Table of Contents|
Personal and Professional
Honors and Memberships
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
Essays on NATO and Kosovo
Contact A.G. Frank
Andre Gunder Frank
On "New World History"
I take it that this book offers a good representative sample of what is written and said about what world history is and how it should be conceptualized, studied, researched, and taught. The following are reflections on some of the main propositions that are oft repeated in many chapters and which I have here grouped into more or less different kinds of propositions, numbered 1,2,3,...
1. FOR WHAT AND WHOM?
Arguably, the most important proposition is really a question, which is asked specifically by one author and implicitly by all of them, as well as by this commentator: What kind/s of world history can be of what use to anybody and particularly to the students whom we ask to study it? To this simplest of all questions, the alleged answers by our authors and myself regarding NEW WORLD HISTORY. A TEACHER'S COMPANION are of precious little use to teachers or students - just ask the students! Judith Zinsser poses the 'so what?' problem in women's history. "How will that change... ? The answer quite simply is, it won't." Do we have any more or a better an answer for world history? If so, what is it? Certainly not the propositions reviewed below, and probably also not my accompanying critques thereof.
2. CIVILIZATIONAL AND OTHER CATEGORIES:
In reality, there are and have been NO civilizations, societies, cultures, ethnicities and even states in and of themselves. There are NO such essentialist intrinsically self-contained entities. To claim, identify, and study any such makes NO sense whatsoever and only beclouds reality. There are only connections and relations within and among such alleged civilizations. A particular/ly important case in point is that these alleged but non-existent 'civilizations' etc. were formed and exist only in RELATION to each other AND to their "barbarian" neighbors and indeed components. Indeed, most 'barbarians' were more civilized and certainly more egalitarian - also in gender relations ? than their 'civilized' neighbors. The, the commonly used list of circum? Inner/Central Asian' and African [indeed also Western Hemisphere] civilizations omits any consideration of the large number of Inner Asian and African people. The 'nomads' and 'tribals' [and most people switched from and combined their existence with sedentary ones], were and relations with them were essential for and also integral components of these 'civilizations'. An important example are the people and members of the 'Chinese civilization' who were composed of waves and waves of people, essential economic goods, and religions from or transmitted through Inner Asia, who moreover governed 'China' through more than its recorded history. Any history that makes any claim to WORLD history must abandon these fictitious and misleading 'civilizational' and related categories, to which there are endless references in these selections.
Unfortunately whatever these civilizationist authors' subjective intentions, objectively they alas promote and legitimize the recently popularized "CLASH OFCIVILIZATIONS"  now propagated by Samuel Huntington, the cold war ideologue-turned-champion of what he calls "the West versus the Rest;" and the "WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS  by David Landes, whose conclusion is that "if we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference," of which the 'father' of modern world history William McNeill writes " there are serious defects in his approach . Landes does not try to understand this history....[his] vision of the human past remains shaped by European economic [alleged world] history.... Nothing else matters much to him." Their quintessence is "THE END OF HISTORY" , thanks to western development of democracy, announced by Francis Fukuyama, which would make all world history beside the point. All of these recent cultural / civilizational pronouncements have been as widely popular as and because they are fundamentally divisionist, pernicious and dangerous in unfortunately denying all UNITY in diversity.
They are very misleading for at least three reasons among others, and as a minimum must be complemented by connections: [A] If comparisons are attempted among civilizations, societies, cultures, etc. they are ipso facto [ see # 2 above] between or among artificially made arbitrary categories that refer to NO existing reality. Therefore insofar as they do so, such comparisons make NO sense. Perhaps, there is some utility however in making comparisons among processes or themes as you call them, such as the formation and transformation of religions, state formation, gender relations, migrations, etc. from one place or time to another. [B] However, any such comparisons are vitiated if that is to be compared to that are not independent of each other, but instead ? as is always the case! ? the this/these and that/those were formed and still are in mutual relation to each other. Comparisons of the 'characteristics' and even of processes make NO sense if the here/this ones and the there/that ones depend on [their relations with] each other. [C] Therefore, comparisons and the comparative 'method' neglect and obscure connections and mutually related changes that are much more important in world history, and therefore the study of which is much more revealing. The frequent recommendation among the selections to make and rely on comparisons is therefore limited in itself and limiting for the study of world history. To quote the title of the chapter by Eric Wolf, and to emphasize by repetition, CONNECTIONS IN WORLD HISTORY are much more important and fruitful to study.
That is surely a good thing [in 1066 and all that terms]. However, the authors in the 'regional' section do and propose to begin with the regions and then go on to place them in a broader world historical context. Phil Curtin even writes that "obviously, we have to begin with some part of the whole - but what part?" Yet far from this being 'obvious,' it is not even true; because from a world historical and methodological point of view it would be better to do the reverse and start with the world historical global whole and use that to illuminate each region or other part from a broader perspective than its study in isolation can offer. That also obviates the question about 'what part?'. Alas, there may be a catch 22: Historians are trained in and to do the study of a particular region [if that much!] or part and few have had any exposure to broader world history. Therefore, starting with the whole better to illuminate the part may still be too much to ask, even if starting with the part and then trying to fit it into the whole is methodologically and historically much less satisfactory. John Voll tries but does not succeed to have it both ways. In his comment on Shaffer's Southernization, he rightly rejects Huntingtons's 'civilizations' and instead recommends holistic approaches a la Hodgsen, Abu-Lughod, Wallerstein, and Frank. But in his own contribution on Islam, he wants to start with the part and even call it a whole 'world system', in a less than rewarding procedure that I have already criticized elsewhere.
Cut the Gordian knot of searching and identifying 'useful' and 'sensible' much less 'necessary' periods, and instead abandon the whole idea. There are NO distinct historical periods and no transitions, much less revolutions, among them. At most, there is evolution among transitions, which themselves are transitions from one transition to another. Even the universally accepted 'agricultural revolution' did NOT exist. Hunter-gatherers [more properly gatherer-hunters] also were agriculturists, there were transitions from one to another - and back and forth again! - many people were and still are left out. The same is true of the 'industrial revolution', which has long since been shown to be at most an evolution. The same is likely to be true of the 'information [highway] revolution'. Most people are on a dirt road or garden path, and the former will help the travelers on it dominate and exploit the latter even more, as also Bill Gates now recognizes. The attempt to identify or construct distinct sensible 'periods' in world history makes NO sense, witness that there is not even any agreement about them. On the contrary, 'periodization', and especially any such 'progressive' one, only obscures the up-and-down and back-and-forth movements [perhaps cycles] throughout world history. There were no periodic breaks or even transition around 3500 BC, 2300 BC, 1750 BC, 1200 BC or 600/500 BC, or for that matter 500 AD. Indeed the 'period' between 500 BC and 500 AD witnessed two major expansions, including those in Han China, Kushan India, Parthian Persia, Axum East Africa, and Imperial Rome all of which grew and expanded around 200 BC to 200 AD, and then contracted or even collapsed from 200 AD to 500 AD, thereby also converting much of Central Asia to dust. Following also the above mentioned previous dates, there were major historical declines and changes in economic, political, social, cultural and probably ecological and epidemiological circumstances and responses. Some well known examples were the 'dark ages' after 2300 BC, 1750 BC, 1200 BC and in Western Europe after 500 AD and even earlier, when it failed to accompany another major expansion in [Tang China] and through [ Turks] Asia. These major centuries long periods [but not periodization!] of crisis simultaneously devastated, de?urbanized, and disconnected regions in much of Afro?Eurasia ? and even eliminated writing in at least the two periods during the first millennium. Before and after these dates and, there were major periods of growth, which however should not be confused with or labeled as instances of non?existent periodization. Best to abandon this quest for a periodized Holy Grail.
That certainly is a dimension that has been sorely neglected in the writing of history and especially of world history. To genderize world history, its study, writing and teaching is therefore all to the good. Alas, that is not what the essays do in the section of the book specifically devoted to that task. Although their authors quite properly reject the 'add women and stir' approach in principle, their own practice nonetheless also does little more than that. Moreover, reference to women and gender relations in particular states and or 'national' state formation [without even showing how the same is almost always done at women's expense] only perpetuates vertical study of separate 'national' slices of the pie, instead of being examples of and encouraging the horizontal study of world history of the whole global pie.
Especially unfortunate and disconcerting is the recommendation of the two volume RESTORING WOMEN TO HISTORY, published by the Organization of American Historians, as 'an indispensable source', when alas it is altogether dispensable, indeed totally useless,for anyone trying to do WORLD history, which of course the OAH itself is [in?]famous for avoiding like the plague. Her recommendation of this book may be linked to the author's own stated avoidance of patriarchy and goddesses in pre-history as 'unanswerable issues'. Answers have been proposed in terms of the changing organization of work and the Gimbutas/Eisler thesis about the role of warring nomads in the alleged introduction of patriarchy to the Eastern Mediterranean, that indeed are still subject to debate and to the latter of which I among others have taken published exception], but that is hardly an acceptable reason to exclude these WORLD historical issue from consideration. Fortunately, the author says she does demonstrate to her students how patriarchy was associated with major ancient civilizations [even if there were none such as per # 2].
More promising is the reference to female led or 'manned' protest movements, though its link again to national state building is unfortunate. Much more fruitful would be to attempt a world history of social protest movements or a social movement history of the world. Not only would that be revealing in its own right as well as in 'bringing agency back in' to world history. It could also contribute much to gendering world history and giving women's roles therein more due, if it were recognized - as it mostly is not - that throughout known world history women have been exceptionally active in and often the initiators and leaders of these movements, especially when they were directed against oppression in and by religion/s and its/their institution/s. One author does refer to the oppressive role of some religions on women. However, it could be revealing both for gender/women's and for world history to inquire further into the role of religion in the oppression and exploitation of women [half the population, three quarters of the work, and one quarter of the pay/income]. Indeed, that may even turn out to have been and still be a or even the major reason for the existence, birth, propagation, and acceptance around the world of all major world [and also minor?] religions. Pursuing some of these avenues to genderizing world history would be more than just adding women and stirring - or not even that, but just adding a few feminine raisins to the masculine cake .
7. A BETTER MORE HOLISTIC WORLD HISTORY?
A recent review essay in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS proposes a major advance in the study of American history: To begin by comparing the history of the United States with that of Latin America and not even also with the areas of the circum-Atlantic world. If that would be an 'advance' in the research and writing of American history, then to do WORLD history we have a long way to go indeed. In this collection on the NEW WORLD HISTORY Donald Johnson tells us [in quotations taken from different parts, but hopefully not out of context, of his essay] "what can be done" to get there in major additional steps that alleged would finally be sufficient "to break the vicious circle of Western ethnocentrismin whose "evolutionary model modern Europe [and the United States] became the pinnacle and product of all human development." This alleged universalism and determinism should be abandoned and replaced by a "humanistic and integrated world history" that can bring together not the bad 'particularism' from Durkheim and Boas to Geertz but a good particularism with another kind of 'universalism' in which, Johnson writes, we must "take the history of all civilizations seriously [and] to include each of the great civilizations of the world as equals [that] have to be awarded a history [of their own, in which] each civilization must be developed chronologically." Thus, "perhaps the most significant value of a real world history approach would be dealing with material from all the world's civilizations [and] to place before our students alternate paradigms of civilizations [in which] philosophy and history could easily become more comparative and incorporate materials and paradigms from China, India, Japan, and Africa.The comparative approach has to be a part of American educationto take the larger world in which we live seriously."
Johnson also writes that "part of our teaching and learning always has to be an awareness of the very categories we think in." That of course includes myself. But it is questionable how aware Johnson and most other 'world' historians, including those selected for this representative collection on new world history, are that their very categories are limited and emphasize only the study and teaching of allegedly separate 'civilizations' and historical chronologies, their variety of ideational 'cultural' values and differences, and at most and best their comparison with each other. Johnson and almost all other 'world' historians, seem to lack any awareness that the very separate cultural and 'civilizational' categories -whether 'particularist or allegedly global 'universalist- in which they think altogether exclude the UNITY in diversity of any common WORLD history.
After taking the above considerations into consideration, even if only part of them are partly well taken, precious little WORLD history remains in THE NEW WORLD HISTORY. A TEACHER'S COMPANION - to where and what we may ask. Of course this observation and question is in no way to be interpreted as a criticism of the editor, if he is only offering us the best possible selection from the sad state of the art.
Table of Contents||
Personal and Professional||
Honors and Memberships||
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age||Essays on NATO and Kosovo, 1999||
On-line Essays||Contact A.G. Frank|