Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Age of Empire Strikes Back (sorry the temptation was just too strong)

I saw other students commenting that Hobsbawn's book is a much more enjoyable to read than Abu-Lughod and I wholeheartedly agree. The introduction especially was beautifully written, poetic and thought-provoking. It has been pounded into my head in creative writing classes to start small, with something that the reader can really clearly picture in their head, something they can relate to. A person, an object, a single action or event. Hobsbawn's story of James Joyce's mother was the perfect way to ease us into his book about that mysterious ambiguous cloud of an idea called globalization.

There's a reason why war movies are more than just battle scenes and different rooms full of politicians and army generals discussing strategy. If you're going to show the army general discussing strategy, you show him going home to his three-story house with the mahogany-paneled walls and kissing his his pretty blue-eyed wife who is wearing a dark-green silk dress and a freshwater-pearl necklace for the fancy dinner party she just attended and who tells him she just found out she is pregnant and his face hardens in anger because he does not want to bring a child into a world that is this full of hate and violence.

Hobsbawn is an eloquent writer who expresses his ideas clearly, but sometimes I find myself longing for more scene, for another James-Joyce-mom, for real people with feelings I can relate to, for psychology.

Hobsbawn shifts back and forth talking about this country or that, and the growing economy, and how technology in the Western world really pushed it forward, and how the "global society" was not one society but firmly divided into the two types of countries and cultures, the "developed and the lagging, the dominant and the dependent, the rich and the poor" (p16)-- technologically-advanced England vs. backwards horse-n-cart India, central-governmented Spain vs. hereditary-Banner-system China, etc. It makes sense, but he's skimming along up in the clouds summarizing everything that's happening in the world during this time and I just want to see something concrete, a real person, someone I can relate to.

My favorite parts of this book so far (apart from the introduction, which set my standards for Hobsbawn's renegade-historianism high and then proceeded to slowly bring them back to reality) has been the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. The quotes are wonderful because they bring us right smack in the middle of the time period, seeing into the minds of real people who were there, what they were saying and thinking. I actually skipped ahead through the whole book reading all the quotes at the beginning of the chapters. Then I looked at the pictures. Pictures are always nice. Why can't there be more pictures? Oh if only all college textbooks were like the picture books we read in elementary school, getting a degree would be that much more fun.

"This was the classic age of massive missionary endeavor" writes Hobsbawn (p71), as he describes the various countries that were subjected to missionary colonization and indoctrination and how this related to race and class issues and how Europeans felt about their mental superiority over the "barbarians."

"The novelty of the nineteenth century," Hobsbawn continues, "was that non-Europeans and their societies were increasingly, and generally, treated as inferior, undesirable, feeble and backward, even infantile." (p79) I mean, this is good stuff. That's a great sentence, well-written, powerful. He's a good writer! And now, intuitively, I am craving for him to continue this thought and give a specific example of how non-Europeans were considered "infantile." I want to hear about one European person's experience as a missionary in a Third World Country, or one person in a Third World Country being talked to by missionaries and assaulted by all these strange new ideas about God and Morality. Or a quote, maybe, like in the beginnings of the chapters, a nice quote from some literature of the time proving this distorted, patronizing view of the "barbarians."

But he plows right on: "They were fit subjects for conquest, or at least conversion to the values of the only real civilization..." He does mention a few specific examples: "Did the sophistication of imperial Peking prevent the western barbarians from burning and looting the Summer Palace more than once?" That's sort of what I want's just so brief. He just has so much information that he's taking from all over the world over the course of a period of a half-century and he's zooming all around all haphazardly across dozens and hundreds of different calender years and countries and significant people and cultural advancements and economic turns at such a breakneck speed and I kind of want to relax and hang out and just watch just one person, or one country, or one economic development in that country, for a couple pages.

In tenth grade I went on a special Latin-class trip to Europe, with this crazy discount "see a bunch of different places in Europe in a week!" travel package that was still really expensive and I have no idea why my parents paid for it. In a week we saw three different cities in Spain, four in France, and three in Italy. After a while all the cities started to blur together and I was so jet-lagged and tired from walking around all the time and half the time I couldn't even remember what city I was in because we were riding buses and planes all the damn time and sometimes didn't even stay in one city for more than a few hours.

And eventually I gathered that running around all frantically trying to see all the "significant" sights and "important" places in a city doesn't really teach you anything about what it's really like to live there. To really learn what a certain city or culture is like it's best to, well, live there. For as long as possible. I hated Pittsburgh when I first got here. I thought it was ugly and I hated the Steelers. Four years later I love this damn city and consider it my home away from home, but it took living here to really find all it's small, subtle charms.

This is a roundabout metaphor for this book and this method of talking about history. Maybe it is just my personal taste but I would really rather read a story about an young man from Britain who goes to live in India in 1892 to learn about the effects of colonization and the British Empire's expansionism and colonization practices, than read a bunch of facts about it. I know that we are learning about world systems and you have to go big picture for that, but is there a happy medium between learning about how everything was happening to everyone all at once and how all this stuff happening affected individuals?

-Katie Dempsey

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