Carnegie Olson's Reviews > Paleolithic Politics: The Human Community in Early Art

Paleolithic Politics by Barry Cooper
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really liked it

This is a history-of-ideas book and as a devoted appreciator of secondary sources I found it worthwhile. However, I'd misunderstood the title as implying a study or speculation or examination of the nature of the human community, otherwise understood as culture, hence the condition of politics as it took place within the time period - a vast one to be sure - of so-called early art. (Cooper thankfully comments on the difficulties of using the term "art" to describe what I would term imagery, art being a modern manner of regarding a personally idiomatic expression for its own sake versus evoking, invoking and otherwise employing a symbol as an active component of cultural mythology).

Meanwhile, I made the mistake of assuming we would be examining, say, the nature of very early political activity, or the origins of our otherwise political natures by way, somehow, of the paleolithic imagery, be it so-called parietal (on cave walls) or mobiliary (works that could be carried from place to place). Not electoral politics, to be sure, but the nature of our inclination, seemingly ancient, towards the polis, the city state, such as it may be imagined to have existed in the sparsely populated Aurignacian. In that way, which is to say indirectly, we would perhaps also examine the grander question of the origins of consciousness. How, for example, did we come to envision the world in (1) two dimensions vs. three, and (2) as in the case of mobiliary works, how and why did we become compelled to create these things? It has to do, I think, with the idea of empowerment of objects and images, of the objects of our affection, as it has been described, and ultimately our intuitive drive to or requirement for symbol and metaphor, hence myth as true fiction (another topic entirely).

Takeaways? It introduces the players, as history has adjudicated them, with a nod towards a few outsiders, notably Marie Konig. Cooper himself, however, while keen to further the ideas of Eric Voegelin, (just as I am keen to further the ideas of, say, J. Campbell, no harm, no foul) somehow fails to make any compelling connections, let alone a furthering of ideas. It was J. Campbell, of course, quoting Henry Morton Robinson, who dismantled the mostly frustrating condition of academic publishing being concerned with writing upside down, as it were: beginning with a survey, a history of ideas and only at the very end revealing a "little mouse of an idea."

I don't know. Cooper provides an appendix that discusses Kant, a philosopher who frankly must have had a difficult time getting out of bed in the morning as he was convinced we were incapable of ascertaining the difference between so-called substance and phenomenon; the difference between which, arguably, doesn't exist. I would point to a language problem whenever the philosopher gets wrapped around the axle, so to say, of a cognitive difficulty that has no substance, pun intended. Anyway, why we began with Voegelin and finished with Kant, I'm not at all certain.

That said, I think I like Cooper, despite his support of Paul Bahn and oblique dismissal of Clottes. He's not without a refreshing aspect of lightheartedness, he's invitingly interdisciplinary and, as I indicated, his championing of the academic outsiders is to be commended.

But I'd mentioned takeaways. I would point to the chapter entitled "Jean Clottes and the Shamanic Hypothesis" as a thrilling - yes, thrilling - portrayal of the "early controversies" to do with the Cosquer Cave and Chauvet. It's where the history-of-ideas meets the modern dynamic of power, where the human Paleolithic (with its still unknown dynamic of power) meets Paleolithic politics, which is to say archaeological politics. In the end, the book compels me to spend time in these caves myself, somehow, someday - Cooper evokes, in spite of himself or not (for the text meanders similarly to the meanders described within cave imagery, that is, we don't exactly know what he's up to) the mystery of the caves and their human legacies - and in this sense it's a memorable and invigorating accomplishment.

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Reading Progress

May 28, 2020 – Started Reading
May 28, 2020 – Shelved
July 11, 2020 – Finished Reading

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