Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thinking Outside the European Box

Virginia Tech started publishing a podcast series named Medieval & Renaissance Studies Events (Med-Ren Events). Currently there is one lecture recording in the feed, which is a lecture by history professor Joseph Miller, titled: "Medieval" & "Early Modern" Africa? Thinking Outside the European Box. I rushed to listen to this lecture on my quest to learn more about Africa.

See also:
Podcast Review: Africa Past and Present,
Africa - Stanford Travel,
Africa - Counsel for Foreign Relations.

Even though I learned little about Africa, the lecture was an elevating experience out of which I have taken a tremendous lesson and loads of food for thought. Professor Miller spends the first half of his lecture entirely to the subtitle of the lecture: Thinking outside the European box. He makes a very strong point against the 'European', more regular constructions of history which have three (as I can recount) major flaws.
1) It emphasizes continuities (such as civilizations or nations), whereas realities are those of constant change. For example, speaking of China as a supposed continuum of 3000 years is blissfully ignoring the profound differences between China today and the China of any previous era.
2) It projects development in History. Thus one takes a contemporary notion and reconstructs history, selecting whatever phenomena match the notion, completely stripping it of its context and thus of its original meaning. Eventually such history creates an anachronism.
3) It assumes some purpose-driven element, which he calls the teleological flaw. This approach assumes the rationality and utilitarian drive in historic events and developments, whereas the reality is that people are deeply irrational, strategies are misconceived and consequences are by and large inadvertent.

The relation with Africa is, so it seems, that this European construction of how the discipline history can be exercised, is that maybe for Europe in modern times, the fictitious assumptions can somewhat be maintained, but for Africa, they are so bluntly inapplicable, that it makes building history of Africa, along the traditional methodology near impossible. Consequently, traditional history largely ignores Africa.

As an alternative and coherent with his determination of how flawed main stream approach is, he proposes the following assumptions as starting points: History is a flow of constant change, where the agents of change are acting incrementally, irrationally, they are delusional (as to their efficacy) and the results are inadvertent. What man and what society does, in Miller's mind is to act as he acts and when circumstances change or when the perceived goal is not reached, is to increment, emphasize, increase whatever set of actions, whatever strategy was deemed applicable (at the expense of other such activities) assuming a certain result, but in almost all cases creating a whole different outcome.

He uses a charmingly recognizable example to show the increment as well as the illusion about efficacy as the inadvertent result. When you speak little French and attempt with all that you can master to buy a metro ticket in Paris, you will nevertheless fail. What ensues, is that you raise your voice and in a louder fashion, in probably even worse French repeat your effort, with obviously far from the intended effect.

The second half of the lecture embarks on a history of Africa, but it is at this point, the already poor audio quality deteriorates to a level where the lecture is barely audible and in spite of repeated efforts, I could not extract any real insight. A lecture of this outstanding quality, would have deserved better. Current state of technology and the amount of podcasting experience that is around in US academia (Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton to name but a few) also demanded a better result from Virginia Tech. So be it. We can only hope they will make amends immediately.

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