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December 04, 2006

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Bob Vitalis

In a section of my framing comments that was deleted in order to talk about how the book matters today, to bloggers and not just professors (although the two identities are clearly not mutually exclusive), I said that even if we can't overturn exceptionalism we can still write Saudi history and political economy better than we have done until now (not least by reading those who did it well before us). But what I said was

"It is hardly surprising that many otherwise smart people would get the history wrong. It is, after all, only about thirty years since the American historical profession began to acknowledge what the giant of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois, had revealed to be the myths about Reconstruction in the United States. It is only a generation since the creation of Black Studies departments in America and the desegregation of faculty in elite U.S. institutions. And only a generation since writers and literary critics such as Toni Morrison launched their brilliant attacks on racism in the history of letters, the construction of literary canons, and the criticisms worth making about the canonical texts. The social science disciplines are now facing the same kind of challenge. And with new studies en route to publication by people like Tim Mitchell, Katayoun Shafiee, Michael Dobe, Nate Citino, and, not least, Toby Jones himself, the historiography of oil and state formation in the Middle East that imagines American companies more like development missions than like rent-seekers is unlikely to be taken seriously much longer."

So more than a nod to Toby and others who might lead us out of the desert.

That said, I think--and my girlfriend backs me up on this one--I introduce the discussion of exceptionalism not with American history but Saudi Arabian history, using the anecdote of the prince who imagines Saudi Arabia being dropped from the sky rather than as emerging as part of the historical process. I suggest when that particular kind of Saudi exceptionalism narrative arises and why.

I think though you raise the important point that telling the story of institution building and institutional change after ARAMCO's moment is over, as the Utah sociologist Thomas O'Dea wrote, presciently in the mid-1960s, is the task at hand. And you hint at the answer. The institutions are in part borrowed and adapted certainly. But, and this is the part that I feel completely inadequate to handle so I am counting on you, we need an account of what is new or separate from what the Americans brought to Dhahran.

Sometimes when I give talks on this subject people--John Lewis Gaddis for one!--want to point out that the Saudis are busyy overseeing a hierarchical order of their own creation. Of course they are. I say so in my book. I just also say that that fact tells us nothing about the order the Americans constructed--as if it were in response to Saudi needs or wants or desires, as some before me have tried to claim.

Hierarchy is the problem that we need to be wrestling with much more seriously than we have for a while now.

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