Some Weeds

I got into an unedifying dispute some years ago about the term “Eurocentric”. Some conservative cultural critics seem to think that any mention of the term marks you off as a crazed member of Sendero Luminoso or some such. I pointed out that the word can and often does have a fairly neutral, technical meaning. Sure, you don’t call something Eurocentric as a compliment (maybe some conservative cultural critics do?) but it is a useful way to label arguments that see Western Europe as playing a central or exclusive role in some important historical or intellectual development.

Or perhaps even just ways of lightly taking Europe or the West as a universal subject. A couple of folks in my Twitter feed were pointing out recently how annoying it is when a journalist or travel writer talks about how some non-Western place is “in the 13th Century” or is “unchanged for the last millennium”, because the 13th Century the reporter has in mind is almost certainly a generically European one, not the local past.

What makes this kind of thing aggravating is that it’s unnecessary. If someone wants to make a serious argument that the West really is unique, that post-1450 world history revolves around a “European miracle”, that some kind of universalism is necessary and has to reference the Enlightenment: that’s all perfectly legitimate fuel for an intellectually respectable argument.

If on the other hand someone wants to be a serious, committed racist, that’s not at all legitimate but it’s very likely an intentional practice and whatever they have to say about the barbarism or backwardness of non-Western societies is thus equally deliberate.

Casually Eurocentric terms of phrase, or ways of framing an analysis that take Europe as the universal human subject without really needing or meaning to? I don’t feel inclined to drop a ton of polemical bricks every time I come across this sort of thing, or act as if every instance is one bar on an epistemological cage. Sometimes this kind of construction is just careless, and more importantly, completely unnecessary to the ideas or expression in question.

Case in point, Richard Mabey’s new book Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. It’s a very interesting, engaging book that intelligently synthesizes a range of different ideas and discussions of weeds, from literary representations to agricultural science. I recommend it without hesitation.

And yet, Mabey has a habit throughout the book of talking about weeds in an implicitly global or universal tone while much of the content of his discussion of weeds comes from British history and culture, or occasionally more broadly European history and culture. He’s quite aware that in some sense, European weeds are global or universal weeds now, even mentioning Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism to drive home this point. It’s not just that plants from Eurasia have disseminated around the world but that the European way of imagining plants as weeds has done so.

Mabey is terrifically interesting in his reflections on the concept of weeds, pointing out how shifting and contingent it really is. But all the more reason that he ought to be at least slightly aware of the possibility that European ideas about weeds as well as the plants themselves were certainly not universal in the past and may not be universal today.

I understand why an author like Mabey reaches out for what’s close at hand: the plants in his garden, the plants in his country, the plants in his native literature. That’s fine. I’m not asking that an author that’s trying to address the overall concept of weeds go off and read 18th Century Chinese-language documents on agriculture and weeds, or do research on African agricultural history, or anything of the sort. I think it’s fine to gesture outward from what you know best and what you can most easily find to bigger and more general stories.

It’s just that it costs very little and potentially gains a great deal to leave room to wonder about bigger questions: is this how all human societies used to see weeds before modern globalization? Did the concept of a weed even exist in some pre-1750 societies? Are there weeds whose histories of travel and dissemination are strikingly different than the weeds which came from Europe (or were the result of European replantings like Japanese knotweed)? Are there places today where agriculturalists see or talk about weeds in a really different way from the U.S. or Europe? All of these kinds of questions are easy extensions of what Mabey is already interested in, but there’s something about the way he assumes universality at certain moments that prevents them from ever rising to the fore. Without any deliberate effort, England and Europe become the world, the normal, the universal referent and there isn’t any particular reason why they have to be. Provincializing Europe is in some ways a small kind of project and one that shouldn’t require a lot of flash and fire.

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