Sunday, March 20, 2016

Alexis Wick's "The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space"

Alexis Wick is Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Beirut.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford must have had some sort of mystical insight when he came up with the idea that Page 99 of any book would reveal something special and significant about the quality and nature of the whole. Page 99 of The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space is headed by one of the very rare illustrations in the book, covering about a third of the printed space of the page. This singularity bespeaks its crucial importance to the larger project as a whole, which is fundamentally dedicated to an exploration of the constitutive features of the modern historian’s craft, and, more particularly, a reflection on the question of how specific spaces (and not others) become viable subjects of history. At the origin of the book were two rather simple discoveries. First, a historiographical observation: there was no holistic account of the Red Sea remotely comparable Fernand Braudel’s famous treatment of the Mediterranean, even though the space seemed to be an obvious candidate as a coherent actor. This led me to the records of the Ottoman empire, which had administered most of the shores of the sea in the modern period. Second, an archival finding: the Ottomans almost never used the category ‘Red Sea’, until the second half of the nineteenth century, when it becomes ubiquitous. The resulting book simultaneously presents the general contours of a geohistory of that distinctive space, even as it analyzes its scholarly marginalization, reveals the invention of the Red Sea as a discreet scientific object and traces the genealogy of the concept of the sea more largely. But it also explores what the writing of history outside of the Eurocentric analytic of objective space and time may look like. And this is where the illustration on Page 99 comes in: it is an image of an Ottoman document, which serves as the backbone of my attempt to write geohistory otherwise, as the chapter is constructed along the complete translation and intimate reading of the text. Instead of treating the document as a straightforward pool of data, I approach it as containing in its interstices a whole cosmos, which indeed may even suggest a different notion of spatiality entirely, and therefore an alternative way of thinking and being in the world.
Learn more about The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue