Meta-History vs. Entertaining Culture

Philosophical issues in world history

We humans are one of a kind. A mystery and an interesting question for historians lies in explaining this species and what it has done on earth. Are humans just another fase in evolution, a construction of amazingly complex systems based on amazingly simple cores? Are there certain rules of nature that have shaped our common evolution? Or are we not so easily structurable and always doing the unexpected? Two truly inspiring, beautifully written World-History books are under review in this essay.

The “Maps of Time. An Introduction to Big history” of David Christian is an attempt to compose a grand narrative of meta-history. Not a specific place in history is under examination; no intruiging puzzle of diplomacy; no personal dilemma’s of historical figures. All that has happened until today has followed a path over time. These paths are mapped and the resulting world history forms an impressive overview of all knowledge. Another impressive overview is gathered by John Wills in “1688. A Global History”. This book takes a snapshot of humanity. In the resulting picture several historical trends can be seen, but it is the diversity of culture and anecdotal fascination that grabs the reader the most. One has less difficulty relating to another persons biography, than the chemical processes that have created the Universe. Furthermore, culture encapsulates life from a human perspective that may be less scientific, but is certainly realistic.

Now, how and why does “Maps of Time” need more attention to Culture? In order to answer this question properly a further definition of the term “Culture” and a further inspection into the methodology of “Maps of Time” is needed.
The term Culture is a very slippery one for the historian. It is mostly used to divide specific groups of people from others. Most compromise exists on the following definition:
The system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.
Culture is intrinsically human. Trying to know one’s surrounding by communicating and sharing world-views with other members of your group is a part of the survival of our species. In a sense, humans cannot exist without culture and all possess one way of culture. The dark side of this is that there is no objective observation possible of culture. If all of us have our definitions of the world, how can one of us sense reality?
David Christian summarises his meta-history as a modern creation myth. The set of beliefs globally adapted since modernity are scientific. And so, science too has the job to explain our origin.

Here lies the first problem. “Maps of Time” is an outstanding example of meta-history, yet it does not tackle the main philosophical issues, or “Big Ideas”. This time around the forward dynamics of history are not divine, nor materialistic, and certainly not human considering the blip our common existence is in the Universe, but natural. Not only does this show by the spelling of Nature with a capital letter, but also in the narrative. It would be fair to dub this book Naturalistic. Yet structuing all history still does not automatically reveal a system that exposes the future in all nudity, at least not the visible future. Cultural world-views think up Future. History does not show it. Thus it doesn’t seem to add much to the understanding of history, as long as it only describes all known mechanisms in a fairly dry fashion. Not one feature of history is left problematic and this may run 180º contra the artistic and intruigingly unsolvable charachter of history. David Christian however does seem to collect all systemaized knowledge into an overall framework and he manages to structure all of history, doing away with other concepts of meta-history.
Another problem lies in the translation from the sciences to the reader of big history. In one sense David Christian is doing is his best to represent scientific values that are linguistically so diverse, as they range from biology, astronomy, anthrolpology, sociology to cosmology and even religion and arts. This he does in his own language, searching for consensus every other sentence. Finding artistic solutions for mathematical problems. How does this work with world history?
For example, Christian boasts a concept he calls the “social law of gravity”. Gravity, in its formulatic fashion cannot explain the appearence of cities and their evolution easily, and since this book is just “an introduction to...” Christian does not attempt a further experiment. Christian also anecdotes the trees migrating north after the last Ice Age. This kind of language thus remains descriptive, and in one way, cultural, as it tries to appeal the human imagination. This book’s various Maps of Time contains a story of difference.

Time, like pattern, means difference, if no more than the difference between then and now. So this story, like most creation storiesm is really about the emergence of difference from an original sameness. In this version, as in many creation myths, difference begins with a fundamental clash of oppposites. (p. 19)

Another way in which Christian did have Culture on his mind was in explaining to the reader the scales and proportions by making comparisons to everyday-measurements, typically your “top of the Eiffel-tower”-argument. A complete historical study must contain some form of space-time framework in order to cultivate historical awareness. David Christian tries to tackle this issue by introducing a set of differently scaled time-tables, being the pages of his Maps of Time. Each page contains its own system of change:
-the cosmoc – 13 billion years
-the earth, the biosphere and “Gaia” – 4.5 billion years
-multicellular organims – 600 million years
-human evolution – 7 million years
-human history – 200,000 years
-history of agrarian socities and urban civilizations – 5,000 years
-modernity – 1,000
So what happened to the need for eye-witnesses? Well, having “big history’ has really diminished chance any historical witness can bring news. Any cultural experience ever recorded by man is substitutional and carries no explaining power, making it obsolete. All study of history is offcourse praised for the collective value, but – and he is no the only historian thinking this way – here lies a new paradigm history needs to take. Intellectual modesty is unnecessary and harmful, he claims.

How does the cultural analysis of “1688” provide the insight needed for world history?
John Wills gives colour to the first, basic level of world history, in which historians simply globalise their physical scope. The globe of “1688” is a vibrant globalisation, which is there, almost breathing. This creates a unique sense of the history of the world, more specifically of our shared history. In contrast with the more popular era’s studies in world history being great transformations -from Hunting to Settling and from Working the land to Working energy - this book is a one-year virtual road-trip from one person to another and from one society to another. The reader can taste the diversity of culture, but can also sense how close all these cultures actually are related to one another.
Wills does the cultural tour of one earthly year. Culture is diverse, communicating, feels alive and entertains the imagination. The absence of logic makes a 1688-world-view feel exciting and adventureous. But what does this book do to the research of World History? It certainly makes a lot of points on globalisation, gender studies, migration history, earlymodern capitalism and entreperneurship, the rise of science, religious persecution. But then again it doesn’t name these processes, it does not conclude or sum up any of the described events in discussable terms. Yet, it is excellent history. It brings faraway and static events in the past close to the mind of the reader. The style that is chosen in the book is a very enjoyable ride of beautiful words, as the literary capacity of the author provides the read with fascinating space to think.
Furthermore, the picking of 1688 is remarkable. Seemingly, this is a balanced and fair world. No European dominance or arrogance, but Baroque! Flowering cultural expression seems to fit this Global Culture History. I do think is a pity that the author did not conclude this snapshot of humanity.

To conclude this odd comparison I would like to categorise “Maps of Time” as complete and absolute theory, with interactive concepts, mechanisms and systems based on a single division in the Universe: Energy and Matter. “1688” is a fascinating account of human practice. No logic rules in this sphere of humanity, but unmeasurable cultural concepts as emotion, admiration and art.


At 9:47 PM, Blogger Nella said...

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