Friday, June 27, 2014

Sometimes I Read - Vol. I

I previously mentioned that I read too much and write too little. As far as problems with my intellectual habits go, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to reading too much, too much of my reading has been internet fluff.

But out of the actually 'substantive' material I've been going through, one book sticks out in my mind:

Andrew A. Latham, Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades (Routledge, 2011).

Here's an interview from late last year with Prof. Latham explaining his motivations behind writing this little tome.
"The prevailing common sense (in IR at least) is that this was an era of non-statist “feudal heteronomy”, radically distinct from the early modern international system that superceded it sometime between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.  According to this view, the late medieval translocal order was not an international system, properly understood, for the simple reason that it did not comprise sovereign states interacting under conditions of anarchy.


My objective in writing this book, however, was to demonstrate that this is a deeply flawed characterization of late medieval world order, one largely without warrant in the contemporary historiographical literature.  By the mid-thirteenth century, the convergence of new or revived discourses of sovereignty, territoriality, public authority, the “crown” and political community had given rise to a new “global cultural script” of sovereign statehood that was being enacted on various scales, around various social forces and through various institutional formations in every corner of Latin Christendom


Expressed in the language of IR theory, the various forms of state that were crystallizing during this era may have been structurally differentiated, but they were functionally isomorphic (in terms of their common constitutive ideal and its practical expression).   Ultimately, they were all states – distinctively late medieval states to be sure, but states nonetheless."
The first few chapters of Latham's book are a penetrating critique of the realist-liberal-constructivist orthodoxy in treating the pre-modern era as either not worth studying, or not amenable to analysis. In one section, he compiles a list of sins that international relations scholars commit in working with historical material, returning time and again to John Gerard Ruggie's 1983 article 'Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity'. I don't have the book with me anymore and didn't take very good notes, but off the top of my head I can remember these points:
  • Cherrypicking historical examples to match an agenda
  • Treating one side in a contentious scholarly debate as settled fact
  • Failing to use the latest in historical research and sticking to important, but outdated authorities
Incidentally, he mentions, the first in a positive light and the second in a negative one, two recent works I enjoyed immensely:
  • Andreas Osiander, Before the State: Systemic Political Change in the West from the Greeks (Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Daniel H. Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton University Press, 2009)
As well as, in passing, one I'm still trying to finish:
  • Thomas N. Bisson's The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton University Press, 2009).
For anyone curious as to why I like to read pre-modern history, the rationale goes something like this:

Everyone claims that we live in an era of great social and political change, with the international system shifting and transforming on multiple levels - every area of high or low politics. The most profound transformations in system are those that change its very nature, those that change what sort of games the actors are playing, or even who the actors are. In order to understand, anticipate, and prepare for these sorts of changes, we need to know more and think more about the last times systemic changes of this magnitude have occurred. That's not 1991, or 1945, or 1914, or 1848, or 1814, or 1789, or even 1648. We need to look back further, past the veil of Westphalia and into an unstructured and unanalyzed history that has been far too often glossed over in theory.

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