Still reading the second volume of Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in a Global Context, and it’s hard going. The issue is that the author’s prose is turgid, and I have a very high tolerance for that sort of thing as something of a scholarly book addict. Frankly the total length of the book is partly due to repetition. The upside of that is that you can skim over sections which are reiterated what has come before, but the downside is that you have to do this in the first place. With that in mind I decided to get Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, after a mention by Steve. I’ve heard about this book for a year or so, and just skimming through it I have to stay it’s an easier read in terms of prose style than Strange Parallels (granted, this was a low bar). But the very title itself highlights why I didn’t prioritize reading this book: a priori I’m very skeptical of scholars who attempt to infer the singular historically contingent origins of a particular contemporary social phenomenon. For example, inventing love, or inventing war, or inventing democracy.
As an example of what I mean, obviously the modern idea of republics has a great deal to do with the Roman republic. The term itself derives from the Roman example. But the general features which we would highlight as republican were not limited to Classical Mediterranean. Rather, it seems likely to me as societies develop there were attempts to maintain a less autocratic equilibrium in the transition toward complexity and scale, but they invariably failed (the example of the Roman shift from republic to empire is famous, but it is clear in the mythology and text that Mesopatamian civilization in the early Sumerian period was less autocratic and more oligarchic than it was later). A cross-cultural comparison is essential when asserting the sui generis character of any particular phenomenon. For example, if you are interesting the nature of millennarian religious sects, there’s no excuse for you not to know about the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice, a Han dynasty movement indigenous to China (rule of thumb, if you are curious about comparing across cultures, just look at the two ends of Eurasia prior to the Mongols).
Finally, there’s the issue of evolutionary and cognitive psychology. I have written at length for over 10 years that many of the individualistic features of modern social existence are probably primal, insofar as the economic growth of the past few centuries in the West has allowed for the loosening or disintegration of mores which evolved organically as cultural adaptations to mass living during and after the Neolithic revolution. Obviously this model has drawbacks, in that there is not a perfect correspondence between the Paleolithic and modern lifestyles. But, I think where it is most evident is in domains of personal choice in regards to sexual partners, where the individual restraint and social constraint of many “traditional” societies have fallen away, to be replaced by individual utility maximization (at least in the short term!). This maximization I think can only make sense in light of the psychological priors which evolved in the context of small groups where pair bonds were an important feature of male-female relations.
In fact, the corporate “organization man” is the true cultural invention. Taking the thesis of Inventing the Individual at face value, it can perhaps be restated more precisely as Rediscovering the Individual. Western liberalism has inflected and interpreted the individual, but it was always there in chrysalis, trapped by the exigences of pre-modern agricultural society. In contrast, topology is a genuine novel cultural invention which has no ancient or prehistoric analog amongst humans.
On a different note, yesterday I listened to an interview with the author of Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, on the bloggingheads.tv (for what it’s worth, I always listen to the podcasts). The specific details were interesting, but the general arc is pretty straightforward, as it falls into the narrative of the “Nadir of American race relations”. The reason I’m mentioning this is that Robert Wright, author of many books, expressed surprise that race relations in New Orleans got worse during the late 19th and early 20th century. This ignorance surprised me, but even more annoying was his tendency to want to term the segregationist impulse among Progressives who enforced Jim Crow on New Orleans as “reactionary.” It seems he couldn’t restrain his Whiggish worldview and acknowledge that in this time and period the modern terms don’t apply very well. Though the nature of increased social complexity and economic growth does lend itself to a Whiggish worldview over the past thousand years or so, history has gone through many epicycles.
If you read a book like The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln it is hard to deny that between the Founding and the Civil War race relations got much worse over time, and that the inferior status of black Americans became much more explicit in law and social custom. After the Civil War there was a thaw, and then a ratcheting up of racial conflict, tension, and segregation, up until the early 20th century. To term the racial ideology of the United States “reactionary” is entirely misleading, as well as false. Rather, it was a novel cultural concoction which emerged in the 19th century, shaped by the economics of the slave economy and justified by religion, science, and history.
And as it is clear from the interview with the author of the Empire of Sin those progressives who believe that the arc of history is unidirectional, and that they have special insight into its ultimate telos, have often been mistaken. Unfortunately, instead of learning from history most people simply retrofit it into a theory of their own making and preference.