World history as a window on the human condition

k8493The argument I made in my post below is pretty straightforward and transparent if you read even a little bit of world history. Most of the assertions of post-colonial theorists collapse under even the barest of inspection with an empirical mindset. The problem though is most people don’t have much comparative historical or anthropological data to sift through the theory. To give a concrete example, a good friend of mine is an academic from the Arab world. When discussing differences between American society, and his own, he often posits the construct of “Western culture.” My objection to this reflex is always to suggest that what he thinks of as distinctive about “Western culture” is actually a feature shared by many other societies…and Arab culture is distinctive in its own ways. There are ways that all cultures are peculiar, and ways in which it shares features with other cultures.

5180z9XRWsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The bigger problem is that it is not uncommon to have knowledge of Western culture and history, at least to a cursory level, and also the knowledge of a non-Western culture and history. Therefore, there’s a reoccurring theme of dyadic juxtapositions between the “West and the Rest”, where the West is fixed constant, while the rest is a variable. It doesn’t take a genius to realize the problems with this. You can’t make comparisons between the ethnic cleansing practiced by the Manchus in Dzungaria in the 18th century with that on the nascent American frontier if you never examine the tension between Inner Asian civilization and that of China.*

So how would get an appropriate education on world history? Works such as J. M. Roberts’ The History of the World are useful, but often they are stretched thin. A great deal of “Big History” is really just too top-level. Rondo Cameron’s A Concise Economic History of the World is obviously too focused on one particular phenomenon. Rather, I’d suggest that Power and Plenty and After Tamerlane are appropriate balances between broad generality, and thick specificity. Interestingly both of them focus on the world at a 1,000 year scale or so. Long enough to see trends, but not so long as to make all assertions diffuse.

What do readers think? What has been useful to you?

* The Manchus could never have obliterated the Dzungarian Mongols were it not for their capture of the resources of the Chinese state-system, the rise of military technology which eliminated many of the strategic advantages of nomads, an collusion of the Russian Empire.

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