Legacy - The Origins of Civilization

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[edit] General Information

History Documentary hosted by Michael Wood and published by ITV, NHK in 1991 - English narration

[edit] Cover

Image: Legacy-The-Origins-of-Civilization-Cover.jpg

[edit] Information

The Legacy series is a search for the first civilizations and their continuing legacies. Each hour-long program focuses on one of the following regions: Iraq, India, China, Egypt, Central America, and the West.

At best, this search for the continuing legacies of past civilizations can help explain how different cultures have developed over time, show how the past greatly influences all our lives, and cultivate a respect for other cultures. At worst, it can send a message that these civilizations have remained virtually unchanged through time, unlike the West, and cultivate a false view of other peoples as less "modern." The negative impact of the assumption that other cultures are not as modern as the West surfaces when Westerners make judgements, business deals, and policy decisions based on this assumption. Although Legacy aspires to the former objective, it often ends up fulfilling the latter. For example, the following statements by writer and presenter Michael Wood exemplify how the language Westerners often use to talk about non-Western peoples relegates them to a space and time outside of a Western view of the universe: "Two conceptions of civilization have fought for the soul of the peoples of the Americas, one foreign and recent, that of the West, the other ancient and native;" "For over 2000 years, China has been sustained by ideas virtually unchanged since the Bronze Age." Throughout the series, comments like the ones above and the relative absence of images of people creating and using modern technology make it difficult for viewers to see the integral roles non-Western peoples occupy in the present.

Each program in the series seeks to outline the "great tradition" of a civilization. Wood's explorations of these various civilizations' great traditions are attempts to delineate some of the broad cultural principles which hold cultures together and distinguish them from one another. However, his efforts serve to create essentialized descriptions of societies that are comprised of numerous classes, ethnic groups, religions, and other types of communities (e.g. agrarian, nomadic, and urban). These descriptions are reminiscent of Ruth Benedict's characterizations of the Hopi and Apache as Apollonian and Dionysian, respectively. Specifically, he characterizes Iraqis as long-suffering, resilient, hard-bitten, and pessimistic people; he states that Indians hold non-violence, renunciation, the inner-life, and the female as pillars of their civilization; he claims that the Chinese are guided by Confucianism, reverence for ancestors, and the quest for harmony; he asserts that the key to understanding the lives of ancient Egyptians was their desire to overcome time, a yearning to live beyond their time on earth and become immutable; he characterizes Mayans as obsessed with time and the mathematics of eternity, Aztecs as war-like, and all Central Americans as possessed of an inner strength that would allow them to bear any burden, even one as heavy as the last 500 years; and lastly, he describes the great tradition of the West as rooted in a contradiction between savagery and idealism. One can only imagine an encounter between a Westerner and non-Westerner in which the Westerner judges the non-Westerner as an inauthentic Indian, Mayan or Iraqi because he/she does not conform to the essentialized characterizations above.

Wood's presentation is also problematic because he does not allow the people whose civilizations he examines to speak for themselves. Even when he does interview people, he does not allow the viewer to hear their words directly or through a translator, rather he summarizes and interprets the meaning of their statements. In short, Wood deprives them of their ability to represent themselves.

Wood is an ever-present guide through the series, perhaps distractingly so. There are several shots focused on him walking through crowds and across landscapes, and of him looking at buildings and artifacts where he obstructs the audience's view of the object under discussion. The scenes in which he observes buildings, art or ceremonies seem like guides for tourists, instructing them how to properly admire these objects and phenomena.

Each video contains a great deal of information on the civilization it investigates, but the presentation of this information is problematic. In addition to its function as a source of information, this series could be useful as a study of the ways in which cultural information is presented, especially in comparison to other films.

[edit] Iraq - The Cradle of Civilization

This episode explores the history of the world's first cities including Baghdad, Ur, Uruk, Erbil, and Sumer, and the development of law and science in this civilization born on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Wood claims that the great tradition that produced the "pessimistic," "hard-bitten," and "resilient" people of Iraq can best be seen in the marsh Arabs and Mandeans, two groups whose "way of life has been preserved since long before civilization." He further asserts that "after all its achievements, Iraq reached the modern world as a society stopped in time." Oil and, later, the Gulf War (read: interaction with the West) caused profound changes in Iraq and brought them into the modern world. This static picture of Iraqi society is enhanced by the predominance of images of desolate landscapes and ancient settlements. There are few images which show Iraqis engaged in activity and creative processes, and the majority of these images show them dealing with the destruction caused by the Gulf War.

As in other episodes, one of Wood's main concerns is spirituality. There are several shots of Muslims praying and studying and the episode ends in a temple devoted to Satan. One may question whether his exploration of spirituality gives viewers a better appreciation of Iraqi society or reinforces notions of Iraqis as irrational, religious fundamentalists. While discussing the history of some of the world's oldest cities and how archaeology contributes to our knowledge of this history, Wood commits a serious archaeological faux pas; he picks up artifacts off the ground, explains their significance, and then walks away from the site with them in hand rather than putting them back where he found them. What message does this send to people who find artifacts while visiting sites?

Although the program is meant to dispel Western misconceptions of Iraq, the narrative and images seem to reinforce many of them instead.

[edit] India - Empire of the Spirit

This episode examines the origins of Indian civilization and the long history of migrations and invasions of people and ideas that has formed the culturally and religiously diverse nation of India. Wood is particularly interested in the wealth of spirituality in India for he sees it as central to Indian life. He states that India's great tradition is based on non-violence, renunciation, the inner-life, and the female principle.

Much of Wood's exploration of Indian civilization is a search for the immutable characteristics of India's great tradition. He comments that "India today is still a village society" in order to point out the continuity of practices in India through time. What does this say to people who are unfamiliar with Indian society? What of New Delhi, Calcutta and other cities in India? What role do they play in Indian society? The episode opens and closes with scenes of millions of Hindus gathering for age-old religious practices. "For the pilgrims bathing [in the Ganges] on the morning of Shiva's festival day, the city of Shiva is beyond time and history, a place of redemption." The images and narrative reinforce a static view of Indian civilization and downplay the diversity of modern India. They also allow Wood to speak of a "typically Indian response" and a "Tamil sensibility."

Wood aims to set an example for Westerners by demonstrating respect for other cultures. However, he occasionally falls short of this goal: "How easy it is to forget that there was an India there before the British came which is still there now they've gone." Easy for whom to forget? It is doubtful that it has been easy or desirable for Indians to forget. How can viewers cultivate an unpatronizing respect for a nation that appears to need the West to develop and extend its society? "And for all the achievements of the British, their most fateful legacy was to open up India irrevocably to a wider world." This statement assumes that India would not have developed international relations without Western intervention and fails to acknowledge the long-established trade networks and relations India already had with other empires and nations before British colonization.

Overall, this episode presents an essentialized, romantic account of the history of Indian civilization.

[edit] China - The Mandate of Heaven

In this episode, Wood travels to An Yan in central China where the first Chinese civilization flourished, to the religious site of Tai Shan, and throughout the Chinese countryside to illustrate the basis of traditional Chinese culture: Confucianism, reverence for ancestors and the maintenance of harmony. This episode makes clear the idea of a spiritual East versus a material West suggested by the episode on India.

The influence of the past is so strong in Chinese society, Wood claims, that just when modern Chinese think they have gotten out of its grasp it pulls them back. As in the other segments of the series, the West is represented as a powerful agent in the modern world, whereas it is implied that non-Western societies' full integration into the modern world is hampered by their retention of traditional practices and philosophies. Throughout the series, "modern" seems to refer not to the twentieth century itself, but to economies, technologies and types of social organization (e.g. capitalism, computers, and multinational corporations) that have been cultivated in the twentieth century by powerful entities such as the West and Japan. Although the series may succeed in dispelling notions of the inherent superiority or inferiority of particular societies, its specific use of the term modern makes it difficult for viewers to escape the patronizing notion that many nations today lag behind the West and need the West to modernize or develop. The patronizing view of non-Western peoples this series allows is exemplified in odd scene from this episode in which Wood picks up a Chinese boy who trips in front of him on the street. Wood does not point to any significant sites, buildings or objects in this scene, it is simply a sequence of him walking through a Chinese town. One wonders why the scene was included in the final cut.

[edit] Egypt - The Habit of Civilization

Wood investigates the history of Egyptian civilization through a focus on spirituality. For him, the key to understanding ancient Egypt is to recognize the Egyptians' desire to overcome time, to become immutable. Centralized power, royal rituals and the cult of the dead intertwined to form the ideology of the first state; "For the Egyptians, divine kingship was the guarantee of a stable cosmos." Wood speculates that, perhaps, worship of the great ruler was a necessary stage in the development of civilization. While travelling to sites such as Edfu, Abydos and Hieraonkonpolis and discussing past and present expressions of spirituality, Wood constructs his argument that Egyptian society was predicated on the search for permanence and stability. As in the rest of the series, Wood's essentialized descriptions of the world's first civilizations allow him to comfortably use phrases such as "a typical piece of Egyptian imagination."

This episode contributes to a view of people whose culture in many ways resembles the culture of their distant ancestors as remnants of the past in the present rather than as full members of the present. Wood introduces the episode as a search for the roots of Egyptian civilization and its continuation in the ordinary people of today who turn out to be villagers and nomads. the resulting message is that only people in the cities have changed significantly and entered the modern world. (See review of part 3 for more comments on this issue) Lastly, there is an odd scene in this episode in which Wood uses Freudian and Jungian frameworks to interpret art and symbols of the Old Kingdom. Why he chooses to use specifically recent Western theories to interpret non-Western art produced thousands of years ago is unclear.

[edit] Central America - The Burden of Time

This episode explores how indigenous peoples of Central America have "hung on with great tenacity" and resisted spiritual conquest by retaining old languages and practices despite their physical conquest by the Spanish and consumer society over the past 500 years. Wood describes them as "stubbornly collective" and "stoical," but "possessed of an inner strength that would allow them to bear any burden, even one as heavy as the last 500 years." Wood laments and condemns the conquest of the Americas, but his emphasis on Central America's continuity with its pre-Columbian past also seems to serve to alleviate Western guilt. Wood addresses several controversial issues, but his discussions of them always stop short of the point where they would make viewers uncomfortable because they were forced to confront problems for which there are no easy solutions or solutions which Western viewers are willing to embrace. Wood comments that "the West's progress to civilization has been long and painful," but he fails to answer the question "painful for whom?". He closes the episode with an observation that we live in a new time of pluralism where again Native Americans can live their own history in their own time. This statement virtually dismisses the violence and discrimination that indigenous peoples of Central America continue to face. It is doubtful that people such as Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan/Guatemalan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work on indigenous people's rights, would agree with Wood's statement.

Wood's survey of the legacy of Mesoamerican civilizations discusses the Popul Vuh, the Mayan creation myth, explores the Mayan ruins at Teotihuacan, Tikal and Copan and the Aztec temple of Quetzalcoatl in Mexico City, and observes present-day shamans in order to demonstrate the continuity between the Mesoamerican past and present, the Mayans all-consuming obsession with time, and the war-like character of the Aztecs. Although he mentions other aspects of Aztec civilization, he spends most of the time discussing their often-sensationalized practices of human sacrifice. Wood also tends to sensationalize the practices:

How was it, then, that a civilization of such brilliance in the arts, sculpture, textiles, and poetry could have been so committed to mass bloodletting and mass sacrifice, so that in a four-day festival 10,000 people could be dragged up the steps of the temple to have their hearts ripped out til the place was swimming in blood and reeking to the heavens?

In short, this episode presents an easy-to-swallow overview of the history of Central American civilizations and their responses to their oppression by the West in various forms over the past 500 years.

[edit] The Barbarian West

In the beginning of this episode, Wood states that the "history of the West, more than any other, has swung between savagery and idealism, a contradiction apparently deeply rooted in our character and history." This episode explores the history of this contradiction and the development of individualism, based on the ownership of property and a free marketplace, as a guiding principle of Western civilization. This exploration starts in ancient Greece and moves to Rome, Barbaric Europe, the rise of Christianity, the Reformation, the age of exploration, the conquest of the New World, the early United States, and the drive for unification in Europe.

Wood's presentation of the history of the West is heavily focused on its outward movements rather than on internal developments. He asks the question, "how was it that such small countries came to dominate other peoples?". The conquests of Alexander the Great and the colonization of much of the world by Western nations are discussed at length and with a disturbing enthusiasm as the destruction and long-term oppression produced by these conquests is often glossed over and the West is held up as a champion of uniting the world into "an organic whole" and creating a world economy. For example, Wood exclaims that "Greek conquests liberated tremendous historical energies" and opened great trade routes, but he does not discuss at length the cost many Westerners and conquered peoples were forced to pay in order to make these conquests and trade routes viable.

In contrast to the other episodes, this one shows modern technology and culture as an integral part of present-day Western civilization. Instead of giving examples of how many Westerners carry on the traditions of their ancestors, parallelling the examples on the other episodes, present-day Westerners are shown in a fully modern context. That is, the modern expression of the great tradition of the West is presented whereas ancient expressions of other great traditions are emphasized. The difference in the style of presentation of Western and non-Western civilizations throughout the series creates the following set of oppositions:

West / Non-West
Material / Spiritual
Modern / Ancient

These oppositions are apparent in the series closing segment in which Wood concludes,

the great traditions speak to us now with growing urgency at the end of our destructive century. And they speak on behalf of the vast majority of the people on the planet, their insights as valuable to life now as the rain forests, for these are the rain forests of the spirit.

[edit] Screenshots

Image: Legacy-The-Origins-of-Civilization-Screen0.jpg

[edit] Technical Specs

  • Video Codec: DIVX
  • Video Resolution: 528x400
  • Audio Codec: mpga
  • Audio BitRate: 160000 BPS and 44100 Hz
  • Audio Channels: 2
  • RunTime Per Part: 51:32 mins
  • Number Of Parts: 6
  • Part Size: 460 Mb
  • Subtitles: Not Available
  • Ripped by anurag
  • VHS Rip

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