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The most impressive application of Ibn Khaldun’s approach is his historical and sociological elaboration of the cyclical pattern of rise, peak, and decline. If a society becomes a leading civilization or even the dominant culture in a region, according to Ibn Khaldun the peak of this civilization is always followed by a period of decline. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers this civilization is a gang of barbarians by comparison. Once they have established their control over the conquered civilization, these barbarians are attracted by its more refined aspects, such as literature, art, and science, which are subsequently assimilated or appropriated by the oppressors. The upshot is that the next group of barbarians repeats this process, as a result of which the pattern of peak and decline actually leads to an accumulation of knowledge and culture.

— Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities; Oxford, England : Oxford University Press, 2013; pg. 97.

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“Before cameras, educated, well-to-do travelers had learned to sketch so that they could draw what they saw on their trips, in the same way that, before phonograph recordings, bourgeois families listened to music by making it themselves at home, playing the piano and singing in the parlor. Cameras made the task of keeping a record of people and things simpler and more widely available, and in the process reduced the care and intensity with which people needed to look at the things they wanted to remember well, because pressing a button required less concentration and effort than composing a precise and comely drawing.

–Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece : On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (New York : Penguin, 2005), pg. 33.

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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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“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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