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November 2002 Historically Speaking 13 An Interview with J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa Yerxa: What are you trying to accomplish with The Human Web} J.R. McNeill: A number of things at the same time, I suppose. On the intellectual level, my dad and I are trying to get across a vision of world history—one that is, we hope, coherent, accessible, and compelling. And our vision, simply stated, is that the means of interaction among communities throughout history have served to provoke the changes that are the main currents ofhistory, and this is quite consistent from the earliest human times to the present. The emphasis is on communications, networks ofcommunications, technologies ofcommunications , and oftransport as well. Yerxa: How do your webs ofcommunication and interaction improve upon existing conceptual schemes in world history? J.R. McNeill: There isn't a wide variety of existing conceptual schemes within world history, ifby worldhistory we mean attempts to tell the whole story of the human experience —or perhaps I should put it better—attempts to give structure, pattern, and meaning to the whole history ofthe human experience. By far the dominant approach, certainly within the English-language historical tradition, has been to divide the world up—at least over the last 5,000 years—among various civilizations . That is, to take elite culture as the primary unit ofanalysis, because it is elite culture that defines a given civilization, whether that is Egyptian, Chinese, or what have you. And this is the one that informs most of the textbooks, but it is not the only approach. In the last fifteen to twenty years a rival vision has popped up—one that my father has done something to advance beginning forty years ago— and that is to see world history as the story of interaction among various cultures and to privilege cross-cultural exchanges, influences, contacts , etc. I would say the primary exponent of this view currently is Jerry Bentley, editor of theJournal ofWorldHistory and author ofwhat I believe is the best textbook on the market. But that's about it in terms ofcoherent visions ofworld history. So what this web concept tries to do is take the latter of these two positions a little bit further and try to give some structure to the concept of, not perhaps cross-cultural interactions, but cross-community interactions. That is, people need not be ofdifferent cultures when interacting; they can be approximately of the same culture and yet locked in some competitive struggle or, equally, locked in some sort of cooperative arrangement. So we try to give a bit more structure and pattern to the notion ofgroup interaction than does any other vision ofworld history that I'm aware of. J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill. University of Otago, New Zealand. the true revelation. Muslims had exactly the same view oftheir world, but it was a different revelation from the same God. And then there was the 18th- and 19th-century secularization of the Christian epos—as I like to call it—that was taught in the universities. This vision of world history was anchored in the notion of progress, interpreted in largely material terms: technological improvements, printing, and all the changes that followed from that, as well as changes of ideas. The notion of European progress had been ascendant up to the First World War. And when I was a young man, the First World War presented a tremendous challenge to this vision ofhuman progress. It contradicted everything in which those who thought Europe was progressive had believed. This was simply unresolved by historians who still thought ofprogress as the old, Enlightenment sort ofvision. For them, history stopped with 1914 and the controversy over war guilt, and there was no effort to meet this great intellectual challenge to the picture of progress. Progress was one ofthe great ideas of the Western world, and I was brought up with all that. I distinctly remember the week in which I encountered Toynbee as a second-year graduate student at Cornell. I suddenly realized that the history I had been taught had been confined to ancient Greece and Rome and the...


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