Tuesday, July 09, 2013

the stone age: classification and ideology

We have the stone age. The iron age. The information age. What is today the age of?
I seem, in that question, to be talking about time. But it is actually a peculiar view of time I have in mind. The stone age and iron age have a function in the historical timeline of archaeology, marking the discovery and use of materials and giving us a kind of linear sequence. You can’t go from the stone age, in this sequence, to say the age of steel. First, you have to discover how to forge things with iron.
This view of historical time presumes a community between the person who uses it and the person who hears it. The “today” of my question is not, in actuality, a dated time. If it were, that dated time would extend across the Amazonian tribe and the Manhattan hedgefunder. They coexist in the same planetary time.
I have been thinking about this since I started reading a book that the Pulitzer prize committee thought highly enough of to short for its prize in 2011 – S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, Quanah Park and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, The Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.  Gwynne, as the reviewers like to say, is a master story teller – or at least he has a master story to tell. At the same time, he brings to the topic of the Comanches an attitude that I am all too familiar with among white Western historians: a continuation of the same nineteenth century ideology that justified wiping out the Indians and snatching their land in the first place. To this end, Gwynne writes some astonishing things about the moral retardedness of the Comanches, and of their lack of vocabulary (being primitive people, they have a impoverished list of names for things), and their generally small swarthy and bowlegged appearance. It is all rather astonishing. Gwynne goes back to the roots of the West to explain how we all evolved a great morality and ironwork and such, while the Comanche were stone age people who thought nothing of committing barbarous infanticides, rapes and tortures. This is done, of course, without any statistical comparison of infanticides, rapes and tortures between the “West” and the Comanches – and with a giant blind eye, one with a giant stye in it, turned to that peculiar institution called slavery.
However, I’d rather concentrate on the notion of the stone age as it is used here. This is such a peculiarly misleading way to speak of the Comanches that it misses what they were about. It is not only an instance of what anthropologist Johannes Fabian calls allochrony – the production of a hierarchized time in a present in which, in actuality, societies are coeval. This is certainly true, but what is missed here are the important technologies that are generated within and structure a society. In the case of the Comanches, from what we – we inheritors of Western knowledge – know about the pre-horse Comanches, they were not huge users of stone as much as bone – and thread, and hide. As with American society in the nineteenth century, much depended on fabric.  The cotton thread was the great material of the South, and in the American economy. The hides of buffalo and dear were the great materials of pre-horse Comanche society.
However, it was the horse, and the influx of iron, that changed everything. The Comanches did not use stone implements to meet the forward advance of the American freebooters – they used spears topped with iron blades, for which they traded. They used firearms, when they could get them. And most especially they used horses, which they raised and trained and rode in an exemplary fashion.
They were, in other words, a dependent society – dependent on technologies they could not replicate. At the same time, they had absorbed certain elements of the changing character of the Great Plain and the Southwest – notably the horse – and in doing so, had utterly changed their internal social patterns and relations.  To speak of them, then, in terms that make more sense when doing archaeological digs in Asia minor is a sort of classificatory obfuscation. It misleads more than explains.
And this is what comes of not seeking one’s classificatory measures with reference to one’s object – it is as if we were to measure the wing length of the homo sapiens and find the species to be a very primitive bird.

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