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Historical Arabesques: Patterns of History

Jeffrey Sommers,
Raritan Valley Community College


     The practice of history changes over time, but its form appears static over long periods. Like an arabesque with repeating patterns, history has often been presented in similar forms, with the most familiar one being national histories. Periodically, a significant departure from the model reflects punctuated evolutionary processes, and with this change a new pattern, or arabesque, becomes visible. Historical ruptures give rise to new global political economies that deliver fresh historical paradigms to explain change. However, systems that are seen as permanent from the perspective of those residing within them, dissolve when inspected from the vantage point of time. This progression is currently under way with the development of world history in recent decades. The protestations against world history merely represent the death throes of a passing global political economy rooted in the national libratory projects manifested in the decay of empires that invoked nation states into being on the one hand, and on the other, the passing of American hegemony and a return to a multi-centric global order that was the historical norm before British hegemony. The good news is that world historians will have to lobby less for consideration of global frameworks as these become essential for understanding our past, present, and future.

A Short History of World History

World history is a distinct, yet still forming, methodology that studies interrelationships across time and place, and that influences our historical outlook both locally and globally. It proceeds with multi-axial historical investigations, employing vertical inspections of phenomena through time, and horizontal surveys across place at one fixed moment. Globalizing currents dating from the 1970s compelled the development and use of macro-level analytical tools by the 1990s, as then contemporary trends demanded new understandings of the past. To be sure, these innovations do not exclude most extant models of historical study, but instead supplement existing methodologies as an additional device for grasping different historical contours. Instead, world history provides additional perspectives for understanding the past, thus revealing new features previously unobserved.

     Recently, world history has revealed complex portraits of the global economy that incorporate ever-increasing places into an understanding of how the world has long functioned as an integrated system, albeit one with uneven levels of incorporation and development. These studies both built upon and departed from area studies. The rise of the West, for example, and the following worldwide emergence of nation-states, created a new historical arabesque in which the pattern of history was written from the vantage point of national histories and western dominance. Indeed, national frameworks for undertaking history came to prominence in the 19th century to make sense of the nation-states that came to dominate the transatlantic landscape in the wake of the Atlantic-world revolutions. Area studies later further served Cold War exigencies as the US briefly achieved global hegemony conterminously with the rise of anti-colonial national liberation movements. Those processes continued working into the late 20th century and may yet resurface as reactions against globalization. Nevertheless, the convergence of national independence movements and the need by hegemonic powers (along with those contesting them) fostered and advanced national histories both by those wishing to subvert systems oppressing them, and by those wishing to maintain them. This ensured that national histories would be dominant within the historical discipline.

     Prior to the 1990s, some attempts were made to provide globally integrative models for understanding the past. However, the moment was not yet right given the dominant national frameworks through which history still unfolded. Among early efforts at constructing world histories was Fernand Braudel's History of Civilizations (1962). Braudel's work was rejected at the time by the French Academy not because of its lack of quality or explanatory power, but rather because, in business terms, it was too early an entrant into the market. Braudel's earlier study of the Mediterranean ecumenae treated this area as a zone integrating North Africa, Europe, and the Levant in ways that defied standard assumptions of geographical and cultural difference. Braudel's approach was reflected in Owen Lattimore's recognition of Central Asia as a zone of interaction. Coterminous with Braudel in France, William McNeill in the US published his Rise of the West (1963), which generated some interest given the need to explain Western hegemony at that time. Nevertheless, it was not compelling enough to reshape historical production along global lines. The world was still guided by ideas of national development, reinforced by John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White in the post World War II era as a means, ironically, to create a globally integrative order. National development was perceived as the prerequisite for creating a functioning world economy.

     World history declined in the 1970s, but historical sociologists advanced global thinking with world-systems theory, of which the primary proponents were Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Their analysis of the global economy, albeit too Western focused, was often sound in its examination of the present. Yet, like Karl Marx, they foundered on explaining the past, and faltered on delivering effective prescriptions for change. Moreover, their lack of attention to Asia, given China's then low level of economic development, weakened their historical analysis, as it did for political economists a century earlier. Political economists witnessed the beginnings of a new order in the early to mid 19th century in which Asia was weak. Just as Marx saw the beginnings of a new order in which Asia was frail, world-systems theorists viewed the same Eurocentric "world" at the end of its supremacy in the 20th century, right before the reemergence of China. Indeed, it has been historical area studies scholarship on Asia that has remedied this important past Eurocentric deficiency in global studies.

     The emergence of a resurgent Japan, as prelude to China's rise, gave further impetus to question "rise of the West" narratives and to revisit the primacy of Asia in the world economy prior to the 19th century. During the 19th and 20th centuries, China was mistaken by western scholars for representing an intrinsically static system, rather than one temporarily set back. A collection of historians confronting historical and sociological narratives defining Asia as innately stagnant took the name of the "California School." Among them were R. Bin Wong, Ken Pomeranz, and Andre Gunder Frank. Their work re-evaluated the interplay among world regions, and the reasons for their relative power at different times. Their scholarship built on world-systems analysis, while simultaneously denying its assumption of an absolute European global dominance beginning in the 16th century.

     Postmodern scholarship also focused in on units of analysis other than the nation state. Local histories unconnected to the national project merited study, as did those that uncovered the subaltern voices of those who had been silenced in the construction and maintenance of nation-states and previous empires. Such works built upon histories centered on identity movements at a time when those movements supplanted national revolution as the chief means of protest in the late Cold War period. The most significant postmodern work appeared in the 1970s and 1980s as the nation-based world system entered a period of crisis, as did the efficacy of national liberation projects. Yet, by the 1990s, this same methodology lost currency as it failed to capture the importance of new constellations of power crystallizing at that time. World history, by contrast, was better placed at this juncture to explain the past, present, and future as China rose and as many states came to recognize, in Margaret Thatcher's terms, "there is no alternative" to the globalizing forces that would ultimately reduce the autonomy of national governments. As the Soviet Union collapsed, nation-states seemed increasingly unable to exercise agency in the global system. Anglo-Americans advanced a globalized neoliberal order in an effort to stem their loss of economic power in the economic crisis of the 1970s, which, as Giovanni Arrighi has noted in Adam Smith in Beijing (2007), had the unintended consequence of creating the environment for China's resurgence.

     The imperative to develop world history emerged again as the Soviet bloc disintegrated. History, it appeared, was at an end; or if not completely at an end, as Francis Fukuyama argued, at least had entered a new phase different from the preceding national period in world history. As the US worked to refashion a new global order with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, the nation-state as an agent of change was diminished. Practitioners of world history again surfaced. Kevin Reilly and his colleagues helped give form to world history as teaching and research fields by creating the World History Association. By 1990, Jerry Bentley's Journal of World History gave voice to those creating new analytical frameworks for understanding connections across time and place at the time the Soviet bloc was collapsing. Patrick Manning followed shortly thereafter by developing his World History Center for conducting research in the field. Jerry Bentley's effort was initially the more successful endeavor, as a journal is built on a network structure linking like-minded scholars. Indeed, journals can explore similar ideas of interest regardless of support by a physical community of scholars residing in one place. By contrast, Patrick Manning's World History Center, despite impressive achievements in presenting a first-rate seminar series and graduate training, encountered resistance from departmental colleagues and university administrators still guided by national frameworks, along with those advancing postmodern paradigms for understanding the past and present. Yet as time passed and global imperatives have become more pressing, world historians like Patrick Manning are now finding more institutional support for their world historical projects. In the past, world historians have been frustrated. Like the child on the amusement park ride trying to steer the car in a different direction, world historians in the past have found the vehicle, much to their consternation, staying on the course defined by the underlying track--in this case the track being national history. However, the track has now changed direction, and thus their "steering" has increasingly brought them to the path they sought. Increasingly, it will become much easier to find support for world history under present global conditions, and world historians will find their ambitions less checked, and even supported, by colleges and universities.

     Nevertheless, the question remains, are world historians up to the task of explaining past, present, and future realities? Bruce Mazlish has called for a global history presenting a broad spectrum of understanding crossing and uniting the past, present, and future. To do this, historians must cross disciplinary boundaries. Yet not all disciplines are created equally. Economics and political science, in the US, would best be approached with caution by historians seeking insights into a global past. Their instrumentality for power, and the funding lavished on them to create models of the past and present serving ideological and political exigencies rather than being descriptive of reality, has often provided distorted visions of history. More useful, perhaps, given their detachment from power, are geography, economic anthropology, and historical sociology. Given the lack of any corresponding heterodox ideology animating their scholarship, these disciplines have been increasingly liberated from the distorted impact of political projects on their scholarship. Renewed examination of historical sociology will prove most problematic for historians. World-systems theory generated anxiety and hostility among historians in the 1970s and 1980s. Many historians felt they could safely ignore historical sociology after it seemed to many historians that Latin American historian Steve Stearns effectively discredited Immanuel Wallerstein's work in the pages of the American Historical Review in 1988. However, this has left most historians to ignore the important contributions made by historical sociologists in the intervening twenty years, some of which elucidates much of what historians have failed to grasp about global patterns shaping our world.


     The world today is structurally different from the world of the past two hundred years. New models are emerging to make sense of how the past fits into our present. This is more than a reinvention of the past to meet current exigencies, but instead is recognition of past patterns not previously observed due to a different set of presentist concerns. The past two hundred years are increasingly coming to be seen as the national period in world history, with an emphasis on the post-World War II restructuring of the global order and its following entropy delivering us into a new order. This has brought us to the point where many understand that world historical investigations are required to comprehend it. As this new arabesque increasingly comes into relief, world history will become the dominant model for understanding the past, present, and future if it seizes the opportunity to reorient away from its disciplinary insularity and fears of presentism, and if it makes itself relevant by employing accurate portraits of the past to explain the present and the future. If world history fails to do this, others—less well equipped, and perhaps even less intellectually honest—may well supply histories that obscure the patterns of past and present rather than illuminating new arabesques taking shape that show the world, as Leopold von Ranke intoned, as it really was, and is.

Biographical Note: Jeffrey Sommers is an assistant professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College, and creator and curator of the Andre Gunder Frank Memorial Library at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. 



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