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New Approaches to the Political Economy and Environmental History of Ottoman Greater Syria

RoundTable XII-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
In the 1970s and 1980s, critical political economy and world-systems theory were important engines of revisionist histories of the late Ottoman Empire. Recent scholarship has attempted to combine these frameworks with methods learned from the cultural turn, critical legal studies, environmental history, and science and technology studies. This roundtable aims to discuss the legacies of this broader methodological and theoretical emphasis on late Ottoman history in general and the history of greater Syria in particular. How do tent-dwelling pastoralists, agricultural extension agents, or locusts offer perspectives at once new and grounded in the insight of the past? What about attention to land law, land shortage, or disease? How do these actors and themes challenge what we think about the state? How are forces at once material and cultural at work in these dynamics? How do they offer new perspectives on the end of the empire and its aftermath?
  • In terms of the environmental history and political economy of greater Syria, my work foregrounds how people and non-humans (primarily locusts) were both materially and metaphorically linked. A central part of this project is how attention to the environment can invite attention to spatial categories that don’t fit easily with state categories of space, whether provinces or post-Ottoman nation-states, and how different scales of analysis can expose various groups who for various reasons didn’t want to be seen. In following locusts, then, I reveal how the tension between the broader region of the Jazira and its component parts offered various groups of mobile people—among them Arabic and Kurdish-speaking pastoralists, Armenian deportees, and Assyrian refugees—the ability to flee, hide, and survive. At the same time as making this material point about how environments defy state boundaries, I would like to make a secondary point about how environmental history—while of course rooted in material circumstances—can also be deeply cultural. Calling an area a desert, for example, is not some timeless scientific designation, but rather a term with shifting meanings and implications. In conjunction with colleagues working on agronomists and Bedouins (among many other actors!), I am interested in discussing how actors engaged, challenged, and blurred material and cultural conceptions of the environment in different ways over time.
  • We live in social universes ordered by laws or rules which are neither natural nor are rooted in ancient custom or culture. They are domains of struggle in which different actors negotiate, deliberate the conditions of their material existence. As such laws or rules are on-going processes, continually responding to changing circumstances, shaped and reshaped with and responsive to the flux of life. Yet we often think of law in idealized terms. With the establishment of European world domination, an idealized version of European law was assumed to be transportable to the less fortunate regions to jumpstart them to the civilized world. This view ignored the social, political context of law, its political economy both in Europe and non- Europe. Rules or laws also represent decisions often associated with the sovereign claim of the state. Yet state’s rules are continuously challenged while statecraft refers to an ability to accommodate multiple claims in a shared, universal ‘ idiom of rule ‘– that of social peace often synonymous with social justice. Ottoman empire, an intricate and complex web of rules or laws, representing fields of contestation, negotiation all claiming allegiance to empire’s law often long after it ended- offers a productive field of inquiry to talk about the state, government , and law at a moment when Western blueprints are questioned. Ottoman rules pertaining to the environment, climate, their relation to land, its use, productivity, ownership - addressed concerns for growth in trade, revenues for states, sustenance of the population, for social peace and stability, rooted in limited supply arable lands. Political economy of these rules reveal on-going struggles of multiple actors for access to land, their relative successes or failures providing us with a view of the imperial dynamics in a given place at a given point in time. In doing so, it gets us out of the center of the empire to its outlying areas; power is no longer concentrated in a reified center. Pastoralists, peasants, merchants, bureaucrats are part of power equations debating their access to resources needed for their sustenance.
  • Disease as a diagnostic and illness as an experience shed light on what we may call a new political economy and environmental history. Disease and illness have repercussions on people, migrations, and economies. They leave marks and spots on bodies and the land, offering opportunities for shaping knowledge and disciplines. Disease and illness at once serve as sites of suffering, social mobility, and race-making. Biomedicine, herbology, and "folk" healing, when read as mutually constitutive rather than only or necessarily in conflict, together offer a unique geography of Palestine and its place in Greater Syria. That geography draws on the lessons of science and technology studies, political economy, and ecology to dismantle the cultural/material divide long plaguing historical form and content.
  • My research approaches the fields of environmental history and political economy through the dynamism of networks and analytical frameworks derived from political ecology. In the Ottoman eastern Mediterranean, the implementation of new administrative technologies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries aimed to manage nature in new ways to facilitate flows of capital through and extraction from it. Drawing from a combination of ideas circulating in global technocratic networks and local precedents, revised regulations and experimental practices related to agrarian finance, land tenure, tax policy, and new agricultural technologies aimed to “improve” agricultural production and make it more “scientific.” Their effects would ultimately lead to the emergence of new social, political, and economic configurations as the effects of these policies intersected with the very specific idiosyncrasies of local ecologies. My work examines the impacts of these arrangements on rural communities and these communities’ relationships to land, its production, and circulations of capital, as well as the interactions these new arrangements facilitated between those communities, imperial administrators, technocratic networks, and local elites. In conversation with colleagues whose work on Bedouin and other mobile actors (including nonhuman ones) also brings multiple scales to bear in understanding the complex processes involved in the transformation of, contestation over, and appropriation of rural environments during the late Ottoman period and its aftermath, I look forward to discussing how the workings of these networks and new arrangements of capital reshaped environments and their relationships to the communities that relied on them.
  • My relationship to environmental history has two facets. One of these goes back to my graduate school days when I was schooled in the intricacies of the Annales School of history under the guidance of Immanuel Wallersetin. The other is related to my book, A Moveable Empire that discussed the role of nomadic tribes in the latter history of the Ottoman Empire. In between and since, environmental, and ecological history grew, becoming one of the most innovative fields of specialization in word history. Simultaneously several path-breaking books on the Ottoman Empire emerged bringing a new and rich dimension to Ottoman social history. Adopting Braudel’s approach to the Mediterranean as an organizing framework for my research, I was able to break free from the arbitrary separation of the history of the Ottoman Empire from the broader regional (and global) history. Such an approach allowed me to write large scale and long term history of the Ottoman Empire and think about is as part of the broader history of a global system. History that crosses borders, be it artificial or otherwise, continue to be a valuable contribution of environmental history. In Annales perspective, and in those early adoptions of it to Ottoman and other histories, environmental factors figure in as a context that conditions, constrains, and shape things. What is exciting about the more recent examples is that they have moved away from this materialism and made environmental history an integral part of social history. In addition to various groups taking advantage of ecological conditions to enhance their power or resist pressures, we are seeing how such groups themselves are made and unmade through their interaction with environmental factors and ecological conditions. circumstances. Pastoral nomads constitute a good example of this. Finally, looking forward, I would like to suggest that one of the ways in which environmental history, ecological changes, and climate can be systematically linked to social history would be through their impact on access to land and conflicts that may start because of a relative shortage of land.
  • I approach the political economy and environmental history of the Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean with methods learned from critical legal studies. An earlier generation of scholarship focused on the uneven integration of the region into the world economy in the second half of the nineteenth century is fundamental to this approach. Critical legal studies provides the tools to recenter the role of Ottoman law within a broader narrative of the construction of global capitalism. I attempt to historicize legal and administrative categories integral to constructions of human communities and their relationship to the nonhuman landscape. In particular, my work excavates Ottoman constructions of “tribes” and “state land” between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. I pay particular attention to the assemblage of a private property regime and new ways of imagining population at the inception of the modern bureaucratic state and its logics and discourses of improvement. Grounding my research in a variety of court records from the Syrian interior, I show the ways in which actors across a complex spectrum of agricultural and pastoral production including Bedouin headmen/tax collectors, producers of agricultural and pastoral commodities, Ottoman governors and merchant capitalists vied over resources through contesting the content and meaning of legal and administrative categories in and out of courts. This multi-scalar approach complements the recent scholarship of fellow participants on Ottoman and French technocratic discourses and agents of agricultural improvement and the intertwined roles of mobile human and nonhuman actors in processes of environmental and political transformation, towards new understandings of the agrarian history of Ottoman and post-Ottoman Greater Syria.