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22Historically Speaking November/December 2004 What Are World Histories? Michael Salman Jr oseph Miller expresses misgivings about I the methodological and theoretical founations ofworld historyin two registers. "As an Africanist," he voices concern that the treatment ofAfricans by "self-styled" world historians offers "the extreme examples ofthe exclusion that conventional untheorized standards ofworld historyimpose ... on most of the world." And, "[a]s a historian," he worries that "[m]ost world historians . . . seem also to mute, ifnot negate, central principles of history's distinctive methodology" by emphasizingthe origins and continuityofcivilizations , rather than attending to change over time in highly contingent and particular contexts. Thus Miller's critique ofworld historyis global in a double sense. Itis based on a firmview ofwhat the discipline ofhistoryis all about, its "central principles," its purpose, its goals. And his critique is also global in its commitment to inclusion. Indeed, quite admirably, he wants not just inclusion, but a historiography turned upside down; a historiography in which, to borrow a culturally laden phrase, the last (to be included in world history) shall be first in leading the way to new understandings ofold topics. Allow me to speak confessionally. I have not styled myself a world historian. Like Miller, I am skeptical about the concept of world history, its claims to go beyond earlier forms of("Western") civilizational or regional history, and its growing status as a field. I thinkwe mightusefully asknotjustwhat land ofworld history we want to see, but, more fundamentally, what is world history? Is it a field ofhistory? And what does it mean to be a field of history? As you might begin to guess, I am skeptical aboutmostthings. This habit of mind can be tiring. Sometimes it is necessary to accept a given framework and teach one's classes as a matter of practical necessity. We must always make choices and, in that light, the choice ofan inclusive world history strikes me as a better option than manyothers thatpreceded it. However, with regard to world history there are some specific reasons why I remain a skeptic. World history, as most commonly practiced , tends to emphasize certain historical narratives almost exclusively. The world is a bigplace, and itis an old one, too, with lots of internal divisions and cantankerous inhabitants . One mightthinkthere would be copious stories to tell. Quite the contrary. The more historians stand backto tell the grandest ofgrand narratives, the more they focus on selections from just a few story lines. These overweening narratives include stories about the rise and fall ofcivilizations recognized as "great," and stories about globalizing processes, such as the spread of capitalism, the integration ofworld markets, natural history (disease, climate, environment ), and globalized relations of production . Let me say immediately that these are important histories. I should hope this would be so obvious that no one could misunderstand my critical words as suggesting that these histories should be dismissed. Theyare necessary histories, but they are often inadequate , never complete, and they should not always occupythe central place in our historical intellect and imagination. I share Miller's concern about the way thatworld history tends to represent a modernist and "Western" view of the world, which has trouble with the difficult task of providingsatisfyinghistories ofpeoples, societies , and cultures that did not (or do not) operate within that model. The problem is not so much thatworld history tends to convey only a few tremendously important historical narratives among a world full of stories , but that it represents just a slender slice ofthe many differentways ofunderstanding the world historically, and understanding how the world has been understood across history and across different cultures in history. Despite myskeptical arm's length distance from world history, I share with Miller an interestinwhatworld historyis tryingto do. This is so for a variety ofreasons: because I do style myself as a historian interested in comparative history and epistemology, transnational histories, and translocal processes; because studying "Western" or any other sort ofcivilization byitselfstrikes me as a practical, political, and philosophical mistake ; and also because I suspect that world historyis a little bit like war, in the sense that althoughyou mightnotbe interested init, as Trotsky once quipped, it is very likely to become interested in you. Not only...


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