Featured Member: Eline Mestdagh

Featured Member: Eline Mestdagh

Featured Member shines a spotlight on the diverse research interests of, and the exciting projects undertaken by, those affiliated with the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative. In this eleventh instalment of the series, we speak to Eline Mestdagh, a PhD student in Ghent University’s Department of History working on ongoing memory conflicts regarding the public (re)presentation of the Belgian colonial past.

What is the topic of your PhD research?

My project looks at how three associations within the Belgian African diaspora in Brussels deal with the colonial past in their anti-racist and decolonial activism. In recent years, Belgium’s colonial past has increasingly become the subject of demands to come to terms with the past, following years of activism and active agenda setting by the sub-Saharan African diaspora in our country. Both within the academic literature on historical (in)justice and memory politics and within the wider postcolonial public debate, however, there is disagreement about the emancipatory potential of politics regarding the past on the road to social justice in the future. It is a well-known critique, voiced by both academics and commentators in the public debate, that memory politics would allegedly be merely a ‘retrospective’ politics, stimulating a “competition of grievances” among (self-proclaimed) victims (Maier, 1993) and therefore functioning as an obstacle for an orientation towards the future (Torpey, 2001). In response to these criticisms, others have of course demonstrated that such a lack of future orientation is not an inherent feature of claims about past injustices, but that whether memory politics allows societies to build future-oriented politics is heavily dependent on the conceptualizations of time and history that inform the politics in question (Bevernage, 2015). It is well known that public controversies about violent pasts often challenge the very philosophical premises of historical thought, such as temporal premises about the distance between past and present. My project starts from these theoretical discussions and takes up the hypothesis that the Belgian debate on its colonial past is not only driven by questions regarding the past an sich but is equally shaped by conflicting relations to that past. Via a methodology characterized by a cross-pollination of research methods common to the disciplines of both history and anthropology, I precisely investigate those relations to the past within three very different Afro-diasporic activist associations and their members and what this implies for assumptions about ‘coming to terms’ with colonial legacies in Belgium.

What first attracted you to studying the Belgian postcolonial debate?

I was trained as a historian at Ghent University, and first got in touch with the loose academic field of theory of history during my third bachelor year, when taking a seminar on ‘Historical Dialogue’ and a series of philosophy of science courses at the University of Helsinki. It was there that I gradually developed an interest not only in history itself but even more in the ways in which historical narratives work ethically and politically. I became interested in the question of why public discussions where history is at stake often become so polarized and what functions history fulfils for the actors involved. For my master’s thesis (2017) I then investigated the uses of the past in the activism of Kick Out Zwarte Piet, a network of activists that mobilizes against the stereotypical figure of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in the Netherlands. While doing that research, the limited state of postcolonial research in Belgium in contrast to that in the Netherlands became clear to me, which gave me an important incentive to take a closer look at my own society, instead of crossing national borders to do research.

Your research is highly topical in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. What impact do you hope it will have beyond the academic world?

It is clear that in the last few years, and especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Belgian policy makers and institutions have picked up on the urgent call to ‘decolonize’: cultural institutions have set up working groups to look critically at their programmes and work environments, local governments have set up participatory trajectories to craft policy recommendations on how to deal with colonial legacies and racism, and more recently the Belgian federal parliament has set up a parliamentary commission to shape a ‘shared narrative’ about the colonial past and to think about appropriate policies for dealing with the material and immaterial colonial legacies in our country.  At the same time it is also very clear that they often appear lost in the mess of the many meanings concepts like ‘reparation’, ‘recognition’, or ‘decolonization’ can have depending on whom you talk you. Internationally, many models have been developed in the field of transitional justice to deal with calls to ‘come to terms with the past’, but this field has also sometimes been said to have become too technocratic, questioning how to best organize a truth commission, how to assess accountability, how to pay reparations, and less focused on the variety of claims and the fact that such models cannot be easily copied from one context to another (De Greiff, 2006). To determine how to react to historical justice claims, it is therefore important to look at the contextual practical functions of historical narratives of the past in struggles of those who ask for it. Our knowledge of how sub-Saharan African diasporas in our country deal with the past in a variety of ways is highly limited. Commentators in the public debate therefore often incorrectly refer to ‘the diaspora’ as if there is one actor that speaks with one voice, thereby repeating existing essentialisms (Mazzocchetti, 2014). Ultimately, I hope that my project can be a contribution to our understanding of the variety of voices on what it can mean to come to terms with the colonial past today. At the moment, for example, I am finishing a paper that looks at some of the counter-truth-telling initiatives that were launched within the diaspora in reaction to the instalment of the parliamentary commission investigating Belgium’s colonial past. Truth-telling initiatives, such as making formerly secret information accessible, have in the field of transitional justice long been seen as important first steps towards reparations, but it is less obvious to see the processes themselves as acts of reparations. Looking at truth-telling as a form of reparation in itself, however, can reveal that what is at stake in truth-telling is, for some, not only a recognition of some previously unacknowledged truth about past events but equally a recognition and reparation of the structural ‘epistemic impeachment’ (Walker, 2010) some victims and marginalized groups experience in the aftermath of historical injustices. This has important implications for how institutions and authorities organize their working groups and participatory trajectories. Given that postcolonial and decolonial scholarship in Belgium is still in its very infancy when compared to other countries, my own project is just one small part of the puzzle. There is an urgent need for more varied academic research not so much on the colonial past itself, but on how its legacies play out in Belgium today.

Are there any specific texts, concepts, or methods from memory studies that you have found particularly useful?

A text that I have found particularly insightful throughout my research, although it might not directly be considered to be part of the field of memory studies, is a well-known text by Joan Scott on the ‘Evidence of Experience’ from 1991. She discusses how some historians working on the emancipation of minority groups are sometimes quick to rely on ‘experience’ as a source of knowledge and ‘evidence’ of ontological realities, rather than lived realities. She considers this reliance on ‘experience as evidence’ as the paradoxical replacement of one foundationalism, the older more positivist approaches in history, by another, the reliance on experience as a new positivism. While on the one hand we have embraced deconstruction to expose historical ‘objectivity’ as not universal but shaped by positionality and power, on the other hand we do not apply the same deconstruction when it comes to ‘experience’, as if experiences can speak for themselves in a vacuum. Scott therefore emphasizes the importance of investigating how experiences and the group identities attached to them take shape in relation to the larger structures (such as racism) in which they are located, and of historicizing them. This has very much informed my approach towards relations to the past as an actively negotiated social process and helped me to see my work as precisely the investigation of this social process by looking at historical experiences not as “the origin of my explanation” but rather as that “which needs to be explained” (Scott, 1991).

I have also found myself inspired by the more recent ‘turn to the future’ in memory studies, for example via the concept of ‘memory activism’ (see, e.g., Rigney 2018; Gutman, Sodaro, and Brown 2017). Following the repeatedly voiced concerns that memory studies is inherently backward-looking, memory scholars now increasingly challenge such assumptions, doing important analytical work to consider different approaches to temporality and to rethink ways to look towards the future without falling back on grand narratives. Especially given the skepticism that is so often expressed towards memory activists ‘supposedly living in the past’, this literature is crucial to understand social movements engaging with the past and to discover ways in which memory and the future work together. I look forward to seeing this turn towards ‘futurity’ develop further.

Are you collaborating with any other individuals, groups, or networks? How important is collaboration to your research?

Since academic research is an intrinsically collective and social process, collaboration has been crucial to my research since the very beginning. As a young researcher relatively new to the academic world, I have often been amazed at how the work that we do is considered a lonely exercise and the fruits of it as your own personal merit, whereas in reality most of our ideas come into existence in dialogue with others. My own research would be impossible without the active and close collaboration with people who help shape my thoughts. This has become even more clear to me during the months of lockdown we experienced last year, where collaborations both inside and outside academia became much more difficult.

Because an important part of my research consists of fieldwork, I have over the past few years worked together with anti-colonial social movements in Brussels, most notably Change ASBL and BAMKO-CRAN. With BAMKO-CRAN, for example, we launched an online series of workshops and lectures on decolonization at Ghent University last year, in collaboration with the university’s Global Studies Research Network, and we have worked closely together within the framework of ‘Les Assises Décoloniales’, a collaborative research project that BAMKO-CRAN launched following the instalment of Belgium’s parliamentary commission on the colonial past in June 2020. Such collaborations have allowed synergies between various forms of expertise that cannot be confined to the strict limits of academic knowledge and are crucial for my research project. Occasionally, I have also worked together on a more ad-hoc basis with associations that are less fundamental to my research but that are equally occupied with questions concerning Belgium’s colonial past, such as INTAL Congo (Brussels) or Labo vzw (Ghent),

Within the academic world, as well, I often engage in collaborative projects. Together with my supervisor, Berber Bevernage, and my close colleagues Walderez Ramalho, Rafael Verbuyst, and Marie-Gabrielle Verbergt, I coordinate the interdisciplinary research forum Thinking About the PASt (TAPAS). Although all of our research projects really differ from each other, we are all interested in how societies relate to the past and in the political and ethical functions of historical narratives. We often organize workshops and reading groups on subjects that can be related to our relationship to the past, such as Restitution, (Super-)Diversity, and History Education or Historical Responsibility. Throughout these activities, I have been able to meet colleagues working on similar questions from various disciplinary backgrounds, but also non-academic experts such as artists, heritage professionals, or educators. I have found this confrontation of highly different perspectives very inspiring over the last few years. At the moment, with TAPAS, we are editing a volume for Cambridge University Press on ‘Populist Historicities’, or how populist movements and governments engage with the past and with history and what those engagements can mean for professional historians trying to position themselves in relation to populism. Ideas for the project originated during Belgium’s first lockdown, in March 2020. This project, and the many thought-provoking collective brainstorm sessions over Skype that spurred it, proved important for me to keep myself inspired during all those weeks we were locked in our homes. I often consider myself privileged to be part of such a stimulating work environment, where reading and discussing texts together and providing detailed feedback on each other’s work is seen as a very normal part of the trajectory of any PhD project.

Are there any recent or forthcoming seminars, conferences, exhibitions, or other events that you are particularly enthusiastic about?

I am first and foremost enthusiastic about a series of lectures hosted this academic year at the Université Libre de Bruxelles on colonial legacies in Belgium, organized within the framework of the new HERICOL project (Héritages coloniaux en Belgique). This broad research project, coordinated by Abdellali Hajjat, is the first to comprehensively look at the current resurgence of social movements that question Belgium’s colonial past and its relation to the present from a sociological perspective. The series of lectures, of which I will give the first one on 20 October 2021, brings together different experts and disciplines and will be a great opportunity to collectively discuss the current state of research on Belgium’s so-called ‘post-colonial momentum’.

Next to that, I am also really looking forward to the fourth conference of the International Network for Theory of History in Puebla, Mexico, next spring. Since the fields of the theory of history and the philosophy of history remain rather fragmented, the network conferences of the INTH form the perfect opportunity to get in touch with researchers dealing with similar theoretical questions but sometimes working in the periphery of more established academic disciplines such as history, philosophy, or sociology. Originally planned to take place in the spring of  2020, the network has been forced to postpone the event twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am really hoping that the event can now finally take place in April 2022 and look forward to seeing some close international colleagues again in real life.

Works Cited

BEVERNAGE (B.). “The Past Is Evil/Evil Is Past: On Retrospective Politics, Philosophy of History, and Temporal Manichaeism.” In: History and Theory, 54 (2015), 3, pp. 333-352.

DE  GREIFF (P.). “Justice and Reparations.” In: The Handbook of Reparations, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006.

GUTMAN (Y.), SODARO (A.), and BROWN (A.). Memory and the Future: Transnational Politics, Ethics and Society. Springer. 2010.

MAIER (C.S.). “A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on History, Melancholy and Denial.” In: History and Memory, 5(1993), 2, pp. 136-152.

MAZZOCCEHTTI (J.), ed. Migrations subsahariennes et condition noire en Belgique. A la croisée des regards. Louvain-La-Neuve, Academia-L’Harmattan, 2014.

RIGNEY (A.). “Remembering Hope: Transnational Activism beyond the Traumatic.” In: Memory Studies, 11 (2018), 3, pp. 368-380.

SCOTT (J.). “The Evidence of Experience.” In: Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991), 4, pp. 773-797.

TORPEY (J.). “’Making Whole What Has Been Smashed’: Reflections of Reparations.” In: The Journal of Modern History, 73 (2001), 1, pp. 333-358.

WALKER (M.). “Truth Telling as Reparations.” In: Metaphilosophy, 41 (2010), 4, pp. 525-545.

Interview conducted via email by Ida Olsen.