Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fall of France, 11: Making Free On The Land: Or, the Bailey Bridge

The Kriegswissenschaftliche M√©moiren collection of the War Archives of the Austrian State Archives contain many interesting and well-produced, even beautiful manuscripts. So many, in fact, that I've argued that you need some kind of sociological explanation to account for them. Disappointingly for those who want to raise the credibility of the whole military-intellectual racket, I found little of interest in the ones that dabbled in high philosophy. 

The technical manuals, on the other hand, are awesome. They all need to be digitised somehow and put on line. We just don't get how good those old guys were at doing stuff, because we don't understand the problems they solved. It's a lesson that historians of technology need to hammer home again and again until history finally takes cognizance of  the way that doing stuff --for example, moving artillery or 30 tonne tanks across country-- was, and is hard, and calls, and called upon, a substructure of skills and experience. It strikes me as a truism that that substructure is going to look like, and must look like, the everyday economy at work. 

That, for what it's worth, is the epiphany I had when looking at Lieutenant-Colonel Ano Turpin's two-volume treatise on artillery. (I'd like to know more about this guy, but there are all sorts of real and possible transcription problems here. Turpin may have been active in the 1720s or the 1770s. I'm thinking that "Ano" is  an abbreviation of "Antonio," and that his being a Piedmontese officer explains the Italian form of the personal name and a not-uncommon French last name. But I'm not overly satisfied with my conclusions.)

So what does Turpin have to say? That the well-known distinction between field and siege artillery is actually between "meadow" artillery and static. I'm translating freely back and forth here, just the way that a guy named Obristleutnant Antonio Turpin did, and I'm getting that "meadow artillery" gets thrown across the country so easily that commanders had to be careful that they didn't end up in a position where there wasn't enough grass around the feed the gun teams (contemplate for a moment what that means about the state of the roads and of the countryside round about), while  moving siege artillery is part of that project of moving things that aren't supposed to be moved. Imagine those massive teams and specially built bridges and whatnot that were required to move despoiled Egyptian obelisks, giant church bells or purpose-cast floodgates.

People move around easily. too easily, and end up places where they don't want to be. Armies only seem to do the same, and in reality must prepare in advance and tap into the contemporary transportation industry. But what if that industry is itself in flux? What if horses are going away and the semi is just being born? Then the times are out of joint. We really need to do a better job of fixing ourselves to times and context and understanding how human intervention has changed the landscape. Because our relationship with the landscape might go a lot deeper into our cognition than we entirely understand. 

Or we can just put the Royal Experimental Bridging Establishment to work. (This is funny and creative. I thought about embedding "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," but that would just sad. And by sad, I mean "pathetic.")

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, VIII: The Rule of the Admiral

Hee. I'm hilariously riffing on Jeffrey Bannister's Rule of the Admirals. Because Christopher Columbus was appointed "Admiral of the Ocean Seas," and he came to grief when he tried to rule his discoveries in the New World, so that he died old and bitter, and maybe a bit of a religious maniac.

(Because they were playing old Johnny Cash at the local Chapters when I converted birthday money into this and this.)

Well, no, actually. It seems to me that there's a more useful way of thinking about all of this. Imagine for a second that Columbus was normal. Where does that lead us? To cassava, I think.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, III: Sandy Pylos

I went looking for the edited collection of articles coming out of the University of Minnesota expedition to Pylos, a Middle Bronze Age--Later Bronze Age site on a ridge overlooking the western shore of the southern Peloponnese yesterday, which meant that I got to spend some time in the Koerner Library stacks. Which I love doing. Even if these days the experience all too often has me cringing in embarrassment for my alma mater, which really is getting to the point of shopping in the Adult Diapers section. (There's no Wifi in the stacks! If you're going to the trouble of installing campus-wide wifi on the one hand, and study space in the stacks on the other....I'm beginning to think that our civilisation is in decline. But where, or where, are our northern barbarians going to come from?)

But to come back to the stacks for a second, the virtue of shelf scanning is that it brings you in touch with the unexpected. In this case, Nino Luraghi's monograph on the history of ancient Messenia. I'm aware of Luraghi from shorter articles (as for example included here) that brilliantly apply the modern political/anthropological literature on ethnos formation to problematise ancient history. Well, here's the monograph that the shorter works promised. You know that class of historian who gets upset about how po-mo theory is all up in his narrative. Chances are that his supposed obvious interpretations of plain facts are just the constructions of old theories themselves. Historiographical progress isn't impeded by the theoretical deconstruction of these old narratives. It begins with that deconstruction!

Or something. Keynes managed to make this point more pithily, but what do I know about pithy?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On an Alternative Explanation for Human Demographic History: Or, I Don't Believe in Plague

I was so struck by the cleverness of my "unsettling of America" subtitle last time that it failed to cross my mind that it might not be read as the kind of revisionist contrarianism that I normally peddle here.

I want to argue that the emergence of European demand for furs caused a widespread cultural modification of the Eastern Woodlands in favour of fur production. So my "unsettling" is a human abandonment of the bottomlands, perhaps with very few significant human consequences. The "settling" is their resettlement. Largely between 1760 and 1776, in response to the crisis in the fur trade upon which early Americanist/military historian Walter Dunn insists so strongly, the Indians came down from the upper benches, built towns in the bottoms at places like Cooperstown, and chose to become Americans. Scalp/ceremonial poles became Liberty Trees became flagpoles, Earth Lodges became Masonic Temples, and the councillors all went to Congress in 1794.

But it's the general consensus that the Americas were "unsettled," in the sense of being depopulated, in the wake of first contact with Europeans. I cast around on Youtube briefly for a canned explanation, and found much that was dramatic and pseudo-plausible. But also this, which is fun:

Poor Gwen Stefani. It's an old story: she comes, she goes. It's unfair that someone like Gwen Stefani can't come back from a maternity break, that bringing new life into the world ends a woman's (public) life. Biology should not rule us! On the other hand, if you don't like Gwen Stefani, her sudden emergence and equally sudden disappearance is typical of a kind of artist and, well, like.... Well, it's like a plague. Biology should rule us! At least if it comes to getting rid of annoying girl singers. If anyone disliked Gwen Stafani (hard to believe), that's perhaps what they would think.

Pop culture's like that. Things come, go, get all jingle-jangled up 'till we have no idea what ever happened. Was that ship of corpses that carried death into the land the one that carried the Black Plague into Sicily, or Dracula into Whitby? I forget. Or was it both? Are the two things all mixed up? Subversive, infectious dangers from the East, come to take our wimmins?

I know this, though: I jumped into the middle of the story of the unsettling of America because the story makes no sense. Maybe I should try to, y'know, communicate why I think that.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Gather the Bones, 10: Unsettling America

I just caught a Vinyl Cafe rerun of an episode on "children's songs that are worth a listen." This was on it.

Good news. (For me.) There's still some CBC Radio listeners who are older than me, who remember wearing coonskin hats. (Cringe.) Some.

And that's today's provocation. Specifically, the apotheosis of Davy Crockett, striding off into the wilderness at the head of the western march, which "had just begun."

Really? Put it another way, with the authority of a real historian, William R. Polk, author of The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution. Now, this is a bit unfair. Professor Polk is a Middle Eastern specialist, not an early Americanist. He is giving us a big picture review, perhaps out of some sense, well-merited but kept where it belongs, of having a personal stake in the antebellum and "the western march." In some ways, the worst that can be said of the result is that his treatment of the Indians as a little on the noble savage side.

In some ways. In 1962, the future professor worked in the restoration of a 1692-built Harvard home, an experience that he apparently found formative enough to discuss on pp. 144--45.

I get that: I worked for home restorers one summer as an undergraduate, and was deeply impressed with their faith in, and commitment to, the future, and their family's place in it. It's a very grounding perspective. Now, I don't know if that's the social context of Polk's experience. He's awfully private about some aspects of his life, and he could have been anything from summer labourer up to home owner.

So now I feel like a real heel. I'm bashing a worthy book by a good scholar, and I've chosen an episode that is clearly a happy episode from Polk's youth(ishness).

But he insists that the architectural novelties of this house, built by a shipwright in a shipbuilding town of lumber sawed for shipbuilding are due to its being a "garrison house." He cites Turner's "frontier thesis," and points to evidence from 1645, 1669, and 1675 as proof that in 1692, the "frontier" ran through Harvard Yard.