Unlearning Imperialism: A Verso Roundtable

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Different African Objects (Source: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936. Photo: Suichi Sunami)

Just before the first of the pandemic lockdown regulations went into effect in the US, when commuter trains were running eerily half-empty, a conference was held at Brown University to discuss Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s powerful and provocative new book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. We didn’t know it then, but it was the last large, freewheeling discussion any of us would attend for the next several years.

Convened by Profs. Vazira Zamindar and Yannis Hamilakis, panelists and audience members talked animatedly about imperial knowledge, history, art, and the possibility of repairing devastated worlds.  Above all, panelists asked: what can a radical practice of history look like?

This week, Verso is happy to publish some responses following from the conference as an online roundtable. More than two years on, in the middle of a forever-pandemic, political polarization, and climate disaster, the urgent call to access history’s revolutionary potential and rebuild a collective world of care seems even more acute.

In this roundtable are responses to the book by a historian, a media studies scholar, an archaeologist, an artist, and the book’s editor, as each take the book to task, turning its pages to reflect and incite, or simply deliberate on the unruly practice of our distinct crafts that the book invites us to engage.

In the roundtable:

Vazira Zamindar asks if history has the disciplinary tools to practice repair

Yannis Hamilakis on archaeology and material artifacts

Lukas Rieppel  on geology, deep time, and “potential prehistory”

Paula Gaetano Adi imagines robots going on strike

Zoë Druick considers the imperial nature of documentary film

Jessie Kindig  describes editing Potential History at Verso

With special thanks to Prof. Vazira Zamindar for bringing this roundtable to final publication.