- Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture Edited by David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi
The title of this curious volume refers to not one but three problems of the “world.” First, how can scholars in varied disciplines across the social sciences and humanities grapple with their intellectual objects of study after the “global turn” and its critique of preexisting conceptual and theoretical frameworks of a “national” bent? Where do the boundaries (even fuzzy ones) begin and end, say, for French literature or West African art? Second, for those with pretensions toward a “global” social science, can the particularisms and caveats of humanities scholarship provide a check on the reductionist tendencies that lurk beneath “big history” and its proponents? Third, given the persistence of unequal economic, political, and social hierarchies on a world scale, how relevant is the production of knowledge, especially in the contemporary humanities, for the elucidation and reduction of such inequalities? Should we be “overjoyed,” the editors write, “to think of the world’s cultures as equal and equally modern if so much else in the world remains so unequal?” (p. 9).
Throughout Immanuel Wallerstein’s lifelong intellectual project, the three editors note, the key explanandum has always been the colossal inequality for an individual’s life chances depending on [End Page 661] whether one was born in Dakar, Doha, Dushanbe, or Des Moines. Wallerstein created and developed a conceptual and theoretical toolkit to deal with this question: world-systems analysis. Scholars can (and many have) take umbrage with some of his particular arguments: capitalism began in the sixteenth century, not in the nineteenth; modern slavery is as capitalist a form of labor as waged work; the political and economic power of the United States is in irreversible decline; and capitalism is a historical system whose time is nearly over. Yet, regardless of the debates that Wallerstein’s undertaking spawned (and perhaps spurned), the stark realities of our crisis-ridden age demand a “perspective of the world.” The volume’s editors, all working in the humanities themselves, utilize the challenge of Wallerstein’s project to take an uncompromising look at their own disciplines and invite others to do the same.
To a large extent, then, this volume is a critical appreciation of the global turn that Wallerstein helped to generate. As with most edited volumes born of conferences, however, the book arguably suffers from “uneven development.” Some chapters directly address Wallerstein’s oeuvre; others engage in conceptual dances—beautiful and baroque—with the terms of system, scale, or culture; and a few seem tacked on for inscrutable reasons of disciplinary affirmative action. Yet the clarion call is noble: The late nineteenth-century intellectual divide and Methodenstreit between the “two cultures,” as David Palumbo-Liu points out, was long ago labeled by Wallerstein as a “sham” (p. 209). This edited volume does not propose a new path forward, by any means, but it certainly blocks the way back.
The editors begin by arguing that while the post–Cold War academic promotion of “alternative modernities” for trajectories of African, Asian, or Latin American history might have alleviated the postcolonial stigma of inferiority in the cultural sphere, the same celebration of localized self-expression also masked the global hierarchies of social, economic, and political structures that persist to the present. Several authors in the volume reference James Ferguson’s disciplinary autocritique that for most individuals on the African continent, “modernity” is not to be delivered via the liberation which comes from fluid and playful cultural self-production but rather from the actual economic convergence between North and South that, under actually existing capitalism, remains the wishful thinking of the naïve and the deceived. To this reader, whipped into disciplinary submissiveness through the travails of academic life, it is a blunt reminder that the most powerful criticisms of any academic field can often emerge from within the disciplinary apparatus itself, even though these critiques...