Spaces of the Long Revolution

by MT

Raymond Williams called the process of industrialization a “long revolution,” a namesake of his book. Well, it is a long book, too. What we read in the high school history textbook about industrialization in three lines is perhaps several years of work of a historian. Today I saw in the library another book on industrialization by Eric Hobsbawm: Industry and Empire (1968). I wonder whether we should be grateful or fearful for those great historians who have worked on this conspicuous topic. In a way they debunk a long process that has often been oversimplified and mystified, but on the other hand these books also reveal that I know almost nothing about industrialization. Well, of course there is division of labor (which, unfortunately, is also the name of a thick heavy book written by Durkheim) initiated by the technological invention of jenny, waterframe, flying shutter, and steam power machine. But moreover what I think the historians and sociologists are up to is the long-term transformation of social and economic structure. The caricature of class conflict in the writing of Marx and Engels, especially the later, is the culmination of this long process. For architectural and landscape historians, perhaps what is interesting is the change in spatial structure and land division. In Postmodern Geographies (1989), Edward Soja has argued for the need of spatial sensitivity in the study of history (in a weird way he seems to be arguing that geographers are more important than historians). On the contrary, in her methodological chapter on ecology and history in Ecological Revolutions (1989), Caroline Merchant points out the necessary temporal dimension in the study of a economic pattern, what she called a dynamic structure.

Ok, before we stray into abstract high-flown discussions, isn’t it obvious that we need both historians as well as geographers? Or, to put it in a more interesting way, isn’t it obvious that architectural historians need to look at landscape, and vice versa? In this later case, the cross-disciplinary fertilization seems to emerge only in the recent decades. However the long tradition of urban history has provided an interesting intersection of politics, space, buildings, and social structures. This is what is so great about John Summerson’s Georgian London (1945) and Donald Olsen’s Town Planning in London: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1964/1982). Of course it is also impossible for geographers to work without concerning change and transformation. Miles Ogborn, for instance, has this book called Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680-1780 (1998). In Summerson and Olsen we learn about land speculation and land tenure system and its influence on building design and cultural landscape, whereas Ogborn inquires the phenomenon and mentality of modernity (now a catch-all term) throughout 18th century London. The good thing is that the contents of these books rarely overlap with one another—a proof that you can never exhaust a topic too much. Now, I feel a bit better for not knowing as much about industrialization as Hobsbawn or Raymond Williams. Is this the so-called therapeutic power of writing?