An Interview with Timothy Mitchell, co-editor of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East

In early December, the editorial collective of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East gathered for their quarterly meeting at Columbia University. The journal’s managing editor, Liz Beasley, attended the meeting and spoke with Timothy Mitchell, who co-edits the journal with Anupama Rao, about his role as senior editor over the past five years.

Tell us a bit about CSSAAME. How has the journal changed since the time you took over five years ago?

ddcsa_34_3It’s an unusual journal, because it’s neither the journal of one region—it’s not a journal of Middle East studies, of African history, or of any single world region. But nor is it simply a journal of transnational studies or of the global South. It has a focus on three intersecting world regions, and we’ve tried to make that not just an accident of the title but something that defines the work it publishes. Most work we publish focuses on just one of those three regions, but we want it to be read by scholars of the other two regions—that’s something we’ve really tried to emphasize in the kind of scholarship we look for. When we get submissions that don’t do that explicitly, we try to get those submissions rewritten in such a way that, while they will still appeal to specialists of the history or the politics or the anthropology of a particular place, they will be accessible also to those who work on one of our other two regions.

We do also encourage some more specifically comparative work. We have a book review section called Kitabkhana, which usually takes a single book, or a pair of books, and includes reviewers who are from all three regions.

Kitabkhana is a new section since you’ve taken over the journal, because before it was individual book reviews.

Yes, it had a conventional book review section before. We wanted to do something different. There are many good journals that do book reviews, but we felt what we could do differently was review from the perspective of both specialists in the region that the book deals with and those who are just outside and on the borders of that region.

How does the editorial collective function?

Like certain other journals, CSSAAME is edited from a particular geographic and some extent intellectual location. We’re based at Columbia University. Not every member of the editorial board—currently there are nine members—is from the faculty of Columbia, though the majority are. And so the editorial spirit of the journal is a reflection of the intellectual community within and beyond Columbia. Some members of the collective are based elsewhere, some move between Columbia and research centers on other continents. And our contributing editors and our authors write from many parts of the world. I think the two work together symbiotically—the intellectual community in New York, which is composed of scholars who meet regularly and continue conversations across a variety of forms, and a journal that engages with scholars and ideas across multiple locations around the world. We’re trying to see how the two can develop together.

Other journals—and other Duke journals, for example—do a similar kind of thing, and have a strong base in a particular intellectual community. That’s not the way every journal should be—there are other journals that have no specific geographical location in their editorial boards. But our base in New York does give us opportunities to have conversations that extend beyond the editorial meetings and get reflected back into the pages of CSSAAME.

And Anupama Rao, CSSAAME‘s other co-editor, is here as well.

It’s fortunate that we have offices in adjacent buildings—I think it really helps on a practical level to be colleagues in the same institution and be involved in many other intellectual projects together. Of course it helps that she’s so smart, has a wonderful knowledge of scholarship across so many fields, and has a fantastic sense of what’s new and what’s interesting.

Are there any upcoming special sections that you would like to tell us about? And of all the things we’ve published in the past five years, is there anything that really stands out to you? Any work that you thought was doing something especially important?

That’s a tough one—I really don’t want to pick favorites. It’s actually another answer to your question about what we’ve tried to do differently. The other thing we’ve tried to do is publish work other than the standard academic article. So we’ve done a number of interviews—some of them have been wonderfully insightful discussions, and even historical documents. The interview that Fadi Bardawil did with Talal Asad in our pages [volume 36, issue 1] has been very widely read.

And we’ve staged discussions: there’s one that we’re in the process of publishing that came out of an essay by Partha Chatterjee that appeared in the “Provocations” section of 36:2. We invited responses to the essay, and being able to think about debates that we were interested in hearing and organizing has been a feature of what we’ve tried to do. In some ways I’m keenest about some of those things, but I don’t in any way want to slight the very serious, more conventional academic articles.

Something that is not new or particularly distinctive to the journal has turned into a very important aspect of it: most of what we publish is organized thematically, with each issue having two or three special sections. Often these arise from workshops, conference panels, or symposia that we are involved in, or hear about, or that others bring to us. We won’t ever just take the papers from a conference panel and publish them as they are. We do a lot of work continuing to develop the ideas that make the papers hang together. We’ll sometimes suggest other papers to add to a special section. That ability to do collective work, work that forms a section where the papers are speaking to each other, and not just to scholarship to the field in general, is something you can really work on in editing the journal. We are developing a conversation even through the editorial process, in the process of revision, comment, and re-revision, so that publishing is not just something that you do at the end of things. It is a process that develops the quality of the scholarship.

Do you have specific thoughts about where you want to take the journal from here? I know that the editorial collective works to pull together ideas as a group and has just discussed a potentially divisive book for a Kitabkhana, for instance. Are you looking for more controversy?

One of the directions in which we’ve tried to take the journal is to think about scholarship after area studies. Another way of putting it is what I said earlier, that this is post–area studies journal but one that hasn’t abandoned the advantages of regional specialization and specialist readership. It’s trying to continue to develop scholarship that is written from a knowledge of languages, of histories, of cultures in a specialized way but finds a way to speak to a much broader audience, to make this a journal that scholars of Europe or Latin American or East Asian history and culture would want to read as well. That’s something we want to continue to develop.

People reading this post may be thinking about sending their work to us. What are you looking for in submissions? You’ve already mentioned that you want to appeal to nonspecialists. By the same token, is there anything you do not want?

We look for a certain kind of academic writing. As editors we work hard with authors on producing a readable academic prose. Other journals do this, too, but it’s something that we’ve tried to make a hallmark of the journal. In submissions, although we’ll work with authors to revise toward the kind of writing we want—focusing on the readability of the text, the freshness of the prose—it’s something we encourage authors to pay attention to. Some of it is the business of avoiding jargon, cliché, and terms that have become used in a specific way that will not make the article easily reach a wider audience. As we’re doing this to get scholarship read outside of the narrow fields in which it would otherwise be read, we take the level of the writing seriously.

Is there any particular field or area in which you’d like to receive submissions? Anu had mentioned that she thinks we’re being known as a history journal and perhaps wanted to bring in anthropologists and others to contribute.

We get some great submissions from anthropologists, and we’d like to have more. But I’d say the field we would encourage even more than that is literature—work on contemporary or historical literature of the Middle East, South Asia, or Africa. Again, if it fits the larger mission of the journal, I think we’d really like to do more of that.

And much of that is outlined in the Mission Statement from your first issue as editors.

Yes. We’ve published one or two pieces that have been about the history of ideas and intellectual and political debates going on in particular parts of the region, like the piece we did on the Arab Left and Palestine [Anaheed Al-Hardan’s essay “Al-Nakbah in Arab Thought: The Transformation of a Concept” from 35:3]. But we’re also interested in current contributions to ongoing political debates and cultural arguments.

Another thing we’ve changed in the journal is the cover, introducing new artwork by artists from the three regions in every volume. In one case so far, we’ve accompanied that with a symposium with the artist. So Shahzia Sikander’s work appeared on the covers of volume 34, and we were able to publish an extended conversation about her work in volume 35.

That kind of engagement with contemporary cultural production, artists working today whose work we can publish, if we can do photo essays or interviews that bring in aspects of contemporary cultural movements and visual culture—we’d love to do more of that. We really are a very interdisciplinary journal. The majority of what we publish tends to be historical scholarship, work on the visual arts, or politics, literature, intellectual thought—all of those fields are part of the scope of the journal.

Interested in submitting your work to CSSAAME? Visit the journal’s Editorial Manager siteStay connected! Read CSSAAME, follow the journal on Facebook, and sign up for electronic table-of-contents alerts delivered directly to your inbox when a new issue is published.

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