George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (59)

Reviewing Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science (Faber), Steven Rose notes that modern science differs from Greek and other ancient sciences by being powerfully interventionist. Science as we know it originated in the 17th Century, with Newtonian mechanics and Bacon [1]. (And, we may add, with the rise of Nonconformism and what was later to become liberalism, appearances of Precision in the religious and political fields). Should this stand up it certainly makes a neater pattern of development. [1] TLS 4 December.

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John Keegan, reviewing two recent books on Clausewitz, notes that one of the most potent pressures on the policy of a government at war is ‘the popular will, often little more than a formulation of popular sentiment under the influence of television.’ The Vietnam war collapsed, and the Gulf war abruptly terminated, largely from deference to popular sentiment. (TLS 11 December).

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Attempting to support classism, Theodore Koditschek has published Class Formation and Urban-Industrial Society: Bradford, 1750-1850. (Cambridge U.P.) He finds himself obliged to concede that ‘the historian should not expect to encounter [class] empirically in its pure theoretical form,’ driving the reviewer to comment that if class as a causal factor cannot be satisfactorily demonstrated even in Bradford 1750-1850, then the general applicability of the concept becomes highly questionable. (NYR 17 December).

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Christopher Browning warns against setting up any rigid distinction between subjective assumptions and self-evident facts. Studying an atrocity committed in Poland in 1942, and working with accounts by eye-witnesses, he still had to make a historian’s decisions, and he ‘demonstrates convincingly that virtually every “fact” that he deduced was “an act of interpretation”.’ (Reported by Bryan Cheyette, reviewing Friedland S. ed. Probing the Limits of Representation; Nazism and the ‘Final Solution’, Harvard, TLS 16 October).

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On 16 August, 1870, as France faced the prospect of invasion by Prussian troops, a crowd in the village of Hautefaye publicly slaughtered a young noble, Alain de Moneys. The killing took two hours and ended with his being burnt, possibly while still alive. His offence? He had been accused of shouting Vive la Republique! The peasants lumped Republicans, nobles and priests together as enemies of Napoleon III, whom they supported. [2] Classism does present difficulties. [2] Robert Tombs, reviewing The Village of Cannibals; rage and murder in France 1870, Oxford: Polity. TLS 16 October.

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With writing as with other social activities, beginnings present problems. No papyrus, clay tablet or inscribed bone can be unequivocally labelled the first writing, and no precise and indisputable point of origin will be located in future since objects, antedating any definite writing, are already known which can be argued either way.

Scholarship has been dating the first writing to the solid clay tablets, bearing cuneiform script, from Sumer around 3,500 BC (IC 57 quoted one statement to this effect). That still holds good, so far as indisputably written communication goes, but the existence of an earlier stage has now been established. Transitional between the assembling of tokens and the inscribing of conventional signs, this reaches from the absence of writing to its presence, without offering any discrete point at which we can say, firmly and precisely, that here writing begins.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat first drew attention to this in 1977. Her work has been criticised and subjected to amendments but not invalidated, and she has now issued Before Writing; Volume One. From Counting to Cuneiform (University of Texas Press). This reports her studies of some 7,000 baked clay tokens, dating from as far back as 15,000 BC up to about 3,000 BC, and a number of baked clay containers or ‘envelopes’ for these. The envelopes can be arranged into a series, starting with hollow ones still containing tokens, their outer surface bearing impressions corresponding to the shape and number of the tablets within, continuing through hollow ones having only the impressions (without the tokens) and on to solid ones bearing such impressions. These are followed by solid ‘envelopes’ with the ‘impressions’ engraved with a reed, and finally pictographic signs turn the envelope into a cuneiform tablet. (Review by Stephanie Dalley in TLS 23 October.)

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Epigones of Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway have converted themselves into wildlife conservationists, hunting the poachers instead of the now sacrosanct wildlife. They seem to be aiming at a black-free Africa, at a land inhabited only by wildlife managed by white hunters for the benefit of tourists. (Chinweizu, reviewing Nomad, Journey from Samburu, by M. A. Fitzgerald, TLS 23 October)

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Reviewing books on pornography and bisexuality in the ancient world, Mary Beard accuses classical scholarship of whitewashing ‘the sheer horror of Greek and Roman cruelty, exploitation and violence.’ [3] Open pleasure in the infliction of death and mutilation no longer meets with public approval, but has any deep and universal change in attitudes taken place? Road accident figures suggest a continuing widespread willingness to risk inflicting death in pursuit of pleasure and convenience. [3] TLS 30 October.

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Writing in the Cambridge History of China, Volume 15, Richard Madsen quotes the journalist Liu Binyan as saying that not 25 million but 50 million would be a more accurate estimate of the lives lost in the great famine of 1959-61. (NYR 5 November 92)

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World population now increases by 90 million annually, or 1.7 per cent, mainly in the poorest countries. Cereal production increases by only 0.9 percent, and there have been about 200 million hunger-related deaths in the last twenty years. This because the North assisted the South with modern medicine and hygiene; what Victor Weisskopf calls death control without birth control.

The search for cheaper, more effective and acceptable contraceptives is held up by the futile pursuit of absolute security. The American Food and Drug Administration demands prolonged pre-release animal trials which cost heavily without ever being able to ensure total safety. ‘There is no way of introducing better contraceptives… without risk to some people.’ A drug to be used by millions is likely to have adverse effects even if they be so rare as not to show up in even large-scale clinical trials, and litigation by victims can now cost the producers millions, together with disastrous publicity. As a result American skills and resources are being diverted from the development of improved contraceptives. (Data from The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas’ Horses, the Autobiography of Carl Djerassi, reviewed by M. Perutz, NYR 5 Nov 92)

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Justified concern with ‘the’ holocaust distracts attention from similar horrors inflicted upon non-Jewish peoples. ‘Ethnic purification’ may be a new phrase, but it presents an old reality. During and immediately after World War II such activities affected the lives of Poles and other Slavs, Germans, Ukrainians, Soviets, Serbs and Croats, as well as Jews, to a total of more than a hundred million. (Data, Istvan Deak NYR 5 Nov)

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Reviewing Holism, a Shopper’s Guide, by Jerry Fodor and Ernest Lepore (Oxford: Blackwell) David Papineau says the book ‘will do little to satisfy readers who want to know the truth about meaning, rather than how many different answers are currently on offer from different philosophers.’ TLS 3 July 92, p.16.

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Noting the difficulties of leftwing sociologists trying to establish, against conservative elitism, a popular culture that excludes slasher movies and the Sun, Terry Eagleton asks whether the attempt may be misguided: ‘What if, when it comes to Madonna rather than the Leeds dialect, Eastenders rather than chapel hymns, the culture of the people is the dominant culture?’ (TLS 18 Dec 92,5)

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Among the ancient Germans a man who destroyed a swarm had the skin around his navel cut and nailed to a tree. He was then forced to circle it, disembowelling himself. [4] Now that’s taking ecology seriously. [4] Annick le Guerer in The Mysterious Powers of Smell, Chatto, Sunday Times 10, 17 January.

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Orthodoxy invites heresy, and Camille Paglia has done a Luther on the academic feminist establishment. Volume I of Sexual Personae created a storm in the lecture-rooms and now Sex, Art and American Culture nails her thesis to the doors: masculinity and femininity are more than social constructs; women inherently differ from men. ‘If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts.’

Demanding personal responsibility and dismissing intellectual subtleties, believing it possible to establish a solid and reliable interpretation of facts, valuing civilised behaviour above natural tendencies, writing with a directness that carries more than a hint of philosophical innocence, Paglia comes as an eidostatic backlash. And, as usual, the eidostatic carries the bigger numbers; when she speaks the students turn out in their cheering thousands. (Sunday Times 10 January, TLS 8 January).

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.