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: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
In 1098 Crusader destruction of the Syrian town of Ma'arra had been accompanied by acknowledged acts of Frankish cannibalism. Graphically described in the chronicle of Radulph of Caen (he admits that "In Ma'arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled"), they were later "justified" in a letter sent to the Pope by the Christian commander, who blamed the lapse on extreme hunger. Needless to say, this excuse was dismissed by Arab historians who continued to describe their bloodthirsty enemies as eaters not only of people, but, what was worse, even of dogs, considered the uncleanest of species (Maalouf, 1984: 39-40).

--Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony (107)
History: because you can't make this shit up.


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

May 2016

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