Saturday, February 12, 2005

Let Us Now Braise Famous Men

Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse is one of the few books that have some prospect of actually affecting public opinion and political debate in the United States because its author has a gift for calm and even-handed discussion of issues that are mostly just yelled about and because, unlike most academics, he manages not to reach. As one says of competent second basemen, he plays within himself. Since the fundamental facts of our environmental situation are not that complex, there’s no reason to get theoretical on anybody’s ass. In this respect, Diamond is like Clinton, another persuasive man who recognized the inutility of complex arguments in public venues. There are lots of important questions that are beyond simple explication, but you might as well stick with the simple stuff because that’s all that can be heard anyway.

I’m guessing that folks who find their way to this site have already heard quite a bit about Diamond and his book even if they haven’t read it yet. Besides, if you’ll put up with me, you probably have a taste for something slightly more challenging or maybe just something slightly more perverse and pretentious (in a good way) than Diamond. If Collapse is for the freshmen, the most recent work of Marshall Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides, is for us juniors and seniors—the grads won’t find it sufficiently recherch√©. It’s also about issues of great contemporary relevance, but its argument requires a few paragraphs to summarize and a modicum of historical knowledge to appreciate fully, all of which limit its commercial possibilities. By speaking at length and perhaps at gunpoint, you could convey the gist of what Sahlins has to say to almost anyone; but that wouldn’t help much. People can appreciate a joke whose point has to be explained; but it won’t make them laugh.

Sahlins is an anthropologist who is generally identified—and dismissed—as the last of the purebred cultural relativists in the lineage of Franz Boas. This characterization is not entirely wrong. In Apologies to Thucydides, as in his other books, Sahlins does defend the thesis that the actions of nations and individuals are only explicable in terms of their cultural setting. He doesn’t leave it at that, however, since culture, indispensable in the explanation of history, is itself a product of history and history, in turn, is embedded in nature. The dialectical-minded Sahlins isn’t an immaterialist, but he is determined to take mediations into account. He is critical, for example, of explanations of international politics that treat “that restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death” as the beginning or ending of an explanation because he sees the war of all against all beloved of the hardboiled realists as a historical contingency rather than a given of human nature that has always obtained and can never really be transcended. Like every other game, the Great Game has rules and a history. It is a cultural artifact. To think otherwise is as silly as to imagine that the rook has a natural proclivity, no doubt coded in its nucleic acids, to travel in straight lines up or across the board.

It was hardly an accident that Thucydides evolved his tough and cynical view of the human condition in this context of the Peloponnesian war. Machiavelli’s habitat was the Italy of the Borgia for similar reasons, and the Big Fish Eat Little Fish doctrine of the Arthashastra whose author actually calls his basic principle fish logic (Matsya nyaya) grew up in the tide pool of Mauryan India. Ruthless regimes of international politics come into existence under specific historical circumstances. The Athenians may have been sincere in arguing to the Melians, “Of the Gods we believe, and of the men we know, that by a necessary law of nature, they rule whatever they can,” but their resort to extortion and terror in order to maintain an unstable thalassocracy was actually a historical novelty. As Cleon explained to them, “Your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators.” In the wake of a series of historical contingencies, Athens had become a state that had to lord it over its neighbors in order to remain prosperous and independent. Although the cultural prestige of the city and its role as the defender of the Greeks against the Persians put an attractive face on its hegemony, soft power was never going to be enough to maintain its hegemony.

Sahlins compares Athens in the Peloponnesian War to the Kingdom of Bau in the Fiji Islands during its long war with Rewa, the Sparta of the tale. Drawing a parallel between the School of Greece and the dominant power of the Cannibal Isles is a bit of a jeu d’esprit—Sahlins is well aware of the limitations of this kind of analogy—but the real key of the allegory is neither Hellenic nor Polynesian. According to Sahlins, both Athens and Bau exercised a novel form of imperium, which he calls Arche, hegemony without sovereignty. Unlike the European colonial empires, these powers did not directly rule their dependencies by conquest or administration. They lacked anything like the economic resources or sheer manpower to do that. Instead, they “relied on awe and fear—which is to say, on a reputation for power, confirmed by strategic displays of it. Rather than mild, the Athenians and Bauans could be all the more brutal, so they would be known for it.”

I don’t know how accurately Sahlins analyzes thing Fijian—a good part of the book is historical ethnography. His take on the Athenians, on the other hand, strikes me as plausible and even partly congruent with some of the views of experts like Donald Kagan whose writings on the Peloponnesian War are often cited by the neocons apropos of contemporary foreign policy dilemmas. The right, with its trademark taste for paranoia, draws very different conclusions from these analyses than a leftist like Sahlins, however. Conservatives believe that the current historical situation reflects the natural condition of our kind so that we may as well be happy warriors in the war of all against all even if a quick calculation shows that we are seriously outnumbered. The alternative is to recognize that we can call off Ragnarok and help the world system evolve in a peaceable direction.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Fool’s Paradise

In my last comment, I alluded to the best known of Basho’s haikus in a rare attempt to connect with actual readers, who are more likely to have heard about the crow and the frog than other examples. Part of the point of reading a book like Ueda’s Basho and His Interpreters, however, is to wander away from the usual guided tour and get a slightly better idea what Basho’s oeuvre is like in itself. The poems that strike a Western reader as Zen-like exemplify a by now thoroughly domesticated variety of the exotic, at least for a West coast kid like me who grew up in the heyday of the Beats; but many of Basho’s poems are rather like 19th Century vers de societe or classical epigrams and most of them depend for their full effect on literary echoes inaudible to outsiders or historical and geographic references. Ueda’s book has another virtue. Because he quotes several Japanese interpretations of each poem, his book reveals that their obscurity is not simply a function of cultural distance. The locals aren’t sure what they mean either. One might expect that different readers would have differing takes on the metaphysical implications of such brief and allusive verses, but the literal meaning is not settled either. We shouldn’t make the school kid assumption that the grown ups have the answers in the answer book, even to something as tractable as the plain sense of seventeen syllables.

Old men often become indecent, showing less and less respect for cherished vanities like the fantasy that people have attained, if not the truth, then at least a stable consensus of error. As a matter of fact very little is ever really settled, but I suppose it’s a bit malicious of me to enjoy rubbing it in. Since I’m not that old yet, I guess it must be precocity.