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161 Structural Work: How Microhistories Become Macrohistories and Vice Versa Marshall Sahlins The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and apparently by the most contemptible implements. —edmund burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France The Politicians have long observed that the greatest Events may often be traced to the most trivial Causes, and that a petty Competition or casual Friendship, the Prudence of a Slave, or the Garrulity of a Woman[!!] have hindered or promoted the most important Schemes, and hastened or retarded the Revolutions of Empire. —samuel johnson, The Rambler Early in1841,the irascible British Consul in Honolulu,Richard Charlton , fired off one of his habitual letters of complaint to the Governor of O’ahu. “Sir,” he wrote, “I have the honor to inform you that some person or persons are building a wall near the end of the bowling alley belonging to Mrs. Mary Dowsett, thereby injuring her property and violating the treaty between Great Britain and the Sandwich Islands” (BCP, 8 February 1841). Most absurd and ridiculous, as Edmund Burke might have judged, Mr.Charlton’s letter is thereby all the more suggestive of the general theme of this article: how small issues are turned into Big Events; or in somewhat more technical lingo, the structural-cum-symbolic amplification of minor differences. The focus is on the historical dynamics by which relatively trivial disputes over local matters (such as the trespass complaint of Mr. Charlton) get articulated with greater political and ideological differences (as between Britain and the Sandwich Islands), and are thus promoted into conflicts of world-historical significance. Critically in play are F5920.indb 161 F5920.indb 161 12/17/12 3:00:45 PM 12/17/12 3:00:45 PM 162 Marshall Sahlins the structural relays between lower and higher levels of sociocultural order,as in the Honolulu case between the relationships of neighbors and the relationships of states. Higher-level oppositions are interpolated in lower-level conflicts,and vice versa,in this way compounding the animosities of each by the differences of the other. By nationalizing the personal relations in the case of Mrs. Dowsett’s bowling alley , and thereby personalizing the national relations, the British consul hoped to create an international showdown—or at least dissuade some guy from building a wall. These structural relays indeed work both ways, dialogically synthesizing microhistories with macrohistories,whence their power of amplifying lesser into greater conflicts.For in giving collective identities to local relationships, and local identities to collective relationships, they also give to each the interests and sentiments of the other. Collective subjects such as nations, “imagined” as they may be, take on the flesh-and-blood qualities of real-life subjects—injured Britannia will be played by Mrs.Mary Dowsett—and are accordingly acted out in interpersonal dramas, with all their attendant feelings and emotions. Yet if abstract collective entities are thus substantialized in acting persons ,the concerns of these persons become correspondingly abstract. Endowed with collective identities, the real-life subjects thereby put at issue the larger political and ideological differences they are authorized to represent. That wall encroaching on Mrs. Dowsett’s bowling alley is now imposing on the sovereignty and good will of the British Empire. Note that the abstraction does not dissolve the original contention but on the contrary makes it all the more intractable. Thus overheated and overdetermined by greater causes, parochial discords may escalate into fateful events. But nothing of the sort happened in the case of Mrs. Dowsett, for several reasons. One was the historical infelicity of the property dispute . The injury done to the Haole lady could not upset either the foreign or the local people of Honolulu. Whether as interpersonal melodrama or the evocation of national grievances of longer memory , it was not a good metaphor. Besides, the greater forces whose intervention was being evoked, Great Britain and the Sandwich Islands, were not themselves in a state of contention. Fifteen years earlier Mr. Charlton’s complaint would have been somewhat less absurd. As an Englishman and a merchant, he was then aligned with the Hawaiian king in a struggle against a set of usurping pious chiefs, who for F5920.indb 162 F5920.indb 162 12/17/12 3:00:45 PM 12/17/12 3:00:45 PM How Microhistories Become Macrohistories and Vice Versa 163 their part had...


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