On Immanuel Wallerstein’s Uncertainties of Knowledge.

On Immanuel Wallerstein’s Uncertainties of Knowledge.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero, fgh2173@gmail.com


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, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/business/colleges-expect-lower-enrollment.html?_r=0?).


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

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