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24Historically Speaking · November/December 2004 Another World Ajay Skaria In his characteristically thought-provoking and wide-ranging essay,Joseph Miller has attempted nothingless than a reformulation ofthe terms on which world history is to be thought. He asks (ifI may restate his argument ): What is this "world" that world history is concerned with? Can another world be thought? AsMiller's essaysuggests, this "world" is conventionally understood in terms of a movement from the particular or local to the general. As such, world historyis concerned with those events that transcend the local to attain a wider or general significance. The conventional focus of world historians on state formation and diseases and germs that reshape continents is inkeepingwith thisway ofthinkingabouttheworld. Within this kind ofworld history, as Miller's argument suggests , Africa can onlybe marked bya lack, by a failure to attain significance. I worry, however, that while he has very effectively pointed to the problems with the "world" as itis conventionallyunderstood, he has not produced an effective or sufficient breakwith iL Here, Iwould like, first, to point outcontinuities inhis essaywith the olderparadigm and, second, locate the precise ways in whichMiller's essaybreakswiththatparadigm. Letme beginwith the continuities. When he proposes a multi-centric approach to world history, he does so through a twofold argument: first, by pointing to the distinctiveness ofAfrica and, second, bylocatingthe way in which, through this distinctiveness, Africans participated inworld historyno less than anyone else. To my mind, the first of these arguments is open to serious questioning , and the second is too preliminary. Two convergences with conventional world history mark his argument about the distinctiveness ofAfrica. First, Miller locates the distinctiveness of Africa in its "communal ethos." As a historian ofSouth Asia, I cannotclaim anyknowledge ofAfrica thatwould allowme to disagreewithhim. Butwhatworries me nevertheless are the congruences between this description and conventional accounts ofpre-modern societies generally. In conventional narratives, the pre-modern is the site ofdirect, face-to-face interaction, and the coming of modernity disrupts this communal ethos. To find these themes returninginMiller's attemptto identifya distinctively African logic—albeit with a twist where the traditional is no longer the site of ossified ranks but ofmultiple and proliferating identities—is somewhat disconcerting. Second, defining a culture as a shared commonality always excludes some who five within the culture but do not subscribe to its "ethos." This exclusive inclusion is justified bythe method ofgeneralization, which allows such particulars to be either excluded as unrepresentative or otherwise subsumed under the broader culture. Miller's break from conventional world historyis more marked inhis attemptto think about the relation between Africa and the world in terms ofdispersion. Thus the argumentthatAfrica played an active role in modern world history. In this insistence on the productive role of dispersion, Miller breaks with the conventional subsumingofthe particular within the general. But this is a limited dispersion. "On the scale ofworld history, these dispersed, continentally specific strategies . . . were realizations ofa single pan-Atlantic (andultimately global) integrative economic process." Having introduced the theme ofdispersion, the essaynevertheless at crucial points treats this dispersionnotas constitutive butas integrated into a global process; it ultimately subordinates the dispersion to a totality. In this sense, the taskofbreakingwith conventional world history, though so provocatively broached, remains incomplete. It seems to me that the stakes ofmaking such a break are extremely high. For world history is not just a subfield ofhistory. In its practice, what becomes evident is the otherwise not so apparent assumption of totality that marks the dominant paradigm ofhistory. An argument based on generalizing from particulars necessarily presumes a totality. Without such a totality, generalizing would be an unstable and even impossible exercise. To theworld, there canbe no outside, no context : the world is the context. To attempt a world historyis also to attempta totalhistory. To the extent that a work ofhistory presumes such a totality, itis aworld history, even ifitlimitsitscompassto avillage oranindividual . Consider, for instance, Carlo Ginzburg's riveting classic, The Cheese and the Worms. All the lovingdetailswithwhich the bookrenders Mennochio remain particulars to the extent thatthe book's argumentclaims arelationto a generality—ifthe details ofMennochio are important, as the book sometimes seems to suggest, it is because they are representative ofthe rural world ofthat time and place. What then...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 24-25
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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