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The Theft of History. Rethinking the Uniqueness of the West.

A seminar of Prof. Jack Goody

Nov 25, 2005 from 05:00 PM to 06:00 PM

Where Aula B – Complesso di Santa Cristina, Piazzetta G. Morandi 2, ang. via Fondazza

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Building upon earlier comparative enquiries, and beginning in 1990 with The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia, following up with The East in the West (1996), Islam in Europe (2004) and Capitalism and Modernity (2004), Jack Goody has produced the documentary basis for the re-assessment of the notion of the uniqueness of ‘the West’ which has been the dominant explanatory paradigm for the dominance of Europe and North America in recent history. Kinship and family structures were not unique of the western part of the Eurasian landmass, while ‘the East’ developed forms of ‘rationality’ – for example in ragioneria and the organization of large-scale production – comparable, when not altogether more efficient, than those in ‘the West’. Similarly, the basis for the revival of economic growth in Europe would not have been possible without the Arab presence in Italy and Spain. The Arabs not only salvaged and improved on Greek knowledge, but also brought to Europe key engineering and agricultural developments upon which the golden age of European merchant capital was later established. All in all, Capitalism is not the unique achievement of the western social and cultural block as it has been held to be. Rather, ‘Capitalisms’ in different and yet commensurable forms were developed in the course of history, so that we can only talk in terms of differences in degree and not in kind within the complex patchwork of Eurasian civilizations.

Equipped with a comprehensive range of documentary evidence, in the fifth and forthcoming volume of his survey, The Theft of History, Jack Goody asks the final question of why and how it happened, therefore, that ‘the West’ hijacked world history and produced an interpretative grid of a teleological kind aimed at showing that historical developments were geared in such a way so as to beget ‘the Western achievement’ as its natural conclusion.  The argument that western historians have ‘stolen history’ by imposing their categories and sequences on the rest of the world implies a rethinking of the analytical categories which engendered the modern interpretative grid which set at its core the notion of the ‘uniqueness of the West’. Thus, the notion of ‘Classical Antiquity’ as a specific and exclusive western phenomenon is brought under scrutiny and found wanting on the very criteria of its own profile: democracy, freedom of trade, even individualism – and other similar distinctive cultural traits - were not so much the pertinences of ‘the Greek achievement’, eventually waiting to be rediscovered and reinterpreted by Modernity. Rather, they were elements of a wider set of interconnected social and cultural formations which, having the Mediterranean as the home ground for the circulation of goods and cultural practices, were connected in various degrees with their counterparts in India and China. Gordon Childe’s thesis of a fundamental unity in kind when not in degree of the Bronze Age runs implicitly against the Modernist paradigm (by now much under scrutiny) of the Indo-European invasion as the foundation of a specific European Antiquity. This thesis, however, has been overshadowed by the dominant and hegemonic paradigm which sees in the sequence of Antiquity, Feudalism and Modernity (with, eventually, the historical side-kicks of Primitive Communism, Eastern Despotism and the Slave Society to explain away odds and bits) as the teleologically organized midwives which, having brought forth Western Capitalism, can now rest on the notion of the End of History. This streamlining of world history was rendered possible by Europe (and its American offspring) becoming the dominant world power at a relatively late stage. The Gramscian tenet whereby the dominant culture is unmistakably the culture of the dominant classes can thus be rephrased as history being the history written by the dominant powers. However, making no concession to current theoretical trends claiming that historical narratives are anyhow subjective and therefore inevitably biased, Jack Goody suggests that a more balanced assessment of relative and comparative differences is not only possible, but will be more useful in understanding world history than the categorical segmentation and hierarchisation which has characterised the reading of history in modern times.

In conclusion, Jack Goody argues, ‘One is left with explaining increasing intensity rather than categorical change’. The task of an innovative way of writing history implies therefore the intellectual engineering of analytical grids of a non-teleological kind against which ‘intensity’ and the increasing pace of change can be checked as expressed by a variety of developmental factors. Transforming ‘kind’ into ‘degree’ and making ‘difference’ a truly relational concept and not an absolute interval is the methodological task of a renewed comparative approach to history.                     The ‘uniqueness of the West’ must, in other words, be tested against other ‘uniqueness’, so as to highlight where diversities turn into differences as well as where these coalesce into variations on a theme - the textured canvas of World History liberated of one-sided, monological narratives.