Monday, February 20, 2006

Wolf Schafer never mentioned...

Jared Diamond's role as a celebrity academic caused quite a stir when the Feb. 2nd talk at ASU was announced. An entire ballroom at ASU's Memorial Union was filled to capacity (best guess... at least 500 people), and the tremendous overflow was ushered into another large room where the lecture was transmitted via closed-circuit tv. Diamond's current god-like status notwithstanding, this book tour style engagement was brief, disheartening, and betrayed his status as another subservient intellectual in the long line feeding at the trough of government subsidies. As if his current position at the RAND Corporation was not revealing enough. The lecture consisted of a short recounting of a case study from Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. A brief question and answer period followed, where he displayed no uneasiness in telling a large crowd (with many historians in attendance) that the "nation state" is a 1000 year old structure; that the U.S. is the only nation with real historians, and as such, can finally "learn from the past". His self-professed "cautious optimism" on the contemporary situation leads to the conclusion that everything will be fine if we simply leave things as they are and hope for the best. He reductively defines globalization as the extension of communication technologies around the globe, which affords us a technological advantage never witnessed before.

Diamond's analysis of human macro-development on the global level in Gun's, Germs, and Steel slammed shut as many doors as it opened. Initially, the model seems perfect: The trajectory of agricultural, sedentary development proceeded in a manner consistent with the domestic suitability of indigenous flora and fauna, and the alignment of the continental axes. These and other factors determined the relative success or failure of the cascading spread of this lifestyle from its various points of origin. The answer to Yali's question was that any human group with the good fortune of a perfect setup could have become the force of global dominance, with no reason to apologize. Prior models of racial superiority could be thrown out the window. The book heeded the long call for a multi-disciplinary historical analysis, fueling intense jealousy on the part of historians, and making its way onto many syllabi of Global and Environmental History (Donald Worster made plain his envy when he lectured here last Fall). But Diamond's defensive denial of a new ecological determinism was weak at best. His model denies ideology, subjectivity, agency their proper place as catalysts of historical change. This refusal, clothed in a half-hearted environmentalism, feeds another vulgar apologetic.


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