October 31, 2021

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, October 2021

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the history of monsters in 18th century France, medieval political philosophy, the history and archaeology of images of monsters, trends in mortality and inequality in early 21st century America, or the comparative sociology of slavery. (Monsters, monsters everywhere.)

Jay M. Smith, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast
A full-fledged historian of early modern France tackles the beast of the Gévaudan, with full attention to the cultural, political and journalistic (!) context. Smith disclaims wanting to tell the story of the beast, in favor of telling the story of the stories about the beast, but along the way he finds himself forced to make a good circumstantial case that "it" was, in fact, multiple hungry wolves. Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in folklore, the intellectual history of early modern Europe, cryptozoology, or the dynamics of media-driven spasms of public and official attention.
Carol Goodman, Ghost Orchid
Mind candy: literary ghost story, involving a haunted writer's colony in upstate New York. About half of it might be a direct relation of the events a century before that set the haunting in motion, or might be the present-day heroine's novel in progress; they work either way.
Joan Aiken, The Green Flash, and Other Tales of Horror, Suspense, and Fantasy
Mind candy, displaying a remarkable range of flavors and tones. One uniformity: Aiken's men are all clueless about her female characters (it wouldn't be accurate to say "her women"), to comic and/or ominous effect.
F. G. Cottam, The Colony
Mind candy horror. There are some moments of real creepiness, but the whole plot for the last quarter or so is a bit rushed and sloppy.
Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Farabi (trans. and ed. Charles E. Butterworth), "Political Regime" and "Summary of Plato's Laws"
Political Regime opens with barely-comprehensible metaphysics (to put it kindly), before getting into an explanation of the different kinds of polities, and why the ones most favorable to philosophers are the best. (There are eventually connections between the metaphysics and the politics.) The Summary of Plato's Laws is, in fact, a summary of Plato's Laws, except for a few sections with no obvious antecedent in Plato's text as we now know it, and some very mysterious narratives (parables?) at the beginning. Reading between the lines, one has the clear impression that al-Farabi thought of Muhammad (pbuh) as a law-giver in Plato's sense... The translator is clearly a Straussian, which colors his commentary, and may contribute to this impression. (OTOH, I could believe that Strauss was right about al-Farabi, even if wrong about the entire tradition of pre-Machiavelli political philosophy.) I found this fascinating in a "you are clearly very smart but also alien and just wrong, wrong, wrong" way, like many of the medievals, but mileage will vary. (Of course, as a denizen of one of the democratic cities or associations of freedom, I would think that.)
David Wengrow, The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction
This is an interesting historical/archaeological argument about the origin and spread of images of unreal, "composite" creatures combining distinct features of real animals (and/or distinct features of real animals and of human beings). Many at the borders of psychology and anthropology have claimed that such hybrid creatures are compelling and attractive objects of thought because they are "minimally counter-intuitive", they break just enough rules to focus the mind while still being amenable to various forms of intuitive cognition. (Obviously a griffin eats food, which it consumes through its mouth, it stabs with its beak, it rakes with its claws, it flies with its wings and walks with its legs --- but does it lay eggs?) If this is true, it suggests that composite animals are popular across time and space because they appeal to certain universal quirks of the human mind.
Wengrow, however, claims that hybrids are actually very rare in Paleolithic and Neolithic art, and only really take off with the appearance of cities, writing, modular thinking and technologies, and means of mechanical reproduction (like cylinder seals) in Egypt and, especially, Mesopotamia:
With the expansion of urban settlements throughout Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium BC, the trajectory toward standardization and modularity in material culture intensified markedly. Systems of modular construction, based on the assembly of standardized and interchangeable components, are evident not just in imagery at this time, but also across such diverse technological domains as mud-brick architecture and ceramic commodity packaging... These wider developments in material culture underpinned the invention, around 3300 BC, of the protocuneiform script. This new system of information storage was initially designed for bookkeeping purposes in large urban institutions, which acted as the religious and economic hubs of the earliest cities. It was based on a principle of differentiation whereby materials, animals, plants, and labor were divided into fixed subclasses and units of measurement, organized according to abstract criteria of number, order, and rank. Many of the earliest known administrative tablets thus functioned in a manner comparable to modern punch cards and balance sheets. In order for such a recording system to function, every named commodity---each beer or oil jar, each dairy vessel, and their contents, and each animal of the herd---had to be interchangeable with, and thus equivalent to, every other of the same administrative class. A smaller number of early inscriptions, known as lexical lists, appear to have had no direct administrative function, and may reflect the intellectual milieu of the earliest scribes, who engaged, as part of their training, in "fanciful paradigmatic name-generating exercises" for a wide range of subjects.
The invention of a novel repertory of composite figures can be seen to "fit" very logically into this urban and bureaucratic milieu. In pictorial art, new standards of anatomical precision and uniformity, evident in both miniature and monumental formats, echoed wider developments in material culture. Through the medium of sealing practices, miniature depiction remained closely tied to the practice of administration, which required the multiplication of standardized and clearly distinguishable signs for the official marking of commodities and documents. Variability among seal designs was generated through often-tiny adjustments in the appearance or arrangement of figures and motifs. These did not alter the overall visual statement, but allowed each design to fulfill its designated role as a discrete identifier within the larger administrative system to which it belonged.
In its search for new subject matter, it is hardly surprising that the "bureaucratic eye" was increasingly drawn to the possibilities of composite figuration... Not only did a composite approach to the rendering of organic forms greatly multiply the range of possible subjects for depiction. As Barbara Stafford points out, the counterfactual images that it produced also serve to emphasize details of anatomy that would normally "slip by our attention or be absorbed unthinkingly," becoming noticeable only when disaggregated from their ordinary contexts. Composites thus encapsulated, in striking visual forms, the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world, not as we ordinarily encounter it---made up of unique and sentient totalities---but as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and recombinable parts. [pp. 69--73, omitting footnotes and references to figures]
(This doesn't quite say that composite animals were invented to increase the entropy of Sumerian passwords, but damn if it doesn't come close.)
From there he goes on to sketch their spread as Bronze Age civilization spread over the old world. He's quite aware that Mycenean Greece, to say nothing of Scythia, is very different from early dynastic Egypt or Sumer, and I don't think he ever quite reconciles the enthusiastic adoption of composite creature art by societies like those with his account of what motivated its creation. (Cf., in all seriousness, my reflections on Godzilla.) He does not consider new world civilizations at all.
It's interesting to me that Wengrow is explicitly "in dialogue" (as he might say) with Dan Sperber's "epidemiology of representations" school, but thinks he's uncovered something which forces a re-evaluation of key premises, on the grounds that composites were evidently not very compelling in pre-history, and something about how human minds are re-shaped by civilization is needed to make them compelling. In this I think he goes too far, for a number of reasons.
  1. Sperber, at least, has always been clear that the "relevance" of an idea will depend on what other ideas are already being entertained.
  2. Wengrow is making an argument from absence of evidence, when we're just missing lots of the visual media of pre-historic times (especially, perhaps, textiles), as he discusses himself. (Indeed, he suggests that pre-state societies might have had human-animal composites in the form of temporary rituals of transformation by shamans and the like, as opposed to enduring visual depictions.) But then the change might just have been who first figured out how to make compelling composites in sculpture and low relief. Even if we accept that there just weren't (e.g.) embroidered composite animals, a more cautious conjecture would be that the pioneering Bronze Age artists who gave us the griffin, the dragon, etc., were the ones who discovered how to create visual composite creatures in enduring media which were compelling enough to be successful (perhaps by activating mental modules for intuitive biology, etc.). This initial breakthrough may have been facilitated by the kind of society they were living in, but it might have spread and persisted for quite different reasons (cf., again, Godzilla).
  3. Wengrow only considers visual depictions, and not stories (whether we call them folklore or mythology or something else). Obviously we don't have samples of pre-historic mythology, and using historic myths recorded from pre-literature cultures as a stand-in would be hazardous, but it'd at least be interesting to know if there are stories of composite animals from pre-literature societies which do not also make visual art of them of the kind Wengrow emphasizes. If we only found the stories where we also found the art, and we only found the art where it could (provably or plausibly) have been transmitted from the Bronze Age heartlands, well, that'd be pretty compelling support for Wengrow. But if the stories are more wide-spread than the art, that doesn't look great.
  4. Wengrow rightly criticizes some earlier art-historical and archaeological writers for claiming that composite monsters are hard to remember or think about, without providing any kind of psychological evidence to back up this claim. But his own account of the origin of composite animals from the "bureaucratic imperative" is, in fact, an ambitious social-psychological hypothesis. It is supported by nothing more than his describing the purported cause and effect in ways which suggest an analogy. I realize this is a very common habit in the social sciences, but it has little to recommend it, and one goal the epidemiological approach is to demand a higher, and genuinely materialist, standard of explanation.
While I have gone on at some length about those critical points, I want to emphasize that I very much enjoyed the book, learned a lot of interesting things from it, and emerged with a lot to think on. It's also (fittingly) a very handsomely produced little tome.
ObLinkage, discovered after writing the above: A 2016 webinar on the book, with responses from Wengrow, at the International Cognition and Culture Institute, more or less the organizational home of the "epidemiology of representations" school. Many of these comments are interesting and sensible (I might particularly recommend the one by Karolina Prochownik). Wengrow's own replies to the comments are themselves constructive [*].
Edited to add in late November 2021: I had been meaning to read this for years, and finally did so this October for thematic reasons. I had no idea Wengrow had a new book coming out with the late David Graeber. In a very "Oh David Wengrow No" development, critics allege some really remarkable errors in that book [1, 2]. Those errors aren't relevant to this one, but also do not inspire confidence. On the other hand, they're far outside Wengrow's specialty of archaeology. On the third hand, this whole dispute is far outside my specialty, so who am I to judge?
[*]: Though he repeatedly (e.g., in response to Prochownik) shows he does not quite understand the idea of "attraction" as used by this school, since he contrasts "attraction" with "protection" and suggests that needs an immunological rather than an epidemiological metaphor. (This was also a theme he floated in the book, but it was less clear to me there that he didn't understand "attraction".) Sperber et al. are using "attraction" by analogy with "attractors" in dynamics --- an attractor is a configuration (or region in state space, etc.) which the system is drawn towards by its internal forces, even if it doesn't start there but more or less nearby. A cultural attractor, in Sperber's sense, need not be subjectively appealing, "attractive" in the everyday sense. Rather it needs to be mentally compelling, perhaps on an entirely automatic level, but perhaps also accompanied by such subjective emotions as dread, anxiety, or disgust. (On all this, see Chapter 5 of Sperber's Explaining Culture.) Using composite monsters apotropaically, Wengrow's "protective mode of transmission", might in fact be a cultural attractor in Sperber's sense, even though the point of such behavior is to drive dreaded or reviled things away.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Read for the inequality class. It's depressing as hell. If you want a short version, you might try this from Case and Deaton, or this review by Atul Gawande. As always, the recommendations for action are the weakest part.
Susan Hill, The Various Haunts of Men
This is a skillfully-written mystery by the author of the exemplary The Woman in Black. While I (mostly) admired the artistry, and it's the first in a long series, some stuff happened towards the end which quite undid all my enjoyment, and it's extremely unlikely I'll read anything else in this series. However, after returning this to the library I immediately borrowed more of Hill's ghost stories.
ROT-13'd for spoilers: V jnf pbzcyrgryl ghearq bss ol gur jnl gur obbx xvyyrq bss Serln Tenssunz. V pbhyqa'g fnl fur jnf sevqtrq, rknpgyl, naq vg'f abg gung vg jnf haernyvfgvp, jvguva gur jbeyq bs gur fgbel, ohg vg frrzrq tenghvgbhfyl anfgl, naq n zrer cynlvat jvgu zl rzbgvbaf nf n ernqre. Lbhe zvyrntr znl inel, naq rivqragyl ybgf bs crbcyr rawbl gur frevrf n terng qrny.
Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study
A deserved classic, which is why I read it downloaded from the ACLS Humanities E-Book website.
(There is an essay to be written --- it probably has been! --- on Patterson's flirtation with certain strands of Marxism here, and what it says about sociology, even or especially because Patterson is plainly not a Marxist.)
Elizabeth Hand, Black Light
Mind candy horror. Loosely, a sequel to Hand's magnificent Waking the Moon. It's set, mostly, in a town a little bit outside New York, full of eccentric actors who are, knowingly or not, engaged in a very dubious trade for their share of the limelight. I say "mostly" because important scenes take place in New York itself, and in places even stranger and creepier than Manhattan in the 1970s. It's not as good as Waking the Moon, but that's a very high bar, and this is very satisfying.
(I, for one, would be interested to know when and in what form Hand encountered the work of Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane plays a role in Generation Loss, while this book shows clear traces of Eliade's ideas about repetition of mythic patterns established in illo tempore (as we might say: "back in the day"), and at one point a character babbles out something which I am pretty sure is a paraphrase of the opening of ch. 14 of Shamanism. I am not sure whether Eliade-an themes could be detected in Waking the Moon, were I to re-read it.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Commit a Social Science; Statistics of Inequality and Discrimination; The Dismal Science; Philosophy Islam and Islamic Civilization; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Psychoceramics; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime

Posted at October 31, 2021 23:59 | permanent link

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