Braudels Donkey

article by Wouter Vanstiphout
Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project
1 May 2013

“The wind of rebellion has swept across the Mediterranean from North Africa towards Southern Europe”. This is a quote by the Belgian Political Scientist Eric Toussaint, who blogs for the Left Wing site International Viewpoint.1 His viewpoint is far from unique, hundreds of similar enthusiastic appraisals of the Arab Spring and the anti austerity demonstrations of the past year can be find in books, magazines, blogs and twitter accounts in Europe and the United States, by the superstars of neo-Marxism Mike Davis and David Harvey, and their myriad fellow travellers.

It seems that the Mediterranean has become a zone of promise for the end of capitalism. The images of demonstrations by angry youths in Syntagma square in Athens, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Habib Bourguiba avenue in Algiers, Tahrir Square in Egypt, blend into each other, and become one single panorama of urban revolution. Everywhere we see the monumental squares, dominated by huge bureaucratic buildings, normally congested traffic roundabouts filled with masses of flag waving citizens, who set up camp and refuse to leave until their demands are met.

We have to ask however whether this blending into each other, really does signify a common cause, and really is the sign of a global, urban revolution, or if this not just a massive, global bout of wishful thinking within the academic hives of left wing thought and the podiums of 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 both sides of the Mediterranean, identifying echoes of the revolutions of the nineteenth century.2 Mike Davis calls the Arab Spring an Arabian 1848, Harvey the Occupy movement a 21st century Commune, repeating the events of Paris 1871, when the citizens of Paris seized the city from the imperial troops and declared them ‘Commons’. Both try their utmost to link the regimes of Mubarak, Gadhafi, Ben Ali and Assad to the same predatory capitalism, that has caused the financial crisis, which in its turned caused the anger against Wall Street, that triggered Occupy, but which also led to the Euro Crisis, which then caused the austerity measures by southern European governments which led to the demonstrations by the indignados in Spain and their Greek brothers and sisters in Syntagma square in Athens.

While the Marxist left sees common cause in the demonstrations and riots on both sides of the sea, there is in fact an ironic contrast between the two. Occupy, the Indignados and many of the other austerity and crisis related demonstrations fluid, and flexible, not to say formless in their agendas. Their one point of consensus seems to be the wholesale refusal of the politico-financial system of Worldbank, European Union, and the politically moderate coalition governments that are (mis) managing the crisis. The people on the streets in the Arabian and Middle Eastern countries however, seem to ask for rights that to us have become undeniable, normal, banal even: democracy, one man one vote, freedom of speech, good governance and the right to do business, get educated and practice your religion. In other words the things they are demanding would seem utterly bourgeois to the theoreticians of the cross Mediterranean urban revolt. To put it even more bluntly, they are demanding the benefits of the free market constitutional democracy, the very system that Occupy and many of the hard left activists are trying to pull down.

But even if the revolts on either side of Mare Nostrum are moving in opposite directions, the Idea that the two sides of the Mediterranean might be moving in each others direction, is a strong one, entertained equally by the hard left as by the xenophobic and eurosceptical right. The political and financial crisis about the European Monetary Union has revealed a deep chasm between northern and southern Europe, with countries like France on the Brink of belonging either to the ‘good’ north, or to the ‘bad’ south. Countries that are nearly defaulting on their debt obligations: Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, are lumped together as the ‘Garlic economies’. The distrust between the northern countries and the southern has been fed by the images of revolting youths burning cars on the streets of Athens, that are easily associated and even confused with images of the Arab Spring. Xenophobic populist parties like that of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have switched from aiming at the immigrants from north Africa to attacking the parasitical EU members Greece, Spain and Italy. On a policy level, splitting Europe in a two speed union is being discussed, even with two different coins: the N-Euro and the S-Euro.

What holds the Mediterranean region ‘together’ at this point, is that it produces most of the political, economic and demographic issues that divide Europe, and even the World. It is the region where the European Union is breaking apart, the region where the wave of immigration come from, or pass through, that fuel xenophobic populism, it is the region of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and of Civil War in the Balkans and currently in Syria. In a purely negative way, it still is Mare Nostrum: Our Sea that defines who we are and around which the world revolves. Only this time it does not distribute goods, knowledge, culture and wealth, like it did in antiquity, but strife and controversy.

The divisive role of the region in the contemporary political imagination reinforces an old but controversial hypothesis that Europe and the Mediterranean are mutually exclusive as coherent regions. It was put forward from the early twenties onward by the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne. In 1922 he published a legendary article called “Mahomet et Charlemagne” in which he pushed forward the beginning of the European Middle Ages from 426 AC, the year the Western Roman Empire collapsed, to 732, the battle of Tours, when Charles Martel stopped the conquering armies of the Muslim Umayyad’s, who in the century after Mohammed’s death had conquered most of the Southern Mediterranean and large parts of Spain.3

For Pirenne, ‘732’ marks the ending of a European economy that was still mostly based on the trade routes of the old Western Roman Empire, and that was until then oriented towards the south, as it had been for centuries. Cut off from the trade based Mediterranean economy, Northern Europe went through a deep economic slump, and fell back on agriculture as its main source of sustenance. The Battle however built the foundation for the Carolingian empire that dominated north western Europe for the next century. It was here, Pirenne claims that the feudal system was developed, and the mediaeval civilization could grow. One of the most successful products of this originally agricultural and feudal mediaeval civilization was the city. Here the free burghers, capitalism, banking, insurances, democracy, philosophy art and most of all a ruthless and limitless hunger for trade were developed. It was these cities, as Pirenne stated in his seminal ‘Medieval Cities: their Origins and the revival of Trade” (1925) that would cause the comeback of Europe on the Mediterranean in the later Middle Ages. But in the end, as the ‘Pirenne thesis’ goes, without being cut off from the Mediterranean by the struggle with the Arab World, Europe would never have become what it is. Even if Pirenne's version of events has been heavily criticized by historians since, it does perfectly illustrate a conception of the Mediterranean sea as a conflict zone, the dominion over which defines the identity and even the survival of its neighboring peoples and regions.

It is therefor of such interest and such a relief even, that one of Pirenne’s own pupils, would be the one to come up with an entirely different, much more hopeful and open, perspective on the Mediterranean. Fernand Braudel, who dominated post war historiography just as Pirenne had dominated in the pre-war period, published in 1949 The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. The title might seem to restrict the author to a few decades in the late sixteenth century (Philip II was King of Castile, and lived from 1527 to 1598), but in fact the book exploded the whole notion of time used by Historians until then. The Mediterranean was the book that would make the name of the Annales school of history, founded in the twenties by Lucien Febvre. Fèbvre, Braudel and their likeminded colleagues such as Marc Bloch, transformed history from a narrative based science, with a strong focus on political power, warring nation states and strong personalities, to a much more scientific discipline, interested in structural transformations on the social and economic level, that underlie the historical events.

In ‘The Mediterranean’ this was taken to its logical end. Braudel identifies three levels of time: the ‘Longue Durée’, being the ‘time’ of geography, the ‘moyenne durée’, meaning the time of social and economic patterns and movements, and the ‘courte durée’ being the time of individuals and events. This approach was defined as the radical alternative to the history of events, (‘Histoire Evénementielle’) which had been the rule up till then. Strangely enough, this scientific, quantitative method has produced one of the most absorbing literary epics of its time. By choosing a specific time in history, the late sixteenth century, Braudel looks deep into the geographical structure, the economic flows and social patterns, the culture and the stories of the Mediterranean, nearly as a-historical qualities, belonging much more to their space than to their time. The decades of his title are merely the way into this amazingly complex and rich singular personality, which is the Mediterranean region.

Philip II was the king under whose reign the trade routes, and therefor the hub of worldwide relations, would finally shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. It was therefor somewhat of a twilight era for the Mediterranean, but a twilight pushed forwards nearly a thousand years from Pirenne’s thesis. In the foreword to the English edition of 1972, Braudel repeats forcefully his claim against the analysis à la Pirenne, that the rise of Islam, had early on fatally broken the Mediterranean as the sea that held the surrounding regions together: “I retain the firm conviction that the Turkish Mediterranean lived and breathed with the same rhythms as the Christian, that the whole sea shared a common destiny, a heavy one indeed, with identical problems and general trends if not identical consequences.”4

The ‘living and breathing’ is then illustrated by the first series of chapters where Braudel describes life in the mountains, plateau and plains that make up the peninsulas sticking into the sea and the Seas and the coasts, that make up the Mediterranean. He comes up with the fascinating observation that people living in the mountain areas of the region have more in common with each other, in the way they grow food, migrate, build and trade - no matter that they might live hundreds of miles apart - than with the people who live on the plains and the plateau a few miles down hill. There is a typical section that you could make all around the sea, going from the mountains down to the seashore, that repeats the same pattern of groups of people living close by, but in completely different ways, with different patterns and flows governing their lives. This sectional approach to the Mediterranean does a better job in describing the essence and the coherence of the region than the often politically defined maps, with zones of influences coloured into a flattened out representation of the geography.

Another fascinating chapter is on the boundaries that define the Mediterranean; It ironically recalls the ‘garlic economies’ slur, much used by eurosceptics and populists in the Eurozone debates. Garlic consumption could have been a Braudelian definition of what holds together the Mediterranean, Braudel however favors the Olive tree, as an indicator. One of the first and most obvious boundaries identified by Braudel is the double one of the northern limit of the Olive Tree and the northern limit of the Palm grove, with everything inbetween defined as ‘The Mediterranean”. Other boundaries are defined by the endings or beginnings of the Saharan caravans, or more geologically by the great mountain ranges, or the straits of Gibraltar, or politically by the edges of the zones of influence of the northern European and Ottoman kingdoms and empires. But the chapter is mainly important not for defining the boundaries, but for endlessly stretching and layering them, identifying how each border is another interface with another network of roads, passes, sea routes etcetera, offering even the Idea that in the sixteenth century it was the Mediterranean that shaped the Atlantic and Asian trade routes, moving one historian, when reviewing the first edition of Braudels Mediterranean, to regret the fact that the donkey had not been given more space in the colonization of the west and East Indies, because the image of a peasant riding his ‘Burro’ in Mexico, made him realize that indeed, the Mediterranean, once upon a time, stretched all the way to the Americas.5

Moving gradually through the book, from the Long waves of geographical history, the middle waves of human settlement and economy, into the short wave frequency of conflict and other ‘events’, Braudel turns the normal historical description of the region on its head. He demonstrates how the conflicts of the crusades, the struggles between the Turks an the Venetians, the Genoese and the Venetians, the Spanish, the Byzantines, the battle of Lepanto, the war of Granada, were all actually part of this one, living and breathing civilization - or history – machine called the Mediterranean. War and peace, growing and shrinking empires, could all be absorbed into the middle waves of its economy and social development. The struggles, were symptomatic, short outbursts of tension, caused by the much slower movements of people and goods, just like volcano’s erupting or earthquakes, are the result of the plates of the earth moving at a geological pace.

So if we bring this back to Henri Pirenne’s thesis of the Mediterranean falling apart as result of the fortunes of one empire over another, Braudel does not counter this claim directly. He absorbs it, swallows it up whole in his magnificent epic of the slow history of the Mediterranean. The temporary retreat of Europe into itself, and the development of capitalism out of the feudal Carolingian Empire, while the Arab world rules the Mediterranean, is just one wave, on the middle frequency, that serves to underline the centrality of the Mediterranean to all things human, until the colonization of the Asian and American shores made the world exponentially bigger, that is. Civilizations, economic connections and political unions, are made subservient to slower and deeper movements of people, and settlement patterns, which in their turn are the result of an excruciatingly incremental adaptation to landscape, climate and geography.

Braudel not just absorbs the conflicts between the Islamic world and the Christian world in the longue durée of the Mediterranean history, he defines the conflict as that what keeps the regions together. To this end he employs the term of ‘complementary enemies’, powers condemned to living together and sharing the Mediterranean sea, with the wars and battles as the ‘courte durée’ incidents in centuries long periods of cohabitation. He sees conflict and competition as fundamental parts of the coexistence, and shows how the conflict caused by invading outsiders, always results in assimilation, not assimilation by the dominant party, but assimilation in the deeper geographical and economic logic of the Mediterranean. About the role of the competing powers in Braudels model of the region, the Historian Daniel Purdy writes: “In order for either to assert a structural continuity that survives major wars, they must have an idea of the Mediterranean that exists independent of sovereign states, institutions, religions and armies.”6 Purdy also points at the relationship between the writing of La Mediterranee, and the increasingly contentious and problematic theme of Frances colonial presence on the other side of the sea, in Algeria. He, with many more contemporary historians, reads Braudels book through the lens of the conflict between the ‘complementary enemies’ of the Algerian liberation forces and Frances army, or: between the French Pieds Noirs, and the Algerian natives, or: between France’s claim to a special role in the Mediterranean versus the pressure from America for the country to let go of its colonies. In that context, Braudels book reads like a spell, woven to absorb the conflicts, tensions and controversies of its time, into the epic sweep of the historical annals. Braudel was certainly reformulating ‘the Idea of the Mediterranean’, and thereby indirectly redefining France’s role in the region for the twentieth and twenty first century.

It did not come as a total surprise then that, when President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled his plans for a Mediterranean Union, at a grand event in the Parisian Grand Palais on July 13th 2008, Le Monde had as headline “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Nicolas Sarkozy”, sarcastically echoing Braudels title. Both in the supportive comments from the French press, as in the critical comments from the German, the North African and even the Israeli Press, references were made to Braudels, already nearly sixty year old masterpiece. All of a sudden the ideological force of the historical study into trade relations in the late sixteenth century came to the fore. Haaretz even accused Sarkozy of following up on the ‘poetic daydreams’ of Fernand Braudel, and in an extensive analysis Die Welt connected the Anti German feelings behind Sarkozy’s union with the fact that many of the historians of the Annales school to which Braudel belonged, including himself, had suffered at the hands of the German occupiers in the second world war.7 Also the connection was made between the roots of Braudels work, and therefor of the intellectual basis for France’s Mediterranean interest, in the brutal colonialism of the French. All the while Sarkozy talked of a deeper bond between the civilizations of the Mediterranean, absolving France from its sins in the colonial wars, and waxing romantically about a common future.

In the end the Mediterranean Unions climax, was its beginning, and soon after it was ‘assimilated’ into the deadening bureaucratic mazes of the European Union, with all member states also, member of the Mediterranean Union (Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands….), and with the southern and western Mediterranean members only sending third tier representatives to the Grand Palais. Now it consists of a number of subsidy streams for depolluting the sea, for solar energy, for a euro-Mediterranean university in Slovenia, and some institutions, all surviving on a pittance. Sarkozy’s union is a bureaucratic version of many other plans of the past hundred years that project enormous European ambitions on the Mediterranean, and then flounder without any effect on the ground what so ever. The brief moment of excitement over another doomed collective vision is added as a fourth time scale to the three scales introduced by Braudel : Longue Durée, Moyenne Durée, Courte Durée and Non Durée.

One of the most strange plans in this strange tradition of failure, was Hermann Sorgels Atlantropa project for the re-engineering and colonization of the entire Mediterranean region. Damming the straits of Gibraltar, and lowering the sea level would create new Lebensraum for the European countries and land bridges between Spain and Morocco, Italy and Tunisia. Hydroelectric dams in the Sea of Marmara and a landlocked Venice, would be some of the results. The aim of the Atlantropa, a movement that managed to exist for three decades between 1922 and 1952 - exactly time frame in which Braudel developed his method as a historians and wrote his masterpiece - and to attract enough funds to hire world famous architects to design the engineering projects and to lobby politicians and investors, was to conjoin Europe and Africa around the Mittelmeer as the hub of their new found collective prosperity.

Another, more recent, example, that seems ironically aware of its tradition, is the ‘Roadmap 2050’ plan by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, for the total redesign of Europe and North Africa, on a grid of renewable energy, substituting nation states with regions specialized in one particular energy source, the alps, the Pyrenees and other mountain ranges become ‘Hydropia’, because of the water energy, the North Sea becomes ‘The Isles of Wind”, Central Europe becomes ”Enhanced Geothermalia” and the Mediterranean coast and sea becomes “Solaria”. Essentially the same hysterico-colonialism as Sorgels was projected on Europe and the Mediterranean, but this time not fuelled by the desire for economic power and lebensraum, but by the dream of renewable energy and continental autarchia. Also Interesting is the fact that just as there is a historical - or at least a chronological – resonance between Braudels Mediterranee (1949), and Sorgels Atlantropa (1928 – 1952), there is one too between Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union (2008) and OMA’s Eneropa (2010). The plan was commissioned by the European Climate foundation, and was last heard of being under consideration by the EU council of Ministers for their possible endorsement.8

There is a connection between the repeating attempts by European Politicians, Visionary Engineers and Architects, to ‘take back’ the Mediterranean and Braudels grand historiographical vision of the wholeness of the region. Probably the connection lies not so much in the deep memory of ‘losing’ the Mediterranean to the Muslims, as Pirenne would have it, but much more in the painful post-war period of decolonization in the fifties and sixties. Especially in France, losing Algeria, and having to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Pieds Noirs – the French colonists in Algeria – to France, in the aftermath of a brutal war, created a national Trauma. This trauma however was not unique; it resonated with similar feelings of loss and resentment in the UK and the Netherlands that lost their East and West Indian colonies, and Belgium and Portugal losing their African colonies. But the proximity, and the historical meaning of the Mediterranean made this particular loss all the more dramatic and prone to emotional regurgitations of colonial ambitions like those by Nicolas Sarkozy, and the OMA.

But to put it in Braudelian terms of an elastic Mediterranean: the violent decolonization not only dramatically increased the distance between Europe and the southern Mediterranean, creating a new border straight through the middle of the sea, at the same time it collapsed the distances, broke down the borders between colonizer and colonized, while creating new ones right in the heart of our own territories. After losing Algeria, in the wake of the first remigration wave of Pieds noirs, French cities saw the arrival of a wave of immigration from former French colonies and other north African countries, like Tunisia and Morocco. Attracted and actively sought after by the French industrial boom, they came as guest workers. During the seventies, when the size of the immigrant population increased through new arrivals and through the reunion with their families, the immigrants repopulated the enormous housing estates built in the fifties and sixties, now abandoned by the first generation of French middle classes who started to prefer the suburban lifestyle. The French Banlieues of cities throughout the entire country became more and more ‘Mediterranean’, and less and less French, with Spanish, Greek and Yugoslav guest workers mixing with the immigrants from the Maghreb and eventually also from Africa. Similar processes happened in other parts of Europe as well, where the first wave of Spanish, Italian and Greek guest workers were replaced by the second wave of Turks and Moroccans. In similar ways they arrived in the pre war popular working class neighborhoods of Brussels, Antwerp, Berlin, Hamburg, Rotterdam or Amsterdam, during (or sometimes causing) the exodus of the white working classes to the new suburbs. Later, often during the eighties, they also started to move into the post war housing estates , replacing the white working classes and lower middle classes who had lived there for decades.

Similar geographies were the result, joining together cities that were otherwise completely different, and with thousands of miles, borders and languages between them. The contested space of the Mediterranean now reached the borders of the historical towncentres all over Europe, from cities on the Mediterranean coast, all the way to Scandinavia. We see the same basic structure of a relatively prosperous inner city, surrounded by a patchwork of neighborhoods that have either been gentrified, or are now dominated by poor immigrant populations. Around the beltway we see the post war housing estates, first the scene of an uneasy arrangement between the white lower middle classes and the immigrant families, now often dominated by the last group. And further out we wind the suburbs, where the middle classes , and the white former inhabitants of the working class neighborhoods and the post war housing estates have fled to. This is more or less the typical section of the European City.

Similar geographies also bring with them similar social and political shifts and controversies. The political disaffectation of the white middle classes, the rise of anti-immigrant populist parties, the crack down of the political mainstream on immigration, on radical Islam, are phenomena shared by many if not most western European countries. What we recognize when we move from Toulouse to Antwerp to Rotterdam to Berlin, Aarhus and back to Paris, is neighborhoods, street cultures, smells, even the same type of accentuations of the local language. Kreuzberg seems much closer to the Rotterdam Afrikaanderwijk, than it does to the center of Berlin, which it lies right next to. The 99% immigrant estate of Gellerup near Aarhus, seems much closer to Le Mirail, the Candillis & Woods designed Satellite town of Toulouse, than to the medieval center of the Danish city. We recognize not just the Mosques, the Döner outlets, or the headscarves: we recognize a similar hybrid culture where the immigration from the Mediterranean sphere, has come together with the ruins of the welfare state from the fifties and sixties. This has produced an alloy between western post-war systems, either physical or social economic, and the cohabitation of cultures from far flung reaches of the Mediterranean region and beyond. This strange combination is what nearly all Western European cities share, squeezed in between their also increasingly uniform centers and suburbs, and which distinguishes them from cities outside Europe.

This essay started out with an observation of an observation: that certain left wing scholars have identified the urban struggles on either side of the Mediterranean, from Syntagma square to Tahrir Square, as signals of a new coming together between the working classes and rebellious youths of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In a way this is a radical, revolutionary twin to the dreams by visionary engineers like Hermann Sorgel, Ironic utopians like the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or Bonapartesque Heads of State like Nicolas Sarkozy, to reunite the countries around the Middle Sea. They all share the vision of dissolving the national borders into a shared culture, either defined by trade routes, renewable energy grids or ideological dogma.

Conversely, we have also seen how the European Monetary Crisis, has caused North Western countries to assert their distance from the Mediterranean countries, and their cultures, describing them with derogatory terms as the garlic economies, that do not possess the fiscal rigor or the political stability, that northern Europe does have, implying that they belong more to the Mediterranean region, than to Europe. Here we see very clearly the legacy of Henri Pirennes “Mahomet & Charlemagne”, being played out in the cavernous halls of European politics.

In the end however, the real pertinence of the Mediterranean is not that of a geopolitical zone, a grouping of nation states with clear borders around a sea, that may or may not have things in common. I think the Mediterranean shows its real presence in our cities, in an extremely condensed form, concentrating millennia migration and conflict in urban memes that precisely because of the copresence of so many non-European cultures, are quintessentially European, i.e. Mediterranean.

To really grasp the richness and to find a language to talk about it, we need something of a new Braudelian project for the 21st century. Not one celebrating the Mediterranean region that provide cover for empty institutionalization or technocratic visions, but one creeping into the depths of our European cities, exposing their “common destiny”, “identical problems and general trends if not identical consequences”, demonstrating how they also “live and breath with the same rhythms”. We would use the Braudelian tool of identifying different ‘durées’, in describing how cities are not so much riding upon the different economic wavelengths, but are the results of how the different ‘durees’ of politics, economics, culture, climate sometimes violently interfere. We have to develop a similar sectional approach to urban analysis, instead of the technocratic and statist use of maps, in understanding their socio-physical make-up. We have to equally develop a similar literary approach, crossing the streetwise and daily experiences in urban areas, to demonstrate how they might me thousands of miles apart, but eerily alike.

Most of all we could learn from Fernand Braudel his amazingly layered and complex approach to conflict, difference and shifting boundaries. In “La Mediterranee” the Mediterranean is not a sea with countries around it, an immanent dynamic process of complementary enemies, shifting boundaries, and common rhythms. This might be a very ‘French’, structuralist, even cerebral approach to the troubles of our urban and political environment. But do not forget that for Braudel this approach made it possible to organize the most concrete and empirical knowledge about daily lives in mountain villages, geological formations and climate change, up to political and economic policies on the grand scale. Such a non-deterministic, even post-historical approach, could inspire a much contextual and pragmatic approach to our urban problems. Current urban politics and planning is often determined by deterministic, and overly historicist thinking. Cities are going through phases in linear development processes, sometimes cyclical, sometimes not. This creates a discourse about certain areas that are ‘no longer up to date’, or that sometimes progress, and therefor demolition for redevelopment is unavoidable, because of the ‘changing times’. It explains the frequent use of schematic models and diagrams, that demonstrate the ‘ideal’ positioning of services, densities, infrastructure, such as the famous Christaller hexagons that still determine planning. This clean, deterministic technocratic approach makes it very hard to swallow the imperfections of cities. Their dark side, their opacity and idiosyncrasies, are seen as failures to conform to the plans and models, and thus a reason to intervene even harder.

Braudel can teach us to treat cities differently, without the use of metaphysical visions, or technocratic models. A new Braudelian project for the city, could be the analytical companion to a highly contextualist, local and pragmatist approach to cities, that however does possess a certain universality, because it can constantly profit from the spider web of connections and resonances across the continent. Gellerup and Le Mirail share many of their problems, and possible outcomes; indeed they ‘live and breathe with the same rhythm’, one that is very different from the rhythm of central Aarhus or central Toulouse. Why then the constant attempts to force them into conforming to French, or Danish standards, something that has produced nothing but failure and frustration in both cases?

If we would only learn to dissolve the rigid categories of history and geography, that we now use in rationalizing our urban policies and our plans and designs, we would be able to react to the cities real demands in a much more pragmatic and more exciting way. In order to do that however, we need to release the “Mediterranean of the mind” that lurks inside us and inside our cities. We need to remember that Braudel chose as a key moment from which he catapulted himself into the deep complexity of his book, a time when the Mediterranean as a central place in human geography was waning due to the discoveries in America and Asia. This moment of waning provoked a thinking about the Mediterranean afterlife, how its former dominance over the trade routes, was reincarnated in an artistic, scholarly and philosophical dominance, with the immense creative upsurge in Venice in its powerless seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as an example.

Something similar might inspire a Braudelian project for the 21st century. Also we have a sense of the waning of the west, let alone of Europe as the dominant region of sensible politics, welfare state services, religious tolerance and equanimity and intelligence all around. Also we are seeing our powers sapping to the south and to the east. Also we are seeing our former ideologies crashing like the neo-liberalist market economy, or desperately flailing about, like the neo-Marxist belief in global workers revolution. And in our cities, in the way they seem to be ripping themselves apart alongside the boundaries of inequality and intolerance, we also seem to be losing our grip. In that sense there is a double resonance, first with the highly uncertain times when Braudel wrote his Méditerrannee - during and immediately after the second world war - and with the time he focused on: 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, our cities, as a vast beast 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 in our narrative of urban Europe give a central place to all the intimate, local, small experiences, because these are the ones that truly connect us to the world, just like the Donkey in Braudels book, stretching the Mediterranean all the way to Mexico.

Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities, their Origins and the Revival of Trade, Princeton 1969
Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, New York 1976

  1., Eric Toussaint, Part III: From the Arab Spring to the Indignados movement to Occupy Wall Street THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT OF GLOBAL OUTRAGE (IN 5 PARTS),Friday 13 January 2012, retrieved 22 october, 2012
  2. Mike Davis, Spring confronts winter: editorial, in: New Left Review 72, November – December 2011
    David Harvey, Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso Books, London 2012
  3. Henri Pirenne, Mahomet & Charlemagne, Revue Belge de philologie et de l’histoire 1 (1922), p 77 – 86
  4. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, New York 1976, Vol. 1, p.14
  5. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, New York 1976, vol 1, p. 226
  6. Daniel Purdy, Draft Paper MLA 2008, Penn State University,, retrieved October 22, 2012
  7. Wolf Lepenies, Fernand Braudel und die wege ans Mittelmeer, Die Welt, 05.08.08 (, retrieved October 22, 2012)
  8. For both Hermann Sorgels Atlantropa and OMA’s Eneropa, see: Wouter Vanstiphout, Design is Politics: Inaugural Lecture chair of Design as Politics, Faculty of Architecture, Technical University Delft, June 19, 2009, ( retrieved October 22, 2012)

article in: New Geographies 5: The Mediterranean, Harvard Graduate School of Design. Edited by Antonio Petrov. May 2013