Friday, October 10, 2008

"The Structures of Everyday Life" Fernand Braudel

The first volume in Braudel’s classic Civilisation and Capitalism, The Structures of Everyday Life, is concerned with the lowest of the three levels, the details of everyday life: in a very general sense food on tables in houses. Consumption.

In this volume Braudel identifies two limits to the structure of material life: an upper limit, beyond which technology cannot progress and a lower limit, the routine, the inertia of ordinary life, which he calls stagnant history.
The upper limit of what is technologically possible is determined by food supplies, population size relative to available and created resources, the limits of labour and transport and control over nature. In China, for example, there seems to have been a crashing halt to technological development around the 13th century. Braudel suggests that this halt was reached when the balance between population and the means of food production for that population reached a level of equilibrium which effected progress negatively. The population was so enslaved to the necessity for ensuring three rice harvests per year (rice growing is excessively labour intensive) to feed that population, and there was such a surplus of labour, that technological innovation was both unnecessary and not possible because everyone was working on the paddy fields.
The lower limit of what is technologically possible is determined by the forces of cultural inertia and laziness, daily and seasonal routine, and the distrust of the ignorant in the face of the new. The obstinate presence of the past greedily and steadily swallows up the fragile lifetime of men. (Nowhere is this more true than in Chinese culture.)

Braudel’s method in this volume is to use a mass of detail to build up a picture of material life in the pre-industrial era. On one page we can go from Peru to the South China Sea, from the Baltic to the southern most tip of Africa, from the early 15th century, to the late 18th century. The text is a tapestry of many different coloured threads woven together to create a huge panorama of human activity from the lowest level of agriculture to the highest and most rarefied level of financial engineering; a pointillist painting made up of thousands of tiny dots, each with its own significance and place in the design.

Braudel uses these facts to 1) illuminate powerfully what daily life was like at a certain time and place, or 2) to put forward simple material and economic explanations for historical phenomena, or 3) to offer through the interstices of the primary sources tantalising glimpses of real people, allowing us to conjecture stories of empathy. (1) It was only in 1720 in Europe that advances in chimney design (narrowing the flue and putting a curve in it) made it possible to really heat rooms. Before that time, heating from fires was inadequate and restricted to the immediate area round the fire only, and people literally froze in very cold weather. (2) The English navy was superior to the French during the pre-revolutionary period because the French were barred from the Baltic wood trades, and therefore had to use composite masts which were liable to snap under high winds instead of masts made from a single tree trunk which the British imported from Riga. (3) In 1776 Jacob Fries, a Swiss doctor and a major in the Russian army travelled from Omsk to Tomsk in 178 hours. What was his story? “Oh where are you going”, said reader to rider?

The very attempt to envisage the past through the theoretical categories of the present inevitably alters our ways of seeing and explaining it.

The self regulating market seems to be the product of an almost theological taste for definition. This market, in which the only elements are ‘demand, the cost of supply, and price, which result from a reciprocal agreement’, is a figment of the imagination.

Geography, an indispensable lantern in this respect, shows up any number of these structural, permanent differences: mountains and plains, north and south, the continental east and the sea-mists of the west. Such contrasts weigh on human existence as much as, or more than the economic changes that pass over our heads, sometimes improving, sometimes discriminating against the zones where we live.

Geography proposes, history disposes.

1 comment:

zvi said...

i was delighted to read braudel's description of the pepper trade. the authors of the last 100 descriptions of the pepper trade that i read in books about portugal and in cookbooks feel a need to explain the trade by claiming that pepper is a antibacterial preservative (don't try this at home). braudel describes it as simply a mania.
similarly, i expect, future authors may give medical reasons for the wordwide cokecola distribution.