Skip to content

Toynbee Prize Foundation Global History Forum Up – Steven Serels on Sudanese and Indian Ocean History

Cover of Steven Serels' "Starvation and the State," published late last year by Palgrave

Cover of Steven Serels’ “Starvation and the State,” published late last year by Palgrave

Followers of this blog and those interested in global history more broadly may be interested in an interview with Dr. Steven Serels, a scholar of African and Indian Ocean History that marks the first of several pieces I’ve done for the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Global History Forum. In the interview, we spend a lot of time discussing Serels’ new book, Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956, published late last year by Palgrave McMillan. But fittingly for the blog’s global history thrust, we also explore how Serels’ work necessarily touches on concerns central to global history: globalization, trans-regional studies, and state formation.

The feature on Serels’ work represents the inaugural contribution to the Global History Forum, one of the core activities of the Toynbee Prize foundation. The Forum is a sustained conversation among scholars about the state of global history today, conducted through essays, articles, and discussions of the newest research in the field. While scholars in many fields have adopted global approaches, these academics (for they are mostly professors) do not always see themselves as a field, and in the current job market the vast majority of positions are still advertised as national fields (even with a preference for a transnational or global approach).

The Global History Forum aims to strengthen the cross-national and cross-regional conversations among scholars who may be working on ostensibly different subjects in order to develop global history’s sense of itself as a field with its own concerns and questions. Rather than being intended at created a new walled garden of a discipline with its own vocabulary, however, the Forum aims to provide scholars from different fields with a place where they can pose questions they have encountered in their own research to other scholars working on similar problems in different contexts, emphasizing the creative linkages that a global history approach can foster.

More interviews with other scholars of global history are forthcoming, but if you would like to suggest someone whose work you think deserves the spotlight, do not hesitate to contact me.

Blogging Peregrinations: A New Gig with the Toynbee Prize Foundation

It’s time for a quick, but important update here on the blog. In recent weeks and months, my frequency of posting has declined, partly a result of a punishing schedule of making manuscript edits and busy days at Harvard.

But it’s also because the leadership team at the Toynbee Prize Foundation, a non-profit that aims to promote scholarship on global history, has asked me to serve as its Executive Director. Blogging on your own has its own rewards, but the chance to work with new leadership with the Toynbee Prize Foundation – new President Dominic Sachsenmaier and Vice-President Darrin McMahon – was too tempting to turn down. Hence, over the course of the last few months, we’ve been busy revamping the Foundation’s website, nominating the winner of the 2014 Toynbee Prize, and preparing for a more full-scale rollout of the site this autumn.

Over the long-term, we’re aiming to create a hub for discussions about the state of a burgeoning field in the discipline. On a day-to-day basis, we hope to promote and engage with content from other history blogs, something that guest editors and student assistants will likely take on. As for myself, other than making sure the engine room of the Foundation keeps running, I’ll be running a feature called Global History Forum that will run in-depth interviews with historians working primarily on global and international history topics. The series aims to highlight new work, young and upcoming scholars, and areas or institutions doing underrated work.

I’m still in the process of editing and writing up the text from several interviews I conducted in Cambridge this spring, but readers who have suggestions on potential guests or topics are welcome to volunteer their opinion either to me or via the Toynbee Foundation’s website.

What this means, conversely, is that I’ll be doing less blogging directly under my own name at this site. There are also various personal and professional reasons for this – lots of traveling, plus the small issue of figuring out where to devote my energies after a busy academic year in Cambridge and (temporarily) putting aside the one book for review. If it turns out to be just too difficult to keep up a modicum of blogging activity here, I may well re-organize the site architecture to keep the more static pages forefront, with the blog content still accessible but a bit more tucked away.

Review of Dissertation Up!

It’s long time that I begin to resurrect my blogging activity. Since a few posts this winter and spring, I’ve been happily busy – but very occupied indeed – with revising the book manuscript, now out of my hands and off for review. I have a couple of announcements to make in due course, but for the moment, I’m happy to report that a review of my D.Phil. Dissertation, “Developing Powers: Developing Powers: Modernization, Economic Development, and Governance in Cold War Afghanistan,” is now up on Dissertation Reviews, a website founded by Stanford University professor Thomas Mullaney.

It’s a great concept: too often, graduate students can get stuck in a rut after submitting the dissertation. If you’re trained to view everything as a buildup to submission, then it’s easy – particularly in the less professionalized context British higher education – to want to shut everything down after submitting the piece. That’s a shame – many, indeed perhaps most, historical monographs began their lives as dissertations, but they also needed critique and support to begin their transformation down that road. Today, Dissertation Reviews curates reviews of dissertations in any number of fields, including Russian Studies (where mine appears).

"Long live the April Revolution!" This 1980 poster showcases the socialist obsession with workers and production as the key actor in any Soviet-sponsored Third World Leftist project.

“Long live the April Revolution!” This 1980 poster showcases the socialist obsession with workers and production as the key actor in any Soviet-sponsored Third World Leftist project.

You can check out the review, written by Ryan Irwin, an international historian at SUNY-Albany, here. While I’ve since added quite a bit of material to the work since March 2013 (when I submitted it as a dissertation), it’s still nonetheless pleasing to see the project beginning to receive some attention. All the same, it’s important to remember that I owe a lot to my doctoral supervisors, Alexander Morrison and Catriona Kelly, both of whom put up with me and read too many drafts of the dissertation to count. Here’s hoping to more helpful critiques in the future and a speedy turnaround for the project qua book soon!

Russia Experts of the World … Unite?

It’s been a busy few weeks. Even as I’ve been immersed in edits to the book manuscript in preparation for an early April “author’s conference” sponsored by the Harvard Academy, friends and colleagues have been writing e-mails asking me for my take on events in Ukraine in recent weeks. While it’s been interesting to hear others’ opinions in conversations around Cambridge and to digest the considerable output of the major newspapers and blogs, I’ve tended to keep mum. I’ve never been to Ukraine, for one, and my major encounter with the place comes through a short workshop kindly hosted by the Cambridge Ukrainian Program and CEELBAS, a British consortium that sponsors research and language training on Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. While I’d like to think that a graduate mis-education and some time spent mostly in Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan gives me some insight on events, I’ve tended to focus on the domestic American educational politics that I see as a major hindrance to developing more mature and serious expertise – not just punditry of the kind that Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called for a few weeks ago in a controversial op-ed but deep scholarship.

Unfortunately, the political-educational-media (and military?) complex remains out of touch in addressing the absolute decline in funding, attention, and institutional and governmental support for the professional study of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. In a piece that has attracted much attention from the community of professors and researchers, the Times laments the decline in the prestige of the study of Russia in American academia and portrays the field as one of graying, over-burdened Cold War-era professors coping with a field in decline. The Ukraine crisis, the Grey Lady reports,

has also showed important shifts in how American academics and policy makers think about Russia, not to mention the quality and quantity of the people doing the thinking. Among those experts, there is a belief that a dearth of talent in the field and ineffectual management from the White House have combined to create an unsophisticated and cartoonish view of a former superpower, and potential threat, that refuses to be relegated to the ash heap of history.

The failure to adapt has been systemic. Not only, explains the Times, has the prestige of Russia hands in Washington declined as the perceived importance of “the Muslim World” (there are more Muslims in Russia than the entire population of Jordan or Israel) or East Asia gained in popularity. The financial gutting of serious journalism outlets over the course of the last decade, and, arguably, the surge in ironic forms of social media commentary, made it easier to create a caricatured picture of Russia that hit all of the classic Cold War tropes. Instead of getting the hard-hitting analysis on (for example) Russian money in the City of London, the politics of Black Sea pipelines, or simply bilateral relations between major Western European countries like Germany, France, or Italy, we got an endless stream of images of Putin riding shirtless on horses, toilets not working in Sochi, and a reductive image of the country that created a simplistic and question-begging picture of a one-man dictatorship. As a well-written piece in n+1 argues, it’s not that more balanced coverage of Russia from the mid-1990s to today would have automatically a kinder, gentler, more pro-American Russian leadership:

If the US were truly strong—or, rather, since the US is strong, much much stronger than Russia in every conceivable way—would the US not have found a way to placate this tough-talking man, and his proud but troubled country, and direct Russia’s energies somewhere useful? If a man who is weaker than you walks up to you, aggressively, in a bar, what do you do? Do you humiliate him? Do you write articles about how scary and mysterious he is? As is, Putin talked tough, and so the American media and then American politicians decided to talk tough too. And now we find ourselves plunging, perhaps, into a protracted period of international standoff—a “new cold war”—with increased military budgets, decreased understanding and interaction, and once again the kind of restrictions of movement that we thought we’d left behind.

This all said, the Times piece leaves a ton of crucial issues on the table that have to be treated seriously if American intellectuals and policymakers want to inch towards the world that the n+1 piece imagines. Firstly, as I noted in my previous blog post, institutions and scholars have seen absolute decreases in funding both for federal Title VI funding (which supports “National Resource Centers” like Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Chicago, and others with a special focus on studying Russian and Eurasia, and FLAS fellowships) and Title VIII funding (a much smaller pie that nonetheless supports advanced research opportunities, like the fellowships that allowed me to conduct the overwhelming majority of the research for my dissertation and now book project). The Times piece verges dangerously close to a fundamental attribution error common among American baby-boomers today, namely that if millennials aren’t living up to expectations about career or life milestones, it must be a result of their own moral or personal failing. “It’s a shorter bench,” says former US Ambassador to Russia and Stanford professor Michael McFaul of my generation of scholars of the post-Soviet world.

I know plenty of scholars both around my age and slightly older who would make perfect commentators on issues in the headlines (more on why they’re not in a second), but it’s important to hit upon the financial point one more time to understand how current policies – the compromise result of the summer 2011 attempt to shut down the federal government – are eviscerating the talent base for more expertise. At many smaller colleges in the United States, “complete” courses in the Russian language – a four-year program plus the option of studying abroad in a Russian-speaking country, to say nothing of some undergraduate research – remain relatively uncommon. (This is also to avoid the issue of the rapidly rising cost of a college education and the student loans crisis.)

Even if we assume a talented, driven, and (most rarely) not heavily indebted young college graduate, the cuts to Title VI make it more difficult for National Resource Centers to offer fellowships to defray or cover the cost of a Master’s Degree, increasingly a prerequisite for consideration at serious doctoral programs. NRCs typically provide for “capstone” courses in the Russian language, but given that the transition to graduate work is precisely the time when young scholars should be thinking about a second foreign language (whether to read scholarship – French or German – or as an area studies complement to Russian – Chinese, Turkish, Polish, etc.) institutions and students are in catch-up mode already. For advanced master’s students or doctoral students, meanwhile, the decline in Title VIII funding means more competition and, often indirectly, an incentivization of  trans-national or trans-regional, so fashionable (and valuable!) in scholarship today in favor of more conservative but equally essential work on the politics of pension reform or FDI into the Kazakh agricultural sector.

When time comes for the job market, moreover, the decline in federal funding can make university departments a harsh mistress. Historians of Russia (much less methodological and geographical mongrels like yours truly) face each other down in stiff competition for the few openings, while departments typically employ far more historians of the United States; as for political science, professors complain of the hollowing out of area studies expertise in elite policy schools and political science programs in favor of more (and cheaper for research) formalization and quantitative research, which the discipline’s journals and tenure optics directly reinforce. “Dropping out” of the discipline can happen not because Russia (or any other country) ceased to be sexy, but because at some point mere enthusiasm gave out because people needed secure employment, or because people had children. Expectations of a monastic lifestyle might be justified for 25-year-old graduate students but are unreasonably for post-docs and young professors in their mid-30s.

The final element of the frustration concerns those who do make it into the big time of university employment. In spite of the Times‘ bemoaning of the lack of Russia expertise, the laziness of most journalistic outlets in actively seeking out commentary – particularly from institutions not located in Washington, DC or New York City – is striking. The piece highlights the partisan role perhaps unintentionally taken on by Professor Stephen Cohen, an emeritus professor of Russian history at New York University (obviously located in NYC) and married to the editor-in-chief of The Nation. Here is not the place to comment on Professor Cohen’s views on the Ukraine Crisis; what’s more interesting is the dearth of commentary we’ve seen sought out from colleagues outside of the I-95 Corridor – of whom there are many.

This focus on commentary from professors at the major institutions – Georgetown, Yale, NYU – seems like nothing else than a manifestation of what Al-Jazeera blogger Sarah Kendzior (not incidentally a former PhD in Central Asian Studies who has criticized the incentives of Big Academia) calls “the prestige economy.” Professors at “lesser institutions” (even though many received their PhDs from “elite” institutions) can be trusted to educate the hoi polloi of undergraduates, in other words, but even as they remain plugged into current scholarship through specialist conferences and journals, they’re discarded as too “academic” to offer much of value to national media. I’m well aware of the irony of making this critique from a cushy position at perhaps the Death Star of the prestige economy, but even as someone with the luxury of such a position it’s important to make a broader public aware of the ways in which the Russian and Eurasian Studies community is in some ways being actively marginalized and weakened at the precise time when the need for such institutionalized academic expertise – one not confined to Beltway corridors or super-elite universities – seems manifest.

Midwestern Crossings, Title VIII, and Ukraine

Another week, another book chapter re-edited and made (hopefully) more readable and more interesting. It’s almost the end of February, and the slog continues, taking the chapters that I line-edited in January and implementing the edits into the various chapters of Developing Powers. Cutting and editing day after day in Scrivener can prove grinding and repetitive, but it’s satisfying to see my word counts go down, and to see a sleeker, slimmer, more convincing argument emerge from the skeleton of the text.

The manuscript started as the dissertation of someone pretty committed to Soviet history, but since I made clear (around the time of finishing the Master’s Dissertation) that my real focus was less the Soviet Union than development in Afghanistan per se, I’ve been happy and energized to move my focus to sources more and more ecumenical: first interviews with former American and West German development workers, then work in the respective archives, and now, more and more engagement with non-governmental sources. Contacts with European NGOs helped me get my hands on material early on, and putative mini-research trips to New Haven (for the papers of former UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar), New York (for the papers of Jeri Laber of Helsinki Watch), Paris (Doctors Without Borders) and Stockholm (Swedish Afghanistan Committee) all beckon for the spring and summer.

With them comes not stretching my post-doc budget in some of the world’s most expensive cities but also the methodological challenge of writing about how Soviet authoritarian institutions interfaced (or didn’t) with other forms of internationalism: post-1989 UN development operations in Afghanistan, for example, or the panoply of NGOs that invaded Afghanistan from Peshawar throughout the decade. The more I dig, the more connections I have, but with a de facto word limit of around 140,000 words for the manuscript, it’s clear whatever gains I make in the manuscript will have to be the start of what I suspect will be an exciting conversation among younger international historians (especially those with a knowledge of Russian, or who work on the Second World) about the ways in which Moscow and its client states participated not only in “the diplomatic” (our more conventional histories of Kissinger running around and putting out fires) but also “the international” – international relations that went beyond the communications of one Foreign Minister to a Secretary of State. Upcoming travel to conferences at Miami University in Ohio and in Germany should provide a chance to test out some of my theories on smart anthropologists, historians, and legal scholars – and a chance to escape the prison of my office after virtual non-stop editing for the past month.

At those conferences, particularly the first (focused on the study of socialism and post-socialism) one of the topics, I’m sure, on everyone’s lips, will be the revolutionary events currently underway in Ukraine. As someone who’s never been to the Ukraine and has relatively little exposure to Ukrainian history (although a wonderful weekend crash course at Cambridge helped), I feel that I have little unique to say about events there. Yet what the crisis there – and the perplexed response of the Anglophone media to it (numerous articles on Eastern Ukraine vs. Western Ukraine, Europe vs. Russia, etc.) – does serve as a reminder of is the importance of fostering good scholarship and good expertise on those regions of the world that don’t normally merit many foreign bureaus of news services. That’s all the more so true at a time when pundits like Nicholas Kristof have slammed academics for being irrelevant, out-of-touch, or failing to provide policy-relevant commentary. Cases that prove Kristof wrong – Yale professor Timothy Snyder’s commentary in the New York Review of Books, German political scientist Andreas Umland (who teaches in Kiev), or David Marples at Open Democracy – are there, but the persistence of “Ukraine 101″-style articles in the American media proves the rule.

Unfortunately, in the last five years, scholars have seen the opposite of what you might expect given the momentous events taking place in Kiev. The US government administers funding to support research on Eastern and Southeastern Europe and Eurasia (a clunky geographical term for Central Asia and the Caucasus) through a program called Title VIII (more here). Title VIII funding was crucial for me in completing my dissertation research and pursuing the language training I needed to develop as a scholar of the former Soviet region. Funding administered through IREX, an international education NGO, supported me twice to go to Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to conduct interviews with former Soviet aid workers and to work in Soviet archives, while Title VIII dollars also helped to pay the (considerable) expenses associated with intensive Uzbek-language classes at Arizona State’s Critical Languages Institute this past summer. I’m nowhere near alone in having these kinds of stories. Scholarship programs like those that ASU ran for less-commonly studied languages helped lower-income students, or students at the vast majority of colleges that do not offer regular instruction in (for example) Tatar to pursue their education at a modest cost.

Some areas of the former socialist cosmos, like Armenia and Ukraine, have wealthy enough diasporas to finance scholarships for, say, Armenian or Ukrainian-language study. But in particular for those parts of Eurasia (Uzbekistan, say), that have either tiny or less wealthy North American diasporas, Title VIII funding is crucial to maintaining civilian academic and governmental expertise. Ditto for military funding: ROTC generously supported several dozen cadets studying Uzbek and Persian at CLI (including travel to Samarkand), but the quality of American commentary and scholarship goes down when language knowledge becomes confined to the military. If we compare Pashto and Uyghur, for example, while the former (spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan) has four times as many speakers as the latter, the near-monopoly of Pashto pedagogy by the US military and intelligence apparatus means that undergraduate and graduate offerings in language, culture, and history are weak. That means, in general, worse (or less) civilian commentary of the kind that Kristof calls for, and which is essential for a healthy scholarly or intellectual relationship between academia, government, and the military in any democracy.

Unfortunately, in the last ten years scholars have seen a significant disinvestment in precisely these programs. As Laura Adams notes in her 2013 briefing on Title VIII funding, the real absolute dollar value of Title VIII funding was already declining circa 2000 due to inflation and stagnant concomitant increases in funding. In 2011, following the politically manufactured debt ceiling crisis, funding to Title VIII was cut by roughly 30% (still small numbers for funding programs – from $4.5 million to $3 million, roughly the cost of maintaining two US soldiers in Afghanistan for a year). During appropriations for the current fiscal year, Title VIII did not receive an appropriation at all, leading to massive cuts or halts in several crucial programs for the study of Eastern Europe or Eurasia. That means more competition for funding a stable cohort of graduate students, fewer projects funded, and an inevitable dilution of the quality and diversity of expertise that American universities can host (or that foreign-based US citizens, like I was when I applied for IREX funding, can receive).

The response of US government officials to these funding cuts has not been helpful. Writes Adams in her 2013 brief:

At the 2012 Central Eurasian Studies Society annual meeting, I asked keynote speaker Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, what he thought we should be doing about the cuts to the programs that trained the specialists who worked for him. His reply was pessimistic and repeated a familiar but unhelpful slogan: the funding for these programs was not coming back and that perhaps private-public partnerships were the answer. University-based research centers and scholarly non-profits have long relied on philanthropists to supply the funds that provide the backbone to their programs, but I do not think it is realistic to expect that Exxon Mobil will be investing in Turkmen language study for U.S. scholars any time soon, let alone paying for the salary of the person who sifts through the applications for a dissertation research grant.

No one in or out of government seems to be against funding fellowships for students to learn languages that are important for national security, but it is a long-term problem that university administrations, governments, and foundations alike too often balk at paying a real salary and benefits to the people who teach those languages and administer those fellowships. Universities do need to take on these financial responsibilities for the infrastructure of programs like Title VI, but in turn the federal government funding for these programs needs to flow amply and predictably.

So here’s where we’re left at the moment – crises in countries of which we understand little at the same time as a systematic disinvestment in precisely the kind of expertise and university infrastructure you would expect to be developed to respond to these changes. Heritage-speaker journalists or commentators like Julia Ioffe at The New Republic or the “citizen journalism” of social media may help, some. But those kinds of outlets don’t replace the social mobility and long-term consideration of regional issues that academia uniquely affords. If we don’t want the study of a vast portion of the world to become the exclusive warren of upper-middle class (and primarily white) scholars – with all of the loss of perspective that might entail – programs like these are crucial. Events in Ukraine are probably only beginning, and yet the state of our commentary lags far behind, but Americans will be at even more of a loss to explain change in places like Kazakhstan, Bosnia, or Uzbekistan when they happen.

Back in Business: Thoughts At the Beginning of A New Semester

After a long blogging hiatus, I’m back, back in the middle of another rewarding and productive semester at the Harvard Academy here in Cambridge. After some rest at home in California for a week or two, it was off to Germany for nearly a month to see friends, meet with colleagues to discuss collaboration on potential future projects, and – what took me away from blogging for so long – to do a course of line edits on the manuscript for Developing Powers.

I had some experience editing my own prose when working (in the same fantastic Berlin library, as it turned out) on the introduction to Writings on War, but this was the biggest editing job I had ever faced. Some background reading helped: Virginia Tufte’s wonderful Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style to give me inspiration for how to restructure sentences, paragraphs, and even (sparingly) allow myself to be tempted by the passive voice; and William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book to steel myself with realism about how much work there was ahead. I would need a lot of faith in creative rewriting and the length of the slog: it took nearly the entire month (plus almost the entire Berlin–Chicago–Boston return flights!) to read through the entire 600-some pages of the first draft. Much red ink was spilled (passive!). Some tears were shed. But, hopefully, out of it was edited a more readable manuscript.

A glimpse into the mind of madness: my notes for an upcoming talk at Harvard, made using Literature and Latté's program Scapple

A glimpse into the mind of madness: my notes for an upcoming talk at Harvard, made using Literature and Latté’s program Scapple

Back at Harvard came – indeed, still comes – the hard part. There’s the usual mix of campus life, classes, and distractions, to keep me from weeping too much over my own prose: advanced Persian courses continue, reminding me with extracts from Ferdowsi how the Pashtun revanchist and Afghan memoirs that I’m reading and seeding into the manuscript text really aren’t that hard. There’s also the promise of future scholarly horizons: our readings remind us of the (comparative) conservatism of the Persian language, as well as its (underappreciated) reach, from Bosnia to northern India at its apex, perhaps even farther as a language of diplomacy and culture. The more that my own reading for edits of Developing Powers takes me back into the 18th and 19th century – less so for the period itself and moreso for what mid-century Afghans and Soviets thought the Durrani moment in world history meant for Cold War South Asia – the more that serious work on, say, relations between the Durranis and the Sikhs interests. Throw in a mix of Academy events and visiting speakers and there’s much to entertain, many a free lunch to be finagled.

Still, the main task is clear – lots of cuts, lots of smoothing of prose, lots of implementing of chicken-scribble-scratch that I wrote in the margins between too many cups of bad library coffee. If the first draft of the manuscript clocked in at around 250,000 words, the task is now to get it to around 140,000 words – near the upward limit of what most publishers will accept, let alone what people will actually read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, but as Germano reminds us young scholarly writers, by the time we’re done editing one book, we find that we’re reading another one. Certain plot lines – for lack of a better word – that you thought were unimportant assert themselves more deeply. So, too, do certain characters, people whose trajectories and life stories course through your work. A book that I once thought was going to be a relatively straightforward comparison of different countries’ aid policies to Afghanistan during the Cold War – fueled by my Academy lunches with generous anthropologists – has become a framing-hungry vampire, moving from Comaroff and Comaroff to Mbembe to Sahlins in search of fresh blood with which to engorge itself.

A History Lesson for the Future: the more I read and revise manuscript chapters, the clearer it becomes that it’s crucial to take seriously mid-20th century Afghan and Soviet historiography on events as far back as the conquests of the Sikh Maharaja and his successor up to (but not beyond) the Pashtun frontier

Readings prompted from closer to home, do, too: re-reading essays by Suzanne Marchand on German Orientalism (there’s a chapter on Soviet scholarship on Afghanistan in the manuscript …) and listening and reading to the insightful Daniel Rodgers on American exceptionalism force me to think more about how Soviets and Afghans – particularly those party to the first generation of diplomatic relations between the two countries but before a coup against the Emir Amanullah, from 1919–1929 – thought about their own countries’ place in world history. The phrase “American exceptionalism” rolls off our Anglophone tongues, but it perhaps limits us from thinking about the way that Afghan or Soviet intellectuals thought of their own countries’ place in the history of the planet: vanguards of anti-colonialism; crusaders for the liberation of Pashtuns from centuries of Sikh–Anglo–Punjabi–Pakistani oppression; bearers of a Central Asian or Persianate liberal torch that the British Empire and, later, the United States, had squelched.

There’s much limpid prose, much flaccid syntax, much unclear argumentation to be corralled out of those words on the page in the next couple of weeks (a conference trip to Ohio and a big-time presentation at the Academy in late February and late March, respectively, should help motivate). But, as always, free reading (recently D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace) continues to inspire. “This girl not only kicks facts in the ass,” goes the description to a character, Julie Smith, in a DFW short story. “This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart.” Let’s hope that we historians take ourselves seriously enough to deal with something more than trivial in our work, but that we find the passion, time, and creative space to kick facts, prose, and complacency in the ass.

Home for the Holidays, Books on the Brain, Maps on my Mind

Particularly as the news headlines read of fake bomb threats and massive snowfalls in the Boston area, it’s good to be home in California – land of mild weather, satsuma oranges and avocados a plenty, and miles of horse trails extending from my parents’ backyard into the great chaparral yonder of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. After a rush to the finish line in Cambridge that saw me completing the digital history project as well as a first draft of the book manuscript for Developing Powers, I’m taking a week or two off at home to recharge and gain some perspective before diving back into substantial edits of the manuscript. There’s been a fair amount of pleasure reading – Jeremy Adelman’s new biography of social scientist Albert O. Hirschman and a German-language biography of under-appreciated architect Konrad Wachsmann – as well as some revisiting of classics of English prose and syntax to help lend inspiration before I begin edits: Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic WritingRichard Lanham’s Revising Prose, and Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences.

While preparing for the triage of prose and syntax that awaits me after the new year in the libraries and coffee shops of Berlin, however, I’ve also been taking time to gather lessons from the digital history class and think of how I can do some argumentative work with some of the sources I gathered at Harvard this past term. Mostly, this means working with several large maps produced by organizing committees for NGOs based in Pakistan but which did the majority of their work in Afghanistan. (Several of the NGOs that these supervising organizations coordinated – Medecins sans Frontieres, the Swedish Afghanistan Committee – had already been doing work inside of occupied Afghanistan sans approval from Kabul or Moscow since the early 1980s, but the maps themselves primarily cover the years 1989 to 1992.) They cover a wide range of humanitarian activities: health care facilities, educational facilities, and irrigation and agriculture projects – in short, para-state functions that an assembly of NGOs funded from international sources had taken over from the dying and disintegrating Communist Afghan state.

Working with these maps and tables means doing a variety of small tasks. In some cases, the work is as simple as crunching existing tables into spreadsheets and Google Fusion Tables, with which we can already get some sense of the spatial penetration and particular webs of NGO activity inside of Afghanistan during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Having just completed the spreadsheet for the medical facilities table, it’s striking to see how geographically concentrated certain organizations did their work (the tables tell us which medical facilities were run by which organization, as well as what the donor organization to given projects were). Below, for example, is a heat map of projects run by the Swedish Afghanistan Committee, a group whose archives I hope to visit in Stockholm sometime later this spring.

Heat map of medical projects run by the Swedish Afghanistan Committee in Afghanistan as of September 1992. Generated using Google Fusion Tables and documents from Harvard University Map Library.

Heat map of medical projects run by the Swedish Afghanistan Committee in Afghanistan as of September 1992. Generated using Google Fusion Tables and documents from Harvard University Map Library.

That red splotch is centered around Wardak Province, where many of SCA’s projects took place. Contrast this to the “profile” of projects run by the Ministry of Public Health of the Afghan state, and the difference is clear: more projects in areas around Kabul and the valleys cascading down to Peshawar.

Heat Map of projects run by the Ministry of Public Health of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, circa summer 1992.

Heat Map of projects run by the Ministry of Public Health of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, circa summer 1992.

Look at projects implemented by the Supervisory Council for the Northern Area, an umbrella organization for former anti-Soviet and anti-PDPA resistance groups created by Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the geographical spread is different again, corresponding – or so one might argue – to the areas controlled by Massoud and allies.

Heat Map for projects run by the Security Council of the Northern Area (Shurah-i Nazar).

Heat Map for projects run by the Security Council of the Northern Area (Shurah-i Nazar).

Of course, maps like these should be the starting point of further inquiries. Not only that, these maps of health facilities – a specific kind of humanitarian intervention into sovereign state space – ought to be juxtaposed with the data I can scrape from Harvard’s maps of education, irrigation, and agricultural projects. That’s going to be more difficult than this simple copying exercise: coordination committees appear not to have produced any tables for those, so I’ll have to look through my photographs of the maps themselves to generate spreadsheets that can then be fed back into GIS applications like Fusion Tables or ARC. Then there’s the question, too, of how to integrate the story that these maps appear to tell into my existing story (at least in the manuscript) of Soviet advisers deploying to, then leaving, the same places. It’s an interpretative challenge that drives me mad at times – but it’s that challenge that keeps me stimulated and interested as I keep developing the project more.

For the moment, however, it’s time to relax a bit more roasting avocado pits and tangerine peels before an open California fire. Enjoy the holidays, wherever they may find you.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,249 other followers