herstory, history, history of capitalism, history of class, history of europe, history of gender, history of identity, history of language, history of race, history of religion, history of sexuality, Uncategorized

Book Review: Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton University Press, 2009), Pp. 316)

ann.jpgAnn Stoler presents a twist to the readily acceptable “truth” of many archival documentation. In her monograph entitled, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Stoler discusses the hidden secrets of colonial archival documentation. Stoler specifically looks at colonial documents from the Dutch and critiques archival colonial discourse; or what she calls a “material force” (1-2).  Stoler’s central argument discusses the epistemological and ontological evidence of what she means by “colonial commonsense,” as well as those who may have had un-common sense, and how this was documented (3). In doing this kind of work Stoler looks at what she describes as “epistemic practices” in the nineteenth and twentieth century Indo-European culture (5). For Stoler, the colonial character becomes an aperture into the ways in which there was an “un-common sense” in the readily accepted “common sense” of archives.

This monograph is compelling and is a productive critique. I would recommend this book to historians and anyone who is interested in a solid critique of colonialism.

10/10

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#anthropology, american studies, history, history of nature and science, history of race, history of the united states, Uncategorized

Book Review: Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Pp. 270.

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Much can be said about conceptions and manifestations of racism in America. But where did these legacies and violent realities originate from? In an informative and well documented monograph by Ann Fabia entitled, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead, readers are provided with origins of racism and how science is linked to these roots. Looking specifically at groups of naturalist, craniologist, anthropologists, brain mappers and ethnographers; Fabia is able to document the work of eighteenth century ideological discourse, work, and legacy on tropes on race. This essay will discuss Fabia’s book in length and discuss the kind of work Fabia is doing in this book. I will also discuss the productive nature of this book and any shortcoming of this book as well.

This book invites historians to expand on this book. The strengths of this book are not only in the recovery of history but in the history of skulls and the link to scientific racism. Fabia also demonstrates the ways in which taking one key actor in the field can open up a lens for a solid narrative on the history and legacy of big ideas. The way in which Fabia backs up this narrative with strong examples of how skulls were linked to race and then ultimately to racism boasts her final conclusion about the legacy of skull collecting to scientific racism. The shortcomings in this book are few, but it should be noted that it may have made Fabia’s argument stronger to constitute and define what scientific racism is early on in the reading. Unfortunately, Fabia uses this term and uses a few footnotes to really unpack the definition of scientific racism. This was a major shortcoming in terms of driving home one of her main claims. Overall, Fabia provides an interesting and important narrative on the constructs of race, body, and later what would be identified as racism/scientific racism. I would recommend this book to historians, women and gender studies, ethnic studies, scientists, and anyone who wants or needs to understand the legacy of institutions and their hand in categorical construction.

10/10

history, Uncategorized, women and gender studies

Book Review: Francoise Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage (Duke University Press, 1999), Pp. 394.

 

Verges.jpgFrancoise Verges takes a different approach to discussing the political history of a non-inhabited space—well not until t the French brought slaves to the island of Réunion. Verges monograph entitled, Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage, discusses how the history of one Island, Réunion, was the “creation of a colonial act” (xiii). The history of Réunion starts as an island with no inhabitants whatsoever. By the seventeenth-century not only was their inhabitants but there was colonialism. The motivation to inhabit the small Indian Ocean Island was for potential possibilities of sugar plantations.

Verges ultimately wants to examine the differences of this locale but also points out the “emancipatory discourses disciplined there” (xi). Verges gives warning to the reader that this narrative focuses on male identities and citizenship, and is not about female history or even entirely non-fiction.This becomes the biggest problem of this book. The back and forth narrative of fiction and non-fiction could confuse readers. Especially readers that are not well versed in history but captivated by the title. I think this is a huge failing of this monograph. For the sake of this book review I will focus on the non-fiction narrative Verges offers.

The main themes that come out of this history of Réunion is the creation of class and race out of the sugar plantation industry. Until 1848 the way of life for colonial subjects was slavery (xiv).

So why is nostalgia of the days of French colonialism so prevalent to the history of Réunion? It is not uncommon for colonial spaces to have nostalgic thought and feeling. But the nostalgia in Réunion’s history is not only of  “fantasy” of colonial success but that of resistance and anti-colonialism. How verges tackles these abstract notions in colonial history is by relying on what he notes as the “family of romance” narratives. Verges notes the two different manifestations of this kind of narrative. The first is the “‘cololinial family romance’” which relied on this notion of “imaginary parents” and the ties to French empire (3). Second, “‘métissage was a term that spoke of the cultural and social matrix of diversity born of colonization and assimilation” (8).  This is another key attribute, the métis was the signifier of rebellion,  categories like these personified what kind of a person you represented in society. What ultimately came out of this category was fear of rebellion (by colonizers) but also that of hope for resistance. Verges discusses the “discourses of emancipation” that came out of Réunion and the nuances as well as the mimicry of Enlightenment discourse in France. After 1848, the abolition of slavery, the discourse had a new word that would come to mean so many different things—freedom.

This resistance and work towards emancipation was now the new fraternity, becoming a sort of new citizenship between colony and metropole. Another example of colonial contradictions, that Verges highlights,  is demonstrated through “blood politics” (Chapter 3). Verges calls upon Laura Ann Stoler to elaborate on this notion stating, “the ‘symbolics of blood’ and its reoccupation with legitimacy, madness, and pure blood,” was at the heart of the next step of colonial forces—the medical establishment (97). Unfortunately,  this history fails to meet certain nuances in providing an equitable narrative for women and men. Although that was not the project Verges set out to do, I feel the historical narrative falls flat, and leaves the reader wanting much more.  I would recommend this monograph to historians,  women and gender studies majors, as well as others who want to complicate their own historical knowledge of colonized and colonizer. Great book for book groups that can discuss the abstract concepts in these pages.

7/10

 

 

economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, History of the US, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz,The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2001), Pp. 392.

 

book.jpgHistorian Kenneth Pomeranz sets out to argue a counterargument to the old linear narrative of history and especially European “excellence.” Pomeranz offers a revisionist history in his book entitled, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Pomeranz’s thesis states, “This book…acknowledges the vital role of internally driven European growth but emphasizes how similar those processes were to processes at work elsewhere, especially in east Asia, until almost 1800 ” (3). Pomeranz finds comparative methodology more productive than delineated differences in the historical record. Taking major themes of difference and finding counter comparisons is ultimately how Pomeranz discuses in this truly world historical narratives.

The first concepts that Pomeranz discusses, and pushes back on, is this idea of perception in terms of European excellence and the reality of Asia’s equality of excellence. For example perceptions about life expectancy, birthrate/death rates, markets, and technology all become sites of similarity rather than differences in the history of both these regions (32-68). Pomeranz reviews the technology arguments of European “excellence” stating, “In many areas, various non-European societies remained ahead. Irrigation which we have already mentioned, was perhaps the most obvious; and in many other agricultural technologies, too, Europe lagged behind China, India, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia” (45).  Ultimately, Pomeranz goes about his findings by debunking narratives of European “excellence” into a narrative of European and Asian connection.

The second argument, Pomeranz debates is the idea of  notions of Europe having “special” institutions. Pomeranz states, “Far from being unique, then, the most developed parts of western Europe seem to have shared crucial economic features—commercialization, commodification of goods, land and labor, market-driven growth and adjustment by households of both fertility and labor allocation to economic trends—with other densely populated core areas in Eurasia” (107).  Again there are more comparable historical realities than difference in the narrative of world history. Pomeranz also discusses this in comparing economic realities stating, “Europe did not stand out form China and Japan…Thus, at least so far, we would seem to have similar conditions in these three societies for the emergence of the new kinds of firms that we generally think of as ‘capitalist’” (165). Again, Pomeranz draws upon the similarities of capitalism between countries rather than the played out Eurocentric narratives of capitalism being a distinct feature or derivative of Europe.

The last unit of analysis for Pomeraz is the ecological and industrial side of the historical narratives. Pomeranz states, “It was through creating the preconditions for those flows [‘New World resources’] that European capitalism and military fiscalism—as par of a larger global conjuncture—really mattered” (207).  This stream of resource accumulation is discussed in terms of “shared constraints” by both Asia and Europe (211).  An example of one of these shared constraints is deforestation. Pomeranz discusses the similarities in the ecological arguments of difference; stating, “China’s problems with forest cover and fuel supply were more serious, but probably not as bad as we often think, and—surprisingly—not clearly worse than those of western Europe”(227). This narrative debunks old notions of unique attributes given to Europe.

One critique that I did have was in the limited regions Pomeranz focuses on in the historical narrative he offers. Although Pomeranz does try to discuss different regions of Asia and Europe, he is still stuck in the Europe vs Asia binary of world history story.  Overall, positives out weigh the negatives in this historical offering.  Pomeranz drives home his main point in the end of his monograph asserting, “History is never as neat as the chimpanzee/human case…Instead, we have statements of rough similarity, or of advantages that seem closely tied to some off-setting disadvantage” (280). Moreover, I would suggest this more exhaustive and inclusive historical narrative to historians and anyone who is tired of the same old Eurocentric narratives.

10/10

economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press), Pp. 416.

Narratives about world history have been riddled with complication, debate, and imbalance. Some historians have decided to take a European centered approach, known as Eurocentrism. This approach has been noted, and is agreed upon by many scholars, as extremely problematic. Are their alternative way to write or discuss world history? This weeks author, Andre Gunder Frank discusses and offers an alternative to this complicated debate. In Franks book entitled, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, there is a major change in the world history narrative. Frank takes old narratives, Eurocentric approachs, and uses a different approach entirely which “instead works from the whole world inward” (51). This can be understood as taking the entire historical normative, static, and flattened world history narrative and repositioning the center as Asia; refashioning the narrative “which is thereby turned on its head” (51). This advent takes on a different focal point, in which Europe is exposed as behind not forward in the advances of the times.

Frank takes on the narrative project of world history by not only starting with Asia as center but also by pointing out the faulty foundation of European expansionism. Frank states, “It is completely counterfactual and antihistorical to claim that…. ‘Europe built a world around itself.’ It did not; it used its American money to buy itself a ticket on the Asian train” (xxiv-xxv). One of the authors central points is in highlighting European’s access into Asian market economy. By doing this, Frank shows how Asia really was interested in one commodity in particular—silver. Frank states, “Asians would buy nothing else from Europe other than the silver it got out of its colonies in the Americas” (134). This was the in for European market economy. This was particularly true in 1492 and 1498. Frank notices the gain in access from Europeans to Asian markets via American silver gave access to Europe becoming a major player (59). But one may ask why silver? If silver is the major commodity that shifts the market, why and how does this happen in the first place? Frank explains by situating the importance of coin vs paper economics  in the Ming dynasty. Frank discusses the important element of supply and demand stating, “Chinese public demand for silver and the large size and productivity of the Chinese economy and its consequent export surplus generated a huge demand for, and increase in the price of, silver worldwide” (112). This shifting importance drove to major contributing factor in supply and demand within the market. Europe had an in (silver)  and this would now be their one commodity that they could sell and also gain a position in the global economy. Before that Europe wasn’t even a main player in the global economy and certainly not among Asian markets.

This analysis that Frank gives highlights Europe’s weakness. Frank asserts this notion stating, “That it may have been the other way around, that maybe it was the world that made Europe” (3). Europe had no special or innate characteristic in their historical relevance. Frank drives home this point stating, “Despite their access to American money to buy themselves into the world economy in Asia, for the three centuries after 1500 the Europeans still remained a small player” (185). Frank ultimately wants to challenge and highlight  a “temporary” situation (258). By relying on a more inclusive approach to historical analyses by critiquing the binary of traditional vs modern Frank, most interestingly, tries to answer the question on how and why Europe got into a position of power.  Frank states, “Why the West won (temporarily)…One answer is that the Asians were weakened, and the other answer is that the Europeans were strengthened” (258). Frank asserts one of the reasons of “growing economic and political strains in Asia” (267). This may have put Asia at a disadvantage when delegating world power and domination in the world economy. Fusion of economic and political structure was critical to the shift in Asia to European power relations. Frank states, “Economic advantage of Asia between 1400 and 1800 may have been turned to its own disadvantage and to the advantage instead of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (259). This is accounted for in the events of the Chinese opium trade. Frank asserts, “In China, rapid economic dislocation occurred only in the early nineteenth century, via the opium trade and its bullion drain of silver out of China, which destabilized the entire economic system” (274).

Frank concludes his book driving home his point that Europe didn’t hold any particular advantage to the rest of the world. Frank states, “The Europeans had no exceptional, let alone superior, ethnic, rational, organizational, or spirt-of-capitalist advantages to offer, diffuse, or do anything else in Asia” (283). This alternative narrative that Frank offers is directly critiquing Eurocentric or diffusionist approach that many historians have taken when discussing world history. One of the most sought after explanations in European dominance is the technological advances arguments. Frank goes after this argument by stating, “These technological developments of the industrial revolution should not be regarded as only European achievements. Instead, they must be understood more properly as wolf developments whose spatial locus moved to and through the West at the time after having long moved about the East” (285). Movement rather than an intrinsic or special attribute of Europe is Franks focus. Franks final conclusion, or even seen as a prediction, asserts, “Therefore, it is conceivable that the West and the East will again trade places in the global economy and in world society in the not to distant and already dimly foreseeable future” (320). Taking world history on a route in tracking the historical direction, center, and re-shiftings in the future is an alternative offering in world history. Alternative narratives of world history add to a more expansive and conclusive rendering of the past, present, and provokes intrigue into the future historical possibilities. I would suggest all historians expose themselves to this monograph as well as anyone who wants a reference to argue against problematic diffusionist and Eurocentric narratives.

 

 

 

10/10

cosmology, history, history of class, history of Italy, history of religion, macro-history, micro-history, Uncategorized

Book Review: Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980), Pp. 179.

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Carlo Ginzburg demonstrates how history can take a very particular and fine-tooth comb approach to people, places and events in history. Ginzburg does this by focusing on one particular individual—an italian miller by the name of Menocchio. This detailed investigation of Menocchio is vibrantly articulated by Ginzburg, detailing an investigation of trial hearings in the sixteenth century.  An entire book is dedicated to the eccentric individual Menocchio. The story of Menocchio in short starts in September 1583 when Menocchio who was tried for heretical acts in the community of Friuli (2). This beginning takes major shape by specifically focusing on what Menocchio was claiming to his fellows. This ultimately lead him to be on trial for heresy. Grinzburg demonstrates the intricate life of this one man by discussing his cosmology, the trials, and the literature of Menocchio’s time. By focusing on the specific time period that Menocchio came into contact with the author is able to provide a specific and detailed historical account (27-28). One of the central points of Ginzburg’s micro-historical study, is the filter in which Menocchio looks at the world through. Ginzburg articulates this by stating, “What is important in the key to his [Menocchio’s] reading, a screen that he unconsciously placed between himself and the printed page…and this screen, this key to his reading, continually leads us back to a culture that is very different from the one expressed on the printed page— one based on an oral tradition” (31). This finding by Ginzburg, ends up using one figure in history to show what he calls “a substratum of peasant belief” (19).  Paradoxically, larger concepts come out of this micro-study such as: urban society, repression, religion, politics, and Italy’s geopolitical sphere (19).  Menocchio, ultimately looses his life and is burned at the stake for his prophetic beliefs and method of radical ideological. But what this historical protagonist provide is a historical record for more knowledge on mill workers and their religious questioning/beliefs in the sixteenth-century.

Ginsburgs approach takes on a very intimate and detailed account of one mans life, while still integrating the social landscape of Italy into the narrative. The use of micro-and macro-history in concert with one another makes for an exciting read. This fascinating account is an essential read for historians but I would recommend this book to anyone! 

10/10

history, history of africa, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of nature and science, history of race, history of the united states, neoliberalism, science and technology, socio-historical, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Sidney W. Mintz entitled, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Publishing, 1985), Pp. 274

book .jpg Sidney Mintz takes an anthropological approach to discuss the rise of economic gains of the production and consumption of sugar. An important component of this economic feature is in the labor that is used in the manufacturing of sugar. Mintz ultimately tracks “the ways power was exercised” by following the development of one commodity—sugar (xvi). Sugar became a status symbol of “wealthy, power, and status…by eating these strange symbols of his power” (90). This commodity becomes a marker and is a cite that anthropologists and historians can use to locate conceptions and legacies of power, labor, and goods. Mintz states, “Sugar began as luxuries, and as such embodied the social positions of the wealthy and powerful” (140). The author identifies a sociological aspect to the history of sugar as well as a physiological, environmental, cultural and economic  factors that drove this commodity to be purchased and desired.

Sociological: The sociological side for this increased desire for sugar may have been a status or class privilege ambition. Mintz also argues there is also another component to the desire for copious amounts of sugar.

Physiological: The component of a physiological side to this desire and consumption of sugars. Mintz discusses that sweetness would have been known to our primate ancestors and to early human beings in berries, fruit, and honey” (16).

Environmental: This is important in understanding some of the environmental factors in sugar consumption. But what seems to be more profound is the cultural or constructed side of the history of sugar.

Cultural:The definition of culture for Mintz is asserted as, “Culture must be understood ‘not simply as a product but also as production, not simply as socially constituted but also as socially constituting’” (14).

Economic:  Labor and economics of sugar have a deep and significant history that Mintz documents.  It has been asserted by Mintz that, “Using imported slaves—perhaps Europe’s biggest single external contribution to its own economic growth” (55). With the manipulation of labor and creating situations in which labor would become slave labor led to the increase of exploiting resources, labor, and commodities by Europeans.  Mintz discusses this by stating, “Slaves and forced labors, unlike free workers, have nothing to sell, not even their labor; instead, they have themselves been bought and sold and traded” (57). Mintz illuminates the cruel reality of Europe’s commodity history. Commodity of bodies and sugar in concert with one another provided an exotic component to how individuals who labored and those who purchased sugar were positioned. This text provides a inter-disciplined narrative on the history of one commodity and its affects on the world. This is a text anyone could read!

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10/10