Marján’s Mythical Average
by Jason Dittmer
The Middle of the Map: Geopolitics of Perceptions,
by Attila Marján,
John Harper Publishing, 208 pp.
Attila Marján’s The Middle of the Map is a book that defies easy characterization. From its cover photo by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover to…well, really the cover photo by Roger Glover should be enough to differentiate this book from others in the field of geopolitics. Indeed, the book is different than its competitors in the marketplace. Marján’s goal is twofold – the first half of the book is a comparison of how Europe, the United States, and China view each other while the second half of the book addresses the current state of international relations in the wake of the financial crisis. These are certainly both worthy topics.
This divide, however, is not the biggest divide in the book. The Middle of the Map is somewhat schizophrenically torn between academic discourse and polemic. Marján couches the book as the result of research: “I interviewed dozens of eminent political advisors, professors and businessmen. I had Chinese billionaires tell me about the snobbery of China’s nouveaux riches and their fawning imitation of Europe. I heard first-hand the views of ultraconservative American political advisors about the sacrilege of Europe and its imminent invasion by Islam,” (p.viii). However, as this quote illustrates, Marján puts himself at the center of his project, as a knowing and transcendent intellectual capable of detaching himself from his context and dispassionately observing the world around him. To his credit, Marján notes that the book is intentionally subjective and that he does not believe there is a singular truth out there to be found. And indeed, his triangulation of how Europe, the U.S., and China view each other (or, more properly, how their elites view each other – an elision inherent to Marján’s methodology) is at times a quite humorous catalogue of stereotypes deployed with knowing irony. His numerous sub-headings (for Europe’s view of America: “Fat David, blondes, and fanatics”, for Europe’s view of China: “smirking half-wits”, and for America’s view of Europe: “Everyone is a Socialist”) detail the broad-brush characterization at work here.
Cover art by Roger Glover (Deep Purple)
However, at times the irony disappears and Marján becomes the arbiter of truth, such as when he compares European and American intellectuals: “Except for a narrow east-coast elite, the average American intellectual’s breadth of view and erudition just does not measure up to that of Europe’s intellectual elite,” (p.24). Perhaps he is right: I do not know any American intellectuals who would be capable of making such a sweeping and self-serving statement without relying on evidence of some kind. Passages such as this undercut the entire purpose of the book. Marján’s frequent invocation of the “average” American, Chinese, or European left me wondering who these mythical people were. Given his methodology of interviewing elites I suspected they were not that average at all, and further, at what point does describing stereotypes shift from being a critical practice to being a perpetuation of prejudice?
Marján adopts a conversational style throughout, “not over-heavy in style” (p.x) and this is a blessing for the reader. Marján is a gifted writer. But his disavowal of academic prose extends to incredibly poor referencing. This may seem a petty matter, but this book has reminded me of why such basic practices are integral to academic culture. The book has only thirty-nine endnotes – why Marján decided to provide citations for those claims and not all the others is entirely opaque. To be fair, he gives shout-outs to writers he likes as he recapitulates their arguments, but other details just slip by. This is a problem as, to give one example, Marján reiterates a frequent claim that only 20% of Americans have a passport. Given that the number is at least 30% and growing rapidly, it would be helpful to know where Marján is getting his numbers. Perhaps 30% is still small enough to make Marján’s point about Americans not travelling enough, or perhaps not. But given the political and economic stakes in play with such an important topic, adherence to, and validation of, facts such as these are important bulwarks that prevent descriptions of perceptions from sliding into the perpetuation of false perceptions.
The book is strongest in the latter half, in which it “takes a step back and looks at the world as a whole. It even peeks into the future and weighs the chances of the three global powers[,]” (p.ix). Here Marján owns his polemical perspective and makes prescriptions based on his own positionality within the European Commission. While his claims to objectivity again seem to fall short (a recurring theme is the need for the EU to further integrate in order to become a Great Power – surely not unrelated to his role within the Commission) at least here his free-wheeling rhetorical style is in line with the necessary patchiness of futurology. Even here though there is much to which to object, such as Marján’s gendered reading of international relations. “The United States, whose knuckles have been rapped a number of times in the last few years, is trying to squeeze itself into a jacket two sizes smaller; China […] is looking in the mirror and is not liking the fact that the jacket it was given is three sizes too big. Europe, undecided as to whether to become a political union, cannot find any jacket that it could put on and is beginning to wonder whether it should be looking in the ladies’ section,” (p.172). This troubling phrasing is followed up by the unlikely sub-heading “It takes two to tango, or why America should ask Europe to dance and why Europe should oblige” (p.178). The masculinism here is in alignment with the masculinism of Marján’s totalizing perspective. The book is aptly titled indeed, but I fear the perceptions on display are more those of Marján than of anyone else.
About the Author: