What We're Reading

What We’re Reading / Osterhammel Open Thread

This week we tackled the introduction and first three chapters of Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the Worldost. Those of you who are reading along with us may also have been struck by the sheer scale of Osterhammel’s panorama, and may through his accumulation of detail about how the nineteenth century saw itself and its own boundaries (temporal, spatial) have felt yourself led towards an understanding of what makes this epoch stand out from what came before and after. It’s certainly the case, as Samuel Moyn wrote in a 2014 review, that The Transformation of the World doesn’t have an American-style argumentative thesis. But there are claims that it advances, and chief among them this week is that there is an exceptional quality to this period: do you agree, as Osterhammel suggests at the beginning of Chapter Two (p. 47), that the long nineteenth century is particularly explanatory of our present? Do you agree with his strong claim for the nineteenth as a European century, best understood through European-driven attempts to standardize understandings of time, space, and the past? What surprised you most about what Osterhammel has to say in these introductory, orienting chapters? We have some ideas, but we’d like to hear yours as well! As always, let us know if you’d like to pitch a post relating to Osterhammel and big history more generally.


And now, here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section!


Peter Parsons, Rooting Around Oxyrhynchus (LRB)

Isabel Hofmeyr, The books that shaped the rise and fall of the British empire (The Conversation)

Pamela Newkirk, Bigotry on Display, on the commodification of non-white bodies in modern America (Chronicle)

Madeleine Schwartz reviews “Ennion: Master of Roman Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York: They Once Touched Roman Lips (NYRBlog)

Mark Schrope, Medicine’s Ancient Roots in a Hidden Manuscript (NY Times)
Paul Voosen, New Imaging Methods Shine Light on Ancient Texts (Chronicle)

Michael Fontaine, Straight Talk About Gay Marriage in Ancient Rome (Eidolon)

Patrick S. O’Donnell, Bibliography: Women Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment (S-USIH)

In archive preservation news, Ian Cobain, Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes (The Guardian)

Alma Igra, Jordan Katz, and Mallory Ann Ditchey, Ancient Mesopotamian Beet Broth (Leftovers)

5 replies on “What We’re Reading / Osterhammel Open Thread”

So the thing that really surprised/interested me the most about this first section of Osterhammel was how he suggests that the category of “the West” “does not appear as a dominant figure of thought before the 1890s” (86). I’m not 100% certain that I buy this–it seems to be mostly a question of viewing North America and Europe as the same unit (and as set of nation-states rather than, say, the British Empire). But there are other ways of constructing it: James Belich’s “Anglo-world” takes this notion, and the role the rise of the United States plays in it, back much further, for instance. But I appreciated being challenged to think of “the West” as an invented category that has a history, one so often rooted in a fictitious understanding of a “European” or “Western” ancient Greece and Rome.

Am I way off-base here? What else surprised/interested/challenged readers?

This kind of reading-group is a good idea, although I think this is a difficult text for such a discussion. So, here is a thin contribution:

I read the first three chapters. What I found most provocative in the introduction was the suggestion, which I don’t find taken up later, that Osterhammel will define the period as one ‘focused’ in something like the 1880s. I found this to be a very interesting idea. Perhaps I misread the force of the comment? But this was not the approach taken in the chapter on periodization.

At the moment I think I can only agree with what I took to be the main point of Moyn’s review: this is an enormous project, containing all kinds of fascinating material and smaller syntheses. But where is the larger unity? (hence my excitement about the ‘focus’ idea). Especially in the third chapter, on the ‘where’ of the century, which I found much less satisfying than the earlier chapters…The discussions of border-making and conceptions of space were quite interesting. And of course it is legitimate to shuttle back and forth between the self-consciousness (as it were) of the period and the historian’s own voice–but here the chapter seemed less determined, even more ‘baggy’ than the others. As though, in order to have consciousness, first you have reason (ch 1), then time (ch 2), then you must have space (ch 3).

I’m interested in the contrast with Bayly’s approach, which perhaps was more anthropological than sociological? Or perhaps I say this only because of the focus on bodily practices?

Eric, many thanks for this contribution! My pet theory (so far) is that the argument of this book actually lies in the fact that it doesn’t have an argument: it’s a challenge, maybe, to some kinds of “global” history that are overdetermined, put too much weight on one analytic lens, or draw too explicit a connection to the present. I think Osterhammel shows how using a century as your category of analysis challenges your ability to do that easily.

I’m also missing so far any sense that the nineteenth century is focused on that fin de siècle period. It’s true that period is a hinge between one kind of modernity and another, certainly, but plenty of important things happened earlier! This really comes through in chapter 4, on “Mobilities,” which locates the origins of all kinds of things (especially European colonialism and the slave trade) in the early modern period. This chapter is actually really interesting, and I’ll be curious to hear what people think about it. It does a great job of showing how much you can do with demographic evidence–which neatly aligns with another of my pet theories, that we might be seeing a resurgence of old-school social history.

I’d be curious to know more about how non-western historians would read this book. As a European historian I’m surprised by how central Europe is here–but maybe I’m just drawn to sections that contain content familiar to me?

To join in, I think that’s a good way of surmising the book’s project, an argument in not making an argument. Having read the first three chapters, I think its a rich and rewarding read so far. Even in translation, its often quite eloquent, as in Osterhammel’s description of the ‘teeth of time’ gnawing selectively. Due to its nature it does seem to lack a single central argument, but at the same time, there’s real value in the conceptual work (in particular his strong challenge to the notion of a single coherent ‘nineteenth century’) and the accumulation of details, such as his asides on photography on the Ottoman Empire or opera in colonial regions. I was glad though that his preface mentioned he felt that he had not sufficiently included gender as a factor in the history, as that was an element I felt would have added to some sections thus far. One that struck me was his brief discussion of nineteenth-century history writing, and different understandings of time. I liked his complication of a single understanding of time, but thought it would have been worth going further to note the common nineteenth-century divide between reading men as historical and dynamic as opposed to reading women as ahistorical (especially given his discussions of historicism), and its connection to the gendered nature of the professionalisation of history-writing in Western nations.

Yes, those are good points. I feel like someone could write a whole book just doing for gender what Osterhammel does for other factors.

But what *are* his primary foci? I imagine some themes will emerge as we read on.

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