So, in contrast to a classic history of nationalist ideas, I foregrounded more tangible everyday issues, such as legal differentials between citizens and colonial subjects. Migrations from colonies to metropolitan centres and back, not just of political elites but even of other social classes like factory workers, mattered for this story because they spotlighted such rights differentials – often in very concrete spaces, such as a specific Parisian factory. The background here is that colonised people were ruled as subjects, not citizens, and greater awareness of this inequality fed into the political aspirations of many people.

What is your current research project?

At the moment, I am interested in the history of ethnic and racial segregation in cities, particularly port cities, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am working on an article that compares Manila and Havana, interrogating how race interacted with residential patterns in these two cities. I chose these two cities because their histories have many political and physical similarities: both were Spanish colonial foundations and later became entrepots for commodities like sugar; their forms of governance and urban planning originated from common conceptual foundations. Moreover, after 1898 both cities came under American tutelage. Yet, the ways in which race and urban space interacted in those places diverged very much. Experiences of racial segregation and ethnic fault-lines manifested themselves in extremely divergent ways, which makes the pair an interesting subject of comparison.

What brought you to Geneva and the Graduate Institute? Is there anything about doing research here that motivated you?

I believe there are many people here who I can speak to in order to “fill in the blanks” of my own research as well as make forays into other areas of research I enjoy but without having sufficiently grounded knowledge on those subjects. All of this is important to my work and so is the exposure to the kind of cosmopolitan environment and flow of persons in this city and the Institute. The International History Department offers a spectrum of global, international and transnational history in its widest manifestations, which is very rare, at least in Europe.

What kind of courses will you teach this semester and how have they been informed by your research interests?

I would like to offer courses which may be of wider interest to non-historians, in keeping with the ethos of the department. The themes of my two courses this semester, on nationalism and cities, fit this goal because both themes cut across disciplines, but the content of the courses will approach them historically. This is clear in the course on nationalism, one of my oldest research interests, which is of obvious importance today, as well as easily communicable to students of disciplines other than history. The course on cities is a bit more experimental, as it seeks to engage the field of urban studies in order to find common ground with history. It is a standard complaint of historians that they are not taken seriously enough by scholars of urban studies. So, the course will seek to test how, together in a classroom seminar, we may find substantive ways in which history can contribute to urban studies debates beyond a vacuous assertion that everyone should know more history.

Are there recent books that have marked your research field?

Having just arrived at the Graduate Institute, I should probably mention Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists, which I think is also having an important impact on the history of economic thinking, though this is not exactly my field. Another Geneva-related book, which I read with enormous benefit (though three years ago), was Susan Pedersen’s The Guardians. In urban history, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mike Rapport’s The Unruly City, a lively socio-political history of late eighteenth-century Paris, London and New York. I was gripped and moved by Mark Mazower’s family history (What You Did Not Tell), even though, again, it’s not exactly my field. In global history, I think Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World and Sebastian Conrad’s What Is Global History? should be on everyone’s reading list.

And what are the “classic” academic articles or books that you would like everybody to read?

I think the answer to this question really depends on your specific interests. I therefore can’t answer it in a general way, but just to pick from the two courses I teach this semester: if you are interested in nationalism, anyone will tell you to read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. If you are interested in urban history, you should read Louis Wirth’s “Urbanism as a Way of Life”. Not a very original answer, I know, but since you ask for “classics”…

What books (whether academic or not) are now on your nightstand?

I am currently meaning to read Adam Tooze’s Crashed. I would also like to read In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts by Eugen Ruge, a novel about a family in the GDR.

Interview by Aditya Kiran Kakati, PhD Candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology