On Blogging

The political economy of blogs, as it were, seems to be a double-edged sword. There is an economy of the blog, as it stands or better, as it works; and an economy of blogging. In this post, I will say something about both of these, as they interact for/on/about/against/through me.

A lot, of course, could be said about a “digital imagination” breaking up antiquated university structures. Perhaps lectures are boring. Perhaps face-to-face discussions can leave those students behind whose personality (for lack of a better shorthand to describe all the intricate details and intertwined processes said to be “going on” in someone’s brain) makes them uncomfortable speaking in front of audiences, or in public, or both. Perhaps blogs – a blogosphere, a network of blogs, an interaction of blogs – enable ideas to float, statements to be uttered, creativity to flourish, revolt to be spread, progress to emerge, democracy to emanate. It is not the case that Paul Krugman will get to have the same status as my esteemed colleague Taulby Edmondson; (whose post I find well worth reading, hence this comparison); but it could be said that their statements, their posts, the serene tranquility of their utterances, are on equal footing in 'the blogosphere.'

Thus the political economy of blogs, as it presents itself when only the surface is seen: blogs interact; they challenge and circumscribe each other; they relate and renew ideas; they provide backgrounds and criticize assumptions; they spread words and circulate image(ination)s. They form a network, a web of inventions and ideas and imaginaries and comments and statements and human expression.

But networks require net work; inventions rely on a linear idea of progress – undoubtedly true for technological progress -; ideas, if they can be expressed in a blog format, have to make sure that they can be definitely related to their author, thus making sure the outdated idea of ‘intellectual property’ can live some more time; comments tend to be trite or insulting; and statements are, in this day and age, no longer unequivocally identifiable as human expressions. The ability to share and interact is certainly beneficial for specific types of intellectual labour – those types that fit into instrumental rationality’s general scope – but it cannot, by itself, engender meaningful insights or thoughtful critique. Blogs require blogging, a type of labour with the specific peculiarity of not being paid or counting towards academic progress (such as a tenure review); ideas do not spread and proliferate on their own – that, too, requires intellectual labour, with the same peculiar characteristics as blogging per se.

Whence the increasing pressure to blog, then? At the bottom line, it seems to me that “to blog” is the latest idea opportunity on the part of universities to reap further surplus labour from their academics: neither do I get paid for blogging, nor will blog posts (if they are not, like this one, assignments) be remunerated in any other way. For instance: when will blog posts count towards tenure review, as publications of their own? The type and amount of labour put into them is frequently the same as in an actual academic publication: but the university can reap the benefits of the blogs of its minions with as much precision as those from ‘actual’ publications; while, at the same time, not having to pay anything for it.

Certainly, then, the surface of blogging is bright and marvellous – like all surfaces are – and underneath it, we have yet another turn in the endless struggle between capital’s drive to accumulate (here: to valorize), and labour’s equally endless struggle to remain in charge of its own time and effort.

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A Sample of European Digital Humanities

Having seen the fascinating collection of Digital Humanities Projects in general, as well as historically oriented projects at Stanford’s CESTA Spatial History Project (available here), I could not help but suspect that European Academies would at least be able to upload something resembling this project. (Though, most likely, not in its admirable scope.) Rather than focusing on one specific project, I therefore set out to find at least a slice of Europe’s contribution to digital and/or digitized history/humanities projects.

As far as Humanities goes, one quickly finds DARIAH, the Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities. While its focus, as far as conferences go, seems to be more oriented towards tracking the latest developments in computer-based research in general, its trans- or interdisciplinary approach is likely to result in fruitful collaborations for the humanities as well. As with all European projects, its focus is on building up collaborations, rather than immediate results, as may be evidenced by its 2012 conference programme. The usual caveat about European projects is therefore very much in place here: almost all of them are, and are likely to remain, works in progress (DARIAH was only founded in 2004). One interesting feature that may have future ramifications is their Data Seal of Approval designed to ensure high quality of research and archival projects.

DARIAH suggests one continues the search on what they call “[a]n outstanding example of these kinds of infrastructures”, the French Recherche Isidore website. Not only does the research center collect conferences on topics as diverse as Law and Anarchy, Infantile Sexuality, and archaeological problems in Celtic studies; they also allow a recherche in more than 1,800,000 documents of French history digitized in various places (universities, libraries, collections, etc; all over France). The search engine, however, was either not working properly when I accessed it, or the categorizations are in dire need of being cleaned up: a search for pre-1500 documents found these results. Certainly, this is a work in progress as well; but for French historical foci, a valuable resource.

Moving into Germany, the Göttingen Centre for Digital Humanities is certainly worth looking at. The eTraces project, for example, might go very well with our reading, particularly the section on Trees (see, for instance, this presentation, particularly slides 30 through 46). Its research focus, generally, is on mapping the spread of textual sources throughout Germany between 1500 and 1900: for example, the Luther bible’s so-called geflügelte Worte (“winged words”, proverbs) rapidly spread throughout what is now Germany after its publication. eTraces itself is currently developing the TRACER tool for users to map these spreading words, phrases, and quotations themselves. Once again, unfortunately, a work in progress; but a promising one; not least for its events. What I found to be strikingly innovative research methodology, eTraces hosted a Hackathon devoted to “the challenges of creating a digital edition for the Greek author Athenaeus, whose work cites more than a thousand earlier sources and is one of the major sources for lost works of Greek poetry and prose” – thereby not only digitizing his work, but also attempting to recover, and make available, the fragments of earlier authors.

Austria’s Graz University features, among other projects, a research collection of Southeastern Europeans historical photographs and postcards.

Other European examples should probably move more to the category of “how not to do it.” For example, the Belgian Centre Informatique de Philosophie & Lettres advertises itself as a leading digital research institution, while its publications list only a number of offline book-based texts. One may take this as an example for European conservatism in academic approaches. Likewise, the Swedish Umea University offers a digital humanities project almost entirely consisting of classes. – Nevertheless, these might be resources for future development under DARIAH’s lead; or if one happens to be at these universities.

Leaving the continent, the UK situation is about the same. The University of Nottingham’s Digital Huamnities Centre is a mere part of the university’s structure. – Resources with a historical focus may be found surrounding the International Conference on local and global women’s history, hosted by the University of Sheffield. – Finally, however, London’s Centre for Digital Humanities offers a wide sample of historical and generally huamnities-based research. – These projects might be said to suffer from an approach that applies technology to pre-defined fields of research, instead of re-defining fields.

Certainly, more obscure corners of the continent hold exciting research opportunities in the digital humanities as well. The amount of effort one has to put into collecting the places and sites where such information and tools are to be found, however, is discouraging as of now. Wether DARIAH can help here, remains an open question. As always, Europe is at once too big and too small to provide readily available solutions. As always, things remain in progress.

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495 Words on Deep History

A Review of Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail (Eds.): Deep History. The Architecture of Past and Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.


If historical facts are indeed always situated in a web of socially given references, as the authors suggest, then this is true a fortiori for the part of the past that is accessible exclusively by imagination: the ‘deep time’ of history, hitherto relegated into a realm of the ‘pre-historical’, and pursued by biology, anthropology, or linguistics – but not the historical discipline per se. This book’s goal is to present a number of ways in which such an imagination can be rethought outside of the disciplinary boundary between ‘history’ and ‘pre-history’ – or, as the authors call it, shallow history and deep history. Its principal means to do so are a survey of hard scientific methods and their contributions to the study of deep time, as well as a critical reconfiguration of social imaginaries accompanying scientific work.

In the section entitled ‘Frames for History in Deep Time,’ this critique gives way to a positive reconstruction of ‘deep time’ through notions and interpretations of body, environment, and language. In each section, the authors’ goal is to reduce the strangeness of deep time that led to its relegation to notions of glacially slow movements, animal instincts, and smooth transitions. The goal, therefore, is to make it more accessible for historical, rather than ‘pre-historical’ scientific narratives.

The section following, entitled ‘Shared Substance,’ examines the penetration of human bodies and societies by their natural and ancestral environment. Its goal is to dispel the myth of human impenetrability – ultimately telling us more about ‘history’ than about ‘pre-history,’ where the popular image had assumed a biological existence of humans anyway.

The last section, entitled ‘Human Expansion,’ traces migration as the expansion of social bodies, as well as the appropriation of goods as the expansion of neurological bodies. Finally, the section entitled ‘Scale’ does away with contemporary means of mapping time, thus questioning both the notion of glacial ‘pre-historical’ time and modernity’s stubborn assertion of being the culmination of history.

It would be all too easy to criticize the book’s efforts in terms of their unquestioned use of so-called ‘scientific’ vocabulary. Another easily open critique is the inevitable anachronism a book such as this employs in its explanations. Since the authors recognize both cliffs, and give convincing reasons why they are both inevitable, I will not follow this path. Rather, I think this book deserves praise for its skillful attempts at reducing the strange otherness of so-called ‘pre-historical’ deep time, and its inhabitants. Kinship is indeed, I maintain, an excellent tool to allow questions – though, most unfortunately, no answers – into the ways our ancestors thought, interacted, spoke, dreamt, and lived. In short, it is precisely the anachronistic approach of this book that is its principal strength, rather than weakness. I am especially fascinated by McMahon’s, Trautmann’s, and Shryock’s recollection of experiments on the emergence of language (pp. 118-123), gesturing at a linguistic criticism supported by Claude Shannon’s seminal stochastic information theory, and William Burroughs’ notion of the word virus.

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On reading a giant book in four hours

Jane Burbank’s and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference is, without a doubt, a giant book. I say this not necessarily because of its 459 pages, but also because of the sheer size of these pages: even though, technically, my copy is a paperback, I would classify it more as a brick. Indeed, if I were a fan of bad puns (- and I must be, otherwise this sentence would stop here), I would say that this book is like its topic: imperial, in size and in scope.

Fortunately, it is also an eminently readable book, combining an interesting key insight with a survey of world history spanning, approximately, the last 2,500 years. Its topic, made clear in the title, is a survey overview of the different ways in which Empires utilized differences (in wealth and power, rank and glory among their subjects; in geographical and temporal ways; in economic and social formations; in war and peace; in personalized and formalized relations, etc.) to uphold the power of a ruling elite – city, bureaucracy, emperor, and however one wants to classify the ruling elites of the ‘development’ paradigm. A number of things would need to be emphasized, and a number of characteristics would have to be pointed out if this were a discussion of the content of the book. Since it is not, I am simply going to reiterate that I like this book very much, wish I had time to read it entirely, and derived a number of interesting insights from the discussion of the difference between nation-states and imperial structures – specifically since my dissertational topic will probably be the emergence of what I think is a third, parallel structure hinted at in the very last paragraphs of the book: networks, in this case: Al-Queda.

But this post is ultimately not a discussion of the book, but rather an exercise in reading strategies. How to go about reading a giant book in a meager four hours? It can be inferred from the above paragraphs that I have read at least the very first and the last chapter. In fact, I chose to read the first two and the last two chapters, and skim chapter four, on the Mongol empire. That makes 109 pages read, as well as 24 skimmed, which took me 3 hours and 10 minutes, stopwatched – and the rest is spent writing this. I am usually a slow reader, specifically when a book is interesting, which this one very much is; but on the other hand, many features of the Roman (though not the Chinese) empire are fairly known to me, as are postcolonial liberation movements, so these parts were also more or less skimmed.

Reasons for this approach? The first chapter, of course, provides rough outlines of all subsequent chapters, and the last one contains wrap-ups and conclusions. Reading the second chapter is of specific interest in this case because, as the text points out, Rome and China are the templates for imperial government; in Rome’s case, Europe (and then Euro-America) has been obsessed with recreating it from Charlemagne to Hitler; and in China’s case, the astounding continuity of its imperial tradition stretches even to today, as the reintegration of Hong Kong and the ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ (as David Harvey calls it) are classical imperial moves. Not that I got all of that out of the table of contents, but this was a very satisfying chapter. Reading chapter 13 I chose because it might, I thought, embed the findings in the conclusion; but it turned out to give more than that: I had never seen developmental aid and the re-purchase of Hong Kong within a framework like this. (Though its imperial aspects are, of course, not lost on Marxist analyses.) Skimming chapter 4, finally, resulted from a personal interest of mine: I am fascinated by postmodern concepts of nomadism, and was hoping to see these played out in imperial differential fields.

One last remark, since I have a reputation for it. What can be derived from the table of contents are these characteristics of the book:
1. That there is a theoretical chapter at the beginning; worth reading.
2. That some kind of importance will be given to simultaneously presenting China and Rome.
3. That the book will lead up to a history of the present (Ch. 13, 14) in its conclusion.
4. That the focus of the book is, to an overwhelming degree, on the standard set of empires usually treated in high school history classes, and the Euro-American notion of capital-H History. (My high school textbook included Temudjin.)
5. That colonialism alone takes up no less than three chapters (10, 11, 12), and that hence the self-destruction of Europe is a centerpiece of the book. (Since I did not read these chapters, I cannot confirm this hypothesis.)
6. That the “citations” section says “Suggested Readings” implies a didactic approach. (Compare to that the back cover, par. 5, by Choice journal.)
7. The List of Illustrations, p. VII, tells me that, besides images of imperial rule(rs) (fig. 2.1 through 5.1), the harm done by imperial politics is also represented in the book (fig. 5.2, 6.3).
8. That maps are included (p. VIII and IX) suggests a standard approach to geographical aspects of imperial history, treating geography – certainly with good reasons – as the stage upon which historical action unfolds.)

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Universal Phenomena and Historicity

Reading Drew Gilpin Faust (2008): This Republic of Suffering, NY: Vintage Books. As always, the use of images is for educational purposes (see the syllabus), and no copyright infringement is intended.

A British trench at the Somme, 1916From a European point of view, the Civil War is not so much an American event, but rather the first in a series of wars that one can interpret, variously, as the most advanced and hence most devastating wars of the nineteenth and twentieth century – emphasizing their weapons technologies, as Faust (39, 42) does – or as the self-destruction of Western civilization, both in its European and its North American incarnations. Indeed, Faust emphasizes how traditional belief systems were shattered (174, 194); how the dead were stripped not only of their humanity when they were left without burial (235) or, worse, when there were no remains to be buried (128); how an emerging bureaucracy almost broke down under the weight of its sudden obligations (219); and how the sheer number of victims, as well as the shock suffered by the American nation as a whole, made the Civil War almost incomprehensible (260). In these senses, the American civil war is only a precursor to the similarly devastating self-destruction Europe suffered fifty years later, and again eighty years later. The fields where once lay the trenches of Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele speak of, or rather silently mourn, the same industrialized atrocities the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg have seen (66). Needless to say, the second World War only added to these atrocities; to the point where Auschwitz and Hiroshima have become chiffres of an evil almost beyond comprehension.

The Civil War can, of course, also be read in a number of ways. None other than Karl Marx composed the address of English workers to the president of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, assuring him of the friendship of the English working class in his fight against the last remaining traces of aristocratic modes of production. Small wonder, then, that the America of 1900 was a plutocracy rather than a democracy, as the Progressive Movement suggested and as John C. Calhoun would, no doubt, have bemoaned bitterly. Likewise, the emergence of the United States as we know it today – with a powerful federal government responsible, especially, for escalating military costs and an ever-expanding bureaucracy – can certainly be traced back to Civil War efforts, as Faust (254) suggests. And despite the initial difference in endowment between the North and the South in caring for their deceased (241), a common nationalist legacy was quickly created (262). The final point in this commonality, no doubt, was the rehabilitation of Confederate officers in 1898; the very same year that the United States, “with malice toward none,” went to war with Cuba.

The Whitworth Gun, imported from England and used by the Confederacy. Picture uploaded by civilwaracademy.comThe Civil War was also the first war to introduce a set of new technologies: artillery (39) and sharp-shooting (42) come to mind, but also photography of battlefields (XVI) as well as for individual soldiers (11). Even the individual experiences of soldiers were mediated by the new technological imaginary, as soldiers found their “battle’s horror graphically portrayed in the freeze-frame if a picture” (58), thinking “of themselves not as men but as machines” (59). Unfortunately, for black soldiers, these machines were not color-blind (47, but see also 53). Furthermore, unfortunately, the medicinal knowledge prevalent in 1861, was certainly not on par with the ability to injure or kill (4).

But Drew Gilpin Faust focuses less on the significance of the American Civil War for universal, world, or European history. Rather, she gives an account on what it meant to die in this time (XI). From a certain point of view, as she points out (ibid.), this is controversial. Is not death, as Martin Heidegger suggested, the supremely individualizing event? Nothingness, by Tonia Bonnell. Etching, 2003. Is it not in Being-unto-Death, or at least in reflecting upon mortality, that people realize their fundamental loneliness; is it not there that they detect what it means to live authentically (in Heidegger’s mother tongue: eigentlich)? More importantly: are not the phenomena Faust describes – the new vision of the afterlife (177); the memorialization (269); the mourning (152); the condolence letters (15) and their vision of the spiritual (27) or the “Good Death” (7); embalming (89) and funerals (153); even reading the bodies as to whether their bearers reached heaven or hell (21) – are these phenomena not all relevant only to the survivors, rather than the dying themselves? Is it really the act of dying Faust portrays, or is it not rather what surrounds it?

But of course, Faust’s mastery lies in recognizing that these phenomena do not, or not just console the living, and serve their (and, ultimately, our) rememberance, memorialization, or even enjoyment. The father clasping his hands around a photograph of his children (11) might remind us that, ultimately, every individual is alone in dying – but he also tells us of a new technology making his last moments a spiritual reunion with his family. Likewise, at the extreme opposite end of the scale, the Civil War also embeds the ultimately individual nature of death in a vast bureaucracy of killing, accounting, and memorializing. And finally, it can certainly be said that, however universal this side of human curiosity might be, battlefield tourism (85) shows a side of capitalism which, almost without a doubt, belongs to the twentieth century.

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On the Uses and Advantages of a Gendered Historiography

It seems evident that a gendered historiographical approach will be eminently directed towards furthering both the feminist and the LGBTQ cause – causes which, in the recent political turmoil surrounding a ‘war on women,’ sadly seems to be more pressing than ever. Once again, therefore, we find ourselves assaying a historiographical approach which adresses a current issue and emphasizes aspects of a contemporary problem. Might that not indicate that all historical writing is, ultimately, but a stake in a set of contemporary struggles?

A gendered historiography, as Joan Scott makes us aware, faces two challenges simultaneously. In the words of the linguistic turn parts of feminist historiography belong to (Scott: 1066) (at least the ones inspired by the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of feminism), it has to give an account of the historicity of both signififers and signifieds. That is to say that a gendered account of history will question the power it narrates, i.e., manifestations of power which actually happened (1059), as well as question the power of the narrative (1058). Introducing the category of gender into historical writing, therefore, will result in accounts of the differential articulation of genders and sexes; it will narrate that these always appear in the plural; that the difference between them is the constitutive factor of them; and it will give accounts of how this difference is being turned into a hieracrchy (1054).

What Scott does not mention explicitly, but is introduced by the selection of the texts for our reading is that the supposed binary of sexuality is, of course, in turn a historically specific configuration, and thus immediately questioned by the introduction of homosexual practices. John D’Emilio’s provocative hypothesis on these is that homosexuality as we know it is not older than the demise of the nuclear family (D’Emilio: 468). That is to say, the separation of a family discourse centered on emotional stability and reproduction, and a sexual discourse liberated from these constraints (470), enables the growth of an urban subculture building identities based on sexual orientation (471). Of course, the opposite side is articulated by the same token (473).

Generally, what homosexual complications of feminist discourses can and do show is the polysemic nature of the linguistic and social, and precisely not natural, articulation of sexuality. Consequently, George Chauncey emphasizes the social nature of homosexuality (Chauncey: 190), as well as its polysemy (192). He also makes us aware that the latter is conjured and evoked, rather than suppressed, by discourses trying to enforce a specific definition of homosexuality (195, 206), rigidly opposed to heterosexuality – to a point where even so-called medical evidence is introduced to uphold social norms (203). Furthermore, Chauncey shows that the consideration of aberrant sexuality reveals it as a set of distinctive practices (191) bordering, and thus implying, and thus unsettling, its bordering social formations: heterosexuality (196) just as much as Christian charity (201). Finally, Chauncey insists on an account of history in which Foucault’s repression hypothesis – that power is always negative, limiting, and prohibiting – is complicated by the complicity of established institutions (here: the Church) in non-standard practices (199).

History, we might conclude, is structured by binary oppositions in which the terms articulate each other. It is also structured – or rather, unstructured, raw, untamed; problematized – by halos of concepts, implications, norms, practices, and deviances surrounding these. The recent proliferation of letters added to what once was the Lesbian and Gay cause is an indication in this respect. The fundamental problem of all such activist and interventionist histories is, of course, that their goal – the end of the hierarchical opposition between male heterosexuality and all other forms of sexuality – immediately leads to the vanishing of the problem which permitted the solution to be a solution; and hence leads to an end of the activism. As for historiography, though, that can be discarded as merely a minor problem.

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En lisant (3)

Charles Kindleberger and Robert Aliber (2011): Manias, Panics, and Crashes, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

tl;dr: The flows of capital connecting the latest four financial/economic crises are the 21st-Century version of Egyptian pyramids – except more destructive.


History or Economics of Crises?

It seems evident that the difference between an economic science based on models – miraculously situated outside of time and space, perhaps? – and a nominalist version of economic history (26) is largely irrelevant to the points this book and, if I am not mistaken, the question of governance in general tries to make. It seems safe, therefore, to proceed as if economic crises, for all their idiosyncrasies, bubbles, manias, panics, and crashes, have similarities (8).

A so-called ‘economy’, that is, the sum total of economic transactions in a given area in a given time frame, is composed of a list of institutional features, among which are actors (individuals, groups, firms, corporations, governments, intermediary institutions), structures (exchange mechanisms, goods/services/information-distinctions, ethical codes, laws) and the actual process that turns steady state T into steady state T1, at least in the neat models of neoclassical microeconomics. That is, any economic history or history of economics will give accounts of actor’s behavior, as well as the structural environments in which said behavior takes place and is played out, to create the process.

The history of economic crises, consequently, will give accounts of the psychology of a crisis (individual psychology on the level of the so-called ‘market’ as well as within the so-called ‘government’), as well as the structures enabling certain elements of that psychology to be played out in certain ways, and finally, the actual process of a crisis. The former two will inevitably allow the question: which is more important – the structure or the psychology; or, in the description of a crisis that Kindleberger and Aliber (62), is it the credit expansion or the transition from rational to irrational exuberance on the part of traders (that is, the mania) the heart of the matter?

Psychology and Credit

As Kindleberger puts it, this question – though upon first glance obvious – is somewhat ambiguous, as “nearly every mania has been associated with rapid growth in the supply of credit” (62), but it does not seem to be possible to establish a definite order in which they appear. Rather, as lenders increase their credit to borrowers, it is not entirely sure whether they do so “because their [the borrower’s, S.E.] incomes or anticipated incomes increased, or because the regulatory environment had become less restrictive.” (187) Other than Kindleberger himself, Robert Aliber1 gives gives firm priority to structural causes of financial crises, when he maintains that “[r]eckless lending and greed had only a minor impact on the supply of credit … The supply of credit would have been satisfied in some other way if the banks had been more cautious in buying mortgages and mortgage-related securities.” (301)

Be that as it may – and indeed, who is to say that the establishment of credit is to be counted as a structural part, when it could, with equal force, be said to fall into the realm of behavior – Kindleberger and Aliber firmly establish that both factors are important contributors to the history of crises. Distress, as Kindleberger and Aliber call the initial absence of faith in market conditions, does not have to lead to a panic if there is a reassuring factor (94) – even though it may remain untested or, as one might add only seemingly paradoxically, only when it is actually untested (243).

On the other hand, two of the earliest bubbles, the 1720 South Sea and Mississippi bubbles, can clearly be traced back to “rapid increases in the supplies of credit from newly established banks” (273). As Minsky’s model maintains, “the events that lead to a crisis start with a ‘displacement’ or an innovation” (27) – which can be a financial innovation (55) – and the so-called ‘boom’ most is fueled most definitely with an enlargement of credit (28). Like Aliber, Kindleberger and Minsky maintain that banks and non-banks alike can spread credit and thus reinforce the circle that leads to a bubble: “the history of money,” Kindleberger and Aliber note, “is a story of continuing innovations so that the existing supply of money can be used more efficiently and the development of close substitutes for money that circumvent the regulatory environments applied to the creation of money.” (65) In other words, credit expansion is where a politics of lenders meets a psychology of borrowers, and whichever demand for credit exists, is supplied; or rather, demand is created as supply increases (this old theory by Say seems to be particularly applicable to financial crises).

Such innovations, of course, can be called a ‘politics’ of lenders – in the case of subprime mortgages, a rather foolish ‘politics’ not guided, on the surface, by any sort of economic rationality at all (93) – but they can also, and perhaps more justifiably, become part of a realm of illegal activity. In this case, policies such as subprime mortgages can at least be imagined to be not a foolish activity, but one motivated by a different kind of rationality than a purely legal-economic one (46): nothing is out of the equation when one realizes that movements on global financial markets do occasionally depend on “help in getting … twin daughters admitted to the kindergarten class” (138). And yet, even such practices rely on a mass of gullible consumers buying in a mania (141) – consumers whose success, if there is any, only drags still others into the mania (13).

In short, as far as individual crises go, connections between structures and actors are usually played out such that they reinforce each other: both in the upward movement, the mania leading to a bubble and the downward movement, the panic leading to a crash, pro-cyclical reinforcing of buying and selling are crucial (13).


So far, so good. I would maintain, however, that Kindleberger and Aliber tell another story, which is most obvious when the latest four crises are concerned. This story is somewhat hidden in their account of financial crises, though it surfaces in at least two places of it. Thus, the authors note that, in every crisis, “[m]oney seems ‘free’ as if the fundamental laws of economics no longer apply.” (20) Well, what if that were actually true? What if bubbles, and especially the last four ones, indeed represent something to which the rules of textbook economics no longer apply – not because of morally or legally questionable behavior of borrowers, and not because of behavior circumventing regulation on the part of lenders, but because the nature of the phenomenon in question exceeds economics properly defined? “The surge in wealth in a bubble leads to economic behavior that would appear as exceptional – the squandering of wealth,” note the authors (108). What if bubbles and crashes, rather than being a transition from a rational to an irrational part of the so-called ‘economy’ – that is, of the limited economy – are, rather, a transition to an altogether different, a general economy?

According to Georges Bataille, luxury, and not scarcity, is the central problem of living matter, and mankind as a part of it, in general (BAS 1: 12). Each organism must necessarily the excess of energy it receives from its surroundings: it must grow, or it must squander (ibid.: 21). Likewise, an economic system such as a ‘market economy’ (which is, in this case, distinct from a capitalist economy, and simply denotes a set of economic exchanges in, say, a given geographical area) will always have, according to Bataille a certain surplus of wealth which it will use, initially, to create more wealth – this would be the historical moment where the capitalist mechanism is introduced. Eventually, however, “[t]his surplus … contributes to making growth more difficult, for growth no longer suffices to use it up.” (ibid.: 37) Solutions, through the ages, have included war, sacrifice, and death (ibid.: 25).

Bataille insists, however, that with capitalism – and when he wrote The Accursed Share, the Soviet, so-called ‘communist’ economy was even more efficient about this (BAS 2: 266) – the problem of economic surplus has become more pressing than ever. This is because capitalism and communism both tried to use the entire surplus energy produced by their mechanisms for reinvestment – thus creating every more energy which must eventually be squandered on a worldwide scale in a gigantic convulsion (ibid.: 428). In short, capitalism, on a world-wide scale, by ever better means and with every more precision, has created gigantic amounts of surplus wealth and energy which, though most decidedly not solving the problem of poverty (BAS 1: 39), nevertheless poses a problem of excess which must be solved.

Clearly, then, one can stand in marvel before the monuments Kindleberger and Aliber attribute to the squandering of wealth which accompanies a bubble. Consider only the list of tallest buildings of the world, corresponding in time to bubbles, which, as the authors note, “are as economic as the Pyramids of Egypt” (107) – exactly, for that is their point (BAS 2: 223). And yet, these are not what I think is the actual monument of squandering wealth that this stage of capitalist development.

Nether do I refer to another phenomenon one could mention as a squander of wealth surrounding crises – this time, not the bubble, but the crash. That is, one could possibly interpret the “extremely powerful real effects on the domestic economies” (232) that over- and undervaluation of a country’s currency have as a form of destruction of excess wealth (leaving out the question of whose wealth is being destroyed – to society as a whole, an irrelevant question). Likewise, the havoc wreaked by the immediate aftermath of the Lehman collapse (261) could be interpreted that way.

The latest four crises

Rather, my proposition is that the monument to squander that best captures our times and the particular stage of capitalism we inhabit is the movement of vast sums of capital underlying the four latest crises (the bubble in developing countries in the early 1980s, the Japanese real estate and stock bubble in the late 1980s, the Asian crisis of 1997, and the dotcom and housing bubbles 2000-2008), and currently, without a doubt, situated to prepare the coming bubble. As Aliber notes, despite “differences in the identities of the borrowers and the lenders in these several waves, there was remarkable similarity in the pattern of cash flows.” (288) Moreover, “[t]he likelihood is high that these several waves of bubbles were not independent events; instead there was a systematic relationship between the implosion of one wave and the beginning of the next wave.” (289)

It will be said that this relationship worked over a wide range of mediations. That is certainly true, and indeed, some of these were idiosyncratic. Kindleberger and Aliber note that, for example, the subprime mortgage market seemed to have been “uniquely American” (8). On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there are common developments that the authors characterize as almost automatic: when the Japanese bubble burst, money had to go somewhere – it went to a set of emerging markets in South East Asia which “were on the receiving end of outsourcing by American, Japanese, and European firms” (179) and thus promised good returns on investment. Consequently, stock bubbles emerged (ibid.), which were, as seems frequently to be the case (59), linked to real estate bubbles. In the Asian and Tequila crises in the late 1990s, these bubbles burst, and money flowed somewhere else – in this case, to “residential and commercial real estate” in several countries (286). Without a doubt, central banks contributed to this development in unique ways – the Federal Reserve’s Y2K injection might be the most remarkable one (185) – but even this cannot be said to create an amount of liquidity which is invested into something other than sustaining, and expanding the already existing capital flows coming in from Asia and Mexico (186).

What seems to be common in the latest four crises is that a boom-and-bust-cycle seems to have developed, in which the same, ever-expanding total flow of capital – investments, currency cycles of appreciation and depreciation with their automatic (!) consequences (281), and the financial edifice erected upon securitizations, derivatives, and interbank loans – moves into a region, creates a bubble which bursts eventually and, when moving somewhere else, leaves depreciated currencies, ruined businesses, and recessions (282). The only consequence this flow seems to have is negative. Kindleberger and Aliber note that, despite positive effects, floating currencies are frequently subject to both over- and undervaluation (231) which have the aforementioned “extremely powerful real effects on the domestic currencies” (232). And this is not to mention the scores of individually ruined investors, most of which have fallen, as noted above, for promises by more or less savvy insiders (46) and have to look on helplessly as white-collar-crime is either acquitted or faces what little punishment there is (153).

What characterizes this flow of capital, then, is that it, too, is “as economic as the Pyramids in the Egypt” (107), for its only effect is destructive: the creation and subsequent contraction of bubbles, erasing countless firms and, probably more important, ruining countless existences. It cannot even be said that sustaining this flow has any beneficial effect on those which do: when Kindleberger and Aliber recount the 1999 surge of American wealth, they note how Americans who just sold “securities they owned to foreign investors … had to decide what to do with the money,” and who then “used most of the money to buy more securities” (184).

It seems to me that this purchase of more-of-the-same is the best characterization of why the current series of bubbles may be identical to the pyramids of our times. If the capitalist system of economy can be characterized as a limited economy which, as the first one of its kind, was able to absorb all excess energy (capital, surplus-value, wealth) into its reinvestment and into the creation of more excess – that is, if the capitalist economy is the first and only one which necessarily has to include its general economy: what better way of doing so than to construct a limitless flow of wealth, not confined but corrosive to all its boundaries, with no effects but the inevitability of its own further existence and the destruction it leaves along its way?


Works Cited
Kindleberger and Aliber, page numbers in brackets.
Bataille, Georges (1967, 2007): The Accursed Share. Vol. I: Consumption. NY: Zone Books. (BAS 1)
Bataille, Georges (1976, 2007): The Accursed Share. Vols. II: The History of Eroticism & III: Sovereignty. NY: Zone Books. (BAS 2)

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Michel Foucault: History as Battlefield

An answer to this assignment. As always, the usage of photos is for educational purposes and I do not make any profit with them.


The Prison: Juvenile Boot Camp Prisoners, Alabama, 2012.  Photo by Rob Carr, AP.“In short, Humanism is the sum total of all measures by which the desire of power has been detained in the Occident – by which it was denied the will to power, by which it was denied the chance to take power.” [1] No doubt: a harsh judgement, and one that many people would immediately dispute. Is it not true that humanism is a noble cause; that humanity is a common essence we all share and that is worth preserving; and that Man, replacing God in the center of the universe as Europe entered its long ascent in the Renaissance, had a profoundly liberating effect on all of mankind? Is it not true that few words had more good and lasting effects on the struggle of men and women than the universal declaration preceding American independence? Is it not true that the figure of Man, guarding the doors to wisdom and governing the ethics of knowledge, is a figure of freedom, compassion, and empowerment?

But what empowerment are we talking about? Discipline and Punish gives an unexpected, almost scandalous answer: Man, humanity, humankind, is born in and out of a disciplinary system predicated upon a set of institutions which, in final analysis, all converge into their archetype: “prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons” (228). What is given to human beings as they are formed, governed, disciplined, molded in the generalized prison-system Foucault calls the generalized panopticism is a source of strength and a measure of power – but a power which is economic, not political; which is docile, not resistant. Man, so-called Man, is a tool, a formation, a position in a battle. “What intensificator of power will be able at the same time to be a multiplicator of production?” (208) Without a doubt, society answered this question, and it continues to answer it, in every one of us. Our originary will to power is always satisfied just enough to leave us yearning for more, but the carrot dangling before our faces is not a freedom of an all-sided individuality, but a narrower, more productive, less disruptive freedom of, and by, and for, so-called Man: a docile creature. And this, Foucault warns us, is not a question of relative power within society – certainly, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping are as much, if not more than us mortals are, bowing down before the disciplinary apparatus erected, and controlled, by nothing but the constellation of wills to power. (225)

The Factory: Manufacturing Assembly Line, China, 2007. Photo uploaded by Lee BarriosWhat, then, is the method of Michel Foucault? What is his science, which is the governing ideal of his pursuit of the archive, “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary” (Nietzsche, Genealogy, History: 76)? Is he the positivist many people make him to be? Is he, as Paul Veyne maintains, a skeptical thinker, icy and detached? Or is he perhaps – and this is, without a doubt, the critique put against him by most political thinkers – an irresponsible destroyer of institutions beneficial to human society? Is he, as the English Wikipedia triumphantly asserts (for here we, finally, have a way of fixing him in categories, and he cannot resist anymore), a “Nietzschean”?

As historians, we would have to step back from these all-too-quick, all-too-easy characterizations, and ask what information Foucault himself gives us in Discipline and Punish. What is the object of his study, according to Foucault? It is a “study [of] the metamorphosis of punitive methods on the basis of a political technology of the body in which might be read a common history of power relations and object relations.” (24) Foucault is analyzing, he says, “micro-physics of power” (26). Power and knowledge are intertwined on a level used, but not produced by institutions in which power classically resides (27), and accordingly, though a never-ending struggle is happening throughout history, this struggle is never waged by one dominant power against one subordinate power. Rather, it is a struggle in every one of us: in Humanity, as in all historical universals, “we must hear the distant roar of battle” (308). Man struggles against himself, or more precisely: in every one of us, a so-called Man, imposed by disciplinary apparatuses, fights against a will to power which is itself based upon the version of us the disciplinary apparatus produced. On the one hand, the dream of “a disciplined society” (198), on the other, a resistance which is itself entangled with what it resists – in Discipline and Punish, delinquency (278).

But, again, our question is historiographical, not political. Foucault, for our intentions and purposes, approaches history like one approaches a battlefield: every hill and every ditch, every river and every piece of grassland have a history and an immediate strategic purpose; and privileging The Will to Power, asserted.  Photo uploaded by Adrian Covert, 2011 one at the expense of the other will inevitably lead to defeat. That is, every historical formation, every event in this formation, every commentary and any of these formations and events, is part of overarching narratives and a mere accident, a surprise, a one-time juxtaposition. Describing the totality of these means narrativizing (who is to deny that Discipline and Punish does indeed offer a narrative?), but it also means restoring the openness of historical events, and that means, their strategic value for our situation, which is – of course – just as open as all past constellations. This is why I cannot but insist on Foucault’s actuality: I consider it a part of his historiography. Unsettling fixed narratives gives social formations, and their historical genesis, to us as material in the war we wage against ourselves. At the same time, and by the same token, the history of these narratives is the history of bygone constellations in the same war, and bygone wars in the same constellations. So-called Man is but one of these formations; and if, as Discipline and Punish did and continues to do, the war he wages can be turned against him, writing history can be part of a struggle for justice –

or, if not justice, then at least “the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge.” (Nietzsche, Genealogy, History: 97)


[1] I was unable to retrieve the English translation, so this quote is my own translation of “Kurz, der Humanismus ist all das, wodurch man im Abendland dem Verlangen nach der Macht einen Riegel vorgeschoben hat – wodurch man ihm untersagt hat, die Macht zu wollen, wodurch man die Möglichkeit ausschloß, die Macht zu ergreifen,” which, in turn, is taken from an Interview conducted with Foucault and published under the title Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil) in: Von der Subversion des Wissens (On the Subversion of Knowledge), Walter Seitter (Ed.), Frankfurt 1987: Fischer Taschenbuch Press, pp. 90-115).


Works Cited:
Michel Foucault (1971): Discipline and Punish. NY: Vintage Books.
Michel Foucault (1971, 2010): Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, in: Paul Rabinow (Ed.): The Foucault Reader, NY: Vintage Books, pp. 76-100

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Assignment 3, September 17, 2012

An answer to this assignment. The articles read are, in chronological order:
Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1970): Bismarck’s Imperialism 1862-1890, in: Past & Present, No. 48, pp. 119-50
E. P. Thompson (1971): The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, in: Past & Present, No. 50, pp. 76-136
Fernand Braudel (1972): Personal Testimony, in: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 44 (4), pp. 448-467
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese (1976): The Political Crisis of Social History: A Marxist Perspective, in: Journal of Social History, Vol. 10 (2), pp. 205-220


Following the idea of James Cook that so-called turns in historiography are only retroactively designated as such, the title of the Genovese’s piece is sufficiently reassuring that a ‘turn’ has, indeed, taken place; if only insofar as there is talk about a turn: after all, Social History is endowed with the markers of a distinct entity, capital letters (see Judith Surkis, p. 714). What is more, this article gives a critique of Social History, accusing it of lacking political commitment (Fox-Genovese & Genovese 1976: 206, 214, 217). It seems, then, that the question of characterizing Social History can, for the moment, suspend its deeper twin, the question of whether such a formation exists at all.

As always, what characterizes Social History as a whole may be inferred from what authors working within this type of historiography identify as the categories they resist. Contrary to the opening paragraph of this post, however, it seems necessary to maintain from the outset that the authors in the present sample are different in their geographical origin, and, following Iggers (p. 71), working on projects that might be similar, but remain parallel (Wehler evidently being in the tradition of German Critical Theory and social research; Braudel, without a doubt the most widely known proponent of the Annales ‘school’; Thompson, representing Past & Present as a distinguished English source). There are common threads running through all three pieces, however. These may be summarized by maintaining that all three authors – and the Genoveses as well – introduce a non-individualist point of view into historiography, leaving behind visions of history which focused on statesmen and political actions, and espousing a (more or less) materialist focus on socio-economic formations and developments instead.

For Hans-Ulrich Wehler, it is especially the statesman Otto von Bismarck whose actions, motives, and political positions shed light on his social environment rather than himself. This needs to be emphasized, since it is especially Bismarck who, like almost no other politician in German history, seems to invite a historiographic approach delivering a biography (more often than not, a panegyric) rather than a social history. Wehler shows, however, how Bismarck is entangled in a question of Modernity (123) as he tries to uphold an outdated power-formation (147); how the so-called ‘Iron Chancellor’ was, in fact, driven by necessities of class struggle (143) when embarking on imperialist adventures (123) as well as introducing social policies that were far ahead of their time (140); and how social psychology drove large parts of the German decision-making process, and thus Bismarck’s decisions (144, 145). In short: according to Wehler, historical processes like German imperialism are “to be seen primarily as the result of endogenous socio-economic and political forces” (124, emphasis Wehler’s), and neither as stemming from pressures exercised abroad, nor from individual action.

Describing the Moral Economy of the English Crowd, E. P. Thompson broadens the list of possible social actors by introducing two neglected focus groups of historical agency: the crowd – far too often, Thompson maintains, characterized as a mob, driven by its belly rather than an actual agenda (76) – and women (115). He seemingly, therefore, opens up a broader view of individual actors as they create, influence, and change historical conditions. Thompson introduces the idea of crowd riots being organized rather than spontaneous outbursts (78), and describes their cunning techniques (117) as part of a militant resistance to a newly-introduced political economy (95). Thompson gives an analysis of these forms of resistance which opens up a strategic field of class war (120, 129) between a magistrate not nearly as powerful as usually recognized (121, 124), and an active and organized peasantry, frequently organized by women (116). I would, therefore – even though it is least obvious here – interprete Thompson’s account as a description of class, not individual, actors; and of economic, not political, formations. (On this last point, Iggers (p. 88) disagrees, emphasizing Thompson’s cultural over his economic approach. I would argue, however, that this stems from an overstatement of the base-superstructure-model on the part of Iggers, leading him to overemphasize Thompson’s departure from it.)

Finally, Fernand Braudel, introducing the idea of a quantifiable approach to history (452) and his famous longue durée-timeframe (454, 463), gives a decidedly non-individualist account of history (454). His analytic focus lies on the totality of a historical formation: not only would historiography build on a total analysis by all aspects of scientific evidence (457), but the phenomena themselves were to be analyzed (462) and described (453) as totalities – with a bent to geography (453, 465).

It is, perhaps, this last article, rather than Wehler’s or Thompson’s, which gives the Genoveses the impression of an abandonment of political commitment on the part of social history (214, 217). Certainly, they agree with the analytic focus on a historical totality espoused by all three above articles (205, 207, 208); they agree with the anti-positivism which governs Wehler’s and Thompson’s accounts explicitly, and Braudel’s implicitly (205, 210); and they subscribe to a focus on material, and specifically geographical conditions of historical events (207). Their overarching critique, of social analyses of totality (209), of ethnography (213) and anthropology (215), as well as social psychology (218), is that the totality analyzed is not dialectical: that is, it is not open for, not designed to further, political action governed by a class struggle within the historical profession (219).

Which brings us full circle: for the articles juxtaposed here – and the turn they might add up to – is, of course, a social formation.

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