these are some entries about stuff that i find interesting.  if you enjoy reading, please do subscribe by entering your email. thanks for reading.

keerthik sasidharan

The Exterior Landscape

The Exterior Landscape

A few days ago, I ended up at the Strand bookstore near Union Square on 14th Street in NYC. I was there to find a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement’, his new book about the inability of politics and literary culture to engage with climate change.  According to him, this has come about thanks to historical developments that have privileged “the search for authenticity” over all else and transmuted much of modern literary culture solely as an indulgent “journey of self-discovery”.  Perhaps I misrepresent the thesis, but that is more or less what I had gathered from assorted reviews of the book.  What the book also seems to engage with is that the shifting historical lineaments on which much of modernity is built.  Like houses built over a fault line, Ghosh’s thesis is that much of modern life is set to founder thanks to climate change, a phenomenon we have neglected as a culture, as producers of art and as purveyors of intelligible thought.  One consequence of this failure is that this threat will progressively disallow art and politics to ignore geographies, geo-social phenomena as a given, as a constant in our mental landscape.  Instead Nature, thanks to climate change, will become a more consistent presence in our lives than ever before: both, as an implacable adversary that harm our lives and as a conspirator that will undermine human ambitions and vanities.  Climate change has let loose geography on our fragile lives.  In our public imaginary, it will not longer exist like the malevolent omnipresence from the oceans in Moby Dick or as a permanent source dread much like the forests in The Heart of Darkness.  Instead, like any well-etched character in fiction, Nature shall intervene in our lives as a vivid, idiosyncratic and, as independent minded force.  Outside Strand, the summer's golden evening light made such thoughts seem redundant, pessimistic, and even a touch foolish.  While still on the search for Ghosh’s book, I wandered past Strand's foyer and main floor, which was crowded, as usual, with tourists, book lovers, and the shifty eyed looking for a free toilet, and I arrived at the general history section which was tucked away, like some side ritual at a Vedic ceremony, in a corner. 

There, on one of the racks, stood books by the great French historian Fernand Braudel who had thought more about geography and society more than most historians, before geography became unfashionable.  With the élan of an old aristocrat who had reconciled to being ignored, from one end to the other,  Braudel’s famous works on geo-social histories, the Mediterranean, medieval ages, and Civilizations stood in a manner that only old neglected books can in the presence of shiny new bestsellers: weary of the reputation of grandeur thrust upon them.  Volume after volumes filled with words, numbers, paragraphs, summaries, nuances, curlicues of thought, contingencies, conjectures - Braudel’s words stood there as monuments to human thought.  There was something ineluctably magnificent about them, touching those volumes, feeling its thick spine, if nothing else then for the heaviness of scholarly ambition they carried within.  In a sense, Braudel was as 'heavy' in a methodological sense, as the Euclidean algorithm to compute the greatest common denominator was an embodiment of lightness itself.  In both cases however,  they are two approaches to sublimation - one is immersive expanse and the another is a distillation of human thought itself.  Amidst this fleeting sense of wonder at Braudel’s near Herculean meditations and summaries - albeit translated into English from French - I couldn’t help but think of Braudel himself, the man who must have stooped in front of a desk, with his pen in hand, ink smudges and paper cuts on fingers, the elaborate mental wrestling that is inescapable in any effort to write, and the physical energies that must’ve gone in writing these volumes.  Backaches, shoulder pains, loneliness, and ultimately, the fleeting sense of futility of it all that afflicts any writer.  But on that book rack, there was none of this handwringing.  There was so little of the man himself.  It was as if Braudel’s life hewed close to what Heidegger had famously said about Aristotle:

“Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died.”  

That shelf of books, stacked from end to end with Braudel, was a testament to his scholarly life and nothing.  Braudel, the man, was a ghost.  There was no autobiographical account, no reflections on his oeuvre, not even a photograph of the author in the inner backflap of his books.   This kind of self-effacement struck me with the force of guilt: ours is a biographical age, an era of sharing experiences, of over sharing possibilities contained in our meager lives with hopes that the very act of sharing may endow our lives with meaning.  In contrast, surrounded as we are by our celebratory cult of the Self, when even the most clichéd of thinkers project themselves as Socratic embodiments, Braudel seemed like an apostate.  One who had so much to say about the world, but so little about himself.  Years later, Braudel was cajoled by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to narrate his life for a journal.  I went and read that.  What comes through is a certain kind of reluctance to foreground one’s life in presence of the grandiloquent narrative of History itself. 


Heidegger writes in one of his Black Notebooks that “historians remain farthest removed from the Truth of history”.  At its surface, this critique is partially an indictment of the Good Queen Bess theory of history - where cause and effect of events are reduced to actions initiated by ‘great men’ (rarely, great women) of history.  Implicit therein is also a critique of the Whiggish view of history, which is often an accretion of facts in service of particular ideals — liberty, progress, freedom — that comports with the extant powers that be.  More obliquely, Heidegger's critique is also a denunciation of a view where facts become carapaces for a totalizing narrative that has little use for the emergence and subsiding of an immanent background.  His critique was an effort to call out a tradition of history writing where man’s presence and actions are deemed as neither pregnant with contingencies nor as governed by an inexorable swell and ebb of particular modes of historical being through which the Truth of human existence reveals.  To glimpse this Truth, for Heidegger, and earlier Hegel, historical consciousness was ensconced in the consciousness contained in a crises.  For Hegel, history was to be understood via the crises-crucible of the French Revolution, while for Heidegger, the idea of crises was more circumscribed, more personal.  To Heidegger, historical consciousness of an age was to be understood via the finitude of the experience of time itself.  It is unclear to me if Braudel read much of Heidegger in his youth, especially in the early 1930s when Heidegger was declared the “hidden king” of philosophy while young Fernand was still a student. 

Over his life time, in contrast to mainstream English tradition that valorized lives of men, Braudel’s approach actively reminded that the “the obstinate present of the past greedily and steadily swallows up the fragile lifetime of men”.  This attitude was both a methodological conceit - to downplay the importance of human lives while writing history - and a philosophical stance towards life itself.  Braudel writes elsewhere: “the historical narrative is not a method, or even the objective method par excellence, but quite simply a philosophy of history like any other”.   One of the results of this approach to history is that Braudel drew up a melancholy wistfulness in the reader for highlight the insignificance of men, of even great kings and financiers, who ultimately live in the shadows of great forces that are larger than themselves, forces which are neither human, and some of which aren't even sentient.  In this sense, this approach towards history has a certain similarity to the genius of evolution that aimlessly meandering over generations ("The Blind Watchmaker", as Richard Dawkins famously called it) with no criterion but fitness as the weeding mechanism.  This approach to narrating human lives is disorienting,  particularly as humans seek to impose order and narratives on their short life span. 


In Braudel’s magisterial thesis on the history of the Mediterranean in the 16th century, the forces that move history are born out of geographies, the social institutions that flourish are reared by human need for repetition, and history of 16th century is indistinguishable from the network of human relations that seek to perfect the exploitation and regulation of the very same geographic constraints that operated on their lives.   It is because of repetition that the past can be re-interpreted as a matrix of events containing various possibilities and outcomes.  It is repetition that grants meaning to our awareness of what we call history.  Viewed thus, unlike popular history writing that is a chronicle of events, this Braudelian historical narrative is an archaeological dig to excavate patterns of repetitions.  Any historical telling that seeks to harness such regularities and describe their influence on human lives inescapably means writing a total history, or as the philosopher Peter Adamson calls it in a different context, a history without any gaps. Braudel’s method however wasn’t simply the quest to present the totality of a conditions that generated history or the infallibility of an ideological pose, but it was a scrupulous, almost Dickensian, effort to knit out the wholesomeness of imbricated relationships that thrive in any microcosm.  It was this ambition and expansiveness of intent, an intellectual recklessness (if you will) coupled with fastidious attention to detail that burbled up as a school of history known as the Annales.  The journal that accompanied this approach to history, which served the discipline of history, transmuted from ‘Annales d'histoire e'conomique et sociale to a more grand, appropriately French, title: ‘Annales: e'conomies, societe's, civilisations’. 

The founding patriarchs of the Annales school were Braudel’s senior colleagues and teachers, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre.  Along with Braudel, the three of them stood on the shoulders of older and now nearly forgotten giants: Durkheim in sociology, de Coulanges in institutional history, Francois Simiand in economic theory, la Blache in geography and others.  All those influences notwithstanding, there was little preordained about Braudel’s own life that allowed a foregone conclusion that his emergence as the “Prince of History” (as he was referred to in his obituary) was inevitable.  In fact, what one realizes on reading his biography is that Braudel’s methodological approach towards history was foreshadowed by the very manner by which he arrived at his vocation as an historian.  For much of his early years, life and events more often acted upon him rather than granting him a semblance of agency.  It was as if his own life experiences had corralled him to a philosophic perspective that forced him to discount the claims of consequence made by traditional histories of men, diplomatic exchanges, and every day decisions of governance (Francois Simiand called this l historic evenementielle, the history of events). Simultaneously, Braudel was willing to aggressively imagine new causal linkages and the intricacies of geo-social factors that operated at an arm’s length from every day life itself.  The result of this curious amalgam of methodological attitude was that Braudel could neither be easily classified as a ‘conservative’ or a ‘Leftist’ -- in so far as those terms were understood by the politics of his day, which ranged from Georges Pompidou on the Right and the student protesters of 1968 on the Left.  With a certain kind of ironic benediction that history reserves for its fervent devotees, when Braudel died in 1985, while he was arguably the most famous of historians alive then, he simultaneously found himself outside the enclaves of the fashionable quarters of academic history writing.   


Fernand Braudel was born in 1902, in a village, with less than two hundred peasant-farmers, called Luméville.  Years later, when reflecting on his origins, Braudel wrote:

“I was at the beginning and I remain now an historian of peasant stock. I could name the plants and trees of this village of eastern France: I knew each of its inhabitants: I watched them at work: the blacksmith, the cartwright, the occasional woodcutters, the ‘bouquillons.’  I observed the yearly rotation of crops on the village lands which today produce nothing but grass for grazing herds.”

Hobbled by indifferent health, young Fernand was raised for a few years by his grandfather, Emilie Braudel-Cornot, to whom he was very attached.  From 1913-20, he studied at the Lycée Voltaire in Paris where he studied Greek and Latin and, like every self-respecting adolescent, wrote copious amount of poetry.  Braudel sought to become a doctor but his father – a teacher in Paris, Charles Braudel - supposedly discouraged him.  The result was a stint at Sorbonne studying history.  Among his earliest intellectual influences was a professor of history, Henri Hauser who stressed the influences of socio-economic factors over the explicitly political, and years later was acknowledged for shepherding Braudel’s fledgling interests in social history early on.  Like many of his generation, upon graduating Braudel left for Algeria where he ended up as a history teacher in the French colony till 1932.  During 1932 and 1935, Braudel was back in France where he continued as a school teacher, when in 1935 he began his two year stint as a young instructor of ‘civilizations’ in a university in Sao Paolo.  It was to the Amazonian country that Braudel doffed his intellectual hat and declared: “It was in Brazil that I became intelligent.”  All this while, from 1927 onwards, Braudel had dedicated himself to the study of his proposed thesis: “Philip II, Spain, and the Mediterranean in the 16th Century”.  It is one of the injustices of history, at least in the English speaking world, that we now remember the age of Philip II more for being a mere planet in the orbit of a star like Elizabeth I, when it was Philip II (“the Prudent King”) who bestride over the European, if not Catholic, consciousness in the 16th century as an aggressive, thoughtful, judicious consolidator of the House of the Habsburg in continental Europe.  Part of Braudel’s research on Philip II - thanks to the nature of his subject - led him to the Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, and Algeria. Alongside old fashioned research in archives (most famous of all in the Archivo General de Simancas in the “historical capital” of Spain, the city of Valladolid), Braudel also ended up buying a movie camera which allowed him to photograph thousands of documents, many of which his wife Paule duly transcribed.  With his research material beginning to overwhelm him, coupled with his experience of seeing Europe from the Algerian side, Braudel began to agonize over how to go about his thesis. It was then that his thesis advisor, friend, and later collaborator Lucien Febvre guided Braudel out of a cul de sac with a word of advise: “Philip II and the Mediterranean is a fine subject.  But why not the Mediterranean and Philip II? Isn’t that an equally fine but different subject?  For between the two protagonists, Philip and the interior ocean, the match is not equal.”  It was a useful suggestion that allowed young Braudel to find the intellectual courage to pivot his research from what would have otherwise been yet another thesis on the diplomatic histories on why Philip II pivoted his policy from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in the 16th century.  Instead, now, Braudel reworked his focus towards the more difficult, vastly more interesting subject of the Mediterranean, that 'inner sea’ that lay between Africa, Asia, and Europe.    

During the summer of 1939, Braudel began to write his thesis finally in Febvre’s vacation home. The relationship between Febvre and Braudel, which had begun in the 1935-37 period, as between an older scholar (Febvre, by then, was a professor at the College de France) and a talented but anonymous school teacher, had by 1939 acquired more of a filial and affectionate nature.  However, it wasn’t the most opportune of moments for quiet reflection and study.  Braudel ended up enlisting in the French army and served as an artillery lieutenant across the Maginot Line, where he only saw (thankfully) violent action briefly.  Soon, he was captured (according to Braudel, they had already surrendered) and shipped away to Germany to spend the rest of WW2 as a prisoner of war.   It was in the POW camp in the city of Mainz that Braudel began to return to his books again, partly as a teacher to fellow prisoners in history lessons with strong Gaullist loyalties (and anti-Vichy politics).  In his spare time, he began to write a text that was to become parts of his thesis. As improbable as this seems to our Google-addled brains and finger tips, Braudel’s wife claimed that he wrote his two volume thesis, “essentially from memory… his memory was abnormal, extravagant because it was automatic.  An elephant’s memory.”  By 1941, Braudel had managed to send his notebooks to Febvre containing his thesis chapters, which by the final 1944 draft led his thesis supervisor to write back: “you are not a simple, good historian, but a truly great historian, rich, lucid, broad.”  After his release in 1945, Braudel went back to his thesis to edit, fact check, and rewrite parts of it which culminated in a defense in 1947 and finally a 600,000 word publication in 1949 as “La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II).  It is a title and a thesis that managed to invert the conventional (barring a few exceptions, like Leopold von Ranke) historical telling till then, in which the Mediterranean was merely a backdrop for human activities in the centuries before the 16th century and was traduced to a backwater after the 17th century.  After two decades of research, extraordinary patience and persistence, and a monumental thesis - Braudel was rejected for a post of professor of history at Sorbonne in 1947. (One of his thesis committee members - thus, the lore goes - said: “You are a geographer: let me be the historian.”).  Braudel was 35 years old then.  


There many useful summaries of the criticisms laid out against Braudel’s thesis.  In fact, in the decades that followed the publication, there was a sub-discipline of what can be called Braudel-iana — critiques, challenges, emulation, deflections and so on.  Seeing Braudel at Strand reminded me of a nice biographical survey by Eric Dursteler in this collection, from which  I have filched some of the above biographical details.  It is worth tracking the book down to get a fuller measure of Braudel the man.  As for Braudel the historian, or more particularly the methodological and narrative innovations that Braudel introduced is more complicated and depends on which Braudel one is talking about, given his extraordinary career as historian, administrator of the historical discipline in France, and ultimately the eminence grise of world history.  Even Braudel’s thesis which was published underwent a revision, with help of Braudel’s students, and a second edition made its way into the bookstands in 1966.  Thus any careful portrait of Braudel’s thinking is subject to many snares and difficulties.  What is however evident is that by the end of his life, Braudel was outside the garden walls of the Leftist historiography that dominated the academy, which had moved onto more Foucauldian preoccupations with mental representations, new approaches via microhistory etc.  The Rightist governments of Georges Pompidou saw Braudelian preoccupation with longue duree as not just misleading but almost dangerous after the student riots of 1968.   It wasn’t that Braudel wasn’t aware of the kind of thrust and parry that Foucauldians brought to fore (the interiority of belief structures, knowledge systems, evolution of historical self-conceptions etc) to challenge Braudel’s geo-historical exegesis; for, well before Foucault, Lucien Febvre in his now little read, but fascinating, “Problème de l’Incroyance au XVI Siècle: La Religion de Rabelais” (The Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century: the Religion of Rabelais), explored what it would mean to be an atheist in 16th century, intellectually or psychologically speaking, and ended up trying to delineate the ‘conceptual apparatus’ (‘outillage mental’) that would have been available.  In short, the questions of inner voice, representations, and power politics about who writes histories were known and even studied. But that approach wasn’t Braudel’s idea of how to understand history. 

Instead, Braudel’s method was a pointillistic one (“my favorite vision of history is as a song for many voices”) that sought to assemble a vast canvas of impressions, archival truths, facts, motivations, litany of constraints, and so on to draw out inter-linkages that allowed the burbling of a dynamic system of coexistence where Nature is a coeval with man’s actions.  In a strange, almost Biblical irony, Braudel’s eventual status as an outsider within the historical academy came about thanks to his opponents taking his methodological moves as a legitimate object worthy of disagreement and argumentation.  If the worth of a scholar’s life is known by one’s intellectual bête noire, then Braudel had a magnificent list of opponents - philosophers and historians - who challenged him.  These included Foucault and Bourdieu’s post-structuralism, Paul Ricouer on the questions of granting agency to humans,  Michel de Certeau on how everyday life involves acts of appropriation that grants meaning to the living, Jacques Revel and Carlo Ginzburg (in Italy) on micro histories, Bernard Lepetit (who unfortunately died young) on concepts of social history, Pierre Nora on the importance of memory, and Emmanuel Le Roy Laduri on the micro histories of a French villageand so on.


At the heart of Braudel’s first and most famous book was the question of how did western Europe go from being Mediterranean centric to an Atlantic centric socio-economic space in the 16th century?  Conversely, implicit in any answer about this “turn” is the question of transformation of the Mediterranean from a vibrant economic sphere to a backwater around which there developed cities and towns marked by increasing loss of economic vitality.  For years prior to Braudel, the explanations were largely two fold.  One thesis argued that the Portuguese sea routes to India in the late 15th century broke the monopoly of Italian city states who controlled access to the land routes to the East and thus forced the Mediterranean into decline.  Braudel, patiently, assiduously, dismantled this thesis by showing that decline manifested only well after 1620s – i.e., for nearly 130 years after the discovery of da Gama, the Mediterranean regions thrived and were inundated with problems of prosperity such as overcrowding into the cities.  The second kind of explanation was more biographical: historians of the medieval period had privileged the legendary Cardinal Granvelle as the architect of Philip II’s radical decision in 1580 to counter his enemies from Northern Europe by investing heavily in the Atlantic.  According to his thesis, history pivoted from one watery zone to another because of intervention of a few men and their ambitious game of thrones.  Braudel, in contrast, thanks to his voluminous research began to reveal a more complicated reality about 16th century Mediterranean regions where the Habsburgs, the French, the Ottomans, their Moroccan allies, the Portuguese claimants to the throne, and assorted English interlopers were each actively engaged in trade, settlements, and violence.  But this mechanics of political push and pull was known even in the days of the 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke, who too had relied on diplomatic reports et al to write out a history of Ottomans and Habsburgs.  In Braudel’s hands, inspired by the intellectual traditions of human geography, institutional political economy, and quantitative economics that were in vogue in 1920s and 1930s French academy, as well as the influence of the Henri Pirenne's lectures in 1931-32, any thesis on the Mediterranean would have to go beyond the confines of diplomatic history writing.  It is likely that the Pirenne thesis -- which argued that the Mediterranean became the barrier that prevented the forces of Islam into Europe and in turn allowed for the emergence of the Carolingian governments in Europe -- would have made an influential mark on young Braudel for its ambitious use of geography as the driving force of history, government, and cultures.   Further more, his personal experiences on both sides of the Mediterranean allowed him to think of  this waterbody as having a life force that not just exerted on the players involved in a variety of ways, but also had a timeless quality to it.  This literary instinct to assess a landscape, to see it for something beyond a pool of water trapped between lands was a rarity among historians, even if the mood and tenor of the Mediterranean were used magnificently by his literary contemporaries(Lawrence Durrell, Carlo Levi, Gabriel Audisio) in their novels to highlight the difficulties of civilization battling against geography.  But this difficulty was neither pre-ordained by geography nor an eternal fact of societies around the Mediterranean. 

By 1930s when Braudel began to write, the Ottoman Empire had officially ended after long periods of weaknesses in governance, the cities of Italy and Spain had a recognizable air of decadence, while North Africa was reduced to an archipelago of European entrepots.  The land around the Mediterranean had slipped away into obscurity. When faced with such a present, it was hard not to have simple theories of decline and decadence.  The German historians such as Erich Weber and Othmar Spann argued that there is an “inbuilt process of decline” that is embedded in any social organization;  elsewhere Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler had their own models of decline and decay into which the Mediterranean was fit without much thought for historical detail  The result was that Braudel’s historical thesis had to not just see past the seductive lure of simple theories and the assuring comforts of his own pet theories, but slowly come face to face with how the Mediterranean imposed itself in the most unexpected of manners on the social structures all around its rim. 

Braudel’s thesis itself was finally structured on the basis of a typology of temporality - longue durée, conjoncture, and histoire événementielle - that were often translated as the long perspective, the mode of conjunction, and the history of events.  He argued - by stint of innumerable forays into various instances of labor, geology, market structure - that history can be understood through these three separate layers that acted both separately and in conjoined manners.  Out of the longue durée which encompasses the geo-histories of a place - mountains, land, soil, waters, animals -- are born the possibilities for reification of social relations into institutions.  It is within these institutions that we see a chronicle of discernible human events.  History therefore simultaneously operates at different time scales.  When one looks at the 16th century power play over the Mediterranean, the two key players – the Ottomans and the Habsburgs – differed greatly. However, when seen beyond the immediate confines of ambassadorial reports and letters to respective courts – i.e., from a perspective of life conditioned by geographies (life in valleys and bays, trade of commodities across hinterlands, naval routines) to human events ("surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs”), the differences between the two empires make way for a more varied, nuanced, and ultimately less partisan view. 

Much later, when Braudel was sought for his thoughts on his method of analysis, he summarized his methodological approach in this manner:

“…my vision of history took on its definitive form without my being entirely aware of it, partly as a direct intellectual response to a spectacle—the Mediterranean—which no traditional historical account seemed to me capable of encompassing, and partly as a direct existential response to the tragic times I was passing through. . . . All those occurrences which poured in upon us from the radio. . . . I had to out distance, reject, deny them. Down with occurrences, especially vexing ones! I had to believe that history, destiny was written at a much more profound level. Choosing a long time scale to observe from was choosing the position of God the Father himself as a refuge. Far removed from our persons and daily misery, history was being made, shifting slowly as the ancient life of the Mediterranean, whose perdurability and majestic immobility had often moved me. So it was that I consciously set forth in search of an historical language—the most profound I could grasp or invent—in order to present unchanging (or very slowly changing) conditions which stubbornly assert themselves over and over again. And my book is organized on several different temporal scales, moving from the unchanging to the fleeting occurrence. For me, even today, these are the lines that delimit and give form to every historical landscape.”

This doesn’t mean there are easy ways to identify what constitutes as a particular layer of historical temporality or if one layer of historical time can be studied on its own or merely as a correlate of the other.  More fundamentally, there arises questions about why do some short term economic fluctuations radically lead to alarmingly fast civilizational declines while other fluctuations vanish within a generations life time.  Over and beyond the herculean research efforts, it was Braudel’s methodological approach that allowed for a narrative thrust where man and his institutions were simultaneously granted energies to alter lives and yet were, in the ultimate analysis, seen as containing only limited agency.  To this end, he brought back to life an underlying vision of man as merely the top soil of real history.  This was a parsimonious view of man’s agency that on one end restricted man’s abilities to affect change, while it still allowed for a greater descriptive density to understand his life.  To describe this tension historically meant, to be able to write more nuancedly of daily life and to make such lives more “concrete”. 

For Braudel, history of humans was born from the hum and drawl of everyday life, the intercourse between peasants and their crops, merchants and artisans, sailors and tax collectors, horses and ice trade from the Alps to Istanbul.  To this end, he principally relied on two stylistic approaches to express how bio-geology interacted with social conditions.  The first was a method of repeated motions (e.g., shepherds and their trade) that birthed other set of conscientiously chosen work patterns (e.g., sailors and traders) who operated through markets and ships, which in turn relied on deforestation and deep harbors.  (Heidegger writes "Repetition first discloses to Dasein its own history.”)  By studying one particular product or method, e.g., wine making or sheep herding, over its life cycle, Braudel weaved together a narrative that was deeply imbricated in the everyday world of the 16th century Mediterranean.  The second method was to show how geographies imposed underlying similarities in responses over a wide swathe of land. To arrive at these similarities, he relied on the repetitions imposed by rivers, mountains, seasons on all sides of the Mediterranean, thus providing a narrative continuity courtesy the underlying landscape.

A more subtle consequence of this method of viewing history as that which operates almost impervious to man is a kind of value system that smuggles itself into the historical narrative despite its rationalistic methods.  Implicit in such “structuralist” approaches is the faith in the ability to draw out the totality of the picture, thanks to the language and analytical methods that stitch together disparate facts.  Conversely, this very lure of a total history via a structuralist method is often likely to overwhelm historians, including astute researchers like Braudel, under a flood of historical data.  To carve out a means to operationalize this research, the historian then has to choose a particular modality that allows him to link events, social culture, geography, and history itself.  Braudel relied on an economic channel - commercial relationships, in particular - to link various aspects of the Mediterranean world, in contrast to other modes or possibilities such as language, institutions, consumption patterns etc.,   The result was a history writing - inspired by Braudel’s own hero, of sorts, Henri Pirenne - that was principally urban centric and largely preoccupied with changes in the fortunes of the upper class mercantilists who were affected by changing trading relationships.   

As mentioned earlier, Braudel had little use (and was often criticized) for the world of ideas that preoccupy men as a world changing force.  Ideas of religiosity or fundamentalism, inspired visions and claims of self-representation were at best an after thought often.  (”So when I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand.”)  Famously, in his entire thesis, the only mention of Philip II’s mind or world view appears cursorily on the penultimate pages of this behemoth text.  In direct contrast to our times, when historiography is burdened by the efforts to excavate the archeologies of mentalities and to decipher the evolution of implicit burdens and transfiguration of terms as vessels of hegemonies, Braudel had little use for all that hand wringing.  (“That having been said, I confess that, not being a philosopher, I am reluctant to dwell for long on questions concerning the importance of events and of individual freedom.”) It is tempting to think that this means there is a strong flavor of determinism in Braudel but that is not the case.  The Braudelian vision of how man operates is a sort of constrained optimization exercise – i.e., given the constraint of geo-history, man seeks to optimize particular modes of being (religiosity, economic rents, land conquests… etc).  In his own words,

“The great man of action is he who weighs the narrowness of his possibilities with ex- actitude, choosing to stay within them and even to take advantage of the weight of the inevitable so as to add it to his own efforts.”


What is then inevitable for our times? 

Climate change, for one, as many have suggested.  But as Amitav Ghosh seems to suggest, we are yet to learn to find the vocabulary to speak of it in evocative and memorable terms, to take possession of an imaginative retelling and accounting of what we are in store for and what has already been changed irrevocably, then we needn’t wait for long.  While not all warnings of climate change can be rendered in apocalyptic terms, for Nature, too like good novelists, prefers a narrative strategy of subtle buildups when a proverbial tipping point renders seemingly impregnable modes of human existence into an historical footnote.  If Braudel’s career and work is any guidance, irrespective of whether we know how to speak of climate change or unsustainable resource extraction, we may be entering a stage when the longue durée of history may become indistinguishable from the histoire événementielle.  The earth and its climatological paraphernalia, like an impatient landlord, may no longer offer up time and space to construct life-events, far less allow us the freedom to anxiously marvel at the interiority of our thoughts and beliefs.  In this sense, Braudel may have the last laugh at the expense of the more fashionable games of interiority and identity that literature and politics have played.  Games which have denied us the tools to speak meaningfully, more urgently, about our imperiled exterior landscape.  

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead

The Bicycle Diaries

The Bicycle Diaries