From World to Globe

10 December 2011


The Bard

If you search the collected works of Shakespeare online for “world” you get 589 hits; if you search for “globe” you get a paltry 10 hits, although these hits include one of my favorite passages from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Also from The Tempest is this perhaps even more famous line, in which Miranda evokes the world, not the globe:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

For Shakespeare, it would seem, the worldhood of the world is very much that of the world rather than that of the globe.

I was mildly surprised by these lopsided Shakespearean results — I think I had in mind that Shakespeare’s theater was called The Globe — though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since “world” is simply a much more frequently used word in English than “globe.” But that may be changing.

Today it is becoming increasingly common to speak in terms of that which is “global,” and especially in terms of “globalization,” which latter has already become a term that evokes an emotional response in many. Does this shift in language reveal anything important, so it is merely a shift between synonyms as a concession to fashionable language?

Language simpliciter has, I think, played a role in this shift. One simply would not say, “worldization” as one would readily say, for example, “globalization.” The fact that we need a word to express an historical process of institutions being adopted worldwide says something about our time. What does it say? It says that we are what I call a Stage I civilization, such that the geographical borders that once separated us and allowed for isolated pockets of human beings who did not know about each other have been reduced or eliminated by transportation technologies that are the result of industrial-technological civilization.

In regard to “global,” the term is neutral and even, we could say, secular, whereas to describe anything as “worldly” carries a definite connotation, and the connotation that it carries increasingly appears to belong to another era.

This linguistic shift is quite recent, taking place only in the past few decades. In the early twentieth century, when it was in vogue for philosophers to discuss socialism, it was usually discussed in the context of world government. At that time, no one spoke of global government. Bertrand Russell, for example, was a great advocate of world government in the first half of the twentieth century. Most people know about Russell’s socialist phase and his world government writings from the 1920s and 1930s, but Russell was so committed to the idea that he had another stage of thought immediately following the Second World War, at which time he argued that the US should use its monopoly on atomic weapons to establish a world government under threat of force. An echo of the early twentieth century concern for world government survives in the conspiracy community, which has all but monopolized the phrase “new world order” to describe a world government foisted upon the peoples of the earth (and especially the peoples of the US) against the will.

Recently when I was reading Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 3: The Perspective of the World, I noticed in the Foreword Braudel’s discussion of “world time.” In a note Braudel notes that the French title of the volume was Le Temps du Monde and that the expression “world time” was derived from Wolfram Eberhard’s Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Here is what Braudel says of world time:

“World time then might be said to concentrate above all on a kind of superstructure of world history: it represents a crowning achievement, created and supported by forces at work underneath it, although in turn its weight has an effect upon the base. Depending on place and time, this two-way exchange, from the bottom upwards and from the top down, has varied in importance. But even in advanced countries, socially and economically speaking, world time has never accounted for the whole of human existence.”

Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Volume 3: The Perspective of the World, Foreword, p. 18

It is fascinating that Braudel here makes use of the Marxist terminology of base and superstructure, though he applies these ideas to time. This suggests interesting possibilities and I know of no one who has further developed this idea. It is equally fascinating to me that Braudel mentions the two-way exchange between base and superstructure, which sounds very close to the temporal relationships that I have posited as characterizing ecological temporality. But formulating this exchange in terms of “bottom up” and “top down” this suggests to me constructive and non-constructive approaches, which roughly approximate the bottom up and top down perspectives. So there is a lot to think about in this short quote from Braudel.

In any case, Braudel expresses himself in terms of world time, not global time. Braudel belonged to an earlier generation, and I suspect that the terminology of world time is formulated by analogy with prevalent ideas of world government.

In Karl Jaspers The Origin and Goal of History, which predates Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism by more than twenty years, putting in right in mid-century, we find Jaspers struggling toward a formulation of world history, and world history would obviously be a function of world time.

Of course, people have been talking about world history for a long time, at least since the Enlightenment, when humanity began to know itself not only as a spatial whole but also as a temporal whole. Jaspers took this a step further. A consequence of Jaspers’ attempt to elucidate his philosophical conception of world history was his formulation of the idea of an Axial Age. I have discussed Jasper’s Axial Age on several occasions (for example, The Next Axial Age and Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm) and the idea of an Axial Age has passed into popular thought and is known to many.

What Jaspers was trying to express in terms of an Axial Age was a shift in human history that was genuinely global. Previous conceptions of “Ages” of human history had always been specific to one culture or one civilization; Jaspers sought a conception of an Age that embraced all humanity, and while Braudel does not mention Jaspers in his discussion of world time, one could justifiably understand Braudel’s efforts as a practical application to historiography of Jasper’s conception of world history.

The terminology that is emerging from the shift from world to globe highlights global change as a process. Earlier conceptions focused on semi-static periodizations. A truly temporal understanding of history will see things in terms of processes, so this is a development that I find to be valuable. I have, after all, expressed my understanding of strategic trends shaping the future in terms of pastoralization, extraterrestrialization, singularization, and so forth.

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