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(These last few weeks my book reading has stalled precipitously. Not without reason, but it's still uncomfortable.)

Cosmopolitanism and Empire: Universal Rulers, Local Elites, and Cultural Integration in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean (ed. by Myles Lavan, Richard E. Payne, and John Weisweiler (Author), 2018/#79): A look at the interaction between local and imperial elites in formations from the Neo-Assyrian to the Late Roman empire, in particular, whether, to what degree, and with what goals in mind they thought of or tried to refashion themselves as non-local. The different chapters frame responses along a continuum between cultural and identity assimilation (the typical example being late Roman elites in the Western empire) and subordination, understood as highlighted and articulated differences (here a nice example is the Iranian empire, where its political and religious Zoroastrian framework described a world of essentially different peoples in hierarchical subordination). The sometimes very close reading of the (very heterogeneous) sources describe all sorts of strategies between local elites and imperial centers: sometimes local elites (e.g., Babylonian priests in the Seleucid empire, or some Greek cities under the Hellenic kingdoms) used their long histories to express their current situation in hopefully legitimizing ways (e.g., stressing a history of honor and/or service stretching back through multiple empires), and sometimes they stressed translocal intra-elite or ruler-elite relationships instead. The overall picture is one in which narratives of legitimacy were more often than not built collaboratively between local elites who wanted protection/survival/resources from the empire, and central rulers who wanted various degrees of control and taxation with as low a cost as possible (lots of parallels with, e.g., Spanish Naples). I don't mean to imply that massacres/total destruction/etc. didn't place — it did, and in fact this violence was the underlying foundation of control — but most premodern states were rather happy to outsource local governance to various degrees (even, say, the largest-footprint of the Chinese bureaucracies interacted directly with local gentry rather than most people, although cultural homogeneity took up some of the slack). As per War and the State in Early Modern Europe — a book with a very different chronological span but interestingly parallel analysis — this sort of central-local interaction continued to be part of forming and running empires until, I would say, maybe the early or mid 19th century in Europe, and later elsewhere (in places like Argentina we still have long-lived political dynasties in some small cities or states, although this is more about capture of voting dynamics rather than lack of State presence; the demographic boom, widespread literacy, and ubiquitous communication and transport technologies mean that even low-touch states nowadays are orders of magnitude more intrusive than previous empires).

Itself (Rae Armantrout, 2018/#80): Poetry. The use of contemporary science as a source of imagery is clever and non-gimmicky, although, overall, I didn't find the poems either linguistically or conceptually... I guess the term is extraordinary, which sounds like too high a bar to set, but maybe it's the right one for poetry.

The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It (Suraiya Faroqhim, 2018/#81): A look at how the Ottoman empire thought about and interacted with the rest of the world, based as much as the (patchy and limited) sources allow in their own words. The author remarks that they were far less isolationist than later (even, or specially, Turkish) historiography allowed for, and that their orientation to war, pace the religious justification of the Sultan's position, was ultimately more or less in line with that of contemporary European empires, adjusting for the influence of agricultural productivity and geographical constraints. (The author doesn't remark, but I found their model compatible with, a note I read elsewhere about how the limits of Ottoman expansion had much to do with the limits of how far and how big they could send an army, given their economy and the geography; this isn't to say that Vienna was intrinsically safe — it seems it was a darn close thing — but I doubt they'd been able to keep it, or move much faster). There was commerce, diplomatic information gathering, etc., although of course to an eventually lesser degree than in other polities (here, Venice is an absolute outlier, and I would say everybody else in Europe until that moment wasn't much different; my personal summation would be (1) the main Asian empires didn't set up to explore because they didn't need to, (2) Western Europe did because they needed to connect to the real markets in Asia (India and China, for a long bit of world history), (3) they were successful, to the degree to which they were, because of more effective (and savage) organized violence for commercial aims, together with the stroke of luck that was Potosí, and (4) I doubt this would have amounted to more than, perhaps, parity, if it hadn't been closely followed by (or, granted, in symbiotic co-development with) the scientific-engineering revolution).


On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (Gershom Scholem, 2018/#82): A reread. I'm still enthralled by the Kabbalistic concept of the Torah not just predating creation, but being, essentially, a pile of consonants that's reshuffled according to the aeon/state of the universe/etc. Each world gets the permutation of the characters that it can read and makes sense to it — it's explicitly said by some Kabbalists that if a man (always a man, by the way) knew the right order of reading, they could raise the dead, or even create worlds. I think that's a natural asymptote of textual integrity as an absolute requirement: if not a single letter can be changed, erased, or added, but the surface meaning of the text becomes increasingly detached from your needs, then the only degree of freedom left to you is to develop esoteric readings, of which this idea is pretty much the Borgesian limit. As Scholem (who, by the way, is definitely engaged with the topic; he assigns, or tries to, truth values, or at least a graduation of theological or metaphysical soundness, to different theories) puts it, mysticism pours new meaning into holy texts, making them pregnant, frameworks. He emphasizes that Kabbalists where deliberately conservative, seeking to reinforce authority — Sabbatai Zevi being an obvious exception — but of course mystical access to the Divine is inherently dangerous to authority (cf. the Catholic Kerfuffles); I kept thinking of Dune, where the tension between the prophetic power and institutional control is at the core of the series' issues. Interestingly, and I guess naturally, when you add a mythical component, ritual becomes magic, that is, operative, either in the lower sephirots or even at the higher levels — for some Kabbalists, it's the performance of appropriate ritual what makes possible, or at least assists, the repair of the vessels that is either the redemption or the fulfillment of the cosmological Fall (here the Lurianic Kabbalah made the drastic move of elevating exile (this was after, and heavily motivated by, the trauma of 1492) from tragic punishment to a necessary component of fulfilling this mission). All in all, it's a fascinating topic, even for an atheist like me (cue Borges' comment — not at all disparaging — of metaphysics being a form of fiction).

News Networks in Seventeenth Century Britain and Europe (ed. Joad Raymond, 2018/#83): A collection of articles on some topics I love: news in Early Modern Europe, Paolo Sarpi (although the article on him I had already read in another book), early spies, etc. A lot of the complaints about the uncertainty of news, the dangers of seditious texts to the body politic, and the self-serving treachery of spies do ring a bell.

The Political Economy of Empire in the Early Modern World (ed. Sophus Reinert and Pernille Røge, 2018/#84): A handful of essays on the complex interactions between the nascent "science" of political economy and the practice of empire (the economics of the latter informing the former, and theories of political economics influencing how empires, going from a local concept of authority to far-away colonies under direct metropolitan control) were exploited, and what for. Besides global in practical nature, this was European in its intellectual development, with countries deliberately (if strategically and skeptically) copying or avoiding the practices of the economic leaders du jour (although it must be said that the history of economics as written today focuses more on who influences our current practices than on who "won" the discussion back then). Something that reinforces the narrative of the war against France being part of what helped develop the financial system in England (a financial system that made it possible in turn to win that war), trade disruptions caused by the war during the late 1690s diverted the capital of traders to the London stock market (a better investment, it was held, than dicey trading routes with vulnerable ships), and war-oriented companies. In a way this exemplifies what makes capitalist societies so flexible: resources self-reallocated much more efficiently than the state would've been able to tax and apply them (at least with late XVIIth century technology and organizations). In parallel, of course, it shows how the stock market isn't necessarily a good guide to a society's well-being.


Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Jörg Rüpke, 2018/#85): The main work of the book is to denaturalize the concept of religions understood as mutually exclusive well-structured groups with a specific, text-based, theology and set of rituals. It wasn't at all like that in the Roman world (and, from my understanding, in most of the other big contemporary and near-contemporary civilizations). The author uses the absolutely *fabulous* concept of "communicating with not indisputably plausible actors", which I think highlights brilliantly the nature, goals, and instabilities of the process. As in any other form of communication: it wasn't necessarily successful (so you kept trying strategies to increase your chances: ways to call the attention of those actors by what you did, how you did it, and where you did it), it wasn't meant solely for its intended recipient (communicating with those forces, if done in a public way and with some expectation of success, did increase your social standing — wouldn't you be impressed if you caught your co-worker on the phone with whoever's your boss' boss' boss' boss)?), and it was ultimately done with the goal of increasing the agency, practical and social — not separate spheres — of the individual. Romans and their contemporaries were remarkably sophisticated in their view of these not indisputably plausible actors (gods, the dead, spirits, forces, demons: precise classification came much later); the names, addresses, and places you used were entirely driven by what you wanted to achieve, not any strong concept of a pre-existing individual entity. It wasn't that they thought nothing like that existed (except a few skeptics, who anyway supported the use of these activities for their audience effects), it was just that they were never a priori sure that something would work, and, most interestingly, that something couldn't work. It was all very pragmatic in a James/Latour way. This also explains why Emperors could be prayed to even when alive (the death in general being plausibly spoken to constantly, dead emperors where just a higher-status example): the early empire reduced the strength of local elites, as well as increasing the resources of new groups like merchants — addressing the Emperor in your rituals, or at least mentioning him, was a safely non-controversial way to add some status to what you were saying. In a very intersting (and almost Borgesian) way, the increasingly structured and exclusionary religious texts that began to be written at this time did *not* reflect correspondingly structured and exclusionary groups, but rather described them as reputational strategies of their authors. It was only later, in a dynamic that reminded me of the Renaissance *forensic* use of Classic fiction about witches, that these were taken to be descriptions of religious groups — in the sense meant at those later times, that'd be an anachronism. Fun facts: Christians (as a group and identity) post-date the Gospels, which were written in part as a response to a merchant called Marcion who seemed to have had a central if superseded role in this "organized religion" thing, and followed common Hellenistic patterns of biographies as much as anything we'd call historical information (history, in that sense, was less important than myth, understood less as sacred history than as, dunno, a symbolic common ground or something). It was only in the interplay between Imperial variations of older Roman forms of communication with not indisputably etc and the competition between different actors for reputation and influence based on religious competences (something that before then was heterogeneous but diffused, part of the know-how of life even if people had different depths of expertise and resources) that we ended up with the sort of highly structured, exclusionary structures we call religions. From this historical point of view, the Christian churches are an awfully peculiar social and intellectual development, their monotheism contributing to but not fully explaining their unique characteristics. The very concept of a discrete religion becomes idiosincratic and path-dependent, a model that I think fits quite naturally the little I know of religious activities in the Indian subcontinent, China, etc (although a bit more the Sassanids, and, through a much different pattern, Islam — there a peculiarly centralized religion determined political structure, instead of being fused with existing ones). As always with this kind of book, I can't vouch for the details, and these sort of over-arching explanations are always suspect, but at the very least it's a fruitful possible framework to think about these things.

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