Posts Tagged ‘Woolf’

Two interesting, if occasionally problematic, research seminars in the last fortnight. Most entertaining was the visit of Greg Woolf for a discussion of his newish book Tales of the Barbarians, based on his Bristol-Blackwell lectures back in 2009 – not least when he revealed that he’d been re-reading his notes from the discussions afterwards, to see who had asked what, with all of us pretty well conforming to type. It could have been even funnier if he’d waited until afterwards to reveal this, as I don’t imagine I was the only person there who was all set to raise points on exactly the same lines as on that occasion…

The most striking theme, for me, from the chapter we were considering was the lack of consistency in the theories that Roman ethnographic writers offered to account for differences between peoples – they might move from a genelogical explanation to a quick burst of climate determinism in the course of a single discussion – and, more important still, the fact that this appeared not to bother them in the slightest. Whereas in, say, ancient mathematics there was a clear drive to recognise and resolve inconsistencies between different explanations, and to discard some theories in favour of better ones, ancient ethnography showed no such inclination. It raises the question of which approach is more typical for classical antiquity – were ethnographers particularly laissez-faire compared with everyone else, or were mathematicians especially obsessive – and highlights the fact that it’s precisely our (modern? modern scientific?) concern with consistency of explanation that makes this bother us so much. A fortiori if there’s a degree of identification or fellow feeling with these ancient scholars; they’re engaged, more or less, in the same enterprise as we are, so why aren’t they more bothered about stuff that bothers us? A reasonably prominent theme in readings of Thucydides (though more often found in debates about why on earth he thought it was okay to make up the speeches) – there are times when it’s quite understandable that political theorists develop such selective readings on the basis of very few passages, precisely because they can then derive nice clear theories of human behaviour without having to worry about the fact that other parts of the narrative really don’f fit this neat model. Personally I’d read Thucydides as suggesting rather that humans are consistent in their inconsistency, or at any rate that human behaviour is always shaped by specific circumstances and the course of events as well as by consistent principles of action – but then I’m just a wishy-washy humanities type.

The week before, Richard Seaford had come to discuss the latest development of his studies of the impact of money on archaic Greek society, arguing that this not only brought about the birth of philosophy (notion that everything could be translated into a single universal substance, and vice versa) but also the genesis of the subject, as the breakdown of reciprocity under pressures of market economy produced the concept of the self-contained individual. Hmm. Difficult, in retrospect, not to think of this as an example of the excesses to which the modern drive for consistency can lead: the search for a single, all-embracing theory, in which one key factor brings about everything else in a straightforward linear process.  The humanities part of me worries about excessive simplification and reductionism, the way in which every text is turned into an example of exactly the same thing and the process of historical change appears as unilinear, deterministic and implausibly straightforward; the social science part of me, meanwhile, is happy to entertain the occasional grand theory, but feels a bit concerned about the limited range of comparison: it may be true (if we don’t worry too much about precise definitions and their modern connotations for the moment) that in both India and Greece we find urbanisation, commercialisation and a belief in reincarnation in close proximity; it may be true that one of these three is determining the others in both cases; but can we really feel confident about this, let alone elevating it to a general historical principle, without considering possible examples of (a) societies with cities and trade but no reincarnation; (b) societies with no cities or trade but some form of belief in reincarnation; (c) societies with trade but not cities or cities but no markets… At times like this, the ancient anthropological approach suddenly seems more attractive; after all, what might we be losing in reducing the development of these two societies to a simple story about the impact of money, insisting that apparently similar developments must have a single consistent cause..?


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