Wouter Vanstiphout - Braudels donkey; Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

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This text was originally published in New Geographies 5: The Mediterranean, Harvard Graduate school of Design. Edited by Antonio Petrov. Cover image: Joos de Momper, Mountainous Landscape with figures and a Donkey, 1630 page 2




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Braudel’s Donkey Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

academic hives of left- wing thought and hipster activism. Both dons of the new left-wing urban theorists, the sulphurous Mike Davis and the prophet-like David Harvey, have written spirited and excited analyses of the events on

“The wind of rebellion has swept across the

both sides of the Mediterranean, identifying



echoes of 
the revolutions of the nineteenth

Southern Europe.” So says Belgian political

century. Mike Davis calls the Arab Spring an

scientist Eric Toussaint, who writes for the left-

Arabian 1848, Harvey the Occupy movement a

wing blog International Viewpoint. His assess-

twenty-first century Commune, repeating the

ment is far from unique — hundreds of similarly

events of Paris 1871, when the citizens seized

enthusiastic appraisals of the Arab Spring and

the city from the imperial troops and declared

the anti-austerity demonstrations of the past

them “Commons.” Both try their utmost to link

year can be found in books, magazines, blogs

the regimes of Mubarak, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, and

and Twitter accounts in Europe and the United

Assad to the same predatory capitalism

States, by the superstars of neo-Marxism Mike

caused the financial crisis, which in turn caused

Davis and David Harvey and their myriad fellow

the anger against Wall Street, which triggered


Occupy, but which also led
to the Euro crisis,



It seems that the Mediterranean has be-

which then caused the austerity measures by

come a zone of promise for the end of capi-

Southern European governments, which led to

talism. The images of demonstrations
by angry

the demonstrations by the Indignados in Spain

youths in Syntagma Square in Athens, Puerta

and their Greek brothers and sisters in Syntag-

del Sol in Madrid, Habib Bourguiba Avenue in

ma Square in Athens.

Algiers, and Tahrir Square in Egypt blend into

each other and become a single panorama of

cause in the demonstrations and riots on both

urban revolution. Everywhere we see the mon-

of the sea, there is in fact an ironic con-

umental squares dominated by huge bureau-

trast between the two. Occupy, the Indignados,

cratic buildings and normally congested traffic

and many of the other austerity and crisis-relat-

roundabouts filled with masses of flag-waving

ed demonstrations are fluid and flexible — not

citizens, who set up camp and refuse to leave

to say formless — in their agendas. Their one

until their demands are met.

point of consensus seems to be the wholesale

We have to ask, however, whether this

refutation of the politico-financial system of the

blending into
each other really does signify a

World Bank, European Union, and the politically

common cause and really is the
sign of a global

moderate coalition governments that are (mis)

urban revolution, or if this is not just a mas-

managing the crisis. The people on the streets in

sive global bout of wishful thinking within the

the Middle East, however, seem to ask for rights

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While the Marxist left sees common

that to us have become undeniable, normal, ba-

right. The political and financial crisis about the

nal even: democracy; one person, one vote; free-

European Monetary Union has revealed a deep

dom of speech; good governance and the right

chasm between Northern and Southern Europe,

to do business, get educated, and practice your

with countries like France
on the brink of be-

religion. In other words, the things that they are

longing either to the “good” North or the “bad”

demanding would seem utterly bourgeois to the

South. Countries that are nearly defaulting on

theoreticians of the cross-Mediterranean urban

their debt obligations — Greece, Spain, Italy,

revolt. To put it even more bluntly, they are de-

Portugal — are lumped together pejoratively as

manding the benefits of free-market constitu-

the “garlic economies.” The distrust between

tional democracy, the very system that Occupy

northern and southern countries has been fed

and many of the hard-left activists are trying to

by images of revolting youths burning cars on

pull down.

the streets of Athens — images easily associat-

But even if the revolts on either side of

ed and even confused with images of the Arab

Mare Nostrum are moving in opposite direc-

Spring. Xenophobic populist parties like that of

tions, the idea that the two sides of the Mediter-

Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have switched

ranean might be moving in each other’s direc-

from aiming at the immigrants from North Af-

tion is a strong one, entertained by the hard left

rica to attacking the parasitical EU members

as well as the xenophobic and Euro-skeptical

Greece, Spain, and Italy. On a policy level, split-

Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

Indignados Occupation, La puerta de Sol Madrid, May 19th

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ting Europe into a two-speed union is being dis-

on the trade routes of the old Western Roman

cussed, even with two different currencies: the

Empire, and that was until then oriented toward

N-Euro and the S-Euro.

the south, as it had been for centuries. Cut off

What unites the Mediterranean region at

from the trade-based Mediterranean economy,

this point is that it produces most of the politi-

Northern Europe went into a deep economic

cal, economic, and demographic issues that di-

slump and fell back on agriculture as its main

vide Europe, and even the world. It
is the region

source of sustenance. The battle, however, built

where the European Union is breaking apart,

the foundation for the Carolingian empire that

the region the wave of immigration comes

dominated Northwestern Europe for the next

from, or passes through, fueling xenophobic

century. It was here, Pirenne claims, that the

populism; it is the region of the Israel-Palestine

feudal system was developed, and the medieval

conflict, and of civil war in the Balkans and in

civilization would grow. One of the most suc-

Syria. In a purely negative way, it still is Mare

cessful products of this originally agricultural

Nostrum — Our Sea — that defines who we are

and feudal medieval civilization was the city.

and around which the world revolves. Only this

Here the free burghers, capitalism, banking,

time it does not distribute goods, knowledge,

insurance, democracy, philosophy, art, and

culture, and wealth, as it did in antiquity, but

most of all, a ruthless and limitless hunger for

strife and controversy.

trade, were developed. It was these cities, as

The divisive role of the region in the con-

Pirenne stated in his seminal Medieval Cities:

temporary political imagination reinforces an

Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1925),

old but controversial hypothesis that Europe

that would cause the comeback of Europe on

and the Mediterranean are mutually exclusive

the Mediterranean in the later Middle Ages. But

as coherent regions. It was put forward from

in the end, as the “Pirenne thesis” goes, without

the early 1920s by the Belgian historian Henri

having been cut off from the Mediterranean by

Pirenne. In 1922 he published a legendary arti-

the struggle with the Arab world, Europe would

cle called “Mahomet et Charlemagne” in which

never have become what it is. Pirenne’s version

he pushed forward the beginning of the Europe-

of events has been heavily criticized by histo-

an Middle Ages from 426 AC, the year the West-

rians since, but it does perfectly illustrate a

ern Roman Empire collapsed, to 732, the battle

conception of the Mediterranean Sea as a con-

of Tours, when Charles Martel stopped the con-

flict zone, the dominion over which defines the

quering armies of the Muslim Umayyad’s, who

identity and even the survival of its neighboring

in the century after Mohammed’s death had

peoples and regions.

conquered most of the Southern Mediterranean

and large parts of Spain.

such relief that one of Pirenne’s pupils would

For Pirenne, 732 marks the ending of a

be the one to come up with an entirely different,

European economy that was still mostly based

and much more hopeful and open, perspec-

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It is therefore of such interest and even

Fernand Braudel - The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in
the Age of Philip II (1949)

tive on the Mediterranean. Fernand Braudel,

personalities to a more scientific discipline,

who dominated postwar historiography just as

interested in the structural transformations on

Pirenne had dominated in the prewar period,

the social and economic level that underlie his-

published in 1949 The Mediterranean and the

torical events.

Mediterranean World in
the Age of Philip II. The

title might seem to restrict the author to a few

taken to its logical end. Braudel identifies three

decades in the late sixteenth century (Philip

levels of time: the “longue durée,” being the

II was King of Castile, who lived from 1527 to

“time” of geography, the “moyenne durée,”

1598), but in fact the book exploded the whole

meaning the time of social and economic pat-

notion of time used by historians until then. The

terns and movements, and the “courte durée”

Mediterranean was the book that would make

being the time of individuals and events. This

the name of 
the Annales School of history,

approach was defined as the radical alterna-

founded in the 1920s by Lucien Febvre. Febvre,

tive to the history of events (“histoire evéne-

Braudel, and like-minded colleagues such as

mentielle”), which had been the rule until then.

Marc Bloch transformed history from a narra-

Strangely enough, this scientific, quantitative

tive-based science, with a strong focus on po-

method produced one of the most absorbing

litical power, warring nation-states and strong

epics of its time. Choosing a specific time in

In The Mediterranean, this approach

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Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

Henri Pirenne - Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1925

history, the late sixteenth century, Braudel

Turkish Mediterranean lived and breathed with

looks deep into the geographical structure, the

the same rhythms as the Christian, that the

economic flows and social patterns, the culture

whole sea shared a common destiny, a heavy

and stories of the Mediterranean, nearly as

one indeed, with identical problems and general

ahistorical qualities, belonging much more to

trends if not identical consequences.”

their space than to their time. The decades of

his title are merely the way into this amazingly

ed within the first series of chapters, where

complex and rich singular personality that is

Braudel describes life in the mountains, pla-

the Mediterranean region.

teaus, and plains that make up the peninsulas

Philip II was the king under whose reign the

sticking into the sea. He makes the fascinating

trade routes, and therefore the hub of worldwide

observation that people living in the mountain

relations, would finally shift from
the Mediterra-

areas of the region have more in common with

nean to the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. It

each other, in the way they grow food, migrate,

was therefor somewhat of a twilight era for the

build, and trade — no matter that they might

Mediterranean, but a twilight pushed forward

live hundreds of miles apart — than with the

nearly a thousand years from Pirenne’s thesis.

people who live on the plains and the plateau

In the foreword to the English edition of 1972,

few miles downhill. There is a typical section

Braudel repeats forcefully his claim, against the

that you could make all around the sea, going

analysis à la Pirenne, that the rise of Islam had

from the mountains down to the seashore, that

early on fatally “broken” the Mediterranean as

repeats the same pattern of groups of people

the sea that held the surrounding regions to-

living close by but in completely different ways,

gether: “I retain the firm conviction that the

with different patterns and flows governing

The “living and breathing” is illustrat-

The second edition of Fernand Braudel’s La Mediterranee (1966) featured an south oriented image to emphasize the importance of Africa to the Mediterranean with a relatively small Europe on the other side of the sea, much as this satellite image conveys this geographic relationship. (Image courtesy of NASA.)”

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their lives. This sectional approach to the Med-

Mediterranean, once upon a time, stretched all

iterranean does a better job of describing the

the way to the Americas.

essence and coherence of the region than the

often politically defined maps, with zones of in-

the long waves of geographical history, the

fluences colored into a flattened representation

middle waves of human settlement and econ-

of geography.

omy, into the shortwave frequency of conflict

Another fascinating chapter is on the

and other “events,” Braudel turns the normal

boundaries that define the Mediterranean; it

historical description of the region on its head.

ironically recalls the “garlic economies” slur, as

He demonstrates how the conflicts
of the Cru-

garlic consumption could have been a Braude-

sades, the struggles between the Turks and the

lian definition of what holds together the Med-

Venetians, the Genoese and the Venetians, the

iterranean. Braudel, however, favors the olive

Spanish, the Byzantines, the battle of Lepanto,

tree as an indicator. One of the first and most

the war of Granada, were all actually part of

obvious boundaries identified by Braudel is

this one, living and breathing civilization — or

double one of the northern limit of the olive tree

history — machine called the Mediterranean.

and that of the palm grove, with everything in

War and peace, growing and shrinking empires,

between defined as “the Mediterranean.” Other

could all be absorbed into the middle waves of

boundaries are defined by the endings or be-

its economy and social development. The strug-

ginnings of the Saharan caravans, or more geo-

gles were symptomatic, short outbursts of ten-

logically by the great mountain ranges
or the

sion, caused by the much slower movements of

straits of Gibraltar, or politically by the edges

people and goods, just like a volcano’s eruption

of the zones of influence of the Northern Euro-

or earthquakes are the result of the plates of

pean and Ottoman kingdoms and empires. But

the earth moving at a geological pace.

the chapter is mainly important not for defining

the boundaries but for endlessly stretching and

thesis of the Mediterranean falling apart as the

layering them, identifying how each border is an

result of the fortunes of one empire rising over

interface with another network of roads, pass-

those of another, Braudel does not counter

es, sea routes, etc. In offering the idea that in

claim directly. He absorbs it, swallows it

the sixteenth century, it was the Mediterranean

whole in his magnificent epic of the slow histo-

that shaped the Atlantic and Asian trade routes,

ry of the Mediterranean. The temporary retreat

Braudel moved one historian, when reviewing

of Europe into itself, and the development of

the first edition of the book, to regret the fact

capitalism out of the feudal Carolingian Empire,

that the donkey had not been given more space

while the Arab world rules the Mediterranean,

in the colonization of the West and East Indies,

is just one wave, on the middle frequency, that

because the image of a peasant riding his bur-

serves to underline the centrality of the Mediter-

ro in Mexico made him realize that indeed the

ranean to all things human, until the coloniza-

Moving gradually through the book,

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Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

So if we bring this back to Henri Pirenne’s

tion of the Asian and American shores made the

Braudel’s book through the lens of the conflict

world exponentially bigger, that is. Civilizations,

between the “complementary enemies” of the

economic connections and political unions, are

Algerian liberation forces and France’s army, or

made subservient to slower and deeper move-

between the French colonist Pieds-Noirs and

ments of people and settlement patterns, which

the Algerian natives, or between France’s claim

in turn are the result of an excruciatingly incre-

to a special role in the Mediterranean and the

mental adaptation to landscape, climate, and

pressure from America for the country to let go


of its colonies. In that context, Braudel’s book

Braudel does not simply absorb the con-

reads like a spell, woven to absorb the conflicts,

flicts between the Islamic world and the Chris-

tensions, and controversies of its time, into the

tian world in the longue durée of Mediterranean

epic sweep of the historical annals. Braudel was

history; he defines the conflict as that which

certainly reformulating “the idea of the Medi-

keeps the regions together. To this end, he em-

terranean”, and thereby indirectly redefining

ploys the term “complementary enemies,” pow-

France’s role in the region for the twentieth and

ers condemned to living together and sharing

twentyfirst centuries.

the Mediterranean Sea, with the wars and battles

as the courte durée incidents in centurieslong

when French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled

periods of cohabitation. He sees conflict and

his plans for a Mediterranean Union at a posh

competition as fundamental parts of coexis-

event in the Parisian Grand Palais on July 13,

tence and shows how the conflict caused by in-

2008, Le Monde had as headline: “The Medi-

vading outsiders always results in assimilation,

terranean and the Mediterranean World in the

though not assimilation by the dominant party

Age of Nicolas Sarkozy,” sarcastically echoing

but assimilation in the deeper geographical and

Braudel’s title. In both supportive comments

economic logic of the Mediterranean. About

from the French press and critical observations

the role of the competing powers in Braudel’s

from the German, North African, and even Is-

model of the region, the historian Daniel Purdy

raeli press, references were made to Braudel’s

writes: “In order for either to assert a structural

nearly sixty-year-old masterpiece. Suddenly, the

continuity that survives major wars, they must

ideological force of the historical study of trade

have an idea
of the Mediterranean that exists

relations in the late sixteenth century came

independent of sovereign states, institutions,

to the fore. Haaretz even accused Sarkozy of

religions and armies.” Purdy also points at the

following up on the “poetic daydreams” of Fer-

relationship between the writing of The Medi-

nand Braudel, and in an extensive analysis Die

terranean and the increasingly contentious and

Welt connected the anti-German feelings behind

problematic theme of France’s colonial pres-

Sarkozy’s union with the fact that many histo-

ence on the other side of the sea, in Algeria. He,

rians of the Annales School to which Braudel

with many more contemporary historians, reads

belonged, including himself, had suffered at

page 10

It did not come as a total surprise then that

the hands of German occupiers in World War

number of subsidy streams for depolluting the


Also, the connection was made between

sea anddeveloping solar energy, for a Euro-Med-

Braudel’s work as the intellectual basis for

iterranean university in Slovenia, and for some

France’s Mediterranean interest and the brutal

institutions, all surviving on a pittance. Sar-

colonialism of the French. All the while, Sarkozy

kozy’s union is a bureaucratic version of many

talked of a deeper bond between the civiliza-

other plans of the past hundred years that proj-

tions of the Mediterranean, absolving France

ect enormous European ambitions on the Med-

from its sins in the colonial wars and waxing

iterranean and then flounder without any effect

romantically about a common future.

on the ground whatsoever. The brief moment of

In the end, the Mediterranean Union’s cli-

excitement over another doomed collective vi-

max was its beginning, and soon after it was

sion is added as a fourth time scale to the three

“assimilated” into the deadening bureaucratic

scales introduced by Braudel: longue durée,

mazes of the European Union, with all mem-

moyenne durée, courte durée, and non-durée.

ber states also belonging to the Mediterranean

One of the strangest plans in this tradition of

Union (Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands,

failure was Herman Sörgel’s Atlantropa proj-

etc.), and with the southern and western Medi-

ect for the reengineering and colonization of

terranean members sending third-tier represen-

the entire Mediterranean region. Damming the

tatives to the Grand Palais. Now it consists of a

straits of Gibraltar and lowering the sea level page 11

Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

In July 2008, the Euro-Mediterranean Heads of Government met in Paris in order to improve the balance and the joint ownership of their cooperation. The Union for the Mediterranean is made up of 43 countries; all 28 EU member states, the European Commission and 15 other Mediterranean states. The League of Arab States also participates in the meetings of the Union.

would create new Lebensraum for the Europe-

Another, more recent example that seems

an countries and land bridges between Spain

ironically aware of its tradition is
the “Roadmap

and Morocco, Italy and Tunisia. Hydroelectric

2050” plan by the Office for Metropolitan Ar-

dams in the Sea of Marmara and a landlocked

chitecture, for the total redesign of Europe and

Venice would be some of the results. The aim

North Africa on a grid of renewable energy, sub-

of Atlantropa, a movement that managed to ex-

stituting nation-states with regions specialized

ist for three decades between 1922 and

in one particular energy source: the Alps, the

— exactly the timeframe in which Braudel de-

Pyrenees, and other mountain ranges become

veloped his methods as a historian and wrote

“Hydropia” because of the water energy; the

his masterpiece — and to attract enough funds

North Sea becomes “The Isles of Wind;” Central

to hire world-famous architects to design the

Europe becomes “Enhanced Geothermalia;”

engineering projects and to lobby politicians

and the Mediterranean coast and sea become

and investors, was to conjoin Europe and Africa

“Solaria.” Essentially the same hysterico-colo-

around the Mittelmeer as the hub of their new-

nialism as Sörgel’s was projected on Europe

found collective prosperity.

and the Mediterranean, but this time not fueled

Roadmap 2050 was commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, and the full report, published in April 2010, includes extensive technical, economic and policy analyses conducted by five leading consultancies: Imperial College London, KEMA, McKinsey & Company, Oxford Economics and AMO.

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by the desire for economic power and Leben-

and OMA.

sraum, but by the dream of renewable energy

and continental autarchy. Also interesting is

tic Mediterranean: the violent decolonization

the fact that just as there is a historical — or

not only dramatically increased the distance be-

at least a chronological — resonance between

tween Europe and the southern Mediterranean,

Braudel’s Mediterranean (1949) and Sörgel’s

creating a new border straight through the

Atlantropa (1928–1952), there is one too be-

middle of the sea; it also collapsed distances

tween Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union (2008)

and broke down borders between colonizer and

and OMA’s Eneropa (2010). The plan was com-

colonized, while creating new divisions in the

missioned by the European Climate foundation

heart of our own territories. After losing Algeria,

and was last heard of being under consider-

French cities saw the arrival of a wave of immi-

ation by the EU Council of Ministers for their

gration from former French colonies and other

possible endorsement.

North African countries. Attracted and actively

There is a connection between the repeat-

sought after by the French industrial boom, they

ed attempts by European politicians, visionary

came as guest workers. During the 1970s, when

engineers, and architects to “take back” the

the size of the immigrant population again in-

Mediterranean and Braudel’s grand historio-

creased, immigrants repopulated the enor-

graphical vision of the wholeness of 
the region.

mous housing estates built in the 1950s and

Probably the connection lies not
so much in the

1960s, now abandoned by the first generation

deep memory of “losing” the Mediterranean to

of French middle classes who started to pre-

the Muslims, as Pirenne would have it, but in

fer a suburban lifestyle. The French banlieues

the painful postwar period of decolonization

of cities throughout the entire country became

in the 1950s and 1960s. Especially in France,

more “Mediterranean,” and less French, with

losing Algeria and having to repatriate the hun-

Spanish, Greek, and Yugoslav guest workers

dreds of thousands of Pieds-Noirs to France, in

mixing with the immigrants from the Maghreb

the aftermath of a brutal war, created a national

and eventually also from Africa. Similar pro-

trauma. This trauma, however, was not unique;

cesses happened in other parts of Europe as

it resonated with similar feelings of resentment

well, where the
first wave of Spanish, Italian,

in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands

and Greek guest workers were replaced by a

over the loss of their East and West Indian colo-

second wave of Turks and Moroccans. In similar

nies, and in Belgium and Portugal with respect

ways, they arrived in the popular prewar work-

to their African colonies. But the proximity and

ing-class neighborhoods of Brussels, Antwerp,

historical meaning of the Mediterranean made

Berlin, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam,

this particular loss all the more dramatic and

during (or sometimes causing) the exodus of

prone to inspiring emotional recastings of co-

the white working classes to the new suburbs.

lonial ambitions like those by Nicolas Sarkozy

Later, during the 1980s, they also started to page 13

Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

But to put it in Braudelian terms of an elas-

move into the postwar housing estates, replac-

even the same type of accentuations
of the

ing the white working and lower-middle classes

local language. Kreuzberg seems much closer

who had lived there for decades.

to the Rotterdam Afrikaanderwijk than it does

Similar geographies were the result, joining

to the adjacent center of Berlin. The
99 per-

together cities that were otherwise completely

cent immigrant estate of Gellerup near Aarhus

different, with thousands of miles, borders, and

seems much closer to Le Mirail, the Candilis

languages between them. The contested space

& Woods–designed satellite town
of Toulouse,

of the Mediterranean now reached the borders

than to the medieval center of 
the Danish city.

of the historical town centers all over Europe,

We recognize not just the mosques, the doner

from cities on the Mediterranean coast all the

kebab outlets, or the headscarves; we recognize

way to Scandinavia.
We see the same basic

a similar hybrid culture where the immigration

structure of a relatively prosperous inner city

from the Mediterranean sphere has come to-

surrounded by a patchwork of neighborhoods

gether with the ruins of the welfare state from

that have either been gentrified or are dominat-

the 1950s and 1960s. This has produced an

ed by poor immigrant populations. Around the

alloy between western postwar systems, either

beltway we see the postwar housing estates,

physical or socioeconomic, and cultures from

first the scene of 
an uneasy arrangement be-

far-flung reaches of the Mediterranean re-

tween the white lower-middle classes and the

gion and beyond. This strange combination is

immigrant families, now often dominated by

what nearly all Western European cities share,

the latter. And further out we find the suburbs,

squeezed in between their also increasingly

where the middle classes and the white former

uniform centers and suburbs, and which distin-

inhabitants of the working-class neighborhoods

guishes them from cities outside of Europe.

and the postwar housing estates have fled. This

is more or less the typical section of the Euro-

of an observation: that certain left-wing schol-

pean city.

ars have identified the urban struggles on ei-

Similar geographies also bring with them

ther side of the Mediterranean, from Syntagma

similar social and political shifts and contro-

Square to Tahrir Square, as signals of a new

versies. The political disaffectation of the white

coming together between the working classes

middle classes, the rise of anti-immigrant pop-

and rebellious youths of Europe, North Africa,

ulist parties, the crackdown by the political

and the Middle East. In a way this is a radical,

mainstream on immigration, on radical Islam,

revolutionary twin to the dreams by visionary

are phenomena shared by many if not most

engineers like Herman Sörgel, ironic utopians

Western European countries. What we recog-

like the Office for Metropolitan Architecture,

nize when we move from Toulouse to Antwerp

or Bonapartesque heads of state like Nicolas

to Rotterdam to Berlin, to Aarhus and back

Sarkozy, to reunite the countries around the

Paris, is neighborhoods, street cultures, smells,

Middle Sea. They all share the vision of dissolv-

page 14

This essay started out with an observation

page 15

Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

Afrikaanderwijk,in Rotterdam (top image) and Kreuzberg, Berlin (bottom image) .

ing the national borders into a shared culture,

would use the Braudelian tool of identifying

whether defined by trade routes, renewable en-

different “durées,” in describing how cities are

ergy grids, or ideological dogma.. Conversely,

not so much riding upon different economic

we have also seen how the European monetary

wavelengths but are the results of how the dif-

crisis, has caused northwestern countries to

ferent “durees” of politics, economics, culture,

assert their distance from the Mediterranean

and climate sometimes violently interfere. We

countries, and their cultures, describing them

have to develop a similar sectional approach

as the “garlic economies”
that do not possess

urban analysis, instead of the technocratic and

the fiscal rigor or political stability of northern

statist use of maps, in understanding their

Europe, implying that they belong more to the

socio-physical makeup. We have to develop

Mediterranean region than to Europe. Here we

similar literary approach, incorporating the

see very clearly the legacy of Henri Pirennes’

streetwise and daily experiences in varied urban

“Mahomet et Charlemagne” being played out in

areas to demonstrate how they might be thou-

the cavernous halls of European politics.

sands of miles apart, but eerily alike.

In the end, however, the real pertinence of

Most of all, we could learn from Fernand

the Mediterranean is not that of a geopolitical

Braudel his amazingly layered and complex

zone, a grouping of nation-states with clear bor-

approach to conflict, difference, and shifting

ders around a sea, that may or may not have

boundaries. In The Mediterranean, the Mediter-

things in common. I think the Mediterranean

ranean is not a sea with countries around
it, but

shows its real presence in our cities, in an ex-

a dynamic process of complementary enemies,

tremely condensed form, concentrating millen-

shifting boundaries, and common rhythms. This

nia of migration and conflict in urban memes

might be a very “French” structuralist, even ce-

that, precisely because of the copresence of so

rebral approach to the troubles of our urban

many non-European cultures, are quintessen-

and political environment. But
do not forget

tially European — that is, Mediterranean.

that for Braudel, this framework made it possi-

To really grasp the richness and find a lan-

ble to organize the most concrete and empirical

guage to talk about it, we need something of

knowledge about daily lives in mountain villages,

a new Braudelian project for the twenty-first

geological formations, and climate change, up

century. Not one celebrating the Mediterranean

to political and economic policies on the grand

region to provide cover for empty institutional-

scale. Such a nondeterministic, even post-his-

ization or technocratic visions, but one creep-

torical attitude could inspire a much more con-

ing into the depths of our European cities,

textual and pragmatic approach to our urban

exposing their “common destiny,” “identical

problems. Current urban politics and planning

problems and general trends if not identical

is often determined by overly historicist think-

consequences,” demonstrating how they also

ing that sees cities as going through phases in

“live and breath with the same rhythms.” We

linear development processes, sometimes cy-

page 16

clical, sometimes not. This creates a discourse

we now use in rationalizing our urban policies

about certain areas that are “no longer up-to-

and our plans and designs, we would be able

date” or a view that sometimes progress, and

to react to the cities’ real demands in a more

therefore demolition for redevelopment, is un-

pragmatic and exciting way. To do that, however,

avoidable because of the “changing times.” It

we need to release the “Mediterranean of the

explains the frequent use of schematic models

mind” that lurks inside us and inside our cities.

and diagrams that demonstrate the “ideal” po-

We need to remember that Braudel chose as

sitioning of services, densities, and infrastruc-

key moment — from which he catapulted him-

ture, such as the famous Christaller hexagons

self into the deep complexity of his book
— a

that still determine planning. This clean, deter-

time when the Mediterranean as a central place

ministic, technocratic approach makes it hard

in human geography was waning in light of the

to account for the imperfections of cities. Their

discoveries in America and Asia. This moment

dark side, their opacity and idiosyncrasies, are

of waning provoked a thinking about the Med-

seen as failures to conform to the plans and

iterranean afterlife, how its former dominance

models, and thus a reason to intervene even

over the trade routes was reincarnated in an ar-


tistic, scholarly, and philosophical dominance,

Braudel can teach us to treat cities differ-

with the immense creative upsurge in Venice in

ently, without the use of metaphysical visions or

its powerless seventeenth and eighteenth centu-

technocratic models. A new Braudelian project

ries as an example.

for the city could be the analytical companion to

a highly contextualist, local, and pragmatist ap-

lian project for the twenty-first century. We have

proach to cities, which, however, does possess

a sense of the waning of the west, let alone of

a certain universality, because
it can constantly

Europe as the dominant region of sensible pol-

profit from the spiderweb
of connections and

itics, welfare-state services, religious tolerance,

resonances across the continent. Gellerup and

and equanimity and intelligence all around.

Le Mirail share many of their problems and pos-

We are also seeing our powers sapping to the

sible outcomes; indeed they “live and breathe

south and to the east. Our former ideologies are

with the same rhythm,” one that is very differ-

crashing, like the neoliberal market economy,

ent from the rhythm of central Aarhus or cen-

or desperately flailing about, like the neo-Marx-

tral Toulouse. Why then the constant attempts

ist belief in global workers’ revolution. In our

to force them into conforming to French or Dan-

cities, in the way that they seem to be ripping

ish standards, something that has produced

themselves apart alongside the boundaries of

nothing but failure and frustration in both cas-

inequality and intolerance, we also seem to be


losing our grip. In that sense there is a double If we would only learn to dissolve the rig-

resonance, first with the highly uncertain times

id categories of history and geography that

when Braudel wrote his book, during and imme-

page 17

Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

Something similar might inspire a Braude-

diately after World War II, and with the time he analyzed, the late sixteenth century.

Right now is the time to stop thinking about

Europe, or the Mediterranean, or our cities, as “a project.” Right now is the time to start thinking about Europe, the Mediterranean, and our cities as a vast system of conflicting wavelengths, unexpectedly resonant rhythms, and
a mysterious coherence that will need a radical reformulating once again. In this retelling,
we must reconcile our sometimes desperate sense of being beleaguered from outside, and our fear of the future, with a longer view of history, and with a fatalistic view of conflict, as the one thing that holds us all together. Most of all, we must give a central place in our narrative of urban Europe to all of the intimate, local, and small experiences because these are the ones that truly connect us to the world, just like the donkey in Braudel’s book, stretching the Mediterranean all the way to Mexico.

page 18

Notes and bibliography 1. MANDEVILLE, B. 1714. The Fable of the Bees, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics (1989), i.369. 2. JOHNSEN, B. 2011. The architect as developer. Conditions independant scandinavian magazine on architecture and urbanism. Issue 9. Oslo: Interpress. Pages 28 and 29. 3. Debate Architecture 2.0 at the NAi, Rotterdam, on the 28th of November, 2007. 4. See, for instance: RIEDIJK, M. 2011. Architecture as a Craft. Amsterdam: SUN Architecture; SENNETT, R. 2009. The craftsman. London: Penguin Books. 5. Hippocrates of Cos (460 BC – 370 BC) in HERMOSIN BONO, M.A. (Ed.) 1996. Tratados Hipocraticos. Madrid: Alianza Editorial. 6. “[...] There is a saying also, recorded by Androclides, which makes him [Lysander] guilty of great indifference to the obligations of an oath. His recommendation, according to this account, was to “cheat boys with dice, and men with oaths” [...]”PLUTARCH. 75 A.D. Lysander. Translated by John Dryden. Available at http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/lysander. html [Accessed 01 February 2012]

11. There is an award winning paper by Jon H. Fiva and Gisle J. Natvik for the Institut d’Economia de Barcelona (IEB) entitled Do re-election probabilities influence public investment? According to the authors’ findings, the answer is yes. Abstract: We identify exogenous variation in incumbent policymakers’ re-election probabilities and explore empirically how this variation affects their investments in physical capital. Our results indicate that a higher re-election probability leads to higher investments, particularly in the purposes preferred more strongly by the incumbents. This aligns with a theoretical framework where political parties disagree about which public goods to produce using labor and predetermined public capital. FIVA, J.H. & NATVIK, G.J. 2009. Do re-election probabilities influence public investment? (2009 CESifo Prize in Public Economics) [Online] Available: http://ieb.crealogica.eu/index. php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=93&category_id=7&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=60&lang=en [Accessed 04 March 2012]

7. LAWSON, B. 2005. How designers think. Architectural Press.

Wouter Vanstiphout Braudel’s Donkey - Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

8. See following the chapter of this book: A new way of thinking. 9. This is calculated on the basis of an average price of € 150/m2. 10. According to the Uitvoeringsinstituut Werknemersverzekeringen (UWV) in June 2012. Available:http://www.rotterdam.nl/Stadsontwikkeling/Document/Economie%20en%20 Arbeidsmarkt/Factsheet%20Rotterdam%20 totaal%20juni%202012.pdf [Accessed 11 March 2012]

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