The Theft of History

Jack Goody (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Sunday 26 October 2008, by Emrah Sahin

Following the rise of dissenting historians that decried the unfair treatment of the East, which culminated in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979), the last three decades have ushered in more understanding among Western historians about the need to reconsider the way world history is written.

Eminent anthropologist Jack Goody is one of the mavericks who has crossed over the mainstream intellectual creed that conceives the human past as something intrinsic to Western civilization. The Theft of History is his latest worthwhile attempt to confront the Eurocentric mindset, which has bleached Western historiographical discourse for over two centuries.

The book strives to show how European historians have underplayed non-Western history and have imposed their exclusively European historical agenda, which debauched our comprehension of the world outside of the West. Worse, their Eurocentric approach is still steering the prevailing conceptions of the Western-self versus the Eastern-other.

Goody thinks that it is time to link Eurasia to the rest of the world in an attempt to redirect discussion of world history. This way, he promises, we will comprehend societal development in a broader frame, as interactive and evolutionary in a social sense rather than in terms of an ideologically determined sequencing of purely European events.

The Theft of History begins its three-part analysis with a socio-cultural genealogy, a study of how European historians reconstructed the concepts of time and space. Here, it navigates a progression from antiquity to capitalism through feudalism, and criticizes the spatial segregation of the East by western intellectuals, seeing it as essentially despotic, and backward.

Goody revisits the scholarly perspectives of Joseph Needham, Norbert Elias, and Fernand Braudel, which Goody thinks are no different than those of lesser influence. Needham made known the extraordinary contribution of China to science, Elias rediscovered the European Renaissance as the root of the modern civilizing process, and Braudel interpreted the rise of capitalism in the Mediterranean basin.

However, the criticisms of their select perspectives give Goody enough reason to suggest that even those distinguished historians, who are apparently against Eurocenticism, have robbed history of its actuality.

The Theft of History explores the development of institutions such as universities, and of values such as democracy and love. It is arguably the most interesting part of the book as Goody narrows down his main thesis. Goody concludes by asserting that the interaction between the West and the East had been more profound, with the exchange of ideas more frequent, and their modes of living much more alike than we consider them today.

Goody’s interpretation of Western historiography has much strength and few weaknesses. It powerfully detects the continuity in Western prejudicial perception that dates from antiquity. Goody finds consultative processes in the Asian systems of governence- and certainly not a strictly autocratic rule.

However, his analysis also seems somewhat cursory: he applies the theories of others like Confucius to refute the Eurocentric lines of argument on Asiatic exceptionalism, but he fails to show whether these theories were actually applied and functioned as they were written.

Another curious line of reasoning came from the Ottoman textile industry and Chinese ceramics industry growing to such an extent that he suggests that they were illustrative of significant entrepreneurial skills in the East, which implies that mercantile economy and capitalism did not originate simply from Europe.

The reader wonders, amidst all the complexity of historiography Goody has added to the cauldron, how, then, did the West happen to dictate the global economic discourse? The Theft of History will leave this question unanswered, for it deals with the processes and not the outcomes.

Emrah Sahin is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University.

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