Historicize That Artifact!

I was going to scribble something about the Oriana Fallaci matter, but I think I need to do something else first. (Now that The Book is finished and thrown out of the house to make its own way, I’ll have more time to chatter here again. Writing books terrible interference with pressing need to chatter and babble and rant. Must never write book again, because of deep need to babble. Make note to self.) There’s this fairly hilarious review in the TLS of a fanciful history of barbed wire.

For Netz, the raising of cattle is not about producing meat and hides from lands usually too marginal to yield arable crops, but rather an expression of the urge to exercise power…While that is the acquisitive purpose of barbed wire, for Professor Netz it is equally – and perhaps even more – a perversely disinterested expression of the urge to inflict pain…I had always thought that we brand our cattle because they cannot carry notarized title deeds anymore than they can read off-limits signs…By this point in the text some trivial errors occur, readily explained by a brilliantly distinguished academic career that has understandably precluded much personal experience in handling cattle.

And so on. And it’s obvious what the next move is, and the reviewer does not fail to make it. It’s another ‘Hey kids!’ move – Hey kids! let’s all do that!

Enough of the text has been quoted to identify the highly successful procedures employed by Reviel Netz, which can easily be imitated – and perhaps should be by as many authors as possible, to finally explode the entire genre. First, take an artefact, anything at all…Take something seemingly innocuous, say shoelaces. Explore the inherent if studiously unacknowledged ulterior purposes of that “grim” artefact within “the structures of power and violence”. Shoelaces after all perfectly express the Euro-American urge to bind, control, constrain and yes, painfully constrict…That finally unmasks shoelaces for what they really are – not primarily a way of keeping shoes from falling off one’s feet, but instruments of pain…the British could hardly have rounded up Boer wives and children without shoelaces to keep their boots on…

I’ll bite. Let’s see… how about drinking vessels. Cups, glasses, mugs. They’re about power, because they control and repress and constrain the liquid, they confine it within boundaries and borders, they fence it in, they prevent its free creative wandering, they harness its energies to the service of (white, Western, male, Orientalist) human wishes. They are commodified and reified, alienated and consumerist. And cruel. They torture the liquid, you see, by penning it in and channeling its libido, by disciplining and punishing it; by taking it away from its parents or children, and by boiling it or chilling it or freezing it. They are an obvious symptom and outgrowth of rationalism and the Enlightenment project, of science and totalizing narratives, of positivism and phallocentrism. They are phallic symbols themselves, though they are also female genital symbols, which is highly tricky and deceptive. And they’re insidiously Eurocentric and hegemonic because they forbid the delightful free Arcadian way of drinking everything from a curved hand, symbol of community and love, replacing it with the rigid geometrical calculus-riddled shape of the dreaded Cup.

Your turn. Another B&W game or contest. Let’s play Deconstruct/Demystify/Problematize the Artifact.

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