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Archive for September, 2014

Walls, cities, and barbarians

“The premodern city was a walled space protected by defensive installations. Even when walls no longer fulfilled a military purpose, they continued to operate as customs boundaries. When they lost that function too, they served as symbolic markers of space. Whole empires expressed their superiority over the ‘barbarians’ around them by the sheer force of their technological, organizational, and financial capacity to build walls. Barbarians might destroy walls–they could not put them up. Walls and gates separate city from country, compression from dispersion. […] [S]ince the 1980s Americans have enjoyed putting up new walls: the ‘gating’ of prosperous apartment complexes and city districts, combined with protective walls, tall fences, and watchtowers, is still a growing trend. This colonial practice spreads whenever income differences and socially segregated housing reach a certain threshold. It has become common even in the big cities of (still officially socialist) China.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 297.

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The Scots were right to vote “no” on the referendum for independence because the referendum was misleading. However Scotland voted this week, and whatever the Scots may wish, they will not be independent of England. A vote cannot widen the River Tweed. A vote cannot reduce England to having the same population and wealth as Scotland. The irresistible gravity of geography keeps Scotland in England’s orbit. Breaking away is not an option. The only option is how the terms of the relationship are defined. And Scotland will have more leverage with England in a union in which the Labour Party depends on Scottish votes than as an independent country.

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Though the Scots have decided to remain in the United Kingdom, the closeness of the referendum and the panic that gripped the UK government during the last week before voting suggest a parallel between the fate of the Habsburg Empire after its great Napoleonic War struggle and the fate of the United Kingdom after World War II. Both seemed healthy and stable (though considerably weakened) for two generations. Then the cracks started to appear, with the Habsburgs having to agree to the Dual Monarchy in 1867 and the UK having to grant devolution in 1999. And now the UK is experiencing a great ferment over separatism, just as the Habsburgs did during the late 19th century.

Could the British Isles of the 21st century resemble the Central Europe of the 20th century? Could we see the United Kingdom break into five countries: Southern England, Northern England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland? Could Prince George end up as George Windsor, a latter-day Otto von Habsburg, combining prestige and humility to become an honored statesman within his family’s former realm?

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“[T]he culture of [collegiate] English departments [is] structured by an invidious binary opposition between writing teachers and literary scholars that could not be improved by tinkering. Because the profession was organized by–indeed, founded upon–this distinction, it could be undone only by a deconstructive process striking at its roots. […] English departments need composition as the ‘other’ of literature in order to function as they have functioned. The useful, the practical, and even the intelligible were relegated to composition so that literature could stand as the complex embodiment of cultural ideals, based upon texts in which those ideals were so deeply embedded as to require the deep analyses of a trained scholar. Teachers of literature became the priests and theologians of English, while teachers of composition were the nuns, barred from the priesthood, doing the shitwork of the field.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pgs. 35-36.

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“To put it simply, the quasi-religious status once accorded English literature by a class of individuals whose background was mainly privileged and Anglo-Germanic is hardly viable any longer. […] Men and women of letters, whether in or outside of the academy, have a reduced stature today in comparison to major figures in the film and television world. Young people who once wanted to be Hemingway (and many did) now want to be Scorsese, Spike Lee, or Spielberg. Moreover, a knowledge of English literary history is simply not the password to managerial and professional positions that it may once have been. Which is another way of saying that what happened to Greek and Latin is now happening to English. What this society wants of those who graduate from its schools and colleges with degrees in the humanities–as opposed to what many of those who claim to speak for it say it wants–are, at worst, docility and grammatical competence, at best, reliability and a high level of textual skills. What this society does not want from our educational institutions is a group of people imbued with critical skills and values that are frankly antagonistic to those that prevail in our marketplaces, courts, and legislative bodies.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pg. 19. (Italics in the original.)

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“It was a tendency [during the nineteenth century], especially after 1860, to conceive of governance not merely as control of strategic centers but as ongoing activity on the part of regional authorities. […] This territorialization was bound up with the projection of imagined shapes of the nation onto mappable space [e.g., showing the British Empire in red on a world map], with the formation of nation-states, and also with the reform of empires and the consolidation of colonial rule, which was understood for the first time as control over countries rather than simply over trading bases. In line with this revaluation of viable territories, there was a dramatic reduction in the world total of independent political entities–in Europe from five hundred in 1500 to twenty-five in 1900. […] In 1780 no one thought it strange that Neuchâtel in Switzerland should be subject to the king of Prussia, but by the eve of its accession to the Swiss Confederation in 1857 this had become a historical curiosity.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 107-08, 112.

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“In Britain not a single political refugee from the Continent was prevented from entering the country, or subsequently deported, throughout the nineteenth century. No one thought that Karl Marx in London or Heinrich Heine in Paris should be subject to a gag order. No extradition treaties existed with other countries. Requests for legal action to be taken against regime opponents living in London were invariably rejected and sometimes not even answered. Nor was criticism of British imperialism legally barred in any way. Politically active exiles generally were regarded neither as saboteurs of British foreign policy nor as a danger to internal security.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 139.

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The united kingdom

As the referendum on Scottish independence approaches, it’s worth noting that for all of the nationalism north and south of the River Tweed, Scotland and England really have become a united kingdom that would be painful to disentangle:

  • Millions of English have at least some Scottish ancestry.
  • Most of the Protestants in Northern Ireland have Scottish roots.
  • The queen is the daughter of a Scottish mother.
  • The current prime minister is the son of a Scottish father.
  • The prior two prime ministers were Scots.

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What is a newspaper?

“The special characteristics of the newspaper [as it developed in the 19th century] were: (1) publication at regular intervals; (2) production by an editorial team; (3) division into separate departments and fields; (4) reporting that went outside the regional and social horizon of its readers; (5) a rise in topicality, which in Germany meant that the proportion of news less than a day old rose from 11 percent in 1856 to 95 percent in 1906; (6) increasingly industrial production, based on the latest technology, which required considerable capital investment for a mass circulation press; and (7) a fluctuating market that depended on daily decisions by customers at the newsstand, except in the case of subscribers.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 30.

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“In the 1830s and 1840s, several European countries were gripped by a passion for statistics. It made things visible that had previously been hidden or taken for granted. The poor appeared as a social entity only when they were counted, and the resulting emergence of ‘poverty’ as an abstract concept helped to arouse a moral commitment. Statistical societies and journals were founded, and government offices were called into being to gather, evaluate, and store social data. Politics rested more than ever before on exact information. […]

“The nineteenth century can be seen as the century of counting and measuring. The idea of an all-embracing taxonomy now grew into a belief that the power of number–of statistical processing or even ‘social mathematics,’ as the Marquis de Condorcet, a bright star of the late Enlightenment, put it–could open up truth itself to human reason. It was in the nineteenth century that societies measured themselves for the first time and archived the results.

“There is much to suggest that they sometimes went too far. In some countries, more statistical knowledge was produced than could be scientifically and administratively handled. Statistics became what it still is today: a form of political rhetoric. The categories that statisticians had to develop were reified in the hands of government bureaucracies. Categories that statistics made technically necessary–classes, strata, castes, ethnic groups–acquired the power to mold reality for administrative departments and, indeed, in society’s perception of itself. Statistics had two faces: a tool for sociological description and explanation, and a powerful mechanism for stereotyping and labeling people. In both respects, it became a central element of the social imaginary. Nowhere was the second face more apparent than in the colonial world. Where social relations were much more difficult to understand than in close and familiar surroundings, many European observers and administrators succumbed to the false allure of objectivity and exactitude […]”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 28-29.

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“Contrary to present-day prophets of self-discovery […] there is no authentic core you discover when you probe yourself. Rather, knowing oneself requires a commitment to travel outside of oneself and join with others. Self-knowledge is a destination not an origin. At the beginning, before examination, we are strangers to ourselves.

“But in another respect authenticity is an important part of the Socratic method. ‘Say what you believe’ is the only condition for entering into a debate. A person whose statements express his beliefs endows his words with the significance of his own life. One does not simply assert a hypothesis, but arguments proceed on the basis of the participants’ beliefs. That means that investigations of these hypotheses become an existential self-examination. Any move in the debate will have an effect on one’s set of beliefs and hence on the way one understands oneself.

“In this sense Socrates foreshadows the way modern thinkers emphasize embodied knowledge. Words can be used to imagine or describe, to mount [hypotheses] or to theorize, but Socrates wants speech to have the effect of a performative promise. It essentially amounts to the claim: here I am, here is what I believe in, here is myself. Anything less will be mere gesturing in the air.

[…]

“Irony today might at bottom say that ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ As a cultural norm it might even amount to the claim that it is impossible to mean what you say. How different this is from Socratic irony, which urges us to mean exactly what we say and admit that closing the gap between what we are and what we express is impossible.”

–Roy Brand, LoveKnowledge : The Life of Philosophy from Socrates to Derrida (New York : Columbia University, 2013), pgs. 13-14. (Italics above are in the original.)

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“The image of the Other that Europeans had when they set out to conquer the planet is of a naked savage, a cannibal and pagan, whose humiliation and oppression is the sacred right and duty of the European–who is white and Christian. The cause of the exceptional brutality and cruelty that typified whites was not only the lust for gold and slaves that consumed their minds and blinded the ruling elites of Europe, but also the incredibly low standard of culture and morals among those sent out as the vanguard for contact with Others. In those days ships’ crews consisted largely of villains, criminals and bandits, the inveterate, avowed rabble; at best they were tramps, homeless people and failures, the reason being that it was hard to persuade a normal person to choose to go on a voyage of adventure that often ended in death.

“The fact that for centuries Europe has been sending out its worst, most repulsive representatives to meet Others, and to meet them for the first time into the bargain, is bound to cast a sad shadow over our relations with Others, to shape our common views about them, and to fix stereotypes, prejudices and phobias in our minds that sometimes appear in one form or another to this day. I am sure of this even to this day, when I hear apparently serious people say, for instance, that the only solution for Africa is to colonise it again.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 22.

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“[Herodotus] understood that to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves reflected; he knew that to understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them. As a citizen of the world, he did not believe that we should isolate ourselves from Others, or slam the gates in their faces. Xenophobia, Herodotus implied, is a sickness of people who are scared, suffering an inferiority complex, terrified by the prospect of seeing themselves in the mirror of the culture of Others. And his entire book is a solid construction of mirrors in which we keep getting a better and clearer view of, above all, Greece and the Greeks.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 19.

 
This quote brings to mind Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo’s descriptions of a string of exotic Asian cities turn out to be the layers of a vision of his native city in Italy.

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