PHotoed recently by Michael J (this blogs technical curator). His feet make him look happy.
This sculpture is now the only thing I know about Yerevan, apart from the fact that Yerevan is in Armenia.
I continue to struggle to find ways of communicating my enthusiasm for Stephen Davies’s new book, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity. But I now think I know one of the reasons why I am struggling.
When you want to enthuse about a book on an historical subject, you probably want also to be summarising it, so that those who read of your enthusiasm but who won’t actually be reading the book itself (what with there being so much else to read (thanks to Modernity)), at least get an idea of what the book is about and why the guy who wrote it is so worthy of praise. I have come to realise that part of the reason for my difficulty in saying how much I liked and continue to like reading The Wealth Explosion is that this book is not only itself about Modernity, but is also a heroically succinct summary, of a big clutch of debates among historians generally about Modernity. What Modernity has been and is, what made it happen when it did and where it did, whether it’s a good thing (Davies thinks it very much is a good thing (as do I)), and whether Modernity will continue. That sort of thing. Almost every paragraph of this book is quotable, because it says so much, and alludes to so much, about so much, with so few words.
Here is a fascinatingly typical example of what I mean, which is to be found under the heading “Why the Later Eighteenth Century” (pp, 53-55):
… [T]here are two big questions that any explanatory account of modernity has to address and try to answer. The first is chronology. Why did the elements of modernity start to occur in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century and not before? One obvious argument is that the critical factor. whatever it might be. appeared just before the takeoff and so led to it directly – this might be the cultural and intellectual changes posited by Mokyr and McCloskey for example. There are however other candidates for that role. Many authors however reject this and argue that the breakthrough after 1750 had deeper roots. going back into previous history.
This is a challenging argument to make at first sight, given that what we have to explain is not a change produced by a continuous process but rather one where there is a sudden change of gear or state that took place in a relatively short pace of time by historical standards. One way is to argue that what we have is a slow, cumulative process that at a particular point in time reached a tipping point where there was a sudden shift to a different level and kind of change. An analogy would be a pot of water on a stove. The temperature of the water will rise slowly but the change from water to water to steam will happen in a matter of minutes once boiling point arrives.
An even closer analogy is that of a primitive atomic pile: as more and more blocks of fuel are added to the pile nothing much happens at first apart from a gradual rise in heat until suddenly there is a critical mass of fuel, i.e. enough material in sufficiently close proximity to sustain a continuous chain reaction. This means that the breakthrough to modernity could not happen anywhere until the various preconditions were in place (either locally or globally) and that this came about as the result of a gradual build-up. Therefore, for example, Julian Simon argues that the key factor was simply the number of people and that the population levels needed for all of the other changes were not reached
until the later eighteenth century and could not have been sustained earlier because of the inability to mechanise agriculture in any significant way.
The other approach is to argue that the breakthrough to modernity could have happened earlier and may even have started to happen, but was stopped. Eric Jones for example argues strongly for this approach. He points out that the central phenomena of intensive growth and innovation are, or should be, the natural result of economic exchange. Moreover we do indeed see them arising at various points in history before the eighteenth century. The biggest example (for which see the next chapter) was China under the Song dynasty and indeed at some other points in its history but there are other instances, such as the central Middle East under the early Abbasids in the eighth and ninth centuries, or the classical Mediterranean civilisation during both the second century AD and the Hellenic era after the death of Alexander. In addition there are also episodes throughout history of what we may call ‘ages of reason’, which see the development and articulation of materialist and sceptical thought – these can be found in the history of China, the Islamic world, India, and classical civilisation. (Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).
The point here is that we have earlier episodes of many of the central features of the modern revolution, such as intensive growth, technological innovation, and the ideas of critical rationalism but that these ‘eflorescences’ (as Jack Goldstone calls them) were not sustained. Instead, something choked them off. This is of course compatible with the first approach – the fact that these episodes were not sustained would on that view show that there was, by analogy, not enough fuel in the reactor to keep the chain reaction going. The alternative is, to continue the analogy, that there was already enough ‘fuel’ in the ‘reactor’ long before the reaction finally sustained itself in the later eighteenth century but that before then there was a control mechanism (analogous to the absorbent control rods in an actual reactor) that suppressed the process and stopped it from continuing when it could have.
This explanation in turn can take two different forms. One is that the ‘controls’ that prevented such earlier episodes from sustaining themselves were features of the social, political, and economic order of traditional societies that could have been changed but were not, for various reasons. The strongest candidate is the set of institutions described in the previous chapter, which arose as a response to the Malthusian constraints facing traditional agricultural societies, along with the need to have between eighty and ninety per cent of the population engaged in agriculture. These social practices and institutions seem to have proved very resilient and they had the effect, above all, of preventing sustained innovation. The other way of explaining the termination of ‘eflorescences’ is to emphasise, in addition to wider social obstacles, deliberate policy by rulers or rather the way that the interests of certain social groups and above all ruling classes led them to follow a course that had the effect of terminating such episodes and making them less likely to start in the first place. This is the view of a number of scholars such as Goldstone himself, Eric Jones, and Mark Elvin. The key historical episode for those who take this view is that of China under the Song and it is the failure of that particular ‘efflorescence’ to sustain itself that has attracted the most attention.
The above is one of a number of passages in The Wealth Explosion where Davies is (to me) irritatingly coy about the ways these eflorescences ran out of puff. Let me give the game away. Europe, at the moment when it mattered, was politically divided, while all those other places, and China in particular, was not. China’s rulers could and did end their eflorescence. Europe’s rulers couldn’t, and because they continued competing with one they instead encouraged their eflorescence to continue. Hence the wealth explosion of the tile of this book.
I supplied another slightly longer summary, complete with the punch line that Davies keeps omitting, in this posting at Samizdata.
On the above matter, I wish that Davies had been less succinct. Consider the bit where he says – in brackets, like it’s just a throwaway thought – this:
(Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).
These eflorescences, in other words, were a bigger deal than most people think, even quite educated people, because the memory of them was deliberately expunged. I would have liked a whole chapter about the various eflorescences he’s talking about, together with much more in the way of argument to effect that they were indeed big deals, and that lots of evidence of their bigness was indeed expunged. As it is, we have to make do with the one fascinating chapter about just one of these eflorescences, the one that efloresced in Song China. But the scale and significance of each of these eflorescences is central to what this book is all about. Modernity did not get created only in Europe. Modernity was created all over the place. Europe is merely where Modernity was not suppressed.
I have one of my Last Friday of the Month talks at my home tomorrow evening. See the next posting for news about that. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts that Michael Jennings jotted down, concerning the talk he’ll be giving in the same series on October 25th. While writing this, he didn’t know he was writing a blog posting. That only happened when I asked him if I could stick it up here, and he said … okay, yes:
In April and May this year, I spent a month in Nepal. I spent a fair portion of this in very remote areas – places (such as the region of Upper Mustang) that were almost literally medieval kingdoms only 30 years ago. These places are no longer medieval and no longer kingdoms, but they are still very poor, agricultural communities. At least, the ones without roads connecting them to the outside world are very poor, agricultural communities. Communities with roads connecting them to the outside world are different. Still poor by international standards, but much richer. The roads are being built with Chinese money and expertise.
These places are also very close to the border with Tibet. These places have always been close to the border with Tibet, but of course, these days this means the border with China. As China has become economically more powerful in recent years, the Chinese influence on these places has become stronger. The locals have mixed feelings about that. The Chinese have resources and get things done, whereas governments of Nepal – and governments of their nearer and friendlier neighbour India – are not known for this. On the other hand, if you cross the border you had better not be carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama, and if a Chinese policeman tells you to do something, you had better do it. (Nepali policemen are fairly amiable, mildly corrupt, and not people to worry about that much). The Chinese are building roads and power stations, which is making people richer. This is generally considered to be good. The Chinese bring money and wealth, but they also bring an extremely authoritarian political model with it, and you can see this in one small, poor country of a very different culture to theirs
This is one relatively small, poor country case of the interactions that a rising China is having with much of Asia and much of the world. At the other end of this are things like the interactions of my native Australia with China. Australia was always rich, but is now very rich due principally to selling iron ore and coal to China for the last 20 years. Australia has a large Chinese community, that has arrived in the country mostly in the last 50 years. 30 years ago, Australia would have been unequivocal in its support for the present demonstrators in Hong Kong, if events such as that had been happening then. These days, the Australian government says nothing. Meanwhile, Chinese students in Australia are spied on by Chinese secret police, Chinese language newspapers in Australia – there are many – are intimidated into taking a pro-Beijing line, and other similar things. Do Australians like this – not much, although Australians do generally like Chinese people and Chinese immigrants individually. Australia is now in an uncomfortable position of gaining much of its prosperity from people with an extremely authoritarian political model that we don’t particularly like.
Two extreme examples, but a great many countries in Asia and Africa (and elsewhere) face the same questions, to varying degrees. I will be giving a talk in which I discuss what this means for the world and where this may all lead.
There’ll be another talk about China on the last Friday of November, which is November 28th, by Hong-Konger-now-based-in-London Katy Lau. No apologies whatever for the “duplication”. First, it won’t be. These will be two completely different takes on China. And second, could any subject in the world be more important just now, or more vast in its scope and significance?
As regular readers of BMNB already know, the BMNB Senior Foreign Correspondent is currently Michael Jennings. His latest item of foreign photo-fun is this:
I know. Ho ho. Johnny Foreigner getting the English language somewhat wrong. My interest is more respectful and serious, which is that it is not just British workers who have become more expensive to kill. This is happening everywhere. Workers are everywhere becoming more skilled and more productive, and employers everywhere are becoming ever keener on them not being killed. Hence all the urging to them to take their own safety seriously.
I bet that in Nepal, scaffolding has recently been getting more abundant and better made.
Google google. Yes, here we go: Nepal Has Been Announced That the Training in the Scaffolding Industry is Showing Improvements. Look at that picture there.
Does Nepal have an edge in the scaffolding trade on account of its expertise in mountaineering? This would make sense.
Incoming from Michael J:
This is amusing.
Backing England in this World Cup, as I am, being English, I must get my World Cup entertainment where I can.
Pakistan are playing NZ today, and they made a great start, getting four early wickets, and then the key wicket of Kane Williamson, making it NZ 83-5. So, Pakistan are on course to win this World Cup. But NZ are now 150-5 and by no means out of it just yet.
I often like to do my sport blogging during games and during tournaments rather than when everything has finished, because it’s the middles of games and the middles of tournaments that you tend to forget. Yet they are fascinating at the time. Or in the case of England just now, excruciating.
LATER: And the parallels continue parallel. “?” turns to “WON”. The “Pakistan are playing NZ today” link (see above) turns to “Pakistan beat NZ”.
Recently I have become included in the Libertarian Boys Curry Night gang. I know them all. I just hadn’t been having curries (or in my case biryanis) with them every now and again, until rather recently.
During the latest such Curry Night (at an Indian Diner near to me (which turned out to be a good choice (I had a biryani))), one of the Boys showed me some photos of Singapore he’d taken with his mobile, of that huge thing that looks like a set of cricket stumps, for a game of cricket played in hell and painted by Bruegel.
I said, send me one of those, and he did, twice:
I show these photos here, because whatever you think of this Thing, it is certainly of architectural interest, in a misshapen and off-putting sort of way (or so I think).
But more, I show these photos because they actually are rather informative, especially the one on the left. That one especially shows context, in the form of nearby places and other nearby buildings. In general, you get a feel for what sort of place Singapore is.
In Real Photographer photos, you get buildings like this looking super-cool and super-glamorous, in other words not how they actually look like when you get there.
I’ve said it before and will say it again now. Real Photographers photo photos that are super-nice. Amateur photoers often photo photos which tell you more about what a place is actually like. So it is, I think, with these photos that my mate Tom took.
My low opinion of this Cricket Stumps Thing is perhaps shared by whoever compiled this list of 10 Super Cool Buildings in Singapore You Might Not Have Noticed Before, because The Stumps are not included. That’s because you’ve probably already noticed them, rather than because it’s ugly. But the implied point of the list is: we have other and cooler buildings, besides and unlike The Stumps.
One of the Cool Buildings in this list is something called the “Interlace” Apartments, which is that pile of blocks of flats, all rectangular and each very boring, but piled up like a child’s set of big wooden bricks, all at angles to each other. There’s a photo of this Pile of Bricks in the list, of course. But I prefer this aerial photo of it, that I found elsewhere, and which I’d not seen before:
Once again, you get context. So I’m guessing: photoed from an airplane by an amateur photoer.
Tom’s photos of The Stumps were not photoed from an airplane, but rather from a nearby building. You can tell this because both were photoed from the exact same spot, but the clouds are different. Ergo, he was still when he photoed them.
Incoming from Michael Jennings:
This is very nice.
It certainly is. Make the picture as big-picture as you like, or whichever smaller pictures you want to look at as small and detailed as you like.
Incoming from BMNB’s Blogmaster Michael Jennings, a while back now, from Foreign Parts:
Like I say, it’s a while since this got here, but it deserves the immortality that is conferred upon photos when they are exhibited here at BMNB.
“Fency” is either a very posh way of saying “fancy”, or it is an indication that a lot of the goods in the store were stolen. Which means they’ll be cheap, which means that you can shop at this store with absolute frugality.
I cannot recall if the accompanying email said where this is. Michael?
LATER: Ah, it wasn’t “incoming from Michael”. It was at his Facebook page. Kathmandu, Nepal. I just nicked it. Hope Michael doesn’t mind.
In among all the vile bile, Twitter continues to serve up good Other Creatures news, especially in video form.
Here, for instance, is evidence that when it comes to shifting stuff around, while simultaneously showing a bit of common sense, robots would appear to have some way to go before they will be entirely replacing the working class.
Here is a delightful photo of two pigeons, who are checking out a photographer who is trying to photo a ceiling.
On a more melancholy note, Mick Hartley tells of the Soviet whale “decimation” of the middle of the twentieth century. Decimation however, is surely the wrong word. It was far worse than that. The writer whom Hartley quotes seems to think that decimation means killing nine out of ten, because he talks of whale species being “driven to the edge of extintion”. But decimation wasn’t killing nine out of ten members of a Roman legion. It was killing one in every ten. It was to punish, not to extinguish, a legion. That verbal quibble aside, there can’t be too many reports of what an insanely destructive economic system the USSR imposed upon all its victims. And its victims were not only human.
…, and has this to say about it:
Congratulations to Chen Chen-kuang … for winning the Hamdan HIPA Prize for his shot of a …
… see above.
And there was me thinking that “Drongo” was just a word made up by Australians to describe … drongos. Apparently drongos really exist, and presumably drongos behave in a way that Australians disapprove of.
Taiwan Birds adds:
Never leave your camera behind! And spend years refining your skills …