Saturday, June 12, 2010

Political Essay on the Island of Cuba

Political Essay on the Island of Cuba by Alexander von Humboldt

As you may have guessed, another academia-related work. A primary source from the nineteenth century, as well, making for much harder to assess. It purports to be a detached and far-reaching analysis of the social history of Cuba. Like many nineteenth century histories, it's most interesting to my purposes for the (frequent) points that it falls down in this stance, the points where von Humboldt shows his moralistic assumptions, his preconceptions on race, his casual gendering of power and class.

Judged as a piece of writing in itself, I don't accept a lot of the specific claims von Humboldt makes, or indeed the larger pattern of history he traces. That's really due to a rejection of the underlying pattern of nineteenth century modernity rather than specific faults with him, though, and censuring his work as a failure is unduly harsh. It doesn't capture anything like the angle of complexity involved with Cuba and its political structures, though, and the flawed interpretation participated in a wider discourse that historians now seek to assess and contextualize.

Moving apart from larger content and historiography, it does benefit from decent prose (in translation) and a fairly good structuring of the main conclusion. This piece is only ever going to be an interest to specialists, however, and for reasons that are really beyond any aesthetic recommendation I'd offer. Just don't take it at face value as a descriptive account.

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