The Empire Institute evolved out of a study group on American imperialism at the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut Tübingen (d.a.i.). Our story begins at the first and last nonfiction book discussion on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. These authors argued for a new ontology of sovereignty, which they called ‘Empire,’ and represents a new spaceless totality of rule. They showed not only how modern philosophical concepts of sovereignty have been ontologically organized around the ‘nation-state,’ but pointed out how the rise of modern European states was coterminous with European imperial expansion abroad, and thus reveals how modern sovereignty and imperialism are inseparable. Historically, both European and non-European societies constituted each other. Hardt and Negri’s text while having modified its own theoretical sources, acts as an original agent that has influenced the matrices of language, which has had a profound effect on current leftists political thought and rhetoric. Empire opened up a conceptual door for us, which led to an original understanding of international space and relations. Although the forces of globalization do seem to be undermining domestic space, we decided that their notion of ‘Empire’ had to be further discussed in the context of events that were occurring during Summer 2002, which pointed to the significance of geography and history.
The next step in our evolution came in Fall 2002, when we began critiquing Hardt and Negri’s concept of Empire on the grounds that there is a radical break between modern imperialism and postmodern Empire and their claim that there is no center to the postmodern imperial project. Hardt and Negri’s re-reading of sovereignty is based on a peculiar form of American exceptionalism; for they claim that the US has promoted a world market based on an international borderless globe without being imperialists, and they see a fundamental ontological discontinuity between modern and postmodern forms of imperialism. On the contrary, this argument seemed groundless in the face of current events. So, with Tübingen’s English speaking public we explored the notion of an American empire. And as the Iraq war approached, we ruthlessly pushed this notion, which was becoming ubiquitous across the political spectrum, except inside the Bush administration and the German University. That was when we really discovered the special need for a mental space, where one could discuss openly without fear of one’s academic peers. For within academia, it seemed as if there was a sort of preemptive strategy directed against creative and original thought. Not only were students silent concerning the new world order taking shape and the second Iraq war (which was certainly approaching) but so were Professors, who seemed dumbfounded by events and unable to publicly form an opinion or articulate a perspective at the time. It was in this context that some core members of the Empire Study Group decided to institute an interdisciplinary study centered on imperialism.