Monday, August 22, 2016

Western barbarians

The Silk Roads is slowing down in its second half, like a high-speed train approaching its destination. Chapter 16 has brought us to the First World War (the result, Frankopan suggests, of Britain's anxiety over a rising Russia's threats to India), but there are another 8 chapter to go! I'm not sure I'll make it to the end...

Not that the book isn't still full of unknown vistas, brilliant aperçus and delectable foreground-background inversions. But I'm starting to weary a little of the foregrounding of trade, especially in luxury goods from silk to spices to horses. Doubtless very important, and a useful corrective to stories based on ideas, or on shifty concepts like national character, cultural identity, "great men" or power. But do luxury goods, their consumers and their purveyors, matter so very much more than ordinary consumers of necessities - or, for that matter, the faceless masses who spin the silk, harvest the spices, raise the horses, who are mentioned in The Silk Roads only when they die in a plague or a massacre? And are ideas so very secondary? David Frankopan seems to delight in mentioning things intellectual, cultural or religious only in passing, mystifying superstructure at best!

I suspect one of Frankopan's motives here is his larger project of contesting Eurocentric histories. Not only is the Greece to Rome to Renaissance to modern empires and democracy story bunkum, but recent experience of western ascendancy leads us, smugly and mistakenly, to think ourselves the rightful darlings of history and heirs of the human future. In fact Europe was of little to no significance for much of history, and became important only because of its unusual penchant for violence (entering the trade story through human trafficking). Europe is more aggressive, more unstable and less peace-minded than other parts of the world, Frankopan argues, and became important in recent centuries because its entrenched relationship with violence and militarism ... allowed it to place itself at the centre of the world after the great expeditions of the 1490s. (A characteristic aside, in the same discussion: Fighting, violence and bloodshed were glorified, as long as they could be considered just. That was one reason, perhaps, why religion became so important...) (250-51) We think ourselves uniquely civilized but it really just boils down to the fact that Europeans were world leaders in building fortresses and in storming them. (252)

Am I objecting to this because it's wrong, or because it's right? I told my Chinese friend about it and he looked at me like I'd just worked out that twice two makes four!


Beth said...

Just started reading it last night. Considering that classes start tomorrow, I'm sure I won't be finishing it anytime soon. But so far, I like it in the same way as I liked 1491 - history that is obviously there, just never in the American curriculum.

mark said...

Yes, it's reminded me of 1491 as well (and 1493!)

Eric said...

I haven't read it yet: it's here on my "to read" pile. But, your comment here
forgets the impact of industrialisation in Europe's ascendency. Violence, colonisation and then trade provided the stimulus for innovation and the changes in production methods, which in turn led to mercantalist exploitation of the colonies. Once India and China caught up with industrialisation it could only be a matter of time before European/American ascendency began to wane. As for concentrating on silk and luxury goods: weren't they the main goods traded in the medieval period? Frankopan's book has had excellent reviews but I'll reserve judgement till it floats to the top of the pile.