Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On popular history by Amgalant

This post was kicked off by a grumpy preface from Morris Rossabi to his 20th anniversary edition of Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Wherein he almost regrets writing so positively about Khubilai, since his work has been fuel for the popularizers. He doesn’t name names, but Jack Weatherford is the target of this ire: “One popularization, based on a doubtful and distorted use of scholarly studies, even reached the best-seller lists…”
I’m tired of Weatherford getting stick from historians. Let me blog. You’d think from this Weatherford was a mad popularist with no original research or intellectual standing of his own: in fact he was a cultural anthropologist (here’s his staff page – Mr Weatherford now enjoys a retirement in Mongolia), and if historians were less grumpy, they might notice that his cultural anthropology, and his application of it to the primary sources, has things to teach them.
As you know if you’re on this blog, my Mongol researches have stretched back fifteen years, fifteen conflicted years in the historiography, over which we have witnessed not only the advent of Weatherford, one-man-band for Genghis, ruffling historians’ feathers, but ‘The Rise of Cultural History’. That’s the title of a recent contribution by none other than David Morgan [in Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change].
Can not a cultural anthropologist and a discovery of cultural history live in peace? Find common ground? (yes, they can: that’s at the end of this post).
I said ‘none other than David Morgan’, because in my household, that’s me and the stuffed bears, his name has the sort of notoriety (excuse my outspokenness; he won’t read this blog) that Weatherford’s name has among your traditional historians. What did David Morgan ever do to me, and my stuffed bears? Believe me, my bears have been a comfort, from angst induced by the good Mr Morgan, before he discovered cultural history. It’s been told to me that historians get angry at mention of Jack Weatherford. Understood. But what about my anger at the Morgan book? Can I be angry too? I’d keep my despair between me and my bears, except – even though the good Mr Morgan now writes about how Mongol historiography has changed, his 1986 book is still disseminated as a standard work. In a book I read two days ago, with new ideas on the Central Asian background of Mughal India, Lisa Balabanlilar was content to use the Morgan as her main information on Chingis. So I am in a position like Rossabi’s: Weatherford bothers him in that Weatherford is everywhere. I meet the David Morgan everywhere, and other than Morgan’s own wish to be superseded, his stated discomfort with its continuance, I don’t see the book criticised. For me, every page – I exaggerate; every three pages – said, loud and clear, ‘I am written from a European perspective; I don’t try to look through Mongol eyes, or understand why a Mongol does what he does, in terms of his own culture.’ The pages scream that at me.
Does nobody else hear them?
His book has been my Exhibit A for why we need culture study: this is the type of history we have in its sheer and utter absence. I don’t see that hostility towards a cultural anthropologist – who, I grant you, has written for a general audience – helps toward the integration of culture study into a historiography that used to be happy to work without cultural knowledge.
The ‘rise of cultural history’ (art history; material and technological transmission) is a fantastic thing; but if you are still afraid of anthropology, you haven’t gone far enough. Can we not acknowledge the good Mr Weatherford for his injection of anthropology into Mongol historical studies?
What I suspect is that historians acquaint themselves with Weatherford due to his NY Times bestseller feats, but don’t otherwise keep a close eye on the popular output. They have no real idea of what he had to combat. From my observation post, Rossabi’s fear, expressed in his preface, that Weatherford has infiltrated the public mind until everybody is now given to ‘hagiography’ of Genghis, isn’t necessary, and he can rest assured Saint Genghis remains rare. You can find him in my novel, but Jesus, I wish I saw more of him elsewhere. [1]
Popular history doesn’t always keep up with ‘the rise of cultural history’. Exhibit: a reviewof John Man’s latest, where he is quoted thus on the legacy of empires: “[T]he Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say… The Mongols didn’t.” To be plain-spoken, I was upset that a magazine called the Asian Review of Books didn’t rebut this statement. Well, I rebut it. It’s where we used to go wrong: to expect, from a nomad people, those achievements that have defined our idea of civilization (you notice the etymology of that word). Hence we missed most of what the Mongols did. To judge the Mongol ‘empire’ against the Roman and the British empires, is to ask to fail to see what they meant to do, and what they achieved. I’ll say, to be fair to popular history, that this is no different to the Morgan book.
One of the grooviest things I’ve seen happen lately is histories that truly do bridge the scholarly and the popular, and that give the latest news on Mongols. I’d name a couple in this category: Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History, and a book that Morris Rossabi is involved in: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
The Timothy May comes out of the rise of world history, which again, has a different perspective on the Mongols, one that appreciates their cross-cultural activities and even ‘what they did for the world’ – which, let me iterate, isn’t what an agrarian civilization might have done but is entirely different. May also looks at ‘Mongol image’ which I wish the scholarly set did more of (instead of just investigating that Weatherford book). The other, kept in publication by the Smithsonian, is a joint effort that includes Mongolian scholarship. I suspect – I may be over-suspicious (Weatherford gets no cred for winning Mongolian awards) – we have had a bit of an attitude that Mongolians are only going to write apologetics on Mongol history – that ‘we know your history better than you do’, which is nothing if not rude. This one is a get-together of well-known scholars, who yet are going to ‘respect the feelings of Mongolian people about their past.’ It can be done.
[1] ‘in my novel’: I’d better add, a tragic saint involved in slaughterous wars. What else do you expect from a novelist?

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