Rat is, unsurprisingly, very much cut from the same mold as Robert Sullivan's Rats. They differ in journalistic particulars, which I'll get to, but thRat is, unsurprisingly, very much cut from the same mold as Robert Sullivan's Rats. They differ in journalistic particulars, which I'll get to, but they're both from the themed collection of facts school of book writing, and they emerge from the impulse to use facts to sell papers/books rather than to pose and answer questions. Obviously as an academic I think that's a bad way to write a book in general, but with rats it's much more annoying. Rats sell magazines and books as a boogeyman, which gives authors plenty of incentive to play up that narrative with anecdote and personal experience and also to maybe not work too hard to emphasize the degree of confidence and commonness that can be ascribed to certain wowing tidbits.
Langton is a bit more bold about the fact that this is journalism, not academia. He cites dozens of scientific and historical facts about rats, often with only minimal caveats as to their reliability. Yet not a single one of them has a citation! There is no way to chase down these claims and get more information on how they were determined or whether any of them are sheer hearsay and poppycock. Langton claims, for instance, that rats can leap 4 feet up in the air without a running start. I've seen young rats do 2 ft, but four seems like it would take a special kind of rathlete. But maybe it's typical in wild rats who have to do that sort of thing to access garbage. Hard to be sure, since I don't know where Langton got that information. That's something I don't let my undergrad students get away with on throwaway assignments and I don't understand why his editor let him get away with it (or maybe they had him cut it, who knows).
Where Sullivan dismissed pet rats as a fundamentally different animal, not worthy of his consideration, Langton seems quixotically fascinated with the pet rat owner, an object of his gawking narration even more than the rats themselves. He interleaves chapters with, among other documents, three letters sent to the Saskatchawan government to protest their proposed ban on pet rats. Many of these are clearly written by children, full of pent-up anger and shoddy grammar, and it feels exploitative and cruel. It's hard to imagine the logic behind their inclusion, and it feels vaguely unethical? There's a chapter that partly covers contemporary pet rat owners, and the tone is disgustingly psychoanalytic. He paints us as weirdo loner goth outsiders, probably unattractive and shunned by their families, who identify with rats because they're outcasts. Oof.
(To give a sense of just how much of an out-of-touch Boomer Langton comes off as: "It doesn't come as a huge surprise that he's into a style of music he calls "death metal" and used to play in some "pretty nasty" bands himself.")
Part of that bitterness seems to come from an antagonism he established after publishing the articles that formed the seed for this book. He got a lot of angry mail from pet rat owners and advocates who were doing some damage to the facts in order to make our little friends look good. This is, unfortunately, entirely believable, and I can see it getting pretty annoying. He seems to have overcorrected a teensy bit, and he pretty uncritically frames rats as a historic and universal enemy of the human race, which is dumb.
All of that collectively got me pretty upset with Mr. Langton, and I was about ready to tweet angrily about how fuckin heated people would get if someone wrote a book like this about stray dogs--how gross they were, how many people they'd killed (one of Langton's clearest whoppers is that more people are bitten by rats than any other animal--all the stats I could find didn't even mention them; dogs are the clear leader, and cats in second, for obvious reasons), how hard they are to control, etc. But then he did it! He claims to be responding to pet rat owners who liken rats to dogs, and points out that this is a bad comparison since dogs are so brutal. That got my attention and won me over a bit.
After that I found some other redeeming features here. First, he does a lot of on the ground reporting, but unlike Sullivan, he never makes a big deal out of his own experiences. It's so low-key that his biggest pilgrimage (the Karni Mata rat temple in India) I'm not actually sure he made, which isn't great, but it's better than Sullivan's pretentious Thoreau-lite fare. Second, his weird hangups didn't stop him from interviewing over a hundred (he claims) pet rat owners and looking into the history of their domestication, which Sullivan just wrote off. He never discusses the advantages of rats as pets, of course, but it's something.
Finally, despite the lack of sources, he generally puts anecdotal claims at arm's length, at least implying he's interested in vetting claims and that the other facts are from primary lit or experience by extension (not that that's the only reason to cite sources, obv). He also shows a ton more curiosity about rat evolution, ecology, and history than Sullivan did, which of course is the whole point of the endeavor (from my end). The benefits of that curiosity are a bit tempered by the fact that I can't dive into the bibliography and learn more, but it's appreciated.
It's just a shame that he completely lacks the historian's self-consciousness of his own culture, of the assumptions he brings to this project. He never questions why he or his readers might take the idea of keeping rats as pets to be taboo and weird. He takes it for granted that rats are disgusting and any aberrations from that idea must be explained through desperation or pathology. For instance, he discusses the filthy and disease-laden conditions of Africans with Black rats living in their thatched roofs in lurid detail, like living near animal poop was some unique form of African poverty and suffering, and then reveals that these rats constitute a major food source for those households. It's painted as a uniquely modern problem, a situation born of desperate poverty and the defaunation of landscapes by overhunting and habitat conversion. The idea that *not* eating rats might be a more unique and Western phenomenon doesn't seem to have occurred to him. Of course there is no discussion of the potentially complex and interactive nature of this relationship as rats became domestic animals in the first place....more
Unnatural Metropolis is maybe the least inspired history I've ever read. It's plenty factual and informative about a broad set of New Orleans' environUnnatural Metropolis is maybe the least inspired history I've ever read. It's plenty factual and informative about a broad set of New Orleans' environmental travails (clean water, sewage, marsh drainage and subsidence, flooding, levees, yellow fever, etc) but it's more like an extended wikipedia article than what I'd normally think of as a history per se. That's fine, and I found it pretty helpful as a guide moving into my touristic activities, verifying and contextualizing some of the claims made by tour guides and such. It just feels as bland and generic as New Orleans is vibrant and layered, which is a shame. Like, there's nothing the least bit poetic or evocative about how it portrays the eons long process of sediments piling up and breaking down that New Orleans sits on top of. And it's not just that Colten isn't an expressive writer; it just isn't there. This is particularly clear in the ecology of yellow fever, for instance, where it's never really made clear how exactly the mosquito ecology really was before the swamps were drained, and how the city changed it; whether the disease emerged periodically from reservoirs in the city or from new strains introduced by migration. It's just one example, but the book feels systematically disinterested in environments for their own sake, as compelling as the NOLA area bioregion is.
In the intro and conclusion, Colten sets his book up as an entry into a larger conversation about NOLA as an urban entity, a development pattern. He disparages previous attempts to explain this pattern as a purely economic question, whereas ecology seems clearly relevant. That's an easy point to make, and one with a clear ideological valence. But the rest of the book doesn't seem aware that it's part of this discussion at all. The nature of this "purely economic" explanation is never expounded, much less the pattern it's trying to explain. It really just feels like Colten is starting from scratch. Many times he mentions economic limitations as to why the city government did or didn't solve an environmental problem, but they're presented as detached conditions independent of the environment even as they dictate its fate. I would have appreciated a presentation that made policy feel like the product of political economy that included the city's economic life as a dynamic partner.
Fixing all those omissions would have made this a much longer book (not that it's terribly long already), though that would be a less tiresome prospect if there were some flavor to it (there are no named people in any of these arcs, which is a choice I like in theory except that the systems don't really rise up as characters in their place either). Either way, it's useful and good enough for some purposes, but it's not really worth reading for its own sake. ...more
As the title kind of intimates, On Deep History and the Brain is a short prospectus for two (related but distinct) historical projects: deep history (As the title kind of intimates, On Deep History and the Brain is a short prospectus for two (related but distinct) historical projects: deep history (extending history into "prehistory") and neurohistory (history through the lens of neurochemistry). The first 100 pages focuses not on deep history itself, but the intellectual hangups that have kept it from being the norm. It's a historiography of the history/prehistory divide, tracing it from Biblical truth to rearguard action against geological revealed deep time and evolution to the lingering bias built into the discipline against methods not focused on written records and especially the subjects that demand such methods.
He builds this story in more detail than he perhaps needed to, but on the other hand, I'm constantly incredulous about this stuff, so maybe it is necessary. From the point of view of a modern academic, the premises of deep history are insultingly obvious: humans are animals subject to ecological rules, and the flow of history follows the logic imposed by those limitations, locating causal factors in blindly selected adaptations to changing conditions rather than intentional design and leadership. In a sense, it can't help but feel like Smail is ego-stroking us for the blessing of being born in the enlightened present, though it isn't framed that way of course. I'm just constantly astonished at how long the great man narrative approach to history persisted (he calls it the Bad King John approach, which was new to me), how long they clung to the specter of free will and intentionality. I've been reticent about really believing this idea was widespread for so long, since it reflects to poorly on so many historians, but Smail establishes a pretty solid case here.
In breaking down the barrier to deep history (ie, abolishing the concept of "prehistory"), he also eloquently makes the case for a history throughout time based on a broader body of evidence, focused on processes that may not be apparent to historical actors. Of course, this is a less pressing point, and it's more preaching to the choir than advocating deep history, perhaps. But it's still fun. Instead of giving an example, Smail details a line of research based on the eco-evolutionary logic of deep history that gives an understudied handle stretching across the divide into the deep past: neurochemistry.
Smail's idea of neurohistory walks a weird line between insight and tautology. The idea is that material circumstances and, especially, cultural patterns, shape our neurochemistry in discernible ways. Men in the South have measurably higher stress responses to offense due to the masculinity norms they were raised with. Women in Victorian England were, he speculates, physiologically more prone to fainting than women in other time periods, because their socialization was written in their endocrine system. That idea appeals to me, though extending it into history risks a lot of misleading analogy and speculation.
But his more general point is that most economic activity is driven by goods and activities that modulate human neurochemistry. I think it takes a careful thinker, and perhaps a particular case, for this to be meaningfully different from "people do things because they feel good." After all, the idea that some human activities are pleasurable but not necessarily adaptive is nothing new. This is maybe a bit unfair; unpacking the ways that social change is driven by new opportunities in mood-altering might offer more insights in the particulars than the observation that people do it reveals in general. It might, though Smail (perhaps in his intense aversion to evolutionary psychology?) doesn't make much of this, offer a way to chain histories of production to the evolutionary history of the human species (or its domesticated partners).
I'm a big fan of the way of thinking Smail advocates here, and he makes the case eloquently and concisely. It's perhaps not necessary reading if you're already convinced, though. ...more
Iggers' Historiography in the Twentieth Century focuses on new arcs in historical thinking, which perhaps a bit misleading, insofar as it implies by oIggers' Historiography in the Twentieth Century focuses on new arcs in historical thinking, which perhaps a bit misleading, insofar as it implies by omission that advances in older branches of history have become less relevant. Economic history, in my take on Iggers' survey, was one of the oldest approaches, and one that has been superseded by more diverse and culturally-focused research. But that elides the active wing of historians working in economic history today, who are applying new and vastly more explanatory economic angles than the pioneers Iggers described.
At least, that's the impression Ekelund and Tollison want to give. They're almost certainly the most arrogant writers I've ever read, especially in an academic context. The introduction especially is full of pretty explicit digs at other schools of thought on economic history. It's quite sharp, and often fun to read. It kept me going through what was otherwise a summary of intradisciplinary positions that seemed to presume a much, much greater degree of foreknowledge than I had.
I started this book while halfway through The Middle Ground, after realizing that I was missing a lot of the subtext and background because I didn't grasp the economic goals of the colonial powers. I had hoped Ekelund and Tollison would provide a general overview of what mercantilism was, how it was thought to work, how it worked in practice, etc. This is very much not the case; all of the general descriptive ideas I took away were read between the lines here, picked up from context. The goal, instead, is to explain mercantile behavior using recent economic theory, at the expense of past theories, which they view as undersupported, propagandist, and place too much weight on individual writing and ideas, or other recent theories, which they think are muddled and undersupported and pseudoscientific.
This is particularly interesting to me because this is a question I articulated when I was first starting college: can history be meaningfully changed by an act of creative or analytical thought, or is that just a gloss on an underlying material arc. I'd gotten the impression since that this was kind of a spurious question, a naive framing of history that was at least trite and oversimplified, if not an old, tired canard of over-optimistic historians wishing they were scientists. I think it is perhaps an old, tired aspiration, but I'm not sure that makes it a settled question. Ekelund and Tollison are unabashed in their advocacy for a scientific approach, they don't think anyone has given a satisfactory one in this context before, and they're pretty sure everyone else isn't really committed to understanding history at all since they don't offer the right sort of explanatory hypotheses.
The main thesis of the book is pretty straightforward: both the rise and fall of mercantile economies were organized by independent actions of self-interested actors in the state and business sectors. This as opposed to the previous go-to explanation, which blamed inept and ignorant economic theorists for the inefficiencies of the mercantile system and credited progressive economic theorists like Adam Smith for pushing governments toward the enlightened laissez-faire approach. They give alternative explanations that show how major changes in the economies of England, France, and Spain evolved in terms of the regulatory frameworks in those countries throughout the mercantile period, explanations that hinge on a market for monopoly rights provided by the monarchy and sought after by businesses.
They make sense, they're satisfying, and they don't rely on vague hand-waving about intentions and such. They're philosophically satisfying to Ekelund and Tollison, and to me, since that's the side of the ideology/material debate I also like to slide down. But while they cite some evidence, it's largely done to discredit the competing explanations as plausible causative factors. For all the shitting on other authors they do for having too little evidence, there's no real attempt to falsify their own hypotheses here. In a sense I guess that's fine; it would clutter up what is otherwise a pretty straightforward read. Certainly doesn't inspire all that much confidence that their approach is more scientific, than dogmatically ideological, though. They are offering testable hypotheses, whereas other competing theories might not, and maybe that work was done and published elsewhere, or evaluated by later writers, idk.
I'm still not at all clear about what the conventional explanation of mercantilism involves. "Irrational specie accumulation" means no more to me now than it did 238 pages ago. But their explanation is versatile enough to fill in some of the gaps, which they didn't really cover specifically--namely, international trade, one of the chief aspects of mercantilism as far as I'd read elsewhere, receives nary a mention here. And it provides the necessary context to understand some of the things in Middle Ground I didn't really even make note of when I read them.
So the basic idea is that as nation states coalesced power into their monarchies rather than a more diffuse hierarchy of dukes and other aristocrats, the state needed funding. Taxation was tried repeatedly but often failed, because so many transactions were bartered or off the record and taxing the whole economy was expensive and inefficient. Instead, monarchs could use their monopoly on force, and particularly, enforcing property rights, to protect companies from competition and increase their profits. It achieves the same end--getting money from the market to the government--but with more market distortion, compounded inequality, and the brunt of the burden on consumers. But it was easier to enforce, since the monarchies and businesses shared a common interest in maintaining the relationship, which could easily be given to someone else if payments failed, etc.
Monopolies focused particularly on luxury goods. Since the government was itself a major buyer of basic goods, raising their price through monopoly would be counterproductive. Luxury goods are also produced in cities, where regulation is easier to enforce. And of course, luxury goods use basic goods as inputs, so selling monopoly rents on both is again a bit counterproductive.
Their argument is that the differing legacies of government power in England and France determined the differing fates of their economies. England had powerful local guilds, not national ones, and a contentious relationship between parliament and the king, both of which created uncertainty about monopoly rights and opportunities to circumvent them, increasing the costs of the mercantile system and gradually destabilizing it until it became the laissez-faire system that Smith and his cohort would later describe and advocate. France, on the other hand, had a strong national system and no meaningful counterpart to the king's legal authority until very late in its history (or so they argue), which prevented its economy from becoming the enlightened sort until much later. I didn't understand the Spanish case as well, but I gathered that it was to do with the fact that transhumant herding provided Spain's main luxury product.
There's a lot more to talk about and think about here, and I hope to read more history in this vein. Ekelund and Tollison close on a quote from Hecksher that asserts basically all of human history can be explained through rational economic action, and I'm curious how far that idea has been applied in non-"capitalist" societies. Not to mention how this book's theses even still hold up in the discipline today.
As for what I'll take back to the White book: first of all, nations can only enforce monopolies within their own borders; if international trade were opened up, then monopolies that benefit the monarch would be undermined by competition from international firms. It's pretty clear now why the colonial government is interested in selling monopoly trading rights, and maintaining those rights in the field by quashing independent, unlicensed traders.
There is actually a relevant section in the book about forts in colonial areas, which previous theorists had seen as a public good, something trading companies provided to benefit everyone since they were non-rival. But E and T again explain that this is probably backwards: trading companies sold cannon as a high value good to native communities, undermining their investment if they intended forts to give them a strategic advantage over rampaging savages. Instead, E and T suggest that forts allowed firms to enforce their monopolies in otherwise under-regulated landscapes--something I'll definitely keep in mind as I read about forts in the pays d'en haut.
It also explains a lot of the specific details of the cloth trade. White gives the impression that cloth for fur was the primary trade going on in New France, and that France was at a constant disadvantage in this trade because British products were cheaper and higher quality. E and T provide an elegant two-part explanation for this. The first is simply that monopolies were less efficiently enforced in England, so prices were driven down and innovation more worthwhile.
But there's also an extended anecdote about how the French cloth trade was depressed in particular. The French monarchy depended on monopoly rents from a number of luxury fabric industries, who faced competition from imported and domestically produced cotton garments. Rather than creating another government monopoly on cotton "calico" fabrics, they banned their production and import entirely, because their diversity of colors and patterns allowed non-price competition, which undermined the monopoly's hold. This in turn meant that French textile industries were stunted and luxury-oriented compared to English producers, explaining why the Indians in the pays d'en haut were constantly tempted to undermine the French alliance by trading with the British. ...more
I had been toying with the idea of writing about race in fantasy for a while. I’d periodically do some googling to try to ascertain what research hadI had been toying with the idea of writing about race in fantasy for a while. I’d periodically do some googling to try to ascertain what research had been done in that vein already, and never found all that much. Then I came across a quote from Young’s book, and requested it at the library without looking into it much further. When I picked it up, though, I realized that this wasn’t just a single prior piece of scholarship. Rather, Young has assembled a comprehensive overview of the topic, something that not only carried out many of the inklings I had entertained but with real scholarship, but also explored many other topics in the same depth. Race in Popular Fantasy crystallizes much of the debates about racism, representation, and diversity in fantasy. I haven’t seen many people reviewing and discussing it yet, which is a shame and will hopefully change soon; Young’s work marks a helpful and accessible catalyst for future discussions on the topic.
The book is written in a detached, academic style and I imagine it might not be the easiest read for people who aren’t fluent in the vocabulary of that style. I found it to be just about right, always using the right words for things and maintaining a careful perspective but never indulging in academese for its own sake—though that’s not to say there aren’t places where things could have been stated more clearly. While she hints at some larger Theory stuff in the intro, all of her methods and framing feel straightforwardly and comprehensibly postmodern.
Young eloquently and succinctly reviews the role of early fantasists like Tolkien and Howard in popularizing and reiterating racial origin myths, building both biological (racial essentialism and predestination) and cultural (Anglo-Saxonism) race narratives into the foundation of the fantasy genre. This argument is well-made and makes a convenient reference. I also really appreciate that she points to cultural racism as an equal partner to scientific racism, giving the humanities (philology, folklore studies, etc) their fair share of blame for something science, extrapolated from anthropology and biology, too often ends up scapegoated for exclusively even to this day. In a similar vein, she traces “orcs” as a sort of wastebasket taxon for racial othering over nearly a century of fantasy. The one thing Young refrained from doing, probably a difficult scholarly leap but something I think is interesting and important to investigate, is the role fantasy plays in perpetuating ideas about Whiteness in culture outside of fantasy circles. I want to claim that Tolkien not only established a legacy of racism in fantasy, but serves as a major point of exposure to that Anglo-Saxonist Whiteness narrative for people who may never read any other fantasy.
Another chapter discusses the growing body of deconstructive, anti-racist, postcolonial, and POC-centric fantasy, something I find very interesting. Young’s summary indicates that there is much more of this sort of work than you might imagine (and it is far from a comprehensive discussion) while at the same time showing how much work is left to be done, how many huge gaps left to fill. This was true throughout the book, but this chapter I felt most keenly that while it was satisfying, I wanted more. Hopefully more bloggers and academics take up Young’s lines of thought and apply them to other works. The final chapter confronted racism in the fan community, focusing on a big catalytic event just before my time, which was interesting historical context for me.
I found those arguments compelling but easy to swallow, basically fulfilling my existing biases. The one I had more trouble with, of course, was the one on “gritty fantasy.” Having the lens turned on your own ideology is the most engaging but also consternating part of postmodernism. For the month and a half before I read this book, I’ve been working on a long, dense, tortured essay that tries to extol gritty fantasy (or at least the iterations of it I like) as superior to their Sword-and-Sorcery predecessors for their embrace of historicism. Young’s chapter repeatedly deconstructs the idea that gritty fantasy brings a more historicist approach to race in particular. This is fine insofar as I can separate myself, a reader who wants to see fantasy embrace history even further and really explore the roles of marginalized groups and changing social constructions in the past, from the people Young seems to be targeting: reactionaries who appeal to a largely debunked narrative of a monochrome medieval Europe to excuse the progress gritty fantasy has not yet made to incorporate POC.
But this framing of the argument is more mine than Young’s, and she doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience for the appeal to historicism in general. She generally treats it as a misguided anachronism that reflects more on contemporary ideas than the real past and—well, this is getting into territory I want to explore more thoroughly elsewhere. Regardless, this was a thought-provoking chapter for me and something I plan to take up in future writing (breaking that big essay up and bringing it into more direct engagement with this material). And Young’s other book, Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms, which addresses medieval history's use in genre fiction more generally, promises to be an interesting perspective on the topic as well. ...more
Picked this up after reading Larrington's article in the Economist, hoping it would expand on points like that article made: things that support the iPicked this up after reading Larrington's article in the Economist, hoping it would expand on points like that article made: things that support the idea that GoT mimics the way history treats its subjects. The book does have some of that, especially in the first chapter, which is a summary of cultural characteristics in Westeros, reverse engineering the text to share the care Martin put into creating believable and nuanced cultures.
The rest of the book, however, feels more like what you might expect: comparing Thrones ideas to their counterparts and plausible inspirations in our own history. That's interesting at times, and Larrington goes much deeper than the average listicle or YouTube vid on the subject. But it still feels pretty thin at times, like Larrington is just picking random historical anecdotes in an effort to find anything to match up to Martin's ideas. Plenty of those anecdotes are worth hearing in their own right, but they don't get explored in much depth, of course. The best bits were medieval romance tropes. It's well done for what it is but hardly necessary reading. ...more
It’s kind of annoying to identify as a postmodernist, because no one knows what that means, and if they do they think it means something else, and ifIt’s kind of annoying to identify as a postmodernist, because no one knows what that means, and if they do they think it means something else, and if they don’t they think it’s awfully complicated. It’s the word I’ve used for lack of a better for a year or two now, and I’ve developed a pretty clear idea of what I mean by it. But my definition is pretty distinct from anything I’ve been able to find written out anywhere. Most places treat it as an artistic period, following modernism in architecture, art, and literature. That definition is limited to me because it is hard to extrapolate artistic principles to the kind of ideas I mean (though they’re related) and because it is historically limiting. Thought it may be kind of confusing, postmodernism can be identified traced through a lot of intellectual history in Europe, though it has only really flowered in the last 100 years.
I got the sense in Discovery of Time that Toulmin shared my understanding of postmodernism, particularly in its relationship to science and its evolution over time. I picked up Cosmopolis hoping it would be Toulmin’s narrative of postmodernism, and it totally fulfilled that expectation. As ever, postmodernism defines itself in opposition to modernism, so most of Toulmin’s task is to provide an intellectual history of modernism, contextualized in its cultural and economic milieu. This is a super postmodern pursuit, and one I haven’t seen many examples of. Toulmin has a huge knowledge of Western science and philosophy and it allows him to see not just the most notable, textbook examplars of thought in a given age, but to know the outliers and eccentrics as well. With that information in hand, he traces the dominance and suppression of certain ideas by noting the nations, classes, and institutions where certain ideas were discussed during history. This is a neat strategy because it shows how those factors influence the ideas that are kosher to broach and work on among communities that include not just isolated thinkers, but active diplomats, leaders, and socialites. It provides a clear interface between social trends and intellectual development.
Through that interface, Toulmin posits that the social legacy of the Thirty Years War, a bloody and acrimonious struggle between Catholics and Protestants, created the cultural conditions that valued the hyper-rational ideas of Modernism. The Thirty Years War ended with a shell-shocked Europe and the independence of modern nation states from the international authority of the Papacy. The creation of nation states, alongside the shift to more market-based economic communities, shifted identities from vertical feudal regions to horizontal classes. That new intellectual arrangement demanded a new worldview to support it, which was found in an analogy with the new cosmology of Newton.
The philosophical basis of Christianity always seems tenuous to me, but for thousands of people to die over a rather narrow but intractable theological dispute apparently precipitated a huge crisis in the European intellectual community. Rather than acknowledging that both sides are expressions of the same faith in slightly different contexts they for some reason (this was left essentially unexamined in the book, one of the weakest links in its argument to me) looked to first principles, a clean slate of thought that could resolve this intractable dispute.
First principles, as laid out first by Descartes and elaborated by many philosophers who found his premises enticing, involved a series of faith-based premises that far overreached the scientific knowledge available at the time. They also seem to contradict the model of science laid out by Francis Bacon. They’re centered around a particularly phrased dichotomy between rational human minds and inert, mechanistic nature that allowed scholars to feel justified in, for instance, treating human history as a series of rational choices (cf economics), reifying the political order as a metaphor from cosmology, denying the possibility of ecological history much less environmental history, and setting back the very premises of psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology by centuries.
So it seems natural that shedding these premises and embracing a contextualized view of the world, especially in focusing on the factors that shape human reason, would be a central part of the scientific method and philosophy. But the history Toulmin lays out undermines that point. Science emerged during a period obsessed with its own objectivity, the independence of its thought from the realities of its thinkers. And a ton of science got done nonetheless. That, to me, is an interesting point about the philosophy of science and I think it complicates our understanding of what science is. But regardless, science created itself under the philosophical auspices of rational modernity, and it’s not too surprising that it would look back on its history and validate those assumptions.
I still just struggle a bit to understand how this was still such an acrimonious debate in the 90’s. Perhaps all the research on motivated reasoning and the big debates about data analysis and science funding sources and objectivity that make the problems of objectivity in science so flummoxing to me now were still not well described or publicized then. But still, cmon, everything the postmodernists were saying in the science wars came straight from science itself (especially the recent postmodern offshoots like anthropology and psychology, but still). Weren’t they just reviving Bacon’s principles, trying to apply the critical lens of science to its own workings and ensure we were striving towards objectivity better than we had in the past? How could scientists really believe their work was objective and independent of social factors? Why did it take “outsiders” to break the hold of some very unscientific premises? I dunno, I’ve still got some reading to do on that.
Toulmin traces the ideas of modernism into the 20th century, when they were threatened by relativity, psychology, anthropology, and early ecology, but delayed by a last-ditch surge in hyper-rationalism sparked by the first World War (a parallel for the Thirty Years War in many ways). This narrative makes a lot of sense of some absurd extremes in philosophy and art like positivism and twelve-tone music. It also explains the burst of intellectual change in the 60s—the release of a subordinate tradition in thought that had been building up, especially in the last hundred years, but which found kindred spirits going back hundreds of years (in the Romantic movement, eg).
The narrative is quite convincing, but it can feel a bit too convincing, a bit too simple. It doesn’t feel like Toulmin tries all that hard to muster counterevidence, and ultimately this kind of intellectual history can only explain so much. I did kind of wonder how other major social upheavals between 1618 and 1914 affected the trajectory of Modernism, like the Napoleonic Wars, for instance. Put charitably, there’s a lot of mileage left on the premise Toulmin outlined, and hopefully I’ll be able to find some histories of science that follow in his mold (it has been 26 years since Cosmopolis was written, so I think that’s a reasonable expectation). ...more
From Mallory's tweet (where I first saw this) and the blurbs, I got the impression that 1177 BC would 1) take a dusty, abstract historical period andFrom Mallory's tweet (where I first saw this) and the blurbs, I got the impression that 1177 BC would 1) take a dusty, abstract historical period and enrich it with cultural and economic details that were excluded from the more strictly military version I was familiar with and 2) address the abrupt collapse of the international economic system in that period and theoretically reframe the role of the mythical "Sea Peoples," the Goths to Egypt's Rome. Maybe those expectations were too strong, which set me up for disappointment. But hell, I imagine a lot of prospective readers share them. If that's you, well, you're probably better off steering clear.
It quickly becomes clear just how sparse the evidence is that Cline has to work with. The text is rich with names--factions and kings and queens and towns, some familiar but overall feeling exactly like a really clumsy and dense fantasy worldbuilding dump. The first 160 pages or so are spent building context for the story. But that context is largely the same boring, superficial sort of history I was hoping Cline would overwrite and fill in. It's all nations, borders, kings, war, and prestige trade. It feels like the plot synopsis of a Conan the Barbarian story (which I guess does make Conan's historical bona fides stand up a teeeeeeny bit better than utter shit in retrospect).
I get that there's not a lot of sources and archaeological evidence about normal trade, the details of daily life, etc. But that just keeps raising the question: why does this book exist? It raised so many questions for me and answered so few of them. Cline mentions tin occasionally, a key ingredient in bronze, mined only, we assume, in a particular surface deposit in Afghanistan. Why would bronze have been a make or break resource in Late Bronze Age cultures, exactly? Tell us more about this place? How did it fit into all these empires, if it was so far away? In all the discussion of these half dozen empires and their histories (very hard to keep track of, especially in BC!) there's never any real discussion of the power structures of their palaces. What role did trade play in keeping kings in power? Why were they concerned to advance territory?
The Sea Peoples crop up periodically in this backstory, but whenever they do, Cline just shrugs. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. "Don't look at me! How am I supposed to know?" is basically the message. The Sea Peoples stand out only insofar as they have no name; they are outsiders to the system of trade and correspondence tying together the eastern Mediterranean, and therefore more mysterious than the named but undescribed Mitanni, Philistines, Canaanites, etc, etc. But they're not presented as being more interesting. Cline seems to think they're just Greek people who migrated into the area as the larger empires fell. Which, fine, but that story is teased throughout and then never presented.
Cline seems to be trying to build a case for 160 pages or so, but it never cohered into anything for me. A bunch of kingdoms collapsed more or less simultaneously, associated with the end of intl trade and a bunch of burned capitals. This is the mystery, but it's presented in such an oblique and dull fashion. It's all the more disappointing because the early bits of the book try to set up hooks--the Late Bronze Age is "like the modern globalized world." Or the story of the letter a king maybe sent, maybe didn't, to ask for aid against the sea peoples. These things are misleading; they are never delivered on (thankfully, in the former case) and it compounds the overall impression that Cline has nothing to say, that this book is all empty promises. A premature summary of academic literature that hasn't figured out what its story is yet.
I gave up on reading 1177 for about a week but came back to it because I thought maybe Cline would finally get to his argument in the last 50 pages. He does. It's perhaps even more disappointing than the lead-up, however. He briefly reviews and dismisses several proposed explanations for the collapse event he's hinted at throughout the book. There's climate change, earthquakes, rebellion, the Sea Peoples, and a couple of more interesting ideas like the rise of private merchants. Instead of all of those, he turns to what he simply terms "complexity theory." He elaborates on this scientific concept at length, analogizing it to a traffic jam: we don't know why they happen or how to predict them, but we know they always will eventually happen. Then he admits this is perhaps a pseudoscientific concept that has no explanatory power without more evidence! He calls it "a fancy way to state a fairly obvious fact, . . . that complicated things can break down in a variety of ways." What a way to end a book. Sheesh. There's none of the detailed anthropology of social organization and collapse found in books like How Chiefs Come to Power--which presumably had much less textual evidence, and perhaps less archaeological evidence, to work with. ...more
I came across this at the library and picked it up as a companion piece to Wonders and the Order of Nature. It has a ton of great illustrations and brI came across this at the library and picked it up as a companion piece to Wonders and the Order of Nature. It has a ton of great illustrations and brief biographies from some major early natural history artists. A lot of the stories parallel the development from random curiosities to scientific observation by way of collections made for wealthy patrons. Wonders mostly covers physical collections like the Wunderkammern, while this book is of course on painted collections. The biographies don't have a lot of context or coherent argument, so I didn't really take much out of them. Maria Sybilla Merian is a badass, and someone who might merit reading a more in-depth biography, though. Otherwise, they're neat pictures, showing some early entomological drawings, which are pretty good, as well as some early depictions of New World mammals, which are hilariously bad. ...more
Romanticism feels like it can't make up its mind who its audience is. Honour follows the style of Landscape and Memory and In Ruins, building thematicRomanticism feels like it can't make up its mind who its audience is. Honour follows the style of Landscape and Memory and In Ruins, building thematic arguments with a series of anecdotes about painters, writers, and critics. But he is trying to cover far more ground, and perhaps feels the need to be more inclusive. He provides much less context for his anecdotes, and while a reader familiar with the artists he mentions might find his arguments interesting, it was really hard for me to keep up with his ideas while also orienting myself in the artistic and political milieus he moves between. It is, in short, not the adult-textbook sort of introduction to Romanticism I was looking for. It also does that obnoxious thing where any French quote shorter than two sentences isn't translated. If you didn't expect us to understand it, why did you include it???...more
For the most part, Enterprise of Death holds on to everything that made Brothers Grossbart great and improves tremendously on character building. TheFor the most part, Enterprise of Death holds on to everything that made Brothers Grossbart great and improves tremendously on character building. The monsters are visceral, pungent horrors that feel medieval in a way that manages to sidestep the familiarity of the fantasy aesthetic. None of them match the witch, or the manticore, or the plague demon of Grossbart, and they’re a fair bit sparser, but they’re still just great. Bullington has a knack for potent textures and imagery that feel really transgressive, and that really shows in the necromancy here, breathing a vital new tone into something that’s been trodden to death by a million derivative fantasy works.
The Brothers Grossbart are fun and shocking characters, but they’re also foreign and offputting and unflappably awful. They feel more like forces of nature, drivers of the plot, than emotionally vital characters. Awa, Manuel, and the gang in Enterprise are a massive improvement, with some of the same transgressive sensibilities (the things Bullington did to Manuel and his wife’s relationship, especially given they are real historical figures, are just wonderful) but a lot more heart and vulnerability and humor. Awa goes through some powerful, unique experiences, especially in the first third of the book.
Like Grossbart, Enterprise starts to feel a bit thin towards the end, but this time it doesn’t feel like it’s padded with extra vignettes so much as threads of plot and character are resolved in a more perfunctory way that doesn’t make good on their promise or potential. I was kind of underwhelmed by the Schwarzwald, for instance, as well as the resolution of the necromancy arc. And Awa could have had a bit more internality on the impending mortality arc. I was not entirely fond of the way magic was handled, either. It quickly evaporated the mystique of necromancy in favor of some pretty simple abilities and didn’t replace it with any particularly compelling ideas or flavor.
But overall I was really impressed and just fucking excited by this book, especially at the beginning. There are some things that could be better in the execution, but for the most part Bullington’s producing exactly what I want in a contemporary fantasy book. It’s smart and kind on the social justice angles (though the obsession with prostitution is a bit questionable?), charts out a new medieval-horror aesthetic, and it’s based on solid historical research! How can you not love a fantasy author who includes a bibliography in each of his books? That’s great. ...more
In Ruins follows the same format as Schama's Landscape and Memory, grouping vignettes on painters, architects, and authors into loosely connected chapIn Ruins follows the same format as Schama's Landscape and Memory, grouping vignettes on painters, architects, and authors into loosely connected chapters. Woodward's prose is less defined, less artful, and more ambiguous than Schama's, and he is even less inclined to present theses and historical context for his sections. I got a fair amount of historical context from the book, but not perhaps more than this article (which covers much of the same ground and more) and while the story may have been semi-comprehensive, it is a bit jumbled. Regardless, it's a useful and readable piece of scholarship that should yield some good insights in application....more
I was interested in this book largely for discussions of the fantastic in medieval perspective. I definitely got some of that--even the view of medievI was interested in this book largely for discussions of the fantastic in medieval perspective. I definitely got some of that--even the view of medieval life we get in fantasy, which is biased towards magical and interesting objects, seems to underplay the vivid and colorful reality of wonders in the lives of people in the Middle Ages (especially the elite, but even among common people). Princes and prelates hoarded collections of oddities far beyond the expected saints' bones and ersatz chunks of the cross. Ostrich eggs, narwhal tusks (as unicorn horns), and even whole dried crocodiles were hung in places of honor in entirely Christian churches, to communicate wealth and impress the congregation. Then there are the democratic sort of wonders, monstrous births of livestock and people, or comets, accessible to all classes and interpreted as portents of divine retribution for social ills.
That section was neat and I got some good ideas from it. But the book very quickly turned to another angle: philosophy of science. Which I am also, felicitously, particularly interested in. The early natural philosophers held some pretty bizarre views. They believed that a true natural philosopher understood the causes of all things in theory, and that wonder was a response borne out of ignorance and not fit for an educated individual. To that end, they actively tried to "make wonders cease" by explaining away strange occurrences reported by their correspondents.
Daston and Park trace the twists and turns wonders took as science grew over the 15th-18th centuries. This is all really interesting, but the changes are fairly subtle or particular to a dialogue relevant in one time period and not another, and it quickly all muddled together for me. I'm not sure if they could have done all that much more to establish time and zeitgeist to keep things grounded, but I'm not sure I could explain much of the last half of the book in any kind of chronological sequence. I think that may have been part of their point--trying to draw chronological progressions belies the messy and contradictory nature of history--and that's great but I found it hard to internalize a lot of the information because it was so similar, abundant, and without a lot of context or consequence. Medieval princes used Orientalist wonders to sell investors on financing Crusades, but what did Francis Bacon use them to do? Things become kind of abstract as the book goes on.
That said, it does give a sense of the historical depth of some familiar contemporary dialogues. The idea that scientific explanations take the magic out of the world feels like an absurd mischaracterization made by people who aren't familiar with all the amazing stuff science has discovered. But that sentiment, the idea that scientists are "unweaving the rainbow," unconsciously echoes a sentiment leading scientists and philosophers have put forth explicitly more often than not in the centuries science has sort of existed. Even later Enlightenment scientists seem to have spent more time elaborating theory and philosophy (largely trying to square the idea of natural laws with their very important religious interpretations).
It also really drove home how recently scientists have become really cognizant of the factors influencing their observations. Bacon may have pointed out the idols of the mind and the marketplace, but it doesn't seem like they were taken to heart by most scientists and implemented in methodology until much later. But early scientists still managed to start parsing out a lot of things through misguided observations of wondrous particulars, which is a good reminder about the complexity of the scientific method and the inevitable and potent influences of the culture that executes it.
I feel like I didn't really internalize as much of this content as Daston and Park intended, but they've got me on the scent of science studies. I'll be headed to histories and cultural studies about science next, so if you've got good recommendations defo let me know....more
I had two totally unrelated reasons to read The Wake, but I found it about it through a third, generally unrelated path. I knew of Paul Kingsnorth froI had two totally unrelated reasons to read The Wake, but I found it about it through a third, generally unrelated path. I knew of Paul Kingsnorth from my days as a rabid primitivist ideologue, basically as a British equivalent of Derrick Jensen. His articles in Orion magazine felt very familiar, no less strident and often unreasonable, premised in the same Luddism and maximally declensionist narrative. You get the impression that Kingsnorth believes the Norman Conquest was a Bad Thing, wiping away a culture with greater respect for its landbase and violently overwriting it with something more Christian than pagan, more textual than natural, and more eagerly hierarchical. When Kingsnorth set out to write a book about a freedom fighter resisting the Norman Conquest, therefore, I had no reason to expect things to play out more interestingly than any standard fantasy narrative.
I’m a fantasy nerd, and the idea of a fantasy story written by one of my old ideological compatriots had an inherent interest that might have got me to read it anyway. But there were a bunch of clues that The Wake was something a bit more interesting. I came across it in a Robert MacFarlane article about eerie depictions of the English landscape, which suggested that Kingsnorth brought his background as a passionate observer and mythologizer of the natural world to bear—something few fantasy novels bother to try, and even fewer do well, and something I’d love to achieve in my own work. There’s also the fact that the rebellions against the Norman Conquest failed completely, so as a historical novel there was a good chance this story would have a bleak outlook and a dark ending—another comparative rarity in the fantasy genre.
Then there’s the language, which signals that Kingsnorth is interested in creating such a potent worldview that readers actually experience culture shock. It’s a more ambitious and intentional approach to worldbuilding that, again, few fantasy authors are prepared to try (you can invest a lot of research and still create something totally inept). Historical settings are, I think, much more amenable to that ambition, since our prior knowledge of the cultures and languages involved can fill out the edges a bit, backcasting our perceptions of the outcome against the uncanny unfamiliarity of (the author’s presentation) of the world as it really played out.
I was kinda skeptical of the language as I started reading it. It’s gotta be hard enough to convince people to read a book, any book, published in the glutted market of 2015. Adding an extra barrier of entry could really cut down on how many people are actually willing to read your book (though I suppose it could make it stand out in a market full of less ambitious but otherwise comparable projects). As I got going, though, I really started to enjoy it. It’s just different enough to feel like a foreign language, and it gives that same thrill of learning and mastering a new language but in miniature, without most of the frustration and time investment. It took maybe 20 pages before I was able to read it without much hesitation.
Overall, the outcome of the language experiment was mixed for me. It does put a new frame over the world, which really helps put us in the mind of the character and his culture. On the other hand, it’s not particularly eloquent, or at least Buccmaster isn’t, and a lot of the nature imagery and mythology felt a bit blunt or hidden beneath the language. I get that that’s sort of part of it, the whole “no camels in the Koran” thing, that Buccmaster doesn’t make note of his beautiful environment because it’s too commonplace for him. Regardless, it is one of the things I was hoping to get from the book that it didn’t really deliver on.
On the other hand, it’s a pretty great low fantasy novel that goes in a lot of unexpected and very welcome thematic directions. Imma go ahead and discuss the plot and its twists so everything beyond here may include spoilers.
I should clarify it’s not exactly a fantasy novel, since even though Buccmaster believes in certain Gods and sprites, none of them tangibly intrude on his narrative. In its plotting, though, it starts off as a very traditional hero’s journey narrative. Like Luke Skywalker, Buccmaster’s journey begins when an evil conquering empire comes and burns his home, killing his family. He sets out to raise an army and take revenge, overthrowing the evil regime and replacing it with one based on the spiritual lineage of his family. And during this phase of the story, it feels very much like Kingsnorth could be uncritically identifying with Buccmaster. He’s a pagan, his identity is deeply tied to the land and the traditional ways of living on it, and he’s going into the wilderness to start a resistance force committing ethically questionable terrorist acts in service of a broader ideal. There are even lines about how the Normans are going to remove the wildness from the land. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Kingsnorth probably supports in real life (though, unlike Jensen, I’m not aware that he’s actually supported attacks on infrastructure).
As the story unfolds, though, this is all subverted in a really drastic, unflattering way. Buccmaster flaunts his ability to see and interpret omens, but he’s too much of a libertarian to support the King when he asks for soldiers to fight off the invaders. He’s the kind of hierarchical libertarian who loves to flaunt the authority of the government and the church but insists on his inherent superiority to anyone who doesn’t own land like he does. He’s in love with narrative depictions of himself as a hero, chosen by the gods for his wisdom and strength. The warband he accumulates includes a fawning child in love with legends and a skeptical servant bullied into following by appeals to authority.
Buccmaster talks a big game but does more harm to English people, both directly and indirectly, than to the French invaders. It’s really eager to point out that war is complicated and ethically compromising, but moreover it really digs in deeper on the personal issues underlying Buccmaster’s ineffectiveness as a leader and a soldier. What it ends up doing, first of all, is casting a lot of doubt on the ability of a small group of fighters to conduct effective actions against a systemic foe while operating under the influence of the very heady ideologies required to push someone to that kind of action. Coming from Kingsnorth, it feels almost like a condemnation of the self-righteous violent-masculine narratives that, ironically, underlie a lot of the activism he and his peers otherwise seem to support. That’s super interesting.
More broadly, though, without the lens of Kingsnorth’s own ideas, the portrait of Buccmaster feels very much like an 11th century version of the much-discussed mass shooter of the 21st century. He’s a man, a libertarian who resents the imposition of authority even where it might align with his interests. He is very conscious of the privileges his station and gender should entitle him to, but he exists in a social context where those privileges are threatened. He wishes to act out violently, to martyr himself for this cause by hurting the people taking away his privileges, without regard to whether the individuals he finds have particularly affected him at all. Innocent bystanders can be sacrificed if they aren’t ideological allies, and men who should be on his side but for some reason object to his quest are the worst of all. Buccmaster is to the Norman Conquest what Elliot Rodger is to feminism. He’s mentally ill, but the narrative portrays this is a way that is complementary to his narrative, his masculinity, his situation, providing a rich psychological portrait that feels more relevant today than in its setting. It’s a great framework for a genre that is generally very eager to lionize violence.
It’s a smart and unexpected book, but a lot of that doesn’t come together until the very end of the book. For the most part, it’s an aggressively dour, bleak, dirty low fantasy, and if that’s something you’re into, I think The Wake will really scratch the itch. On the other hand, while it’s not too indulgent, for a “proper literature” fantasy-adjacent book, it is slow and not particularly fun most of the time. What it’s really missing is a coherent imagery and mythology—I was hoping for something more like the movie Black Death, for instance. But if that’s not a sticking point for you, then The Wake is definitely worth reading. Within the fantasy genre area, it’s unique in its approach to language and culture, and nearly unmatched in its psychology and negativity. ...more
Straightforward and simple, to the point of being simplistic, but not clumsy. The way the plot is structured is especially elegant, hitting the main pStraightforward and simple, to the point of being simplistic, but not clumsy. The way the plot is structured is especially elegant, hitting the main points of its premise and arc with a light, restrained touch. The meat of the book just isn't that compelling, though.
It reads like a post-modern deconstruction of Christianity v animism that seems to embrace both as legitimate and flawed, without pointing to a third, encompassing perspective. While I appreciate and embrace that perspective, the fact that the book is so transparently Making A Point kind of undermines or substitutes for the depth in Okonkwo and his relationships with his family and community that feel like they ought to be the center of this story.
Instead, it reads more like an ethnography - not exactly a caricature, but definitely an exaggerated perspective geared to outsiders. Yams, polygyny, Elders, and placating the Ancestor spirits may have been genuine elements of Ibo life, but they are also central of the generic savage tribe archetype in Western culture. Perhaps it doesn't seem as exoticizing to Nigerian readers? Achebe was apparently self conscious of the book's role in mythologizing historical Ibo culture for contemporary, (post)-colonial Nigerians. That's fine and important work; I think my qualm is maybe just that writers have raised the standards of historical fiction since 1958?