ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic Data: Wong, R. Bin. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Main Argument: Wong argues convincingly that scholars must seek "to generate the elements of well-grounded comparative history that can identify issues in European as well as non-European history, contribute to projects in world history, and create a new basis for building social theories to replace the great nineteenth-century efforts limited in large measure to European foundations" (ix), and that one way to do this is to incorporate thoroughly into scholarship the historical perspectives, experiences and paradigms of non-Western places. Accordingly, Wong analyzes a thousand years of Chinese history on its own terms and puts it in conversation with broadly similar examples of European history in the same period. In the end it becomes clear that differences are more salient than similarities, but only after similarities have been established through comparison--focusing on differences qua differences yields the sort of meaningless statements that, as one of the people in our class discussion commented, "Europe is different from China, China is different from apples, apples are different from hand grenades, and hand grenades are different from Dwinelle Hall." Yes, and?

The limits of Europe )

Critical assessment: This is a brilliantly analyzed and argued book, and if it gets a little dry at times, Wong succeeds to a greater extent than most economic historians I've read in not ignoring the violence that haunts history--he has an entire chapter comparing the French and Chinese Revolutions with each other, for instance. Let me be frank: as our class discussions around this book made clear, there are some people who just don't believe in comparative history, or at least in doing comparative history as we can now, and this book will not please them. To his credit, however, Wong anticipates that reaction, remarking in his introduction that "Noting items not addressed or inadequately treated matters, I think, only when such absences undermine the arguments or qualify the evidence presented" (8). It should surprise no one, methinks, that I'm with Wong on both the necessity and the value of comparative history, and I think he succeeds brilliantly at the task he sets out for himself, particularly when he reads European examples according to Chinese criteria and destabilizes our received understandings. He's particularly good on the comparative European and Chinese economies and state formations--a lot of what he said led me to rethink things I knew about Europe from 1 CE forward, particularly in the medieval era.

Further reading: Prasenjit Duara, Culture, Power, and the State; Joseph Fletcher Jr., "The Heyday of the Ch'ing Order in Mongolia, Sinkiang, and Tibet"; Edward Friedman, "Reconstructing China's National Identity", Bryna Goodman, Native Place, City, and Nation; Philip Kuhn, "Local Self-Government under the Republic"; Kenneth Pomeranz, From Core to Hinterland, "Protecting Goddess, Dangerous Woman"; Mary Rankin, Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China; Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990-1990

Meta notes: Europe isn't everything. Those of us in Asian studies and similar disciplines know that; now we just have to sell everyone else on that fact.
ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Bibliographic Data: Frank, Andre Gunder. ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Main Argument: Contrary to just about all received economic and historiographical theory and engagement of the last 150 years or so, evidence shows that far from "taking over" beginning in 1500 CE, European world economic dominance did not really begin until about 1800. In every century since at least the 10th (and probably much earlier), Asian economies were far wealthier and more productive than those in Europe, which were only able to participate in the world economic system to the extent that the silver they expropriated from the Americas was desirable to Asian economies as money and as a commodity. By the late 1700s, most Asian economies had fallen into a high-level equilibrium trap in which economic rationality mitigated against the development of mechanization. By contrast, at the same time perpetually high labor costs and high labor mobility in western Europe forced people there to invent mechanized labor-saving devices (aka the Industrial Revolution) in order to compete globally. The resurgence of Asian economies at the end of the C20th and beginning of the C21st is quite probably part of the world economic system returning to its normal pattern.

Yeah, it is a terrible pun. )

Critical assessment: The importance of Frank's argument, and his conclusions, is belied at time by the tendentious tone he takes, but all in all I am glad to have read this book when I did. Frank is basically correct, and the proof is that his arguments--and his interpretation of the evidence--have the virtue not only of simplicity but of accounting for almost everything we know, unlike racist Eurocentric blathering about what in "culture" gave rise to Western hegemony. It wasn't culture; it was global economic forces. Frank's conclusions also put bullets into the notions of globalization, mercantilism, and "capitalism" per se, which any sensible person already knew were false--in a word, Frank checks all the ticky-boxes. I do think that (like most economic historians) he doesn't account enough for human irrationality--racism and wars aren't incidental to human history; they are a prominent feature of it with important causes below the macroeconomic level. The global economic system throughout history may evince "unity in diversity", but humans aren't the same as their economies.

I found myself asking at points, "Is it really all about the benjamins, baby?" Reading this book and Abu-Lughod, you get the picture of humanity as driven by the acquisitive instinct--I don't want to say greed, precisely, because it's perfectly reasonable to want nicer things, individually and societally, and I think of 'greed' as wanting more than one needs--which may well fundamentally be true. But--and I freely admit this is because I am not an economic historian, and have no desire to become one--just because sociocultural formations are "responses" to global macroeconomic forces in the global economic system doesn't invalidate studying them as subjects of study in their own right. And I don't think it necessarily invalidates comparative histories, either--I hope it doesn't! It just means that we have to be exceedingly careful about the terms of our comparisons, and not fall into the Eurocentric theory trap.

Speaking of theory, I'm still sort of in awe at how Frank disregards it so blithely. Now, I personally have never had much time for Marx as a descriptive writer ("the Asiatic mode of production"? Tell me another one!), but I do think that there are things, to paraphrase Chakrabarty, that are well worth being saved from the Eurocentric wreckage, and Marx's critiques of the havoc that modernization and mechanization wreak on people as people are definitely some of them. We need Marx, along with feminism, to help us grope towards a way out of the worldview our macroeconomic response-formation (modernity) has stranded us in, and I don't want to give that up.

Also, high five Adam Smith! Way to be mostly right! I think we can even vindicate him saying "the colonies don't pay" if we recognize that he was talking about the British colonies on the eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean, whereas when Frank talks about "the colonies," which manifestly did pay, in disease-ridden blood and sweat-stained treasure, he means all of the Americas under European subjugation.

One final critique--well, two: 1) Frank's uncritical acceptance of the existence of the Srivajayan empire, which may well have never existed; and 2) the near-total neglect of Africa. At the end Frank says that it may have mostly been caught in a "low-level equilibrium trap" for the period in question (north and east Africa excepted, of course), and in the beginning he both lowballs the number of people stolen out of the continent and says that that loss of millions of people probably had little demographic impact (!), which seems difficult to credit at best without in-depth explanation. Obviously, one of these is much more important than the other.

Classmates of mine pointed out that Frank in speaking of the "high-level equilibrium trap" is following theory that is now almost completely discredited, and that no one writes "this kind" of global history these days; global or international history looks at movements between nations/nits of analysis, as opposed to what Frank does, which is take it out to a whole other level. I firmly believe we need histories like Frank's, if only to force the rest of us to remember to raise our heads up out of our niches.

Also, one gets the typically rosy economic history picture from Frank--wars and revolutions and genocides and all forms of violence get short shrift in his account, which anyone who looks at world history over the past 500 years can tell you is hideously distorted. This is why I don't think we can reduce world history to accounts of the acquisitive instinct and trade at play; humans, for good and ill, are more than that, and Frank's disregard for all the ugly parts of humanity are a serious blow to his account.

Further reading: Frederick Teggart, Rome and China; Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Meta notes: Don't fall into the boundaries trap, the periodization trap, the theory trap--bear these things in mind as categories, but not as things that exist independently. Cite Frank! Write history from the perspective of his conclusions, and, as they say, spit in the eye of anyone who looks at you sideways.
ahorbinski: The five elements theory in the style of the periodic table of the elements.  (teach the controversy)
Bibliographic Data: Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Main Argument: The hegemonic European world system of the C16th-C20th CE was not somehow innately predetermined to have arisen; nor was it innately predetermined to have been dominated by Europeans. Detailed examination of the "world system" in place form the C14th-C14th, in which no one hegemon predominated and none of the participants had no more than regional participation or influence, but in which all actors nonetheless were mutually interdependet, bears this out. The question it asks, forcing you to answer is the question of what happened in the world system that allowed Europeans to take control of and reshape it into a new one in the C16th.

Historiographical Engagement: Manifold, particularly with primary sources throughout Eurasia, some of them quite old--but Abu-Lugbod is primarily writing in reaction to theorists and scholars such as Max Weber, who defined "the city" according to European examples and a priori excluded any non-European instances as not-real. Also particularly with Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World-System, which purported to describe the same from within a profoundly Eurocentric worldview; also again with Karl Marx, and his ideas on the origins of capitalism.

Preface: Argument, Sources, Examples Contra Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolution, paradigm shifts arise within systems and within observers, from new observations. Paradigm shifts in historiography and the social sciences have arisen from 1) interdisciplinary scholarship; 2) subaltern and postcolonial scholars & scholarship; 3) global perspective in scholarships, despite its being looked at askance by specialists who usually concentrate on one area in one particular era.

Chapter 1: Introduction--Argument, Sources, Examples At its peak in the first decade of the C14th CE, almost all of Eurasia was integrated into a world system of economic exchange, broadly divisible into eight regional circuits, from which all derived economic benefit--and which, ironically, formed the pathway by which the Black Death traveled over the continents, visiting havoc on people and places to the degree to which they were integrated into the system. Zing!

Economic surpluses --> increased wealth --> greater foreign trade, as well as greater cultural products, the products of which are reinvested in a mutually beneficial loop. The world system was as much an archipelago of "world cities" as it was a set of circuits, and these trading partners were broadly similar: all possessed advanced money & credit institutions and instruments, sophisticated mechanisms for pooling capital and distributing risk, and rich merchants.

Of systems and symbiosis )
Chapter 11: Conclusion--Argument, Sources, Examples

The C13th world system was substantially the same in transport technology, social invention relation to money, credit and production, as that in the C16th, and there is no satisfactory "cultural" explanation for why Europe came to predominate the latter--the West "won" not because the West was the only possible winner, but because the other major players were severely weakened after the depredations of the Black Death. In the C13th a variety of religions, economic formations, and social structures, and roles all participated equally in the system.

The system declined as a result of the retrenchments brought about by the Black Death, which necessitated a refocusing of economic priorities on agriculture, and because the northern and middle routes across Asia were rendered impassable by the breakup of the Mongol empire and the founding of the Ming dynasty. However, the structure of the system remained intact and was not invented but rather transformed by European powers beginning in the C16th.

Along with their different philosophy of acquisition (i.e. trade as plunder), what fundamentally altered the world system, and gave rise to capitalism, was the Europeans' conquest of the Americas and the transfer of most of central America's precious metals to Spain and Europe, as well as the export of human capital in the form of slaves from Africa, over the course of several centuries.

There is no fixed set of principles for world systems, which are dynamic and undergo periodic restructurings; similarly, there is no fixed set of principals in the world system--over and over, the benefits of actions undertaken by one group accrue to those who succeed them in prominence, and though some cities are eternal none retain their preeminence as "global cities" indefinitely.

Similarly, systemic changes are as much a product of changes within the system as they are of changes in smaller components of the system--the system is fundamentally composed not of nodes but of the connections between them, and these connections are shuffled as systems evolve and shift. Nor are systemic causes and effects simple; instead, they are chaotic in that a small change may produce a huge outcome while a large change may have only a small actual consequence--furthermore, these changes are contextual; their effects depend on what is happening around them (the Vikings and possibly the Chinese reached the Americas to no real effect, for just one example).

Finally, studying the multipolar nonhegemonic world system of the C13th may enable us to extrapolate about the nature of the C21st world system which is gradually emerging.

Critical assessment: It's revelatory how much of Abu-Lugbod's analysis is directly applicable, often with only minor cosmetic changes in terminology, to today's global economy. If this book was as major a challenge to received wisdom 20 years ago as it appears to have been, the state of the field 20 years ago is frankly depressing--a lot of Abu-Lugbod's conclusions feel obvious, which is a testament to her success but makes for less than enthralling reading. I really wish she had gone whole hog and stopped using such terms as "Orient" and "Far East," which I hope make everyone cringe, but again, that this particular critique is even possible is partly the result of her points becoming generally accepted. I suppose one could point out that she neglects the Americas and Africa (and Australia, for that matter) almost entirely, but since they weren't heavily engaged in the C13th world system, which is fundamentally Eurasian, I am less impressed by that critique as such. The other critique I could anticipate is that Abu-Lugbod relies on sources in translation, but I think she compensates for not knowing all the sources' languages with the jaundiced eye she brings to the sources.

Further reading: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse; Edward Said, Orientalism and The Culture of Imperialism; Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt; the Travels of Marco Polo and of Ibn Battuta; Charles C. Mann, 1491; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes; William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples; Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

Meta notes: No one was ever harmed by looking at things on a macro scale, though the footwork involved in writing this book is extraordinary.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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