Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture

Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture

by David Palumbo-Liu (Editor)


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Monday, August 2


In this collection of essays, leading cultural theorists consider the meaning and implications of world-scale humanist scholarship by engaging with Immanuel Wallerstein's world-systems analysis. The renowned sociologist developed his influential critical framework to explain the historical and continuing exploitation of the rest of the world by the West. World-systems analysis reflects Wallerstein's conviction that understanding global inequality requires thinking on a global scale. Humanists have often criticized his theory as insufficiently attentive to values and objects of knowledge such as culture, agency, difference, subjectivity, and the local. The editors of this collection do not deny the validity of those criticisms; instead, they offer Wallerstein's world-systems analysis as a well-developed vision of the world scale for humanists to think with and against. Scholars of comparative literature, gender, geography, history, law, race, and sociology consider what thinking on the world scale might mean for particular disciplinary practices, knowledge formations, and objects of study. Several essays offer broader reflections on what is at stake for the study of culture in decisions to adopt or reject world-scale thinking. In a brief essay, Immanuel Wallerstein situates world-systems analysis vis-à-vis the humanities.

Contributors. Gopal Balakrishnan, Tani E. Barlow, Neil Brenner, Richard E. Lee, Franco Moretti, David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, Helen Stacy, Nirvana Tanoukhi, Immanuel Wallerstein, Kären Wigen

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822348481
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/18/2011
Pages: 274
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Palumbo-Liu is Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

Bruce Robbins is the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.

Nirvana Tanoukhi received her doctorate in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University. She has held fellowships at the Humanities Center and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, both at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World



Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4848-1

Chapter One

The Modern World-System Its Structures, Its Geoculture, Its Crisis and Transformation RICHARD E. LEE

World-systems analysis emerged in the 1970s, closely related to the medium-term decline of the world economic expansion that had been operative over the preceding quarter century and the end of the period of hegemony in the interstate system over the same period, which had been marked by the post–Second World War dominance of the United States. On the one hand, world-systems analysis was a product of the system that it sought to understand. On the other hand, it was a protest or resistance movement within the structures of knowledge—in articulation with the social movements associated with the upheavals of 1968—to the ways the world and its functioning had been portrayed, and thus it framed what actions, and in whose interests, were deemed possible and legitimate. As an outgrowth of the processes reproducing historical capitalism in the long term and their secular crisis, world-systems analysis has been and is a forward-looking movement during the contemporary period of crisis, and arguably transition.

The basic premise of world-systems analysis is that historical social systems have lives. They come into being as a unique and indivisible set of singular, longue durée structures. The processes of reproduction of these structures exhibit secular trends and cyclical rhythms that may be observed over the life of the system. Eventually, however, these processes run up against asymptotes, or limitations, in overcoming the contradictions of the system and the system ceases to exist. The structures of the modern world-system, or capitalist world-economy, emerged in Europe at the beginning of the long sixteenth century, the period known as the transition from feudalism to capitalism. By the end of the Hundred Years' War, an axial division of labor was developing between a western European core where high-wage, skilled workers produced low-bulk, high value-added manufactures, and an eastern European periphery where high-bulk, low value-added necessities were produced by a lower cost work force. The long-distance trade in these commodities resulted in the accumulation (concentration and centralization) of capital in the core.

The processes reproducing this relationship over the long term—the "accumulation of accumulation" or profit making for reinvestment and thus more profit making—underwent periodic fluctuations. The expansion of the system to incorporate new pools of low-cost labor provided the solutions that turned periods of world economic downturn into periods of upturn. A principal characteristic of the world today is that there no longer exist significant pools of labor outside the system to be incorporated at the bottom of the wage hierarchy to take the place of previously incorporated workers who have militated for and succeeded in negotiating higher remuneration. The result constitutes a challenge to capital in maintaining the world-scale rate of profit.

The "endless" accumulation resulting from the extraction and appropriation of surplus produced by labor could only take place within the context of what developed as an interstate system. Unlike "parcellized sovereignty" (the overlapping geographic jurisdictions of feudal "realms") the multiple states of which this new system was composed were formally "sovereign," with reciprocal rights and obligations, at least to the extent that their territorial extensions, and the monopoly on the use of force within them, were recognized by other states. Fluctuating flows of goods, capital, and labor could thus be controlled across semi-permeable borders throughout the system. In practice, strong states worked to loosen controls during periods of world economic upturn and tighten controls during periods of downturn to favor accumulation (along with its concentration and centralization) and contain and defuse class conflict.

Like its economic processes, the geopolitics of this system also underwent periodic fluctuations. Competition among elites resulted in "world wars," the outcomes of which were short-lived states of "hegemony," a status of the system (not an attribute of a single state) during which one strong state exercised military, commercial, financial, and cultural ascendancy, before other parts of the world-system "caught up" to become once more competitive and the cycle repeated. Three such periods may be observed: the period of Dutch hegemony after the Thirty Years' War, the period of British hegemony following the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, and the most recent, the period of U.S. hegemony after the thirty-years-long First-Second World War. Significantly, over the past five hundred years, no power has been able to totally dominate the system and thus to turn it into a world-empire and today no seemingly credible scenario for establishing a new state of hegemony has emerged.

There was a third set of structures that were just as constitutive of the modern world-system as those in the arenas of production and distribution (the economic), and coercion and decision-making (the political). Indeed, in 1982, Terence K. Hopkins discussed the first two sets of processes: "The processes of the world-scale division and integration of labor and processes of state-formation and deformation ... that constitute the system's formation and provide an account, at the most general level, for the patterns and features of its development." In the same volume, however, Hopkins and Wallerstein et al. also claimed that there was "a third fundamental aspect to the modern world-system ... the broadly 'cultural' aspect ... even though little is systematically known about it as an integral aspect of world-historical development ... [and] much preliminary conceptual work needs to be done." This third arena has come to be conceptualized as that of cognition and intentionality, the structures of knowledge.

The conceptual work necessary to the grounding of this third arena proved particularly difficult. It was not as though no one had been working on the problem; indeed, not only had questions in the cultural realm long offered rich subjects for study even at the macro level, culture had long been a central explanatory category of social analysis as well. Furthermore, the category culture had given rise to an important knowledge movement beginning in the mid-1950s. However, if the "broadly 'cultural' aspect" of the modern world-system was just as constitutive as the economic and political realms, then ad-hoc, particularistic conceptualizations had to be rethought in terms of a specification of the longue durée structures of this "third arena"—including the cyclical rhythms and secular trends of their reproduction—that could be recognized over the entire life of the system. In other words, what was needed was a conceptualization analogous to those that had been conceived for the economic and political arenas. The structures of knowledge approach is the outcome of this conceptual work.

From the beginning of the long sixteenth century, the practices of knowledge production took the form of a complex of processes that produced over time an intellectual and institutional hierarchy, a set of structures, within which legitimate knowledge was progressively defined as the "other" of societal and moral values. Values, the foundations on which the humanities have been built, could be based on "authorities," but in the end were open and contestable, and thus relative, whereas the universal truths produced by what eventually became the sciences were presented as singular and not open to interpretation. This evolving structure in which knowledge has been produced over the five-century longue durée of the modern world-system, in articulation with those sets of processes associated with the "economic" and "political" spheres, accounts for the dominant relational setting "disciplining" human cognition and intentionality, and thus forming the "cultural" parameters of possible action. The rise of visual representation and quantification that lost their association with any value components and especially the emergence of what Mary Poovey has called the "modern fact" as the primary epistemological unit of valid knowledge and cultural authority at the end of the European Middle Ages indicated the direction that the transformation of medieval modes of knowing were to take. The creation of the modern fact laid the groundwork for merchants to become capitalists by establishing the legitimacy of profit rooted in the virtues of "balance" inherent in the system of double-entry bookkeeping. With profit distinguished from usury, the accumulation of accumulation could take off. At the same time, however, there were effects which further redefined the structures of knowledge.

The modern fact could be affiliated with both the specifics of commerce and their generalization within a system which underwrote the individual creditworthiness of merchants and their credibility as a group. The possibility of such a double identity gave impetus to the processes of rationalization. Rationalization, the secular trend in the arena of the structures of knowledge, might be variously called "scientization" or "secularization," depending on the object of analysis or the arena of discourse involved. The pursuit of objectivity, that is, the view from nowhere that canceled agency and history, that in fact negated subjectivity however conceived, took the form of the progressive privileging of formal rationality. This formal rationality moved disinterested calculation to the fore as a generalized means of instrumental action, to the detriment of substantive rationality, the normative pursuit of specifically situated ends.

The structures of knowledge of the modern world-system are, then, like its economic and political structures, unique. No other historical system has created two antithetical, contradictory epistemological bases for the production of knowledge, one excluding human values a priori and one in which human values are an inseparable component. With the common purpose of mastering nature, two avenues in the search for truth independent of received values were charted: in the empiricist appeal to the senses and an inductive method, and in the rationalist embrace of reason and a deductive method. During the eighteenth century, the Newtonian fusion of these two produced a synthesis of experimental and empirical approaches that incorporated hypothesis construction and mathematical demonstrations. Classical science would henceforth be concerned with the discovery of universal laws governing a regular and constant nature. These would lead to the prediction of change both in the future and, retrodictively, in the past. With the displacement of the divine viewpoint to man, the humanities—which were not concerned with the ordered certitude of regularities in the world of nature but with the chaotic finitude of the unique and unpredictable in the human world of conflicting values—could call on individual creativity for a "rational" understanding of emergence and change. Along these two lines, the long-term intellectual and institutional opposition of the sciences and the humanities, what has come to be called the "Two Cultures," reached a clear definition over the course of the nineteenth century.

Within this basic structure, the social sciences emerged in the nineteenth century as a medium-term solution to the tensions internal to those structures of knowledge that no longer offered practical ways of addressing the evolving geopolitics of the world-system. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, it was no longer possible to imagine a static world; however, modes of interpreting social change in the human world, as marked off from the natural world, made contradictory appeals to values. The mutually exclusive alternatives were either achieving order through the authority of tradition or experiencing chaos from unfettered democracy. Neither offered a solution, on which any consensus seemed possible, to the political confrontations between conservatism and radicalism, both of which threatened capital accumulation. Eventually, from the late nineteenth century, the objective, value-neutral, problem-solving spirit of science was advanced to resolve the stand-off in the English-speaking world, and the connection between meaning or values and systematic knowledge was argued rigorously in the Methodenstreit, especially in the Germanys. The result was the institutionalization of a set of disciplines, the social sciences, which would function to guarantee ordered change in the name of "progress" through "scientific" control, exercised by "experts" and based on "hard facts." In political and economic terms, this amounted to liberal incrementalism, maximizing accumulation and minimizing class struggle.

The evolving hierarchical structure of the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, privileged, as authoritative, the universalism that was purportedly an attribute of knowledge produced in the sciences—the empirical and positivistic sphere of "truth"—over the particularism characteristic of the humanities, the impressionistic and anarchic realm of "values." In the great nineteenth-century fluctuation in the processes of reproduction of the structures of knowledge, the social sciences came to be situated in between the two super disciplines, resolving in the medium term the crisis of social knowledge production. The social sciences divided the study of the human world into isolated domains separated intellectually in disciplines and institutionally in university departments. Oriental studies and anthropology dealt with the great civilizations and the "tribes" of the non-modern world respectively; history was primarily concerned with the past of the modern world; the present of the modern world was further divided up among economics, political science, and sociology—these three treating the market, the state, and civil society as isolated fields. Although economics, political science, and sociology inclined more toward the sciences, while history, Oriental studies, and anthropology tended to have a more humanistic bent, even within the disciplines there was no consensus on the composition of their data (which could be quantitative or qualitative), or the appropriateness of their methods (they might be statistical or narrative), or the nature of their "scientific" universality (the discovery of laws or the aggregation of descriptions) on which they based the legitimacy of their claims. However, from the moment of the greatest intellectual and institutional success of this structure in the period immediately after 1945, the scholarly legitimacy of the premises underlying the separation of the disciplines and the practical usefulness of the distinctions became less and less self-evident, and after 1968 were overtly contested.

These then are the three analytically distinct but functionally, and existentially, inseparable structural arenas of the modern world-system: the axial division of labor, the interstate system, and the structures of knowledge. They define a singular "world." And that world is unique in human history in that from the time of its emergence it has expanded to incorporate the entire globe. It is this world, then, that constitutes the unit of analysis of the world-systems perspective.

A persistent question for both analysts and activists has always been why the exploited majority, although successful in agitating for improved conditions in the medium term, has never been able to entirely change the rules of the system. Historically, world-economies have been unstable and they have generally transformed into world-empires or simply disintegrated. The modern world-system, in contrast, has not (yet) met either fate. Wallerstein argues, "The secret of its strength ... is the political side of the form of economic organization called capitalism ... [that] as an economic mode is based on the fact that the economic factors operate within an arena larger than that which any political entity can totally control. This gives capitalists a freedom of maneuver that is structurally based." What matters for the system as a whole is not where state borders are drawn (these have, in fact, changed greatly over time), but rather that there exists a mechanism per se that fragments the system into partially independent, semi-autonomous parts (the process of state formation). This in turn results in a hierarchical ordering of multiple centers of power that can unilaterally impose resolutions to struggles among competing interests, but, with maximum legitimacy and efficacy, only within their exclusive geographic confines.


Excerpted from Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: The Most Important Thing Happening 1

Part 1 System and Responsibility

The Modern World-System: Its Structures, Its Geoculture, Its Crisis and Transformation Richard E. Lee 27

Blaming the System Bruce Robbins 41

Part 2 Literature: Restructured, Rehistoricized, Rescaled

World-Systems Analysis, Evolutionary Theory, Weltliteratur Franco Moretti 67

The Scale of World Literature Nirvana Tanoukhi 78

Part 3 Respatializing, Remapping, Recognizing

The Space of the World: Beyond State-Centrism? Neil Brenner 101

Cartographies of Connection: Ocean Maps as Metaphors for Inter-Area History Kären Wigen 138

What Is a Poem?: The Event of Women and the Modern Girl as Problems in Global or World History Tani E. Barlow 155

Part 4 Ethics, Otherness, System

The Legal System of International Rights Helen Stacy 187

Rationality and World-Systems Analysis: Fanon and the Impact of the Ethico-Historical David Palumbo-Liu 202

Thinking about the "Humanities" Immanuel Wallerstein 223

The Twilight of Capital? Gopal Balakrishnan 227

Bibliography 233

Contributors 249

Index 251

Customer Reviews