On Immanuel Wallerstein’s Uncertainties of Knowledge.

On Immanuel Wallerstein’s Uncertainties of Knowledge.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,


The modern world-system, the capitalist world-economy, is in crisis. We no longer know it. It presents to us unfamiliar landscapes and uncertain horizons. The modern structures of knowledge, the division of knowledge into two competing epistemological spheres of the sciences and the humanities, is in crisis. We can no longer use them as adequate ways in which to gain knowledge of the world. We are confused by our inability to know, in both senses [know as to be acquainted with, cognoscere, conocer connaitre, kennen and know as to understand, scire, saber, savoir, wissen], and many fall back on dogmatisms. We are living in the eye of the hurricane (pp. 49-50).

uncertainties of knowledge

I will not hesitate to come out and say my admiration for Immanuel Wallerstein. Every since graduate school at Duke University in the mid-1990s, his scholarship has been a strong point of intellectual stimulation and needling provocation. I have specifically in mind the slim text The Uncertainties of Knowledge (2004), dedicated to Ilya Prigogine (“scientist, humanist, scholar”) who died the previous year. How often do you get to see that triple praise? The predominant lexicon is one of tentativeness. The mood, cautious. Yet, there is no timidity marching through the tulips, the freeways and the institutions. Quite the opposite, the fundamental call is for the social sciences to be written in the past tense (p. 138), for the discipline of “history” to unlearn bad habits, to start anew (p. 116). This is permanent critique of academic reason in complicity with larger social and political forces: multi-disciplinarity is empire of sand “for today our disciplines are reduced to sand” (p. 117). Doubling the initial quote:

end of the world


I see [our present reality] as primarily one in which the historical system in which we have been living, the capitalist world-economy, is in crisis and therefore is facing a bifurcation… I see the present intellectual crisis as reflecting the structural crisis of the system… [whether] this evolutionary turning point at which we are located will be one for the better or for the worse (p. 125).


Think of bifurcation in drastic terms more like a rough deal cut by irreconcilable positions, a bad split, rather than gentle departing each one on one side of the fork of the road hoping to reunite and be merry soon around some resolution, holiday or synthesis. The negative term, uncertainty, is here enthroned with no nostalgias for its positivity, and precarity takes the limelight, when “garbage contract,” perhaps the neologism is needed in the American English, or even “mini-jobs” are like the dirty sun to which the sunflowers must turn, and there is no glimpse of rainbow in the horizon. Current academic conditioning in the U.S. should put you therefore in a good receptive mood, especially with the additional baggage, call it “cultural,” the cat licking the whiskers of the immigrant experience, the foreign humanities, side by side functional bilingualism and even recent naturalization. Two decades later, this has not been love at first sight. And one must look forward to the next two.



In what follows I will do a re-telling of Uncertainties of Knowledge chewing the cod and pulling my ear, whispering into it how epistemic and social things have developed and how we may go about it in the uncertain future. “If you see something, say something,” as the “security” sign commands good citizens, pregnant conditional, particularly when the message is challenging. Will you get to see it and say it? And will you get to understand what you think you see? Wallerstein (1930-) tells us the end of the world as we know it is near, and there is expectation in the saying, even when feelings of expansiveness are hard to come by. Heads of tails and the coin is high in the sky. There is trepidation and apprehension. Uncertainty, therefore, will not drop its prefix easily from now on. And “intelligence” –and I do not simply mean the proper strategic maneuvering of state officials—and the affections wrapped up around it will have to change accordingly, and who doubts the mood is but somber?, lest we miss the ideal possibility of more determined efforts and better captures. I will highlight key findings in the said text and add connections and implications along the way.


Uncertainties of Knowledge opens up with an emphasis on temporality. It is time that matters mostly, and the de-emphasis on space or geography is perceptible (there is a certain naturalization, or narrow focus, of the Franco-German First World of the Enlightenment legacy that reaches us today, such is the charge in relation to the fourth volume of The Modern World-System dealing with what is called the centrist liberalism triumphant, 1789-1914; Jennifer Pitts’s “A liberal geoculture?,” New Left Review Nov./ Dec. 2012, pp. 136-144). The dimensions are obviously monumental and hesitations about the term “geoculture” will recur. Let me anticipate that the term “culture” is in a strong sense the bracketing of universalist constructions and yet Wallerstein would not let go of that entirely.

uncertainties cloud

But there is no mistake about our inevitable present. It is, besides messy, slippery, mercurial, supremely evanescent, just try to catch it with your fingers, also in relation to past and future. Changeability and mutability and the “wave of disillusionment about the future,” that is what characterizes our present, according to Wallerstein. Would you say otherwise? The proposal is “to take uncertainty as a basic building block of our systems of knowledge” in ways that are “inherently approximate and certainly non deterministic” (p. 3). Notions such as “reality” and “knowledge” are not denied. They get caught up in the workable paste, the mortar, of this ingrained uncertainty: this is the life juice animating the limbs of the aforementioned love affair, and so we must work through, without ever leaving it behind for other better, more rotund things. If this feels sour sweet, no big bang, no badda bing, badda boom, no big cause, no teleology, Wallerstein adds that this is not necessarily a bad thing when you come to think of it from other angles, the ones provided by the “new science” being proposed. The predilection for the language of “system” is one hint against the proliferation of historicisms, personified in Robert Darnton (pp. 63-4, 68). Uncertainties of Knowledge is reconstruction task (p. 147) and this review is summary of it.


Wallerstein registers a fracture in the dominant model of the natural sciences, undeniably since the 1980s and possibly before that. His academic lifetime begins in the 1950s in the context of sociology at Columbia University, and his projection is hence the 1960s onwards, the 1970s acting as a kind of peak in confidence of the social studies inside the institutional peak of university structures going down ever since. So, this is our forty-year luck, which is still ambitious vision of what he likes calling “historical social systems” (p. 148). Any construction of a truth, any truth claim, has a social texture embedded in it, which is no optional, detachable background, or “mere” context, ad hoc stage, theater, or appendage, res extensa where other more important, “ideal” stuff happens, and how to separate easily skin, bone and flesh, reason and emotion, periphery and core in systemic relations, think of “the social” instead closer to the sentient ocean or the forbidden zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, or even some form of meaningful, inevitable, desirable circumstance for a salvific existential historicism, and think again how uneasy, if not ugly general things look in the early decades of the new century. Wallerstein is good company to keep since these dilemmas you do not wish them away.

world systems analysis

The “new science” being defended in Uncertainties of Knowledge has to account for the social history of that truth claim combining an affinity, or “culture,” a sociability, even an ethnicity, with all its political interests. Knowledge practices such as theology, philosophy and what Wallerstein calls “folk wisdom,” are historically cornered by epistemic successes internal to the natural sciences,  which has managed to put on the table theses such as the nonexistence of universal truth, the uncertainty principle, the relativism, total or gradual, that gains distance from the notion of objectivity away from deterministic “fundamentalisms.” Truth is conceptualized as a series of approximations, yet in what type of diagram?, an Escher drawing perhaps?, by theoretical f bifurcation breaking into non-singular coexistence in different realms, levels or dimensions of truth, but the final singular solution appears increasingly like an impossible creature, even undesirable in its universalism traveling undisturbed through timespaces, think of an incongruous Borgesian creation, a fetish, a chimera, a mirage, a unicorn. With “objectivity” in question marks, while pressing the (inter-)subjectivity of all knowledge assertions, Wallerstein will not settle for what appears to be a theoretical “culturalism” (perhaps idiographic knowledge is an entirely valid synonym) however: there is no way around the engagement with the philosophical premises of our scientific activity and the larger social and political implications informing the structures of knowledge. There is reluctance in Wallerstein to go “post-structuralism,” the word is largely missing, although there is some sympathy and desire to join forces with the proponents of “cultural studies.” Knowledge and institutionality go hand in hand: the truth of the truism will be kept active in all knowledge proposals and how our predicament has geocultural implications. Epistemologies necessitate organizations inside which structures will have to exist, and one must also imagine transformations, debilitations, destructurations and de-institutionalization. The early 21st Century is caught up in all these plurals, like a bird in lime twigs, virtual and otherwise.

Immanuel Wallerstein2


Wallerstein does not hesitate to attack what he calls “scientism” (p. 13); that is, science understood as disinterested and extra-social. In other words, knowledge is not some self-contained and self-containing “world island” in and of itself traveling unimpeded from one timespace to another timespace to the marvel and applause of myriad natives seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake (I am using in quotation marks a historic expression originally coming from the international-relations field). Yet in another way, knowledge production always already obeys political forces, has interests and it is intrinsically contextual, it is also inextricably emerging from a concrete context or interplay of social forces. Another way of saying this is that knowledge is political through and through, in all the senses of the quarrelsome adjective you can imagine (inside a political setting, tense, turgid, confrontational, embedded in a hierarchy, more or less convincingly institutionalized, with more or less awareness of preceding dimensions, etc.). Advocating the figure of the “intelligently concerned scientist,” Wallerstein is vocally clear about suspending the relative disinteredness of the science. This does not resolve into subjectivism or relativism, and much less on “presentism,” since there is a world outside and the world outside is partially known and the emphasis is here on duration, or Braudelian longue durée. There is the affirmation in Uncertainties of Knowledge of a thick texture of a mutational world and of the necessity for big frames of cognition and intelligibility that do not have to yield necessarily always to the immediate pressures of officialdom. There are myriad interests and norms, and power differentials: scientists operating within institutions do tend to come from socially dominant strata worldwide (p. 10), but there is no inevitable cause-effect Foucaultanism that asserts that knowledge has to follow up, be tied up, broken down, supremely subservient and always blindly seduced by power. Wallerstein wants other things and his restiveness remains immensely seductive, to me at least.


Early 21st century finds itself wagging the tail of a long process of epistemologically unified knowledge, call it Western, and one beginning date suggested is, always according to our author, the 1750-1850 in which the divorce between “science” and what he calls “philosophy” comes into effect. The world system may begin in the 16th century, that is the meaning of Charles V (pp. 139-141), but the knowledge area that matters to Wallerstein kicks in 350 years later, coalescing around the 1970s in the Western institutionalizations of the social sciences feeling the pinch of the natural-science successes with the “humanities” moving snail-like, these are currently being “barely tolerated” (p. 72) and you may want to update your Marcuse in relation to our contemporary varieties of repressive tolerance. Science emerged as the only legitimate path to truth and truth understood along the lines of nomothetic travel though timespaces, ideally reaching high forms of ideal friction-free universalism. The successful history that has been crumbling down is the Baconian-Cartesian-Newtonian epistemology, a kind of mathematical conception of the universe. The conventionally famous point of reference is the “two cultures” of C. P. Snow (1965), or the two ways, nomothetic and idiographic, the naturalized binarism and field of pasture Wallerstein proposes to leave behind for the less intelligent.


Be as it may, we still have, don’t we?, the institutionality of the generic model of the humanities on the one hand, idiographic epistemology, seeking and finding particularities, bemoaning the limited utility of all generalities and generally promoting something like an empathetic, even ethical understanding. And you have the generic model of the natural sciences promoting the nomothetic simplicity of universals working their way happily across time and space. The social sciences are in between these two modalities. This is the crisis of the social sciences, the “bad middle” so to speak, which has to become good soon, still in some kind of irresolution. Wallerstein calls for the renewal of the crisis of the social sciences in ways that are comparable in my mind, also politically, to a figure such as Roberto Mangabeira Unger. The attitude is “to cavil at the idea of universal generalization.” You would have to do both, generalize and particularize. Put yourself in the dramatic formula of “someone tied to two horses galloping in opposite direction” (p. 19).


Wallerstein speaks accordingly of a series of disciplinary splits that “seemed plausible in the late nineteenth century”: past (history) and present (economics, political science and sociology); the West and the rest of the world (anthropology), and another one, the restrictive split, “valid only for the modern Western world between the logic of the market (economics), the state (politics) and civil society (society)” (p. 20). There is mash-up, also “messiness,” and pluralization accordingly, and this type of neat taxonomy appears no longer viable, particularly after 1945 with the poaching and blurring of boundaries and the challenges we must imagine coming internally from epistemic fields as well as externally from different political configurations, for example, Cold-War bipolarity to increasing post-Cold-War poly-centrism. Hence, “bye, bye” to the tripartite world arrangement! We Is it possible to point fingers in the direction of who is profiting from these muddy waters?

Sir Isaac Newton, aged 46

It appears that we are moving towards a gerrymandering of world dimensions making easy epistemological insides and political forces outside less plausible. “Cultural studies” is invoked, but left under-developed, as one abstract catalyst of “disorder” holding the hand of natural-science successes typified by Prigogine. The Nixonian moment signifies this gradual cultural-studies emergence of ignored groups or “minority” sectors, which we must imagine typified within the conventional U.S. typologies.  There is the kind of automatic assumption of minority representativeness that is not so easily embraced by scholars not entirely devoted to internal US situations, Slavoj Zizek is one salient name. And yet clearly these are initiatives bringing light to social-group affiliation and inter-subjectivity also in relation to knowledge production inside the conventional liberal environment that historically imposed the theoretical social indifference of assimilation.



The invocation of indeterminacy frontally challenges the sciences built upon Newtonian premises explicitly in relation to the subject-object-split of the knowledge production and the political interests of the subject supposed to know within inherited positions of relational privilege apropos social groups in the U.S. If something is indeterminate and uncertain, something is open for intervention as opposed to close and dead-certain, historically for the worse. One must learn to appreciate uncertainty in Uncertainties of Knowledge in this way. One crucial issue is also that of outlet, whether bureaucratic-capitalist institutions of higher learning will hold back or follow suit with some of the transformations wanted by Wallerstein as soon as they feel social control and policy enforcement slipping away, and further margin-profit deterioration inside the general shrinkage. And this history is still very much with us in the present (“Downturn still squeezes colleges and universities” by Andrew Martin, Jan. 10, 2013,


The model division is under attack (p. 21) and the attackers are gathered under “complexity studies” by two signs, “science,” sign which must be understood as the dominant mode of natural science since the 1700 century culminating in Newtonian mechanics, and the sign of “cultural studies” or “philosophy” attacking universalism by the sign of the “humanities” which are wanted eroded, also by cultural studies. How easy is it to gather examples of anti-humanities animosity in the American street! Yet again, the sign “uncertainty” is symptom of a drastic turn inside which equilibrium is seen as exceptional and the emphasis on future temporality makes things intrinsically indeterminate with a predilection for entropy and bifurcations, and chaos coming out of order. The clash is between universalisms –or even monotheisms and perhaps one has to include the term in the plural form—and particularities –and perhaps one can identify them as paganisms and idolatries. If we happen to be in the antipodes of any seduction of a Hegelian synthesis, Wallerstein still wants to “permit a reconstructed universalism” within an “acceptable global culture” (p. 147).


The intellectual and organizational template is called into question, accordingly, and there is no easy way out of not pushing it to reach the validity of boundaries within social science, the epistemological divide between the “two cultures,” or the triplet super-categories of the natural sciences, humanities and the social sciences. The castle of cards is being blown away. Where will they land? Wallerstein’s push is for a rethinking towards a reunification of a new epistemology negatively articulated, i.e. neither-nor (nomothetic-idiographic, universalist-particularist, determinist-relativist, p. 25). Wallerstein speaks of the epochal feeling of being “overwhelmed by a sense of confusion coming from the exhaustion of the geoculture that has prevailed for some two centuries” (p. 26). It is easy to see that there are “profound implications for the organization of the university system, that is, the faculties” (p. 27), and for the organization of scholarly research. Let us underline the two nouns in the plural.



Issues of normativity and applicability quickly come to the fore. Institutionality will bring its pressures, interests, gridlocks. Issues: 1) reproducibility of an eternally changing and real universe moving it beyond a mere collection of snapshots; 2) the debunking of the apparent neutrality of the perceiver and the perceived, but also not falling for the solipsism of “that is your perspectivism and this is mine;” 3) some type of resolution of the general point of the comparativism of similarities and differences; 4) the relationship between the universe and the parts, the theoretical contemplation of the seamlessness of the universe and the meaningful units of analysis, and perhaps one might speak of the general or abstract formula of the subjects and objects of knowledge production doing things within timespatial parameters.



In relation to the increasingly disorienting configuration of the disciplines, one can imagine disciplinary dispersion within existing networks and classical divides of the aforementioned two cultures, existing policy enforcers and mounting fragility perhaps turning to plasticity and suppleness. Nothing to lose that has not already been lost. “Gender” is spoken of as a category not yet fully exploded (p. 33). Wallerstein speaks of the “scissors” (p. 31), or budget cuts and of the “secondarization” of university education, the expansion of the student base, the customer and the consumer, and the tightening of financial resources, reduced resources creeping up with impudent economic determinism on the breakdown of strict disciplinary boundaries. The period of expansion for the university, the virtual singular locus of the production and reproduction of knowledge, Wallerstein’s long nineteenth century, finds its culmination point in between 1945 and 1970 (the current upsurge of the student population is not talked about).


Once more, there will be endogenous and exogenous forces taking place inside hermeneutic circles and the university setting is, doubts any one?, one area of social struggle. Wallerstein speaks of the current impasse in relation to the tri-model division of the natural sciences, humanities and the social sciences. Will we be moving towards intensified dispersions and greater reunifications? (job-market nomenclature is rich and not uplifting, part-time, seasonal, sessional, collateral, adjunct, floating, and it is surely worrisome the indelicate lack of sensibility of the American English apropos the below-the-living-wage systemic normality of academic labor). Uncertainties of Knowledge points fingers in that direction but does not dwell there.

crustal thickness


There is little to nil presence of the category of the aesthetic, of recent revival lately, in Wallerstein. And this is another way of saying that the language of postmodernism is radically missing (I recall Jameson’s invitation to consider future scenarios, Wallerstein’s nobility obliges and his future of uncertainty is certainly ominous and arresting in its openness). It is up to us and you can trust yourself to judge how you do things and how others have been doing it so far. Will they change and how and why? The language of postcolonialism is not included per se in Uncertainties of Knowledge, but the non-West dimension is always latent in our author who cut his teeth in political sociology and African studies (the Argentinian “dependency-theory” Raúl Prebish is credited with the increasing importance of the concept of “periphery,” and this is an important Latin American genealogy to explore in our near future, p. 91). He also makes the connection between Braudel’s “world-economy” and the German geographer Fritz Rorig in the 1920s (p. 88), and this is a second line of exploration giving concrete content to the association of geopolitics and studies, the kind of inevitable tension that Wallerstein’s work makes desirable.


The end of certainties in the social sciences lands in the modern world system or the capitalist world economy. This is the grounding of our modern global modernity. Its primary “cultural” message: the denial of the right of either religious or political authorities to proclaim truth by themselves alone. The total rejection runs into a total, theoretical egalitarianism, and yet in practice scientists “did not mean it,” and their specialization was not all that different from those religious and political groups (quite an endeavor would be to try to see the intersections between the Kuhn of epistemic revolutions with a focus on the natural sciences, Rorty’s dialogue with Kuhn defending a multi-disciplinary pragmatism inside the miniscule terrain of “American philosophy” and the humanities, politically social-democratic in character, and Wallestein’s projections of future uncertainty and epistemic ecumenicism more on the accusatory disposition than both authors, as far as I can see).


The challenges to the Newtonian model of science are built upon linearity, equilibrium and [the unthinkability of] reversibility. In place of determinism, deterministic chaos, in place of linearity, move away from equilibrium and towards bifurcation, in place of “integer” (sic, integral?) dimensions, fractals. The formula of the “arrow of time” is symptomatic of such impossibility of reversibility. The inherited assumption that “science” is fundamentally different from humanistic thought holds less and less the grip of the collective imagination. For someone who is not historically coming from groups self-described as “cultural studies,” Wallestein appears sympathetic to the general-cause of minority-group representation (there is no engagement with any other idea, other than the anti-humanist evacuation of the sciences of man). There is accordingly what I might want to describe as the culturization of knowledge practices away from such Newtonian model. The adjective “cultural” appears to want to mean something like “total,” and yet it rest uncomfortably in some form of skepticism of universalist tendencies. Wallerstein speaks of “geoculture” proper to the modern world system –if the language of postmodernism is here missing, the language of civilizations is also missing). Forget about high, middlebrow and low modalities, put textual thicknesses in brackets, “culture” conveys to me here something of the natural-science sense of culture, think of microscopic creatures swimming in a defined habitat, or microsystem, or soup. It is that and less great authors manufacturing cathedrals of creativity worthy of collective admiration. If the challenge to science comes also from within science, Wallerstein always wants to include the social dimension within intellectual endeavors of the intelligence (is coterminous, isomorphic the assumption of the relationship of mind and world in Wallerstein’s vision of the new social science accordingly?). Would he accept this type of generic simple sentence away from time and place? Science is thus part of culture (p. 38). And “we have reached the cultural end of certainties.” The point appears to be to continue pushing that ending without guarantees.

ferdinand braudel


In moving away from Newtonian mechanism, the vision of the universe that emerges feels distinctly more Heraclitus than Parmenides: “like a flowing river in eternally endless flux” (p. 39). Try to catch your sustainable truth there, or here, accordingly. Uncertainties of Knowledge has its cognitive mapping, but it is de-emphasized, following Braudel, in the generic privileging of duration within big units. Yes, geography matters obviously, but what matters mostly is the development of such truth calculations made possible and operationable within its acceptable big-size TimeSpace parameters, likely fluctuating and possibly bifurcating over time. We may imagine the cohabitation of different truths accordingly and the “excessive” claims to larger claims. Logically, “very little of much interest can be stated that is “universal” (p. 40). The attitude of looking for regularities comes quickly to the realization that the systems constantly move away from equilibrium, hence the increasing emphasis is for transitions and transformations, for systemic bifurcations. What makes the system interesting is the limit at which the system may fail or break down. Three moments of time in the analysis of any historical social system: genesis or the onset, the ongoing operation, and the crisis or sunset. Dualistic, if not Manichean set-up, fraught with misapprehensions depicted amusingly by C. P. Snow, the conventional modus operandi: “classic” idiographic critiques of the generalizers, “classic” nomothetic critiques of the particularizers, which Wallerstein wants to transcend with a self-imposed methodological guideline in the search for cyclical rhythms and secular trends (p. 44). Major causalities and final teleologies are put in abeyance, this is “one game at a time” as the dedicated, intense coach tells his team pursuing the final stretch of the championship, but culmination is inexistent in Uncertainties of Knowledge inside which spatial considerations appear less prominent, despite the theoretical conjuncture denoted by the notion of “timespace.” There is however a bit of an over-reliance on the Franco-German-American reduction of the critical First-World intelligence, perhaps pedagogically so.



Knowledge about complex systems is always already approximate and moving towards higher levels of probability of recurrence. Wallerstein’s complex-system knowledge proposal is the description of the rhythms of the operational features of a system, what allows a system to be called a system (p. 45). Knowledge is predictive power, the possibility of prediction of what is likely to happen. And this is when the inspiration of Braudel comes into being, keeping historical events within systemic bounds, like dust to the desert of eventuality. Events must fit into a structure of meaningfulness or intelligibility which is not immutable, the longue durée. Crisis points happen when the secular trend or the arrow of time cannot continue in a linear fashion. Hence, linearity must happen no matter what and bifurcation is the “solution” to such crisis. Uncertainties have to be distinguished between major and minor, the first ones touching on the core of the structure of the system (p. 47). Wallerstein speaks of our living present as a moment of profound instability, of increasingly intense fluctuations and of likely bifurcations in the immediate future.



His temporal suggestion is that larger uncertainties happen “one every 500 years” (p. 48). This is our blessing, or curse, if you wish, since we will be in the midst of it, almost like a tsunami or a tornado.  This systemic bifurcation, or real upheaval, is historically unrelated to the so-called “revolutions.” Uncertainties of Knowledge defends that it is happening in the timeframe of the 1970s until the 2050. Readers are expected to assume a global crisis –systemic and hermeneutic. The crisis is out there but also inside our heads as we go about thinking with no options for claiming exceptional privilege of hermeneutic comfort zone. It is the end of the world as we know it (p. 49) and the new historical system will have to require the escort service of a better type of epistemology leaving behind the previously mentioned disciplinary splits. We no longer know accordingly the world in which we live, living as we are “in the eye of the hurricane” (p. 50). We must brace ourselves for a period of great social turmoil (p. 51).



Our 83-year-old social scientist speaks of structural changes appertaining to the massive profit squeeze. He underlines three vectors that cannot continue growing in linear fashion: 1/ the secular rise of real wages across world-economy as a whole; 2/the growing destruction of the environment due to the institutionalized externalization of costs; 3/ the fiscal crises of states. The decline of the legitimacy of state structure is linked directly by Wallerstein to the disillusionment with the possibility of reducing polarization of the world system. The crisis of the structures of knowledge in the social sciences has to do with the limited success in predictive modalities of “social engineering,” besides the dim survival option involved in long-term compatibility with the social environment. Wallerstein does not hesitate to speak of the “geoculture “ –thus in the grandiose synthetic singularity— slipping away hermeneutically and also politically from the institutionality of divorce between science and “philosophy,” or the humanities (p. 51). Wallerstein’s advocacy is for the renaissance of the desire for the epistemological unity of knowledge responding forcefully to the structural crises of the capitalist world system in the critical juncture. The cavalier argument of monothetically oriented social scientists clings to the “arrow of time” (no “time machine” as in some futuristic novels of reversibility, the expression credited to Arthur Eddington, p. 53), and how such nomothetic search for predictabilities and regularities tended to ignore [the singularity of] history, but also tended to “deplore historicism” (p. 53), or l’histoire événementielle. If events are dust (p. 75), it is the landscape of the desert that Wallerstein, after Braudel, is after. Call it economicist if you wish: Wallerstein registers the criticisms of Brenner and Aronowitz (pp. 94ff, 101ff). One of these must be the equation of modernity qua Americanism, typically oblivious of its own trajectory. This naturalism is less so by the time I write these pages, among its critiques the ones put together by our American social scientist, who nonetheless renews calls for convergence of complexity studies and cultural studies if you wish— or “new science” and “philosophy”– moving towards a common epistemological base. “So, here we are today, on the verge of a major epistemological restructuring, a reunification” (p. 55).



A desire for universalism of a different kind from the “geoculture” (p. 142) enters through the main door, or perhaps the back door of the institutions: “this is a call for universal entry into social science” (p. 56), which implies reconstruction and the creation of an “acceptable global culture” (p. 147). It appears that there are universalisms and universalisms and some are more desirable than others. With the disciplines in a bind, in a dubious condition of well-being, what we desperately need is a collective intellectual discussion (p. 56). Is it taking place? Where? We are still by 2004 a long way from this objective (p. 57). Are we any better today eight years later? Here, Wallerstein oficializes once again the hermeneutic inspiration of the French historian Braudel against American claims to historicist knowledge, Robert Darnton (p. 68) for example, not to mention middlebrow foreign-affair bastardizations such as Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography (2012) analyzed in a previous culture bite. Wallerstein returns here to writings originally published in French in 1958, in English forty four years ago, in 1969, already speaking of the crises of the human sciences, to which we can add illustrious pedigree of European names such as William Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, Ortega y Gasset, for example the little read text about the notion of principle in Leibniz. Wallerstein speaks of the importance of his endeavor in the Gulbenkian Commission, which must be put side by side the name of Jean Francois Lyotard, not included in Uncertainties of Knowledge and I remain guilty, for now, of the previous reduction of Franco-German vision with one minor exception. No doubt that the impulse is to continue going plus ultra along the certain tension between postmodernisms and postcolonialisms, at least within fields of “cultural studies” within the assumed Wallersteinian frame.



The proposal, endorsed by Wallerstein, is for a total history that pays attention to mathematization, narrowing in on locality and yet within a longue durée. The world of academia is not and cannot ever be divorced from the political arena, again politics understood in a richer way than “politics” and the conventional “policy” level in the American English, including ideology critique for example. This means here the end of the world liberal consensus and one must understand the previous adjective in the American idiom since the 1970s (one example of that is Moynihan’s defense of the term to the Papal proclamations against it). Three steps not to leave behind then: numbers, localizations or particularities and larger frames or horizons. Quantification and idiographic thick textures fitting into structural frames of intelligibility in hermeneutic fight over power and knowledge with others: Wallerstein wants to do something to the great epistemological debate of the nomothetic and idiographic disciplines (p. 67). To leave it behind (p. 116). He wants the utopia of an “aufhebung of the nomothetic / idiographic antinomy” (p. 118), and logically what would such outlet or release be if not the coming to terms with the overcoming of the crisis of the modern world-system, the capitalist world-economy? Wallerstein repeats Braudel’s call for an ecumenical council (pp. 61, 61), that he says, it is being actively disregarded and resisted; hence, the reference to the “empty pews” in the subtitle of the fourth chapter. In such empty location, “in the unexcluded middle” (p. 82), the new social sciences will have to learn to ride the “two horses galloping in opposite direction” (p. 19).


Just do not call it “theory” (p. 83), but open-ended analysis. There are two parts to Uncertainties of Knowledge: structures of knowledge and the dilemmas of the disciplines. And the general feeling of shifting floors and general disrelationship inside a geoculture that is barely keeping itself together as well. The end of part one makes a virtue of the skepticisms at labels and brands. Part two dealing with disciplinary dilemmas makes strict theoretical claims feel unintelligent, inelegant rigidities missing on the imperatives, rhythms, etc. of contemporaneity, imagine corsets, telephones attached to walls, bowler hats, horse carriages, Newtonian science, the unreconstructed mustiness of petty-bourgeois humanist undergraduate education in the foreign country, the assigned gender roles in rural areas before industrialization, “literature” before digitality, courtship rituals before instant text-messaging, etc. The wager is for historical social science to leave behind conventions of history and sociology, anthropology and “other dubious disciplines.” There is no linguistic preoccupation made explicit per se in the text and the jargons of authenticity here lock horns in the imperial languages with Spanish in a discreet, secondary position (Wallerstein’s important collaboration with the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano is already well known, I simply want to mark it here).



In the manner of an uncertain conclusion, then. This is perhaps a valid joke in the abstract in the end. To the question, “do you want me?” The beautiful, if dubious creature responds, “I am of an uncertain frame of mind about it.” The key thing would then be to see to the meaning of want and to the nature of the uncertainty, whether it is indeterminate in its future-projection sense, open for debate say, and also to maneuver, or whether it is euphemism for the negative, no, never in a million years, the dumb closing of the American mind. And yet: never say never. There is something, I submit to you, in the uncertainty in Uncertainties of Knowledge that is leaning more towards the first option befitting an eagerness towards hermeneutic and also political dimensions, a wanting to know, shortly. And remember the initial dictum that this is not love at first sight and twenty years later, it is no love affair, and money appears to be out of the question. And yes, the silly joke wishes to emphasize the crucial dimension of intersubjectivity, which perhaps Uncertainties of Knowledge failed to personalize convincingly or strongly enough, except fleetingly, in relation to scholars of importance and inevitable debates and quarrels, for example in relation to a rather famished picture of the cultural studies, clearly not the apple in the eye of our great American intellectual, here mostly minority mouthpiece. The form of the uncertainty always already brings with it its (im-)possible content, function, and the inevitable timespaces inside which the possibility of a fruitful and joyful relationship may happen, assuming that the speaking subject is asking the beautiful and dubious creature the question of interest in earnest, unless it is within the sorry conditions of the part-time, adjunct, collateral, seasonal work-garbage contract. Always contextualize, always historicize, in the home of the brave, light on memory, accordingly.



Wallerstein is not your average academic and conventional intellectual, and it is clear that these two dimensions, academic and intellectual, are very different, particularly in the current institutional sliding scale. The vision afforded in Uncertainties of Knowledge is intelligently self-referential and it is big and it has to be both things at the same time: self-referential apropos university conditions of and for knowledge production and big since we cannot opt out, at least for now, of the impositions put together in certain and uncertain terms by the modern world-system or capitalist frame. This bigness has been institutionalized according to false binaries (nomothetic/idiographic, universalism/particularism, global local, etc.) and this is, at least to our courageous intellectual, on its way out as we speak. Neither everything is specific, nor everything significant is irrelevant of timespace configurations, but both at the same time inevitably tight in the handkerchief of mental process and sustainable vision of seeking something systemic at its point of fracture, its limits, its breakdowns, its disorders: this is the abstract, if tense space of the social sciences Wallerstein wants to defend with all its uncertainties and there are surely social and political dimensions attached to the convergence disposition labeled as complexity studies and cultural studies.

Escher hands


It is clear that we have not picked our conjuncture to be one of contraction and austerity. The scientific peak: the timeframe of 1945-1965 (p. 151). In shorthand, we live in the gradual decline of the liberal / Whig vision of history and worldview (p. 153), in the moment of relative American decline Wallerstein has written about in other works. We may wish to contextualize and historicize such decline, particularly if we happen to be in the home of the brave for the duration, side by side the resurgence of the ethnic category provided by the insufficiently (neo-)liberal wing of the academic and political establishments according to Glazer and Moynihan in the 1970s for example. Against this immediate history,  we are all riding new racial orders lurking in the wings round the institutions and its corners, the streets and the staircases. The awkwardness of the conventional U.S. social typology constitutes our evanescent present tense, whether leaving behind with the ebbing tide lots of sand and a few native and foreign names, broken shells and boots, shipwrecks and disciplinary dilemmas and, it is safe to say, degrading working conditions for the immense academic majority. You only have to look around and do a quick “racial profiling” of the subjects of knowledge production inside and outside the conventional tripartite of the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences to confirm or deny such “ethnic uprising.” How does it feel to pass through the American institutionality of the foreign humanities? If you see something, say something: the implied adjective “suspicious” is missing, but this is the expectation, to call it exactly as you see it, and to whom, to the authorities?, while wanting other, better, utopian things in your lifetime. Pushing the epistemic envelope, Wallerstein introduces a funny visual analogy to try to get us out of false dichotomies:

Escher-Drawing Detail

If all social life is both systemic and historic, global and local, then social science resembles an Escher drawing in which whether we go up the staircase or down makes no difference, since in either case we shall be on the same staircase going in the same direction. The point is to be conscious of this, and thus to try and sketch the whole staircase in correct detail. The staircase is there, but not, of course, forever (p. 149).


Ascending to some universal or descending to some particularity or specificity, both or neither. You can go up complexity studies and ideally good varieties of cultural studies, or you can go down to the basement levels of bureaucratic logic in the institutions of higher learning currently undergoing liquidation sales. The Escher-drawing image inevitably allows for the Kafkaesque possibility inside  nightmarish environments officially not for profit eviscerated by a logic that is emphatically not beautifully linguistic and expansively anti-intellectual, often in your broken mother tongue, adding insult to injury, in environments often populated by “white ethnics” –the nomenclature and the harsh message originally from the neo-conservative Novak–  tolerating the (foreign) accent in the culture, and I have two decades of experience behind this assertion. So, in the meantime I must squeeze the lemon of uncertainty and make lemonade, and so must you, whether in the natural sciences, the social sciences or the humanities. Convergence is coming your way, whether you like it or not, and hopefully it is  not only liquidation sales.


Since my acquaintance with the natural sciences is indirect and anecdotal, I must say that I see fewer options for the display of a critical type of sociology, but perhaps one has to take a closer look. In the (foreign) humanities, everything has become, by contrast, cultural studies, yet the success of the label is far from being a good sign according to what Wallerstein would like to see happening. But again, perhaps it has always been that way and one needs to tough it out and continue writing and thinking as though nothing was ever going to change dramatically in one’s lifetime in the geoculture of Americanism of increasingly limited appeal, epistemically and politically speaking. Wallerstein helps us here, I still feel. Cling to uncertainty. Squeeze the lemon. Make lemonade. Look for lemons in the warehouse? ¿Pides peras al olmo? Your best options? Any plan B? Any way out? Any chance of a profitable relationship with the aforementioned beautiful and dubious creature? There has got to be a corrective to the mistake in the belief that the university space is still analytically devoted to vigorous knowledge production and beautifully courageous diction. Something will have to happen going up or down the staircases. If Wallerstein speaks this to you, you say what back to him?

Immanuel Wallerstein

Questions, comments?,


I Think the Nasty World of You; On Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography.

I Think the Nasty World of You; On Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,

revenge of geography

No hiding: Popular Americana will still find you. So, make the most out it, add food for thought to the entertainment value, and also explore the symptoms laced around pressing tensions and expansive dilemmas. This time, the return of the repressed by the name of geography, think physicality, space, matter, circumstance as in existential historicism or even Cartesian res extensa if you wish, and imagine it in a fury throwing tantrums, obstacles, burning oil, stones and sand at the conventional wheels of realism and idealism, the typical and unconvincing dichotomy of US foreign-policy schools of thought. The choice of “good guy” today puts himself in the realist camp, and my quotation marks poke fun at such popular nomenclature in conventional mass media in the U.S. The advice then: not to believe the world has gone flat, not to assume the totality of your favorite digital virtualizations. Attachment to place still matters and this is equally banal and a very serious assertion indeed. Thus, imagine a vengeful deity that puts you in your place, pun intended. Yes,  “everything that is solid melts into air,” surely, but solidifications will also follow suit, and possibly hit you in between your eyes unless you pay attention.  Yet, there is precious little seductive foreignness in the perambulation of the world map suggested by our author, I must say, and there is typical aversion of the foreign languages, also in the bibliographic apparatus. This “mind the geography, stupid” has become something of a fashion in the last decade and this is also the emphasis of the latest book by Robert D. Kaplan (,, long-term correspondent of The Atlantic). Yet, the main theme is no geography per se, but power, the big game, world politics, or geopolitics, the big enchilada, and brace yourself up for the nasty vision of Mexico that will emerge. Boys will be boys and Kaplan is one of “them” and one of “us” in Uncle Sam’s. We will see his kind in what follows. Are we the company we keep, momentarily?

Robert Kaplan

There are other sub-themes: avatars of Area Studies as they morph from Cold-War to into Post-Cold-War situations; what we might perhaps want to call a new continentalism, inside which a gradual US decline must be registered; and most importantly, one perennial question: how does official and institutional American intelligence and sensibility relate to the world at large? There is plenty of thick peanut butter to spread around the sliced bread in a disposition more teeth-gritting and disagreeable than generous and convivial, more xenophobic than xenophilic, more mono-tone and mono-perspectival than choral and multi-cultural, with the inspirations of Isaiah Berlin and Thomas Hobbes –how strong is your Anglophilia?– and Kaplan’s avowed “philosophy” will stop there. America provides zero inspiration except for a few names in the boys’ club. Thin vegetation indeed in this world vision. This is geopolitics, ludicrously defined as attention to the outside environment, and most intellectual inspirations appear to stop here by the 1950s, say the George Kennan moment. Little of importance has happened, apparently, in the historiographic department ever since. Our author will not agonize over such blindness. This is history of the big guys, the victors, and how to continue being one of them, or leave the center stage, gracefully. But the adverb will not be warranted by the preceding pages. This is crude, thick-brush history of bigger and bigger units competing with each for global domination and no amount of fine-brush painting will change it significantly. There is fall from the number-one-of-the-universe however: the contemporary world increasingly hinges on Eurasia, also a monstrously big foreign unit for any political imagination to consider. How well equipped is your conventional American imagination to do such explorations?



Eurasia –and it is more the tail than the head, more weight in Asia than Europe despite the clear Eurocentrism in the approach– is here the hub of the wheel, the Crown Jewel, the sun for the sunflowers, all roads will pass through this Rome (India, China, Iran, Russia, etc.) in the following decades… The reference to the eternal city is not altogether unwarranted: Kaplan repeats the cliché of the imperial analogy. Obama’s contemporary U.S. is like the Roman Empire falling down and the hope is that it does it slowly and gracefully. And the assertion is already unoriginal and “old,” as the vituperation in the American idiom has it. Kaplan is repeating an abbreviated Toynbee, a hundred years later, after identical repetition by Samuel Huntington, for whom our author, has open sympathy since he  “looked at the world in the eye.” This is manner and matter, tempo and mood, in the self-imposed task of offering a predictive vision of world politics that the U.S. could make its. Look at the fundamental continuity of human nature, never go soft and tough it out, man. No world for old men.



Kaplan’s version of geopolitics –is there another, gentler kind?—is grim. Such grimness does not need cathedrals. There is no time for aesthetics. No patience for the idiographic humanities. This is mostly about nomothetic formulas that may allow you to put the big dimension together. Kaplan’s America is desert of desired pagan ethos striving after superpower status and little else. The gaze is not turned inwards. There is eccentricity and extraversion with no sense of boundaries and transformations, except the threat that we will see shortly. I quote from an entirely different sensibility that helps us circumscribe the author in question: “Since there is no self without a boundary, and that boundary is always a site of multiple relations, there is no self without its relations. If the self seeks to defend itself against this very insight, then it denies the way in which it is, be definition, bound up with others. And, through this denial, that self becomes imperiled, living in a world in which the only options are to be destroyed or to destroy” (Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), by Judith Butler, p. 98).  By self we must understand the chain of being of individual author, but also the single political unit, the nation-state and the new continentalism. Kaplan’s world geography is not picky about the constitution and transformation of such boundaries containing no significant traffic amounting to sound and fury, and nothing. What matters is to be on top.




For all the superlative gesture at world coverage, power here is no climax, offers no exhilaration, no exuberance. There is teeth-gritting pursuit of something that requires no explanation, philosophical rumination, textual exegesis and clearly zero introspection that may push the thinking rabbit out to the other side of foreign cultures and civilizations. If Eurasian is the focus, what happened to the Western-bound course of Empire? Bye, bye to Hegel? But the German totalizer does not register here, despite some infatuation with Central Europe, put together as ideal for the future. I cannot think of one single example of Eurasian desirability. The world at large is site of dread. There is no mirage. No sirens. No eastern sophistication. No high cuisine. No geishas. In a nation notorious for the ignorance of geography, Robert D. Kaplan’s latest The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012) has to be healthy reminder that “the we know that the world is real and [that] our role in it [is] big and hard,” hopefully getting acquainted and outgrowing the errors of our predecessors, as Bundy eloquently put it. There are many problems here, which will be spread out in some detail, for the evaluation of critical passion that must necessarily accompany the hot affair of geopolitics and studies.


Revenge and Kaplan

The Revenge of Geography makes the case for the need to travel to get a feel of what is going on out there, and in here. This text is coming from a war correspondent, a travel journalist, an unsmiling “boy” who sticks to old boys in form and content, there are zero women, thank you very much, and a “realist” type as such, who gives you a bit of global history, a bit of geopolitics, and a few predictions of what is to come. This is U.S. mono-perspectival, self-styled Western via Eurocentric platform and, no big surprise here, English-only and thick American idiom at that. Try to set up tent in this desert and see how long you linger. The business at hard: how to continue being a significant player if conditions are met in the Northern portion of the Western hemisphere, and the conditional is crucial. The US appears fated to deal with multi-polarity, and is not in a favorable situation, against previous perceptions.

kiss geography


In hindsight, The Revenge of Geography is at the same time eminently banal and even silly, and supremely problematic and even dangerous. Geography matters. You bet your hat. You get my money. How? Why? And we can only to think of someone like Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950) in relation to two Presidents, Roosevelt and Wilson to begin to have a feel (there is a great text, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and he Prelude to Globalization by Neil Smith). So, of course geography matters, silly donkey, but the point is the social relations instrumentalizing it! And what about chronology? But Kaplan covers the fate of nations, from pharaonic Egypt to the Arab Spring, as Kissinger praises. So this is thick-brush in a couple of pages in which one nation is dealt with and move on to the next. There is something very American, by the bad name of American, in this quick touristic tour that brings nothing home except competition, victory or defeat (think of the Olympic Games coverage in conventional U.S. television sets). But of course that virtuality does not do away with idiographic densities and localized attachments over some kind of mirage of placelessness and detachment from timespaces, a kind of liberal ideology of affluence that the U.S. cannot afford any longer. We are all in it together, we are in other people’s faces, there is less and less room, the others are reproducing fast and how do we go about the world structurally inside a capitalism in severe crisis (you bet your money the name of the system is not included, in quintessentially American fashion in which the mere naming the system is tantamount to defiling it).

Isaiah Bowman Time Magazine


But why the focus on space over time? Wouldn’t the notion of timespace be more provocative, slippery, intelligent? Kaplan will not philosophize. His is an extrovert and eccentric gaze, literally understood. The Revenge of Geography is about “out there” with binoculars and telescopes, and my main point of interest is in the “in here,” how that fits into the picture. What Kaplan says about the world says more about Kaplan’s gaze and his vision of America than about anything foreign, which is dim, grim, paltry merchandise where you would not like to go and settle, if you were to take him for granted. This is why this critical review wants to turn things around and bring the immediate circumstance as close as possible. First, the beam in one’s own eye, and then the straw in the others. First, the blindness and nastiness in your worldview and how you got about it and then other views. But there are truly no desirable foreign societies in Kaplan’s narrative, with or without his travels since the 1980s. He is embedded with American soldiers “grunting imperially,” as one book title has it. He will not be sipping tea Bedouin style conversing about philosophies of history in foreign languages. There are no religious world views to explore either since the ideal required for imperial endeavors is pagan or incredulous. Empire does not need exegesis either, a little bit of Niall Ferguson will do. The introduction of  Mitteleuropa reads like a conventional, hurried and hasty travel guide with no blood, and lacks, for example, Zizek’s sensibility included in the Fright of Real Tears about the films of great Polish director Kieslowski. It is safe to say that there are no foreign humanities whatsoever worthy of the name in Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, this attempt at geopolitics does not make significant efforts at occasional ethnographic insight. The xenophobia that emerges is thus thick-grain dirty salt, mostly around the name of Mexico in the dreadful final chapter of a generally very mediocre, middlebrow, non-academic book.Kaplan is the ideological antagonist of foreign-affair journalists such as Chris Hedges and the Robert Fisk, the latter with sustained lived experience in the Middle East and PHD-level of research and writing of the author of The Great War of Civilization.



The title is messy waters. Geographic comebacks –did geography ever leave town?— and they do so with a “revenge.” Taciturn look at “the human condition,” as the initial quote by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) reminds readers. There is “fate,” which in the American vernacular, implies the fatalism of non-choice, or bad things are coming your way, whether you like it or not; and the first person plural pronoun, the “us,” which is the chain of being of the readers necessarily identified with the official foreign policy of the United States. Nothing of the agonies surrounding decision-making, for instance. The authorial intention: the predictive impulse of future conflicts in foreign affairs and the naturalization of the U.S. viewpoint wanting to become part of such decision-making. But our author is in the “rim” of the “heartland,” and this type of language will emerge later. The Revenge of Geography includes four sections: a preface titled “frontiers,” part one, titled “visionaries,” part two, titled “the early-twenty-first century map,” and the final part, part three, titled “America’s destiny.” The most interesting sections are the rescue of some geostrategists and “publicists” of one hundred years ago, and the final Mexican catastrophe stuck in the ditch of the historical imagination. The least interesting section, the map of the 21st century world once he left Europe behind. The Eurasian world is cursory, hasty tour made available by McNeill and Hodgson. The reader must assume that America’s destiny in the final section is the said fate of the subtitle, amid conflicts in the past and battles to come. Grabbing this fish by the tail, I want to begin with such final section, “America’s destiny.”

mackinder heartland


The Revenge of Geography is popular Americana, street-level, no big-academic, middlebrow “common-sense” current affairs consumed while en route as it were, reading it while riding the waves in some plane, and having some mild headache about world travails. How becoming is the vision of the U.S. that emerges in The Revenge of Geography? How proud does it make you feel in your still recent naturalization? The nation is said to have been granted an “exceptional geography” (p. 32), separated by two oceans. So, world mess is out there, and we are in here. All cosy? No foreign entanglements. This is “island nation” (p. 67), enjoying “splendid isolation” (p. 87), “the most favored state in the world from the point of view of geography” (p. 90), mark the adolescent superlative, and its geography, “early sustainer of American freedom” (p. 91). The final adjective of The Revenge of Geography will be “free” in relation to multi-polar world, but it is utterly unwarranted by what has preceded. And yet there are anticipations and premonitions that not everything is going all right. Kaplan puts the US as “off-shore balancer” (p. 223), as ideal catalyst and good stabilizer, more preserver than aggressor and invader, more reasonable partner  than imperial force (Turkey Foreign-Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meriting an inclusion in the  book, has recently turned such apparent blessedness into thin historicism and serious fragility of novice nation terribly far away from crucial  networks). The US is thus instead predictably “ultimate source of good” (p. 88), and “liberal,” which is a good thing to call it always in such foreign-affairs domains, I suppose, but never domestically (most visible fellow “realist” Robert Kagan, not included in the text, does the same).



Part three, or final chapter fifteen, puts the observation platform, the immediate circumstance, in front of the inquisitive lenses. The tripartite title is somewhat misleading: Braudel, Mexico and Grand Strategy. The verb? To project what is to come. But more than the French historian, there is a dialogue with Andrew Bacevich recreating Huntingtoniana with a significant modulation. Still, Kaplan makes the claim of paying attention to French historians such as Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel (p. 319), admirative of big landscapes of vision. What is at stake is the big-unit approach and the desire for a grand strategy that could make sense of post-Cold-War-situations lacking one. And how many contenders are out there to become the new George Kennan and possibly allow the repetition of new containments and new balances of power inside multi-polarity? Philip II’s grand strategy in the context of the Mediterranean is Eurocentrism of sorts –modulating the thin ideal of Central Europe with which the book opens and then goes nowhere—and Braudel affords a “god-like quality of the narrative” (p. 323) broken down into long-term, medium-term and shortest-term cycles. But it is the Luttwakian approach to the Braudelian big-vision that intrigues Kaplan the most. Philip II loses the choice of our Paris’s apple over the beauty of the imperial strategy of the Roman Empire –synthesis of the Mediterranean West, analogical precedent of the U.S. counter-acting Middle-East, Arab-Spring and Asian emergencies.  Theoretically seduced by sweeping vistas, Kaplan americanizes such foreign historians via Andrew Bacevich. The context: a panel in the Center for a New American Security. The charge: massive state failure in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan according to Bacevich. The suggested re-orientation: Why not fix Mexico instead? (p. 324). The Revenge of Geography is situation room of history and the room is getting crowded, according to globalization. Picture a crowded elevator going up or going down. This is eminently boys’ club, or gentlemen’s club if you wish (325ff). A child of late Huntingtoniana, Kaplan accepts an irreversibility that would make the ghost of the old Harvard political scientist turn in the grave: Hispanicization is here to stay.



Three dilemmas encircle U.S. foreign policy accordingly: chaotic Eurasian heartland, increasing Chinese assertiveness, increasing Mexican mess creeping into the fabric of the U.S. (p. 326). Coming from someone who supported going into Iraq, and the words of criticism about Wolfowitz are not unkind, “we never should have gotten involved in these countries” (p. 327). In this a posteriori recognition of his mistake, Kaplan shakes hands with his Wilsonian internationalist counter-parts such as Anne Marie Slaughter, who did the same. The consensus about the bad foreign policy of the Iraq war has put Democrats and Republicans in the same tight knot of the mistaken handkerchief. And the lessons learned? Kaplan does not elaborate.




The Revenge of Geography proposes a land-sea dichotomy, which is Schmittian, and the name of the dangerous German intellectual is missing in action, but his fingerprints are all over this belated Anglo-American postmodernization of Central-European Real-Politick. The US must restrict itself to being air and sea power to continue being a major force, and not fall for the same mistake that Venice did in the fifteenth century (p. 328-9). Transpositions of analogies come and go a bit often too unencumbered of chronological and geographical proportionalities. Kaplan’s goal in this frequent historical comparativism: “It is the permanence of small wars that can undo us” (p. 329). It appears that asymmetry in wars or bigness is not immediate threat. The final pronoun is telling. A second historical illustration of the analogical travel hammers the nail in the coffin: Iraq in 2006 and 2007 during the worst fighting is comparable to the Indian mutiny against the British in 1857. Little in Kaplan of Judith Butler’s fastidiousness with the analogical mode. No need to hold doubts about Kaplan’s red-white-and-blue colors: “Yet the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire, which expanded even for another century. Instead, it signaled the transition from an ad hoc imperium fired by an evangelical lust to impose its values to a calmer and more pragmatic empire built on international trade and technology” (p. 329). Clear about authorial intentionality then? In case you needed strong references for this candid imperialism, Kaplan includes Niall Ferguson and himself in the endnotes to such desideratum.


But there is more: “Ancient history, too, offers up examples that cast doubt on whether Afghanistan and Iraq, in and of themselves, have doomed us” (p. 329). From Thucydides to Presidents Kennedy and Ford, Luttwak’s book about the grand strategy of the Roman Empire is brought to some pinnacle of fearlessness in the Ronald Reagan years. It is difficult to keep a straight face with such wild historical comparativism, but this Reaganism must be imagined some kind of Republican utopian refuge. What remains significant is the ideological build-up of the Reagan years for a desired future projection in the name of US foreign policy (for perspective, Huntington is a life-long Democrat, speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, a foreign-policy adviser to Hubert Humphrey in the 1960s, and one of the authors of Jimmy Carter’s speeches on human rights in the 1970s as Kaplan reminds us in his long Atlantic article). Repeating Huntington repeating Toynbee, Kaplan speaks of the Romanization of the barbarian tribes “eliminating the last vestiges of nativist disaffection,” of prosperous and widespread empire with the need to deploy its military “everywhere” (p. 330). Globalization is Romanization, which is another name for Americanization. And the egg shells have been broken and the omelette has changed sides on the frying pan: the “barbarians” are now moving into Empire. The Toynbeean threat: from the borders, the “others” are moving in changing your face in the buried mirror of self-identity in the following generations. The over-stretch –concept that made David Kennedy famous, and the name will recur later—and the grand strategy is the utopia, the good thing “we” do not presently have. If only Kaplan could come up with one and cash it in!


The disaster of the final chapter continues side by side the sign “Grand strategy wanted!” (p. 331). The wish is for a “graceful retreat” (p. 332) of the US from global hegemony. Will it happen? Kaplan –not given to the loneliness of the long-distance runner, always sticking to Bacevich—casts his eyes on the Western Hemisphere map in the gloomy and grim direction of the Southwest border, bringing into question “the coherence of America as a geographically cohesive unit” (p. 332), which is the type of turn of phrase that betrays poor geographical sensibility, Samuel Beckett would call it a “bastard phrase,” since the sign “America” is never here historicized, not even obliquely, it was thus from the times of pharaonic Egypt. David Kennedy’s GDP data casts doubts on such coherence and Third World nations pull First World nations to the povery hole in such dreadful contiguity: “Nothing will affect its society more than the dramatic movement of Latin history northward” (p. 332). But where is the movement coming from? What have the movements crossing over borders been? No philologist: Kaplan will not be doing etymologies and compare-and-contrast placenames inside the borders he so much wants to protect.

Border Patrol

The Revenge of Geography makes abundant use of the experiential first-person traveler. Thus we see a vignette of a young Kaplan hitchhiking in the US in the 1970s, 40 years ago, marveling at the splendor of the geography, and immediately juxtaposing such experience of youthful bliss with the more sober and mature mess of crossing the border with contemporary Mexico. Lost in translation? And how is your Spanish, amigo? I am imagining Cantinflas’s famous sketch with the donkey in the desert border and bargaining with the border patrol. Do not worry: Kaplan pulls out his best Mexican guide, you got it, Toynbee again, who speaks of the barbarians at the frontier threatening the Pax Romana. Wild analogical reasoning comes in handy filling in the empty back pack of Mexican intelligence and sensibility. The witches’ brew is looking dangerously thick fog and seriously obtuse by now. The threat: the Mexican population (p. 334) threatening Mackinder’s “World-Island” (we can imagine Kaplan a 21st century vulgar version of the more sophisticated “publicist” Lippman using identical language). The Mexican geography is one of disunity and “infernally divided,” and one wonders where such unions and disunions come from. And here geography is stand-in for something else –try racism– that this clumsy reportorial approach will not dare name (p. 335). No fear: Kaplan will not be having dialogues with Mexican historians offering you big visions of Eurocentrism and Western universalism, not even the borders and frontier schools of thought, few recognizable names that could easily bring shame to him. No global history from Mexican historians, no Latin Americans ever cross this limpid sky and crisp air. What imaginations does the smart reader think populate “America’s destiny” instead? Ciudad Juárez, Drug Cartels, Indians, difficult for the Spanish to tame. Alas, no gastronomy, no mole, no rancheras and no bellas señoritas. Have no fear: Kaplan will not do subaltern history. He will not quote from indigenista anthropologists. No equivalent Mexican journalist, bellicose or not. He has not read Octavio Paz’s sociology of the Reagan years apropos the philantrophic ogre. The mettle is certain: tribute to Huntington (p. 336). And the quotes doubting whether we can continue being a nation of immigrants are David Kennedy’s. Nothing of the comparative sociology of ethnic groups of people like Moynihan and Novak in the 1970s and perhaps greater mental rigidity. Scarecrow: “By 2050, one third of the population of U.S. could be Spanish speaking,” and the citation is from Carlos Fuentes’s Espejo Enterrado (Buried Mirror). Do you think Kaplan clap hands?


There is one significant difference. The Huntingtonian last will to recommit to the Protestant ethos is no longer possible. America will become a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization (p. 339) and perhaps the first adjective will raise an eyebrow, why not Asian?, and perhaps also the relative normalization of the Vasconcelista language of one hundred years ago reaching English-speaking “America.” Kaplan’s dream: to become the “globe’s preeminent duty-free hot zone for business transactions, a favorite place of residence for the global elite” (p. 339). One who disparages “liberal universalism” (p. 5) will not get caught in public with his pants down advancing human rights and international law. So, it is trade and elites!, which is code for capitalism and those who profit from it. This is the ideological home where Kaplan wants to be, geographically speaking. Will these elites be reading Braudel? Or turning instead to the first language of Leopoldo Zea, Edmundo O’Gorman, Enrique Dussel, Aníbal Quijano, even Walter D. Mignolo? The dictum: “America is no longer an island, protected by the Atlantic and Pacific. It is brought closer to the rest of the world not only by technology, but by the pressures of Mexican and Central American demography” (p. 339). The U.S. being an island is at the very least a “metaphor” of an ideological nature that betrays poor historicization. Bacevich is right, Kaplan concludes. And in so doing he puts together Mexico and Afghanistan (p. 340): and from where else if not from the connector of the U.S. platform? And which platform is here the “off-shore balancer,” the catalyst, the aggressor, the invader? The “mis-mission” over there could instead turn to the greater hemispheric coherence that intervenes in Mexico –but how?— and in so doing pulls closer Colombia and the Greater Caribbean against Venezuela and the Southern Cone –there is no mention of Cuba. It reads like a revamping of the Monroe Doctrine that gerrymanders the American geography from Alaska to Patagonia seeking its immediate interests: “A stable and prosperous Mexico, working in organic concert with the United States, would be an unbeatable combination in geopolitics” (p. 340). Canada is quieter partner. The southern portion of South America is equidistant from the U.S. and other continents and can go funny ways. There is here no mono-continental American coherence, therefore. Kaplan’s dream: the U.S. appropriates for itself the continental name, breaks it into two halves and re-arranges the Northern portion to its convenience to hegemonize the larger unit in a New Monroe Doctrine and thus compete better with emerging continentalities out there. Still, there is perceptible decline.

samuel huntington


The Revenge of Geography is symptomatic Post-Cold-War mapping apropos the intimate conjoining of First-Third worlds (p. 342). Kaplan fails and fails again about developing cognitive mappings apropos alternative or competitive geopolitical visions. This is truly a mono-focal US-only English-exclusively perspective, and a flat one at that. His Toynbee is short-changed and parrot-like too-reverential –almost a hundred years later. Our author would never go to Ortega y Gasset’s criticism of Toynbee in the same manner Huntington never did (Anglo-Americans repeat their Anglo cousins in another time and place but in an infinitely more coarse and cruder fashion, it is not the Toynbee’s skeptical of Western imperialisms, for example). Kaplan speaks of the Coronado medieval route followed now by the Hispanic populations who are not medieval (p. 344). The choice of adjective betrays that a weak modernization paradigm keeps its hold. But Hispanic worlds are not easy territory for Kaplan, and I wonder out loud about any regional upbringing of significance of the fifty-year-old, New-York-born journalist). Such Hispanic wedge breaks open Mackinder’s World-Island (Eurasia and Africa) (p. 344), that remains immensely reductive epistemologically speaking. Still, the advocacy is for the millet system, or the patchwork, a cohesive bilingual supra-state of sorts with Canada and Mexico (p. 344). Huntington is “partly wrong” (p. 345), and Kaplan’s article in The Atlantic is vastly celebratory (“Looking the World in the Eye,” December 2001).


Nothing meriting the word intellectual or historical or aesthetic comes from Mexico. No Spanish language whatsoever in The Revenge of Geography, amigo. What else? Malthus, come to the rescue: “their” population versus “ours.” Think the conventional institutional use of “demographic” by managers and some of this is what is at stake when nothing else is included in these vengeful Hispanic geographies. In the meantime, we must be balancing and unifying (p. 346). Alert to the choice of euphemistic verbs of a “bad guy” playing defensively or on the retreat. Such North America will not receive the praise of “cosmopolitan” that Central Europe merits (p. 346): call it modulation of Eurocentrism and the future  vision is worse than unsmiling, petty, niggardly, “hopefully with Mexico by our side.” The adverb has been missing in preceding pages in relation to a vision of geopolitics that is everything but hopeful. This renewed North America will be “independent buffer states between Maritime Europe and the Heartland,” the latter, the Eurasian re-establishment as core world area. This re-adjusted multi-polarity, bespeaking of unmistakable US debilitation, receives a feeble and unexpected “good-note” of “free.” Do you see our author clapping hands now?

como esta amigo


Let us open the widows to wider fields of pasture. The fantastic praise by Kissinger is included in the front jacket. There is an indifferent review by Anne Marie Slaughter (“Power Shifts: Looking at Global Upheavals through the Prism of Geography,” New York Times, October 7, 2012; p. 14). There is another, tepid lengthier review in The New Yorker, “ Faces, Places, Spaces: The Renaissance of Geographic History” by Adam Gopnik (Oct. 29, 2012). The Revenge of Geography engages in “the struggle to construct liberal orders” (p. xxii). The plural form may be the most surprising element. Thin on ethnographic and idiographic specificities, The Revenge of Geography is mostly about predictive and desiderative modulations, which are unoriginal. Kaplan follows continental bulk and faithfully seeks the proximity of academic “might be giants.” For the emphasis on a few historians, French and American, this is not really a history text. It treats history as background and even landscape in which politics happens. But it is not political-theory treatise either. Nor is it an account of who’s done what where of mighty importance, geopolitically. The Revenge of Geography is really desire of the nomos of the earth, a wish to run into a grand strategy for the next couple of decades or so. 9/11 exposes “the limits of liberal universalism” (p. 5), so “geography” here is something like “culture,” a more particularistic endeavor, a humility lesson for the sole existing super-power that this is no longer –was it ever?—a matter of “going it alone” and that some compromises will be needed. What about intellectual compromises?

North American Map


What remains except naked pursuit of power without intellectual niceties? Expect no subtlety: “Liberalism ultimately rests on power: a benign power perhaps, but power nevertheless” (p. 11). The triple repetition says it all, in case you missed the first one. The Revenge of Geography is no about the mechanics of politics, too reverential of older figures such as Kissinger or Brezinski. Think of a more manageable and journalistic version of Robert Kagan, whom he does not mention, of Venus-disposed Europeans and Mars-prone-Americans fame. Naturally, Kaplan is here happy clinging to the legacies of Morgenthau without registered disagreements of any kind.



Fights for power and knowledge and prestige will be fought in the Eurasian platform, increasingly on the Asian portion, not exactly your typical travel destination for a majority of compatriots of Kaplan. Puzzlingly against “trendy monistic theories” (p. 9), Kaplan celebrates the Heartland of Mitteleuropa, called “beacon of multiethnic tolerance and historic liberalism, to which the contiguous Balkans and Third World regions further afield could and should aspire” (p. 138).  Puzzling, to say the least. The ground shifts: it is Benelux, Charlemagne Europe, Holland and even Spinoza makes a brief appearance. Kaplan gets this desirable trajectory from global histories such as McNeill’s, so the ideal of “cosmopolitanism” (p. 346) is unequivocally provincial in origin, wanting nothing from foreignness, desiring nothing from it, American in destiny and fate, zero openness, zero Levinasian intermingling with the other, thinking nothing inspirational of the cohabitation with the Mexicans worth writing on the page. As the famous line, Kaplan goes abroad to Americanize himself and his readers, keeping in mind the American mission, for example as embedded journalist. The descriptive and prescriptive dimensions get tangled up with the predictive and desiderative in manners that are radically not expansive.

woodrow wilson


Our “Iraq war supporter” (p. 18) gains distance from what he calls “idealists” (p. 19). Put Wilsonian legacy here, gaining terrain, apparently in the 1990s (hence, his historical retreat to the previous decade of the 1980s to project some feeble desirability forward). He critiques the Air-Force universalism of such idealists –left unnamed—who mistakingly thought that universalism mattered more than “terrain and the historical experience of people living on it” (p. 19). The US appears sea and air power, and The Revenge of Geography builds itself via Halford Mackinder and James Fairgrieve with the alleged preference for land (Kaplan reminds me a bit of those forceful provincials who go overseas and mainly follow pointers of their own relatives scrupulously in their original native tongues about what to see, eat, buy, etc.).



The human-nature vision is surely harsh and unremitting that does not need to historicize Hobbes or poke holes into Berlin (p. 21). These are the two “philosophers,” the Russian expatriate for the first half and the English scholar for the second half of the cycle called of the Post Cold War. Kaplan may claim interest in Braudelarian long duration, but his eyes are mostly on the next two decades. There is abundant analogical thinking. Munich signifies appeasement, and you know with whom, and this is called “universalism” (p. 20), which is no longer possible after 9/11. The analogies build connectivity with Vietnam, and there are more things unsaid than said, Hussein is put together with Hitler and Stalin, etc. Our grasshopper hops one too many geographies and temporalities and the goal is to put the U.S. in the good light, and put himself as the lighthouse. The myth of omnipotence of the U.S., which Kaplan projects back to the 1980s, is gone, alas, for us. True realism a la Morgenthau (p. 24) gives us the human nature that we want side by side Thucydides, so for all the travel to foreignness, human nature exhibits an impressive continuity, short, brutish, etc.  (incidentally, Donald Kagan, father of our Robert, did something similar with old Greek history in Yale circles, so this antique-modern modus operandi must have had some purchase in some circles). Wolfowitz had the best of intentions in the faulty Iraq War (p. 25) and he was there with him at that time. The male-exclusive club that matters is one in which geopolitically-minded individuals such as Nicholas J. Spykman strut their stuff (p. 29).

spykman book


The possible charge of “determinism” is misplaced, in case you happen to think that the quotation marks give out a very bad name (think of “fundamentalism” as well). The big and rather banal claim of The Revenge of Geography is that geography influences but does not determine (p. 36), has effects on human affairs (p. 124), is “partial determinism” (p. 56), yet geography “no longer reigns supreme” (p. 119). Hence, your intelligence should not buy whole the physicality of it, but nibble around the edges (p. 119, 129, 146, 177). Geography is one factor among others. So some de-emphasis on the geographical disposition appears appropriate, but wait, it remains important, etc. It is not “an explanation for everything, neither is it a solution” (p. 171). Hence, the disposition is “quasi-determinist” (p. 59). But this has nothing to do with the social or natural sciences, the poor humanities always already in the gloomy corner of virtual invisibility. The core of it all is geopolitics, very poorly defined as “the study of the outside environment” (p. 60). Extroversion, eccentricity, in the literal sense of these terms: I have no problems with myself, I look outside of me to understand how the world challenges to me. “Hell is, effectively, others,” with or without Sartre. But there is little smiling and sunny heaven in this grim vision of human nature, also undeveloped, and the U.S. does not emerge to life forcefully any better. Reconstructing this mindset, I do not need to go introspective, or build consensus with myself, Cartesian style, or even anti-Cartesian style, in social-ontological-relational fashion, Kaplan’s attitude is genuinely anti-philosophical, while holding hands with Berlin and Hobbes. There is zero exploration of grounds of intelligibility, one’s own or others’. Kaplan does not touch any ideas that could pose an existential threat. There is no explanation either of why ideation happened in one way then and in another way now… He follows bulk, big size, demographics and he behaves docilely with the male names mentioned he finds in the old boys’ club. He does not include the argumentation he does not like, for example, the universalism that “we” cannot afford after 9/11, and he silences the proper names of those ideological opponents. Perfect. Give them no inch. Think the antithesis of totalizing Hegelian self-consciousness accordingly, a rather flat, rehash of “old” Western sources, European expatriates in the U.S. in the field of geopolitics mostly, some European historians in English translation, remaining eminently content towards the frame of big nation-state conflagration. The cherry on top of this pie in the face of our author: anti-academicism;  “geography is the generalist’s answer to academic specialization” (p. 61). Middlebrow Americana requires the occasional explicit profession of generalism. There is coldness towards American academic environments in our travel writer, Stratfor chief geopolitical analyst and visiting professor in national security at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, as the jacket useful details.



Historians in the U.S. neighborhood such as McNeill and Hodgson provide the big sweep of historical account (p. 38). The Revenge of Geography is most re-heated pages of these historians and a few geopolitical items. It is not a history of geopolitics proper either. The quick thick-brush rendition of such “bad guys” is the most interesting section in the book, the so-called “visionaries.” The weakest section is by far the global mapping of the world running from Europe to Russia, China to India, Iran and the “former Ottoman Empire.” Our author does not feel to respect the provenance of foreign materials generating multi-perspectivism. Ours is the time of annihilation of foreign-affairs correspondents seeking the truth “on the ground,” and contrasting it with other sources. Imagine American football: Kaplan notices the big bulks on the football field and follows the official whistle close to his seating bench. Think painting, Kaplan applies the thick brush stroke to large-scale dimensions inside cumulative conglomerations in the vicinity of the stars and stripes. There is no need to complicate the already complicated picture. Who would want to include Indian sources for India, Iranian sources for Iran, Turkish sources for Turkey, etc.? What about world-visions with or without the US intervention emerging from Eurasia, the alleged corner of world politics in the decades to come?

spykman photo


Central Asia emerges as pivot of history qua world domination (p. 61, 62). Kaplan imagines no other history worth pursuing. Land power wins here. Eurasia will dominate geopolitical calculations: from the heartland to the world (p. 73, 74). Mahan’s Naval-Force power takes backstage (there is a good tactful rebuke of Mahan by McGeorge Bundy’s fine-brush prose dealing with native dimwits, “Foreign Policy: From Innocence to Engagement,” in Arthur M. Schlesinger and Morton White’s Paths of American Thought (1963), pp. 293-308 [302-3]. The Revenge of Geography conveys to me the increasing feeling of an epistemological retreat, a kind of cognitive withdrawal symptom, a “closing of the American mind,” if you wish. The U.S. does not hold much sway. I recall Moynihan’s pithy comment that is also significant here: “It has always seemed interesting to me that never in the long history of the American republic have we occupied the role of what Lewis Feuer calls the “nation of conscience” for the intellectuals of the world (Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (2010), edited by Steven R. Weisman, p. 106). The Revenge of Geography does not even try to reverse the charge coming from the former liberal Irish senator of the native state of our writer. Hence, the feeble attempt to put Central Europe as the cosmopolitan ideal model and toleration pinnacle when it is the Asian portion of Eurasia that matters most. But Kaplan surrounds himself mostly with McNeill, Hodgson, Braudel and Mackinder. The latter fails him a little, “he [goes] soft in supporting “Wilsonian” (sic, in quotation marks in the original) principles of national self-determination” (p. 75). Kaplan’s language says it all in the choice of adjective –what’s less manly?— apropos the dismissive tone appertaining to national sovereignty, the theoretical principle of the United Nations, unmentioned in The Revenge of Geography. What other principle would Kaplan uphold, perhaps confederations or new continentalisms? Kaplan repeats the Mackinder language of World Island (p. 77), but Mackinder was “deep down a liberal” failing in his “drift [was] towards Wilsonian principles” (p. 76).

down with usa


The first part of the book travels from Herodotus, receiving mere four pages, to come to nest –a bit too predictably?—in the immediate precedent of the “really bad guys,” the Nazi distortion of the crisis of room. This is the immediate negative historical precedent against whom almost everybody looks good by analogy. Kaplan is, and you would have predicted by now, closer to Bernard Lewis than Edward Said, the Kagans over Judith Butler’s modulated Hegelianism and red-alerts over analogical thinking over suffering. The Nazi impulse is “illegitimate geography” (p. 81) because it “annihilates the individual and replaces him with the vast racial multitude,” in what is a silly repudiation in favor of “the forces of good” (p. 82). Another exclusive club: Strausz Hupé, Haushofer, Mahan, and Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman, some of them expatriates of Northern European lands making a professional living in the U.S. in the years before and after the Third Reich (I insist on the suspicious invisibility of Carl Schmitt). This is the “realism” that Kaplan will die defending, and the best pages are, to me, chapters IV and V dealing with summaries of these individuals contemplating world maps setting up the conditions for U.S. supremacy (p. 92), squaring the circle, so to speak, for the conventional use in the U.S. of the sign “America” thus naturalizing imperialism and colonialism.



Hence, the New World, or the Western Hemisphere if you wish, is “American Mediterranean” (92ff) in Spykman and who doubts that such remains still to this day the conventional American imaginary of all things Latin American? Still, it is too close to the skin, too close for comfort. Latin America brings Third-World instability and mutation of conventional identity markers (Mexico is according to our interpreter a threat for the U.S., 189ff, p. 319, in the same way that China is not, p. 200, so this gives you an idea of the kind of identity threat that Kaplan is, following Huntington, contemplating). The bad things do come from the outside, like Hollywood blockbuster horror films, and the inside is all good and cosy and beautiful youthful bodies in bikini laughing and taking a plunge into the ocean where the bad shark lives. The Caribbean is, Kaplan reminds us, already part of the very fabric of American life, something like a cushion or defense mechanism,  and I am sure you will trust me if I say to you that The Revenge of Geography promises zero intelligence that could be called Latin. What is Latin is demography and big-number migration (p. 94). Another sign radically missing from these geopolitical mappings, “democracy.”



Flip a coin high in the sky and bet that “the entire earth is in play.” Kaplan reheats Spykman’s recreations of Mackinder’s Heartlands and Rimlands (one can think of parallels such as centers and peripheries in environments of historical sociology our author will not touch with a ten-foot pole, not to mention dependency theories). George Kennan’s containment theory is said to have both Spykmanesque and Mackinderesque feel (p. 97), and this is the last grand consensual Cold-War synthesis that is still lacking its post-Cold-War progeny (Huntingtonian clash of civilizations and Fukujama’s end of history may qualify as contenders). The baseline of world politics: North America and Eurasia, how colossal are the categories?, South America and Africa “achieve significance only in their relationship with the northern continents” (p. 101). The single unit of the World-Island breaks down into such continental dimensions pursuing naked political power. The U.S. is here, predictably, an “offshore balancer” (p. 223), referee, “liberal” judge of sorts, and North America is still the “most significant of the continental satellites” (p. 102), and the perceptive reader can quickly feel the slippage between geographic markers (island and continent, lands and seas, and feel free to ask your conventional Americans to reason out how many continents there are out there), and astronomical features (satellites and planets, stars and stripes and the glory of the sun). But if you remove the abstract center of national self-interest, Kaplan is blind to any other forces. Our author betrays no interest in idiographic textures embedded in ethnographic popular-culture approached perhaps seeking vigorous Canclinesque hybridities that could tie your tail to the big tree and get you all tangled up in blue or in a cat’s cradle of epistemic confusion that could then walk on all four legs towards other understandings, perhaps utopian. A repetition: how does Kaplan operate accordingly? Think big hulk and think squeeze. There is crisis of room and the big guys will have to go about some re-ordering with Eurasia, “huge area,” re-emerging as the hub to multi-polarity of competing centers, despite the concept being absent, “as they did during the Middle Ages following the break-up of the Roman Empire” (p. 128). Nothing else world-historical except this naked pursuit of power framed within nation-state conglomerates has the force to inspire the uninviting future envisioned by Kaplan. The past is no different and there is very little desirable “American” here. And there is Malthus and crowd psychology and you can already deduce how Kaplan will handle it.



Fourteen books are credited to Kaplan and I am the first one to be surprised that I have already read three in three different moments of my American peregrinations: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground and the one that concerns us today. My favorite is the one dealing with the U.S. I suppose that one reason why I keep paying attention to this type of popular Americana is the firm disposition not to sentimentalize its findings. Kaplan’s America is not love at first sight and he will be the first one to tell you what’s got love to do with any of this?, perhaps with an expletive or an imperial grunt. The Revenge of Geography will not bring your love an inch closer. You will not fall either for this version of Central Europa as cosmopolitan ideal, in a rather bizarre combination of Charlemagne, Low Countries, English channel and Holland –rim of the heartland that matters. It is a somewhat bizarre celebration of the Habsburg Empire of 1648-1913, and the sniff of militarism is always close to Kaplan, with or without  Iberian-and-American earlier half of the homonymous empire. There is maritime Europe and there is a continental one with a crush zone in between (p. 151). It is the crush zone that Kaplan wants you to inhabit. No love for detail of it either and no persistent infatuation with protagonists other than analysts coining the new academic discipline of geopolitics. America is nasty worlds away from becoming utopian for the rest of the world, but also for itself. Remember the previous, tremendous line by the liberal Irish senator from the Empire State who was followed up by Hilary Clinton: the U.S. represents zero intellectual ideal for the world, also this is coming from this anti-intellectual and anti-academic travel writer turning to foreign-affairs frames of immediate future endeavor.



Once we leave Europe behind, other units appear less gripping. These are foreign bodies crowding the planet and emphatically nothing emerges that will seduce you. Kazakhastan is Mackinder’s heartland (p. 184ff) and this is prime site for uranium, chromium, lead and zinc, manganese and copper, coal, iron and gold. Afghanistan, “geographical buffer,” is dealt with quickly in 245ff and you can imagine colorful balls on an awful lot of green of the billiards table.  Iran is “chasm of the millennium” and “civilization attractor” (p. 269): do you think anything desirable emerges out of such magnificence? Run the gamut of Turkey, China, India… I am reminded of the Henry James’ predicament exemplified at the end of one of his novels in which the male protagonist hits with the fists the walls surrounding the antique monastery inside which his beloved object of desire will be contained, incomprehensibly. How could anyone choose “old” over “modern”? This is fine-grain, eminently literary HenryJamesian sensibility to magnify disparities in chronological appreciations or spatial depreciations between Europe and the U.S. Magnify the existential drama, collectivize it and travel with such excess to imaginary places you have not yet seen. And which geographies to rescue and treasure according to The Revenge of Geography?


In the end I submit to you that this is a rather miserable vision of a rather miserable world, stretching like tasteless chewing gum from pharaonic Egypt to the Arab Spring, and the U.S. is radically no better, dim presence of imperial politics according to a few analysts, also sociologically on its way to becoming something else, perhaps something different, call it by the funny “Latin,” more mixed, more hybrid, perhaps in a gradual decline, perhaps even bilingual, and what else if not English and Spanish?, no more and no less than any other part and parcel of a new continentalism. Such utopia fails here to emerge seductively by our raw and crude American author who, it is safe to say, does not love with all the necessary philosophical love needed, geopolitically speaking as well.


Questions, comments?,