Strong case of cultural indigestion

Food and Love
May 21, 1999

One of the more depressing features of recent excursions into world history has been the cult of European exceptionalism. Ninety years ago, at the height of European empires overseas or in the wake of American expansionism, it arguably made sense for historians, geographers and sundry polemicists to seek in the pecularities of climate, geography, religion, entrepreneurial attitudes and social life, unique reasons to explain the rise of the West to global ascendancy. More surprisingly, however, since the early 1980s a number of writers have again sought, through the "inequalities of nature" or the supposed political and cultural distinctiveness of the West, to find reasons to explain "the European miracle" - how it was that Europe alone spawned Enlightenment, modernity and the industrial age.

Jared Diamond is the only one of these authors that Jack Goody assails directly in this collection of his essays, but the critique of western enthnocentricism is everywhere apparent. It is bolstered by his targeting of those historians who have located the sources of European exceptionalism in Britain as the first industrial nation and in the supposedly unique characteristics of English family life, and who glibly contrast the nuclear family in the West with the Asian "joint family". Goody's riposte is to argue that much of what British historians see as exceptional was far from unique, and has been shared by societies across Eurasia.

Thus, for example, a notion of romantic love, commonly identified with medieval troubadours and courtly amours in early modern Europe and identified with the rise of western individualism and modernity, can be tentatively linked to the influences on Europe of Arabic models, and also found in the love poetry of a society as far removed from the modern West as ancient China.

On a more material plane, while it has long been argued that capitalism in Europe thrived on individualism, and eschewed eastern collectivism, Goody notes that European bankers from the Lombards and Fuggers to the Barclays and Rothschilds relied heavily on family connections in much the same way as south Indian Chettiars drew on caste controls and resources in their transactions. These misconceptions can be traced back to 18th and 19th-century writers, who contrasted the dynamism of Europe with the apparent lethargy of despotic Asia. But it is not just a re-reading of a misrepresented past that urges Goody to these conclusions. Developments in the contemporary world, especially the postwar surge in Asia's Pacific Rim economies, encourage him to believe that assumptions embodied in history and anthropology about the singularity of Europe need to be reviewed and overturned.

As anyone who has dipped into his extensive writing will be aware, however, Goody does not seek to replace Eurocentricity by a kind of cultural universality and bland comparability. The world is sharply differentiated, but along rather different lines from those proposed by advocates of western exceptionalism. The principal dichotomy he sees is between the societies of Eurasia, sharing a common heritage in the Bronze Age, and the accompanying growth of intensive agriculture, craft specialisation, social stratification, literacy and luxury, and those of sub-Saharan Africa, city-less, not markedly stratified and largely confined to an oral tradition.

As an anthropologist, whose early fieldwork in northern Ghana remains a vital point of reference, Goody is aware of what oral cultures can achieve. But for him literacy holds an exceptional significance, allowing a refinement in forms of self-expression and rationality, in commerce and in social stratification and communication, which is denied to those reliant on orality alone.

This argument is doggedly pursued into a veritable warren of social life: the development or lack of an haute cuisine; the cultivation of flowers for decoration and ritual use in Asia and Europe but not in Africa; the capacity to generate a concept of romantic love or a spirit of agnosticism aided by literate forms of self-reflection and expression. If, in this far-ranging re-evaluation of societies and civilisations, Asia is privileged to join Europe's club, Africa is left even more in a state of denial.

In focusing on literacy, Goody runs the risk of undervaluing the versatility and expressiveness of African cultures. He underplays the role of oral culture in a society such as India and the contribution it has made, and still makes, to literate culture. Goody goes some way to recognising the complexity of oral-literate relations in a review of the value of the terms "Great" and "Little Tradition". In this he makes a cogent plea for remembering the role of class divisions and for recognising the importance of opposition within, not just between, cultures. This essay is one of several in which Goody explores more general themes in anthropology and history, building his discussion around a seminal figure - Marx and Weber, T. H. Huxley or J. G. Frazer - or around a concept such as civil society, in ways that enlarge upon his underlying critique of ethnocentricity.

On balance, though, few of these essays are memorable, original or probing. Some (such as the discussion of the globalisation of Chinese food) lurch towards the anecdotal and post-prandial. Others posit interesting ideas and connections (on issues as inviting as horse meat and feminism), without breaking significant new ground. For all their periodic suggestiveness, the essays hardly amount to the "cultural history of East and West" proclaimed in the book's title.

While Goody is at times sharply critical of historians, there is little sense of what "cultural history" is or might aspire to be. For all his well-founded criticism of ethnocentricity, he gives little insight into how a cultural history that combines the skills and resources of historian and anthropologist can be constructed, and fails to show how scholars can develop sufficient expertise and understanding to compare vastly different societies. Those interested in ingesting Goody's provocative ideas would do well to start their meal elsewhere.

David Arnold is professor of South Asian history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Food and Love: A Cultural History of East and West

Author - Jack Goody
ISBN - 1 85984 829 X
Publisher - Verso
Price - £18.00
Pages - 305

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Reader's comments (1)

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