How do you study Global History? Comparisons, connections, entanglements and Eurocentrism

How do we learn the past? We learn the past by being taught it by someone else, whether orally or by reading.

History is also invented by peoples, tribes, religions who need a common past as a means to define and establish themselves. They need a common (sometimes mythical) common origin to give the group a common destiny. This is done through a process of othering. We can only know something we don’t know through comparison with something we do know.

The other is alien, it is foreign. Everyone is ethnocentric so some extent, it is unavoidable in the way we have been brough up to define others in terms of their differences to you. Identity is a narrative of yourself established in relation to the other. French versus English. Argentinian versus Brazil. Protestant versus Catholic. Hindu versus Muslim. West versus Rest. This is both a historical and Epistemology process.

History of Eurocentrism

Is Eurocentrism Americancentrism and Australiancentrism too?

Notion of Europe emerged out of the Schism in the Christian Church and the emergence of a powerful Muslim civilisation to its south east (the holy land) and south west (Iberia).

Europe was created by the crusades and an ex-post mythology of the crusades. The creation of Europe was also the Christianisation of Europe. The European experience split the world encountered into heretics (cathars) and infidels (Muslims). Through a series of historical contingent events Europeans circumvented the “siege” they were under from Muslims to the south through exploring by sail.

They set out to reach the East via the West. D’oh! They found the New World instead. There they found a new “other” one which was neither infidel nor heretic. In fact, many were unsure if what they found was even human.

European adventurers didn’t treat these people like heretics (they didn’t burn them) or infidels (they didn’t slaughter them) or Africans (they didn’t enslave them). They attempted to civilise them. The Catholic Church said that these people should not be enslaved. They were not infidels or heretics because they hadn’t chosen to be ignorant of Jesus, they were just far away.

Therefore the Europeans treated this new other unlike other others. They saw them as minors, children, to be educated, civilised and converted. Europeans then had to export “europeaness” to the New World. The correct and civilised way to eat, dress, speak, pray were all taught to those of the New World. It reshaped the idea of Europe and the idea of history.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment purposefully created a European genealogy which is secular and historical rather than religious or mythological. It turns history into a civilisational project, involving a linear path of development. A European recipe which can be exported (via empire) to the rest of the world. Thus, 18th/19th C empire was different to 16th/17th C empire.

The enlightenment creates a historically centred narrative against which everything else is measured, compared and contrasted (location, chronology and hierarchy).

Progress

European civilisation is seen as a linear process. In this process are grand theories of social development like Spencer and Darwin. This sense of progress defines an ethos of 19th C imperialism. It offers a political economy of space use environment and people, one of modernity. With this the world is divided into core and periphery.

US

The US is the uebermost case of a nation defined on a centred historical and ideological construct. Anyone can become American if they sign up to this founding mythology.

Is Centred History good History?

A centred history has flaws because it must create distinct events in order for its narrative arc to work. However, events are not centred and so each centred history much obscure one thing when it tries to focus on another.

For example, the Renaissance was only possible because the Arabs preserved knowledge of the Ancient Greeks which Europe had lost (I almost wrote “which we lost”, naughty). Focussing on a narrative of the Renaissance risks ignoring the rest of the world.

Are all histories equal? Some would say yes. A Global History Scholar from Malaysia attended a conference on Global History and requested that non-Islamic scholars admit the Koran as a historical source. Is the History of the Koran admissible?

What is good history? Is it a matter of the quantity of sources? The quality of the sources provided? There are a multitude of sources on most subjects saying contrary things, very often from very good authorities too. This way lies rampant relavatism, from which it is difficult to learn anything.

The problem with centred history is that because it is highly specialised and necessarily fragmented it risks only being able to explain itself; it becomes arcane knowledge. History as a discourse  becomes history as rhetoric. History of “exceptionalism” from American to Chinese fails to help us explain the world.

Global History attempts to overcome this by being a completely cosmopolitan exercise. Not only that but by focussing on a very long time scale it avoids the risk of being beholden to a dominant narrative of any one historian or school of historians.

Comparisons, connections, interactions and entanglements

Connections are important because we need to understand the webs and flows of goods, knowledge and people between distant (in space and time) others. This information is revealed in different channels; trade; diffusion of ideas; exchange; encounters; dislocation; aculturation. There are also vectors that determine how these connections are made, technological, scientific and epidemiological.

All history is Comparative history. With reciprocal comparisons we can try to avoid some of the flaws of euro- and western- centric histories. Rather than ask “why didn’t China end up like England,” we can ask “why didn’t England end up like China?” This allows us to surmount the tyranny of local detail. It also prevents us from taking ownership of a topic and allowing this to cloud our judgement. We can aggregate and average features over large areas and examine their similarities and differences.

Interactions and entanglements also give us a way to examine things without a centre. For example, Iberia, Southeast Asia and the US/Mexico border all give us opportunities to look at competing narratives and identities. This is not to accept relavatism, but rather to enable us to accept and analyse the existence of completing and complimentary identities. Global History allows us to examine the diversity of human experience and enables us to challenge the cultural and political enterprises of hegemony.

Virtues of Global History

It revisits common denominators of chronology, concepts and causality across as much of time and space as possible. It helps us to deal with the facts on the grounds while accepting diversity to avoid describing contingent events as universal experiences.

This decentred history helps us to understand the process of change rather than merely explain how we got to where we are, however narrowly or broadly “we” are defined.

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About Left Outside
I blog, I drink, I study at the LSE, I work at a wine shop.

One Response to How do you study Global History? Comparisons, connections, entanglements and Eurocentrism

  1. Pingback: How do you study Global History? Comparisons, connections, entanglements and Eurocentrism (via Global History @ LSE) « Left Outside

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