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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

a history of the little

World history, Ludwig Schlözer wrote in 1787, was synonymous with the history of “Erfindung” – a word that can mean either discovery or invention. 
“Everything that makes for a noble progress or regress among mankind, every new important idea, every new kind of behavior, pregnant with consequences, which the rulers, priests, fashion or accident enduringly bring among a mass of men should be called by us, out of a lack of a more appropriate word, invention.” [67 Weltgeschichte]

Invention or discovery – this, Schlözer thought, was the secret hero of history. Not the discoverer, necessarily: “The inventors (alphzai) themselves are mostly unknown. Often they don’t deserve to be eternalized,for, not seldom, simple accident leads a weak head to a discovery, that only later generations learned to use.”

This is  the secret of Europe’s dominance. For small Europe was the ground zero of discovery. Europe, not coincidentally, defined discovery – the verb preeminently described the European act or gaze. America, to use the most obvious instance, may have been seen by millions of its children, and yet it was only when it was seen by Europeans that it was discovered. Crack open the word discovery and you find universal history itself before you. 

It is a curiously non-heroic heroic history. Schlözer, one of Germany’s truly Enlightened intellectuals, was ruthlessly mocking of an older, heroic history that placed kings merely because they were kings at the center of historical action. 

“It goes back to the decadent taste for the deathgames (Mordspielen) of old and new man-murderers, named heros! Lets not rejoice any longer in the smoking war histories of conquerors (Eroberer), that is, over the passionate story of these evil doers who have lead nations by the nose! But for the present believe that the still musing of a genius and the soft virtue of a wise man has brought about greater revolutions than the storms of the greatest bloodthirsty tyrant; and that many happier paradoxes have more ornamented the world than the fists of millions of warriors have desolated it.”

Given this shift in the emphasis on what history – world history – is about, it isn’t surprising that Schlözer wants us to see the “little things” as the great ones: “… the discovery of fire and of glass, carefully recounted, and the advent of smallpox, of brandy, of potatoes in our part of the world, shouldn’t be left unremarked, and so one shouldn’t be ashamed to take more notice of the exchange of wool for linen in our clothing than to seriously and purposefully deal with the dynasties of Tze, Leang, and Tschin.” 

Schlözer’s separation of the ‘little things that one shouldn’t be ashamed of noticing’ and the deathgames of the tyrants would not, of course, survive the scrutiny of a master of world history like Marx. He would notice that deathgames are ingrained in those little things, and those little things are engrained in the deathgames. We kidnap Africans to raise sugar cane to make rum to intoxicate the sailors who kidnap Africans. This circle of biota, human bodies, taste buds, brain cells, and money can be named circulation, lightly lifting up the name given by Harvey to the movement of blood in the body. The Enlightenment gesture that seeks to separate histories in order to enforce moralities - to, essentially, discover uplift in history - is not simply a fiction, but a mask that gives us discovery without bloodshed, mastery without the system of oppression that supports it. 

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