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Miraculous Eurasia

Here is a truly original book, one that shakes the foundations of Western theory about the “Orient” and that presents us with a number of original and surprising ideas concerning China, India, and the Arab world. Today, we can look towards Asia in a new way: Kipling’s epigram (“East is East, and West is West; And never the twain shall meet”) can be definitively buried.

Perhaps few people lose sleep at night worrying about the apparently archaic entity called Eurasia. But let us recapitulate. In order to comprehend Eurasia, we must first try to understand Europe. Jack Goody therefore deals with some inherent fallacies in our view of this small region at the western corner of Asia, which, he claims, shares more similarities than differences with the Orient. A hegemonic binary model has long dominated the social sciences, separating East and West and turning Asia into a primitive and subaltern entity, supposedly never having taken the Great Leap Forward in terms of industrialisation and modernisation. According to Western orthodoxy, this Great Leap (ironically suggestive of Mao) happened within the confines of Northwestern Europe following the Industrial Revolution in England. Asia, with its monstrous bureaucracies, fell behind, stagnating. The evolutionary process so holy to nineteenth-century thinkers – Antiquity, Feudalism, Capitalism – was not replicated in the Orient. Even further back, the Renaissance, or by osmosis the Discoveries, only characterised Europe, granting an anticipatory “advantage” for future industrialisation. In sum, the West – supported by cultural traits such as individualism, the nuclear family, and the (Protestant) spirit of capitalism – became the global vanguard.

Pitilessly, Goody deconstructs this model. Eurocentric, egotistical, and hegemonic, the orthodox vision has been converted into what Bourdieu would call doxa, passing into our common-sense heritage of unquestionable notions.

The supposed specificity of the West – “the uniqueness of the West” – is in fact revealed to have been a myth. Goody demonstrates that both the Renaissance as well as the Industrial Revolution had profound influences from Asia; moreover, the Christian Church was not the cradle of capitalism. A substantially older proto-capitalism prevailed over the entire Eurasian continent, starting in about 3000 B.C., the era archaeologists tend to designate as the Bronze Age or the Urban Revolution. An incipient capitalism based on commercial exchanges between diverse cultures and States then characterised Europe as well as Asia.[1]

So herein lies the heterodox nature of the argument: very little in fact ever set Europe apart from the rest of the world, which had already been immersed in networks of transactions well before so-called modern, and so-called financial, capitalism. The aim here is not to diminish the role of the West, but rather to resituate it; there was no prior “advantage” within Europe with respect to the rest of the globe, but alternations between West and East, between Europe and Asia. These alternations resurface today, with the apparently uncontrolled “development” of China and India.

Goody’s enemies – mouthpieces of the classic hegemonic model – include two groups: first, Marx, Weber, Malthus, Braudel, Dumont, and Laslett. But Goody does not irreverently attack the work of these scholars; he merely disagrees with the abstract concept of the perennial advantage of the West, which has resulted from the accumulated theories of all of them. “Alternation automatically rejects essentialism and the notion of permanent advantage” (p. 2). The more immediate adversaries are the authors of four volumes published in the 1980s, which attempted to solidify the supremacy of Europe, and, in consequence, the innate superiority of Western Europe, Northwest Europe, and finally England. The culprits are: J. Baechler, J. A. Hall, and M. Mann’s Europe and the Rise of Capitalism (1988), Hall’s Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West (1985), and Mann’s The Sources of Social Power (1986). Before these, E. L. Jones’ volume The European Miracle: Environments, Economics, and Geopolitics (1981) had already set the stage. In Goody’s reinterpretation, however, there never was any “European miracle”. The genuine miracle came much further back in history, from a time when Europe and Asia were unified through commercial and cultural contacts. These intimate links and intercontinental diffusions were whitewashed, thus turning the Eurocentric stance into an essentialist vision, based on categorical (teleological) affirmations unsupported by scientific data.

A personal note is also detectable in Goody’s argument: he was a participant in the conference leading to Europe and the Rise of Capitalism – which he refers to as “the Miracle book” – but the counter-argument he made there was not included in the publication.[2] This may have been the start of a kind of crusade, in which Goody’s vision gallops forward (not without some repetition between volumes) from The East in the West and The Theft of History right up to the current book. A careful reading of his much more encyclopaedic The Oriental, the Ancient, and the Primitive (1990) reveals that this anti-Eurocentric stance had not yet been developed there, or at least only appeared in a significantly more timid fashion, usually dangling at chapter endings.

So is his current stance a revolutionary one? Almost. Let us see why.

The analysis moves forward through space and time coordinates.  One of the factors underlying European superiority is meant to be restrictions on fertility – but Goody suggests these were not unique to Europe. And what of democracy? Goody’s view is that “…democracy did not flourish in Europe alone, and there not until at least the eighteenth century. No tradition of political democracy was permanently established there following antiquity, except in the minds and writings of later European scholars (and perhaps among pirates, rebels and similar marginal groups)” (pp. 28-9). Even the tradition of troubadour love is unmasked as less “European” than was thought; in 12th-century Provence, the troubadours were profoundly influenced by Muslim Spain.

Goody also claims that individualism – whether European, English, or North American – was not unique to the West. Rather, he says, “Individualism (basically seen as a masculine attribute) has been appropriated by the west as a concept purporting to explain entrepreneurship and modernisation in western Europe and America, where it is a typical quality of the male adventurer who goes to live on the expanding frontier” (p. 27, emphasis added). And what about “arranged marriages” – so characteristic of mythical Indian (and by extension, Asian) backwardness, and so repressive of individual desire? There were similar arrangements in Europe as well, of course, particularly within the higher social classes. Here also, was the individual not repressed?

Did the Industrial Revolution originate in England? Nothing of the sort. Minutely dissecting the diffusion of the silk industry, Goody concludes that the latter originated in China, passing through Lucca in Italy, then through Bologna and France only later to arrive in England, at Derby in 1718. This was the path of the first weaving machines. Was this then plagiarism, “theft”, or simply an inter-cultural route of commerce? In other words, and in present-day jargon, the supposedly English Industrial Revolution had its origins in Asia. Afterwards, it was globalised, via a complex network interlacing Asia with Southern Europe.

From the first page, the reader is obliged to stop, think, reconsider, ponder novel perspectives, and cast doubt over our collective Common Sense. The first step of the argument is clinched: the supremacy of the West was never perennial, but merely suffered advances and retreats.

The book contains a number of allusions, by the way, to Portugal (the supposed vanguard of the Discoveries, as long as we subtlely silence Venice’s earlier role), specifically with reference to spice routes, cloth, and Vasco da Gama’s arrival in 1498 on the western coast of India.[3] The Discoveries, not underestimated by Goody, had their impact and moment. But earlier, the Middle Ages constituted an obvious retreat; the Renaissance was a clear advance. Again, alternation is the key, instead of any enduring supremacy. Only in the middle of the book does the reader enter a kind of total reorientation of thinking …

What then is the second step of the argument? Again, Goody stresses that it is not his intention to denigrate the West, but merely to resituate its contributions within a wider and more global context, thus pointing out the reciprocal influences. A common culture spread outwards from the Near East in one direction towards India and China, and in another to Greece and Rome. Since the influential works of Morgan (1877) and the archaeologist Childe (1939) continuity prevailed, which Goody terms interacting civilisations in Eurasia. Why then did the Orient not develop?

The query is insidious, and should perhaps be rephrased: during which decades and centuries did the East develop considerably? Goody offers documentary proof – through exhaustive readings of the scientific literature on the Orient (by both Western and Eastern specialists) – for topics such as the following. The Indian castes did not really “block” Indian business activity; already in the 13th century, Marco Polo had registered notable civilisational features in China; the first cities found by Europeans in India were “larger than London and Paris”; the Indian Ocean had been “discovered” by figures (only recently analysed) such as Cheng He, well before the European navigators, and some millennia earlier it had seen trade by Arabs, Chinese, and Indians and later by Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Romans. Furthermore, Asian libraries were gigantic in comparison with those in Europe at the time: the imperial library in China in 978 had 80,000 volumes and that of al-Hakam in Cordoba – a “European” or an Islamic city? – had in the 10th century 400,000 “books” (Goody’s quotes), while the largest in Northern Europe at the time, in the monastery of S. Gall in Switzerland, had only 800. In this fashion, writing, paper, and the printing press all arrived via other societies which, in fact, had an advantage in the sphere of communications prior to the Renaissance. All of this accumulated material is directed towards deflating the European balloon.

Finally, on the African continent (which is contrasted here with Eurasia), Goody finds a crucial factor missing: a so-called “luxury culture” based on haute cuisine, something clearly distinguished from the cooking of the masses. But this does not characterise the court of Louis XIV alone! Refined cuisine could be found in India, China, the Arab world, Italy, and Turkey. Privileged classes guarded certain recipes, foodstuffs, and expertise in the preparation of various dishes, religiously hidden from peasants and other commoners as a form of social differentiation and distinction. Not to mention wines. As well as flowers, another sign of socio-economic distinction documented in the Eurasian world – not solely in Europe – which similarly spread outward within Eurasia millennia ago.

The reader of these lines may have sensed the forcefulness of Goody’s own writing. Without aggression or nihilism, he applies a kind of Derridean gaze to a hegemonic notion. A highly experienced researcher, of course, and assiduous reader of a vast bibliography, Goody draws on many lesser-known authors for his argument:  F. W. Mote, K. Chao, M. N. Pearson, S. Chandra, T. Raychaudhuri, T. F. Glick, P. Wheatley, B. J. Perera.

This last surname – Perera – points to a dimension ignored by Goody in his wide panorama of Eurasia: Eurasian people themselves, as it were, in flesh and blood. Might we indulge in a little constructive criticism? From Malacca in Malaysia to Macau in China, Daman and Diu in India to Tugu or Larantuka in Indonesia, a whole string of Portuguese-Eurasian relic populations still exist, shouting out to be studied by anthropologists. There are other (albeit less visible) enclaves of Eurasians in Hong Kong and even in Paris, the latter Eurasiens the fruit of French-Vietnamese intermarriages. Although known to linguists and historians, these micro-enclaves of Creole-speaking hybrids serve to prove Goody’s argument that Eurasia was, and is still, a fascinating theatre of creolisation and cultural mixing. Perera is doubtless a distant descendant of an originally Portuguese colonist, with the surname Pereira, or perhaps a Sri Lankan burgher. Or, alternatively, one of the carriers of the surname Perera may even have been a convert to Catholicism, complicating the matter yet further. Through the centuries, the orthography changed, as did the pronunciation. Do these living populations not provide a truly modern, contemporary angle on that “lost continent”, Eurasia? As Goody has resuscitated the continent, can we not now resuscitate the peoples themselves – Eurasians of Portuguese, Dutch, and British descent?

Other authors receive more detailed treatment, due to the wide-ranging effects of their data and their arguments: J. M. Blaut, E. Ikegami, J. Z. Lee and W. Feng, E. Wolf, R. Fortune (the latter analysing tea, silk, and cotton in the provinces of Northern China in 1847), and Joseph Needham, author and editor of the monumental work Science and Civilisation in China (1954-2004). One cannot help but feel that this enormous cast of specialists has been ignored, marginalised, or subtlely silenced by the dominant mouthpieces of the classic model of European supremacy.

But why not invoke the concept of domination so well developed by Bourdieu, in ideological terms? Why not cite the ground-breaking book Orientalism (1978) by Edward Said? Or the iconoclastic three-volume polemic Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1987-2006) by Martin Bernal, who argues that Egypt, not Greece, was the cradle of Western civilisation? Simply because the argument is so clear that they are not needed. Goody cites Needham as pointing out that in various centuries, China was considerably ahead of the West. According to Francesca Bray, China remained the major world power up to the end of the eighteenth century. It was not “frozen” in time and space. The great leap in our thinking occurs, Goody affirms (I paraphrase), when we realise that the West was not the “inventor” of the arts, literature, the theatre, painting, or sculpture, nor of a singular package of values which predisposed the West (and nowhere else) to modernisation. Such activities had already been developed in other urban centres of the Eurasian continent.

Purported European rationality had, in fact, parallels in Asia; nothing grants it an exclusively Western nature. “Technological society” did not originate in Europe, but rather in Eurasia. Culture, or mentality, cannot provide explanations for the singularity of the West. Certainly, we could criticise the author for unduly oscillating between two not entirely overlapping entities: Europe does not coincide with the West, nor vice versa. But for Goody, it would be preferable to think of the singularity of a larger continent, Eurasia. Instead of being separated, these sub-continents evince more similarities than differences. There was, and indeed is, no real border separating Europe from Asia. Over time, there have been advances and retreats, never eternal supremacies. There have even been (non-Western) Renaissances in the Arab world (the Islamic Abbasid period) as well as in the Orient (the Song period in China).[4] Both of the latter having also been minimised, if not erased.

One wonders, critically, if Goody makes a conscious point of avoiding direct reference to recent currents in the domain of “global history”, to which I think The Eurasian Miracle (and his other books) contribute in a healthy interdisciplinary way. Goody himself has contributed to such publications as Sciences Humaines[5], which publicise in a visually attractive manner many of the arguments of this book and those of other authors from disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, geography, and Asian studies, to name just a few. On and in Portugal, the historians S. Subrahmanyam,[6] F. Bethencourt and D. Ramada Curto[7], as well as the sociologist B. Sousa Santos[8], have offered novel approaches to Portugal’s supposedly pioneering role in the Discoveries era. This all seems to me to inaugurate a new critical anthropology in embryo. Why not stress the links between Goody’s panoramic historical anthropology (a kind of cultural history or “comparative sociology”) and this new trend of global history, which itself provides interesting new angles on European, Asian, and Eurasian dimensions?

Using a culinary metaphor, this book may be excessively spicy for some readers’ palates. But in the face of what appears to be a shift in global power from Europe to Asia, the volume gives us much to think about. Goody’s erudition astounds. His new approach constitutes, in the classic Kuhnian sense, an alteration in our paradigm. It obliges us to think, in a profound fashion. A Ptolemaic Eurocentric vision – arrogant and imperialist – is supplanted by an alternative model of a Galilean type, de-centred, humble, and realistic.

  1. [1]Goody has, of course, already focused on these processes in previous books: Cooking, Cuisine, and Class (1982), The East in the West (1996), Capitalism and Modernity (2004), The Theft of History (2006), and (albeit to a lesser extent) in Food and Love (1998).
  2. [2]Goody’s contribution to the conference, he says, “…was not included in the printed version, presumably because it was contrary to the organisers’ beliefs” (p. 8). One also recalls Goody’s heterodox (indeed, rebellious) contribution to the volume on secular rituals: “Against Ritual: Loosely Structured Thoughts on a Loosely Defined Topic” in Sally Falk Moore & Barbara Myerhoff (eds.) Secular Ritual (1977), Assen: Van Gorcum; 25-35.
  3. [3]See also the chapter on the “so-called Vasco da Gama Epoch” in John M. Hobson’s caustic but illuminating diatribe The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, 2004, as well as Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, 1998.
  4. [4]On this point, see Goody’s volume of the same year, Renaissances: The One or the Many? (2010).
  5. [5]See Goody’s “L’Histoire Volée de l’Empire Ottoman” and “L’Hégémonie du Grand Récit Européen” in Les Grands Dossiers des Sciences Humaines, Nº 24‘L’Histoire des Autres Mondes: Asie, Afrique, Amérique’, ed. Laurent Testot, Septembre-Novembre 2011; 40-44.
  6. [6]Explorations in Connected History, 2004-5.
  7. [7]Portuguese Oceanic Expansion 1400-1800, 2007.
  8. [8]See Santos’s recent volume, edited with M. Paula Meneses, Epistemologias do Sul, 2009, for an interesting development of some earlier “world-systems” analyses, particularly in the work of the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano on colonialidade (coloniality).

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