Economist likes sociologist’s book – Shocker

As everyone knows, economists and sociologists are the faculty equivalent of cats and dogs. As an economist, I’m more or less brought up to think that sociologists are a bit funny, really, and their models and ways of explaining the world around them good cannon fodder.
Cover of \'Before European Hegemony\'
Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened this book recently – it having been part of a bulk Amazon order of titles that sounded more or less up my street – and read up on the author… a sociologist! Not only that, the book was twenty years old! Many people will stop now having learnt what I thought would be the only lesson to be learnt from this entire episode: always find out a little bit more about a book before you part money for it. In fact, I think there’s an old English saying along those lines… don’t cover a book with a judge, or something similar.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the book. I decided to do as a Baz would want me to and do one thing that particular day that scared me. Besides, not knowing an awful lot about non-European economic history during the period A.D. 1250-1350 year dot-2008, surely I’d learn something, right?

Sure enough, once I got past the fact that I’d picked out a textbook for a sociology course from the 1980s, I never looked back. The writing is structured, with chapters organised around each on of the 9 spheres of economic activity identified. The paucity of non-European data – which has indeed blinkered somewhat economic historians and cliometricians writing recently – is tackled head-on, rather than ignored. In the style of a true economic historian, she goes on the hunt for proxies to inform the scale and scope of international trade between, for example, the Indian east coast and the South-East straits.

There are a few annoying habits throughout the book – a bit of name-dropping or over-indulgence in highly theoretical or fringe debates, particularly in the notes – but this is an excellent introduction to a fascinating period in world history. Particular points of interest include:

  • the analysis of China and its technological advances and wealth of records
  • the Middle East, the fascinating Genizah haul from medieval Cairo, and how the ban on usury was overcome by Muslim traders
  • and the emergence of Europe from its Roman imperial shadow and taking its place among the world system (before, ahem, re-making the entire system in its own image)

So, while cats and dogs may still not be on best terms, a few more books like this will put paid to Disney’s plans to release ‘Economists and Sociologists’!

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Apocalypto, or The Luckiest Man in Maya

(Potential spoilers, here so tread carefully!)

So Gibson’s Apocalypto is out. For those not up to speed on his latest work, it’s set in the last years of the Aztec-Mayan empire and follows the fortunes of one man and his efforts to escape slavery and sacrifice, and rebuild his family and his way of life.

On the upside, it’s an uncannily realistic glimpse at the life of the ordinary punter in the Mayan empire (although I do not claim to be at all an expert on that topic). For that, and its use of the Mayan language, it is very welcome. Even more so, it’s a timely reminder, in these times of unprecedented prosperity and security of wellbeing for those of us in the Western world, that the vast vast majority of people who have existed have had fleeting, painful, violent lives.

On the downside, its glimpse into the Aztec-Mayan empire is itself far too fleeting. For example, instead of a helpful where-when intro slide at the start of the movie (e.g. Aztec-Mayan empire, east Mexico, early 16th Century), he starts with a rather leading quotation: ‘A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within’. Gibson’s main point seems to be that these guys were pretty savage and – at least for the elite – decadent, as epitomised by the behaviour of the Aztec royal family.

Given the obvious religious beliefs of Gibson, there are two worrying implications of the way that everything is presented. First, it seems to be implicitly reducing the barbarity of what the Conquistadores did. Secondly, there’s also the hint that the Aztec religion, in its ignorance of natural phenomenon such as eclipses and its bloodthirstiness, left the people ripe for conquest. That, of course, is sheer hypocrisy given the practices of the Christian Church of the time.

The ‘they had it coming’ point is Gibson’s main argument, so he misses a whole host of opportunities to communicate different messages to the viewer. The quotation above used to ‘guide’ the viewer at the start implies that the empire had been in declining health at the time of the European invasion. Yet the film doesn’t touch of any of this and my limited knowledge of the Aztec empire suggests that the empire’s recipe for success was not far removed from what was going on at the time/what was depicted in the film. And for all that Gibson implies about the trend of the empire, the viewer doesn’t even know at the start of the film where or when the film is set!

– HERE BE SPOILERS –
All we get instead is a fairly bog-standard plot about one man fighting against the odds, albeit in a strange environment. And, dare I say it, even allowing for the willing suspension of disbelief, this particular chap is incredibly lucky, perhaps too much so. He has a Rocky-like ability to be able to soldier on no matter how many times he’s pierced by an arrow, while in true Austin Powers style, baddies – and indeed other slaves – fall for good at the first flesh-wound. Even given his name of Jaguar Paw, the scene where he outruns a fully grown jaguar for a good half a kilometer or so through dense forest, while heavily injured, is a little hard to believe. The film relies quite heavily on the ‘you’ll have to believe me’ skip-a-scene technique – so when he finally reaches his family, who are stuck down a well, and peers down the 10 or so metres at them, the next scene is them happily roaming through forest. So, we’ve to take it on good faith that he somehow fashions a way of rescuing his wife, who has just given birth, and his two children (one a minutes-old infant) from the well. And all of this is allowing the film its largest conceit, where the protagonist is saved with seconds to spare by a solar eclipse…
– END OF THE SPOILERS –

In summation, the film is definitely worth a look, for the reasons outlined at the start. However, it could have been so much better… A really good film communicates its message effectively, i.e. it tells a complicated or nuanced message through a simple or easy-to-follow storyline. This film told a really simple message – some people get lucky – with a very complicated storyline. Oops!