About the Proteus Project

Egyt, 2020 (Credits, Michèle Baussant)

This project stems from a longstanding dialogue between two researchers, Katja Hrobat Virloget and I, between research questions, which began several years ago. Since our discussion, in a Parisian café, during a research visit by Katja Hrobat Virloget, funded by the French Cultural Institute in Slovenia, we have been working together on an ongoing basis on silenced pasts and populations that have been displaced, replanted, replaced, or left behind. This collaboration led us to naturally embark on a program such as Proteus to pursue this work and imagine larger-scale projects with colleagues, permanent researchers, and young researchers.

The project deals with the effects of mass depopulations and repopulations following systemic changes – where the political, socio-economic system changes radically. Many studies are increasingly concerned with the massive displacement of populations due to wars and collapsing intra- and extra-European empires, traces and persistent effects of empires in nations in terms of domination, silences, or competing histories of separated nations and actors. However, few works studies have paid systematic attention to the crossed and parallel social constructions of the presence and absence of the other and, therefore, the self. Often translated into « spatial » terms, these constructions overlap several fields rarely grasped together, such as landscape, lived space, intimate one, history, objects, practices, and language. They challenge the binary identifications and home-making framed by nationalism.   

Based on in-depth qualitative research on various case studies, the project draws on anthropological, historical, and sociological work on the relationship between space and memory. On the one hand, it examines the effects of the national on intertwined, hybrid, and ambivalent histories, spaces, memories, identifications and borders, displacements, circulations, translations, and relationships shaped by and shared through the matrix of the space-time of empires, in their various forms. On the other hand, it questions how these social constructions disclose specific relations and effects between different actors.

Nowadays, Europe is trying to rebrand its image of a dark continent and claim the need to decolonize its history, heritage, and spaces while closing its borders to migrants. However, Europe is also advocating unity in diversity by purging its near past of empire-building, which is still echoing the national entities’ social structures.

These points raise at least two critical concerns for us:

1.How did the fragmentation of multicultural entities into nations produce a reduction of histories and cultures instead of diversity? How does it build the absence of whole segments of peoples, landscapes, languages, cultures, religions, histories, and relationships in a few decades? To what extent the constructed loss of home and homeland of those we are currently « absent » is inextricably linked to the gaining of home and homeland for those who stayed and/or replaced them?

2. Secondly, the research raises questions about nation-building and Europe’s very temporality today, which built itself on an « inverted » temporality of belonging, citizenship, and home for large segments of its populations. This inversion manifests in processes of « undoing » rights and « undoing » identity, relationship to places, and to live together.

Following this line of analysis, the cross-analysis of current spatial and social constructions of absence and presence of the displaced/remained/replaced in different European contexts offers not only an empirical arena but also a powerful analytical tool for exploring and rethinking the local version of processes of inclusion and exclusion, of presence and absence, adhesion and disaffiliation within Europe. It also leads us to explore the question of ‘historical traumas’, particularly when they are mobilized as ‘founders’, and to reflect on possible ways out of the painful alternative of ‘remembering everything’ and/or ‘forgetting everything’.


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