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The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, 1350-1750 (Ed. James D. Tracy, 2018/#13): Some of the essays are conceptually old-fashioned and not really enlightening, but others are quite fascinating. The main analytical surprise for me (and, as second-order observation, a note on not really post-colonial aspects of some of my historical understanding) is to how large a degree merchant empires were based not on any advantage in sailing, financial, or commercial technology, but rather on military technology (better guns), and above all on more savage military practices. Battles in which the objective was to kill enemy forces, as opposed to slave them or just drive them away so you can take booty, were relatively rare in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, specially when unrelated to outright invasion. The quantum duality between trade and organized violence, at that scale and with that level of intensity, was something new in, say, the Indian Ocean (apparently, it was something new also in the Mediterranean a bit before, when traders from the North-Western countries of Europe began to appear in force, pun intended). At least in areas where their sparse forces could make good their often over-grandiose claims, European traders were quite happy to bully their way wherever they couldn't compete or entice markets (the later Opium Wars were just a continuation of previous practices in that sense). True technological and organizational superiority wouldn't come until Industrial Revolution. Another completely new to me, and, I understand, somewhat controversial observation is that Tokugawa Japan was probably the second-largest exporter of silver of its age, all of which eventually went, also, to China. So we have a world market in silver in which increased Chinese demand (caused in part by the collapse of previous developments in paper money) affected, because of China's size and prosperity, the economy and long-range trading patterns of both Tokugawa Japan and Hapsburg Spain. The author of that essay notes that control of the silver mines probably helped or even made possible the unification of Japan by the faction that did, as well as its economic progress, and noted how it fueled and extended the global and somewhat anti-capitalistic (or, rather, anti-secular (or rather, specifically and intensely Catholic, let's keep anachronisms to a minimum)) Hapsburg wars, with almost fatal consequences for the Northern Atlantic economies (that's a very fair point, although I would qualify it by saying that, because warfare/trade/empire at the time was, ideologies aside, always "outsourced" — Hapsburg Spain actually involved, enriched, and developed everything from Genoese bankers and (handwavingly) Italian engineers to (even more handwavingly) German "military entrepreneurs" — so, while not harmless to, say, the Netherlands and England, and of course horrifyingly destructive in Germany itself, the Hapsburg wars were as "modern" in practice as they weren't in ideological intent).

Le Fanu's Gothic: The Rhetoric of Darkness (Victor Sage, 2018/#14): A critical look at the Gothic narrative techniques (in addition to the Gothic narrative elements) in Le Fanu's fiction. The author makes a very interesting analysis of how Le Fanu plays with narrative authority — the voices in his stories don't always know what's going on, and they might or might not be aware of this fact, or warn the reader. His stories are Gothic not just in plots and settings, but in how they work one of Gothic's central meta-plots, the revenant or unholy resurrection of a vengeful, repressed past, into the very mechanism of the story — they are (through multiple, not always well-justified evidenciary layers) themselves past events or even past narrations, which the act of reading (by ourselves) bring back to life, in the sense that it often activates readings that are at odds with what the surrounding frame would have them be and do. To be more concrete: when an skeptic writes down semi-clinically a superstitious oral tradition about a ghost, the oral tradition is in some sense dead, and the text is supposed to be a museum exhibit or painting of a passive and manipulable thing, but if Le Fanu (as opposed to the skeptic supposedly writing it) does things right, then we read the story as potentially (Watsonianly) true, and hence "alive"; that story is as much of a resurrected spirit as a ghost. Le Fanu does this a lot, and sometimes through multiple layers of indirection. An interesting side analysis is how this relates to the Protestant Ascendancy in both its (bloody) origin and end; after such traumatic societal events, is it surprising that Ireland felt haunted in and by itself?

Ciencia Ficción Selección 26 (2018/#15): A handful of SF shorts stories from 1957 to 1975. Indifferently written and not better translated, but something of a guilty pleasure; after all, I pretty much grew up reading collections like this one.

Earthworks (Brian Aldiss, 2018/#16): Everybody is broken in this world physically, mentally, and emotionally, including the world itself — almost total loss of agricultural fertility, together with sustained high reproductive rates, will do that; this is a world of chronic, massive, hunger when working ruthlessly and inhumanly at peak efficiency. A bleak and very specific if not uninteresting scenario, and, as usual in Aldiss' novels, reality isn't always solid, nor agency is necessarily a thing. An interesting point is that African countries are the world leaders (not through a Wakanda of sorts, but rather as they are the last countries still capable of feeding their populations relatively well). Perhaps not a classic, but a good one.

Nightfall and Other Stories (Isaac Asimov, 2018/#17): The usual Asimov disclaimers apply: neither an stylist nor a subtle weaver of plots (his stories are, mostly, wrappers for an intellectual puzzle, even the book-length ones), he's — if you'll pardon the overuse of the vernacular with its outdated (but in this case chronologically appropriate) and often exclusionist implications — a nerdy nerd writing very nerdy things for a readership of nerds, and the latter is, even after he's no longer the force he was (his was the first famous person's death I felt that touched me; I remember thinking when I read the news that I would eventually read all of his books, which given his legendarily prolific nature, felt like something was lost to the, or my, world (I never got around to that anyway, and I doubt I will; let's be honest, a lot of his books are at best serviceable, and the science popularization ones — which he himself claimed he wrote just after learning about things, and then forgot everything about right away — were enjoyable, but are already of at most completist value)) what makes him enjoyable (plus or maybe mostly a lot of nostalgia). I apologize for the awful syntax of the previous phrase.

Ghostly Tales Vol. 1 (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 2018/#18): Just a couple of stories. Atmospheric, I guess, but rather bland (although that's of course contextual, and after all Gothic is more about atmosphere than event, more or less, sort of, in a way).



cass, can you not

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