Monday, July 09, 2007

Steal This Book!

This has been my train reading for the last week or so. Dense in parts but thoroughly captivating for anyone with an interest in the history of ideas. Social anthropologist Jack Goody delves behind the terminology used by respected philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and political theorists to show how many of those concepts (time, space, capitalism, civilization) were either derived from encounters with other societies or were influenced by them in ways that generally go unacknowledged and which consequently skew both the theorists' and our own understanding of history, society, and the world as a whole. Norbert Elias's use of the term "civilization" is a rather obvious target, and Goody's criticism is one that many on the left will be comfortable accepting; his critique of Marx and Braudel's understanding of "capitalism" may, however, raise a few eyebrows, although anyone familiar with Castoriadis's objections to Marx's retrofitting of history will feel on familiar territory (Goody enhances Castoriadis's criticism by drawing out the eurocentrism of Marx's definition of capitalism, a eurocentrism that endows capitalism with distinctively western features and a concomitant history).

Not only are ideas stolen from other societies, but as a consequence of this theft, oriental and other non-western societies are also denied a history in their own right because of the eurocentric reapplication of those concepts; China, for instance, is regarded as having been generally unchanged for thousands of years when in fact it just avoided the dramatic upheavals that typified European history. This denial of a past disguises patterns of development as valid and as rich as those that took place elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, but are ruled as out of bounds because the terms borrowed from those societies have acquired western definitions that do not recognize the subtlety and distinctiveness of alternative patterns of development.

Trust me, it's more interesting than it sounds. Give it a read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read that as "Jade Goody". I wonder what anthropological significance that has?! Sounds good, I'll add it to my pile.