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The Labyrinth Index (Charles Stross, 2019/#12):</b> A sign of the times: Nyarlathotep might be the Prime Minister, but even so your worst problem right now is what's happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Besides the deft management of multiple levels and forms of dread — from cosmic anthropic threats, to the murky ethics of vampire survival, to what happens when you've fallen in love with your colleague/sex buddy who also happens to have a life expectancy of a couple of years, to mention a few — I still think he's underrated as a POV writer: his range of characters isn't that wide (to write a personal work journal for the post-mortem benefit of institutional memory, which is one of the framing conceits of the Laundry books, you need to already belong to one form or another of the agency and in a position to get involved in what's going on, which narrows the potential narrator pool to the smart, knowledgeable, cynical, and traumatized), but, still, we get to see different points of view in each book, some of them from previously somewhat unsympathetic characters (e.g., the entirely sympathetic narrator in this one is Mhari Murphy, Bob's PHANG-positive ex-girlfirend and semi-antagonist a few books back), and that's an interesting feat.

Sacred Mandates: Asian International Relations since Chinggis Khan (eds. Timothy Brook, Michael van Walt van Praag, and Miek Boltjes, 2019/#13): The basic observation of the book is that the Westphalian concept of international relationships between equally sovereign doesn't really apply in Asia until after the Western powers imposed it on them (and not fully even after that), and that the retconning of those relationships through the the modern concept of nation, by forcing much more ambiguous and poly-centric past concepts of authority into anachronistic straitjackets, help fuel contemporary conflicts that are essentially unsolvable, as they are based on intrinsically, from the point of view of modern interstate logic, contradictory.

This was true even in internal terms: Detached from the person of the sovereign, our notion of sovereignty has been reattached to an abstract concept of the state that imposes its legal regime on citizens without a differentiation of status. We are required to be loyal to the state through treason laws, but we are not bound in loyalty to a particular ruler. Not so in Khubilai's day—or for that matter in the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682), the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799), or even the last Manchu emperor, Puyi (1906–1967), and his contemporary, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876–1933). Leaders, subjects, and even nonsubjects on a realm's frontier were bound to their rulers in particularized ways. [...] Sovereignty was neither abstract nor universal: it happened in particular places and under particular circumstances. Stated differently, whereas the primary legal actors of modern international law (somewhat confusingly also called "subjects" of international law) are abstract entities, that is, “states” defined as equal and independent of one another, the actors in the international legal orders we deal with in this book are the rulers who wielded authority over their subjects and who were neither equal nor independent.

Speaking of specific traditions, the authors describe three "worlds" in Inner and East Asia, corresponding to three different concepts of polity, authority, and, the focus of the book, inter-polity relationships:

There's a Sinic world structured, at least ideologically (and the claim isn't that ideology fully explains, but rather than it helps shape and justify behaviors enabled by power differentials), around Confucian hierarchical relationships ultimately derived from the Mandate of Heaven, in which compliance with Chinese civilizational patterns is both privilege and proof of relative worth (one that can never, of course, match the one of the Chinese proper, not that "China", isn't in this context an anachronism). Tribute embassies, besides their underlying economic rationale, were symbolically important as rituals — the twin basis of Confucian ideas of society/religion/politics being ritual and law — and in fact were deployed by Emperors as a way of reinforcing their authority in the eyes of the Chinese.

There's also a Chinggisid world, derived from the Mongol Great State and its understanding of authority and legitimacy: the critical importance of direct male descent from Genghis Khan, the concept of rulership over people, not territories, the custom of inheritance to the youngest male heir, the differentiation between the core Mongolian lands and elsewhere, etc.

And there's also a third world, a Tibetan Buddhist one, where reincarnation is an obvious given, religion isn't an aspect of politics but rather *is* the polity, and the teacher-patron (both more and not quite that) relationship between spiritual and worldly leaders (except in Tibet proper, where there was no such thing as a purely worldly leader) structured inter-polity relationships, or rather inter-personal relationships at such a high level that it ended up being the same; remember that the State as something different from the Ruler isn't really a thing in that place and time.

Here's where it gets tricky from our point of view (and/or perhaps ripe for deliberate misunderstandings). A given set of people might have one or more different understandings of authority — belong to one or more of these worlds — and rulers would deploy in their inter-polity relationships whatever understandings best suited them, regardless of whether or not they were compatible with whatever else they were doing (I'm strongly reminded of Latour's definition of ontology as a basic form of diplomacy — granting whoever you're talking with the assumption that what they thing is real does exist). So, e.g., when the Manchus, even after defeating the Ming, talked with their Mongol neighbors (when they weren't, you know, pushing them over, massacring them, or just forcefully settling them) they stressed their Chinggisid credentials, social structure, the way they had defeated the last Great Khan in battle and captured the Jade Seal, marriage relationships, etc. And because Mongols were also Buddhists, they exploited to the hilt the teacher-patron relationship they often had with Tibetan religious leaders, including eventually the various Dalai Lamas, with whom Mongol people (including the Manchus) had a complex quid-pro-quo where the Lamas would, say, give the Emperor, but in their Chinggsid nature, specialized esoteric teachings and Buddhist symbols, and in exchange they would give them military protection and allow the frequent pilgrimages and gifts that were so important for the Tibetan economy. Given how the Manchus were trying to contain and eventually neutralize the Zunghars (which they did, with the help of the Russians, remember the Treaty of Nerchinsk), this was a very important tool.

The point is, most historians (specially but not just contemporary Chinese ones) talk of this as a Chinese-Tibetan relationship, but that's a glaring anachronism. Even granting the Quin dynasty-China identity (which is also strongly problematic and anachronistic), at no point did the Manchus talk with either Tibetan Lamas nor Mongol tribes as the Quin dynasty. They weren't "China" or even "Chinese": they were Manchus, who happened to have conquered the Chinese and choose to live there. In fact, they were extremely careful to keep their Chinese subjects ignorant of how they interacted with Tibet, which, in the Sinic framework, would've been something between incomprehensible and disgraceful. As Europeans only encountered them, as it were, "from the Chinese side" (and with a narrow and unhistorical political ontology), they fell into a facile identification "Maunchu"-"Quin"-"China", a triple identity which nobody in Asia would've taken as true in full. This isn't an "Asian culture" thing, either: Marco Polo never mentioned "China" as an unified entity, because it didn't exist at the time, not even as a concept.

This was also the understanding of the rulers in Tibet in that matter. Tibet wasn't a part of or tributary of China in any meaningful sense: there were these powerful Buddhist guys, who happened to be Manchu leaders who also happened to conquer the big over there, who had a very proper a natural relationship with some very holy people, in which religious boons flowed on one direction, and goods and protection flowed on the other. It was inter-personal, not inter-polity, even if it had polity-level effects, and it certainly wasn't a relationship between Westphalian theoretical equals, but it wasn't either a suzerainty or protectorate or anything like what Europeans understood or choose to understand.

Ultimately, the oversimplified concept of a "Chinese tributary order" applying to pre-modern Inner and East Asia is wrong on pretty much all accounts. Which isn't to say that Chinese dynasties didn't use tributary relationships as a way of (re)framing inter-polity relationships: they were a flexibly symbolic activity that could be a marker for significant trade exchanges or just forcible wealth extraction, as well as a signifier of a hierarchy between non-Chinese polities as seen by the Chinese, but was also deployed by Emperors to increase their internal standing by showing how the rest of the world acknowledged their central position (without, of course, being entirely sure, or really caring much whether, tributaries really shared their view of what the tributary relationship meant).

What I had read before about the chronic Northern frontier problem of China had helped me understand why the Chinese found Tibet useful, but I think this book helps me understand the fundamentally impossible nature of the historical misunderstanding. There are details about specific ceremonies at specific times, who sat higher than whom, specific maps, and so on, but the core problem is that there's no possible reading of the history of "China" and "Tibet", as the unitary sense in which we read those names today just didn't apply at the time (and the Europeans should't really have found this surprising or that primitive: the Habsburgs, anybody?). Contemporary China takes something of maximalist view of what "is" "China" (something most States do, I'm not singling them out, just looking at the specific case), but it's a view people then-and-there would't have understood. Going further back from the Manchus, Khubilai founded the Da Yuan/Yuan Great State/Yuan dynasty (not quite equivalent readings of a deliberately ambiguous construction) as a way of helping his Chinese subjects come up with an acceptable accommodation to Manchu rule, but that was only for his Chinese domains. Manchu rule — as indirect or symbolic as it sometimes was — was an entirely different matter, and neither the Chinese nor the Mongols of the time would've entertained the idea that they both belonged to the same unitary polity. They just happened to have the same rulers, even if that rulership rested on very different social, political, and even religious grounds, and carried different obligations and possibilities. That said, when the Ming replaced the Yuan (I know, I know, I *just* criticized the term), they couched their achievement in terms of a territorial unification that included not just what, say, the Qin had ruled, or even the Yuan Great State, but everything the Manchus had ruled, which of course meant Inner Asia. Add to that the claiming of everybody a Quin noble had had a patron relationship with (Tibet), and everybody who had ever sent a tribute embassy to an Emperor (pretty much, lets be frank, everybody at one point or another — *without* implying actual real or potential control, except in the most literal reading of the ritual, which nobody took seriously in that way) and you can see why the current Chinese government can (choose to) feel frustrated about being "boxed in" (and find easy to give its citizens historical arguments for the same), and China's neighbors feel rather nervous.

Just imagine the mess if a rising Central European country mixed the Westphalian reading with historically confused and deliberately misunderstood past concepts of political legitimacy, with an extra side dose of racism... [bleakly sarcastic expression]

An historiographical quote that, I think, summarizes the problem: The status and treatment of a particular polity as "foreign" or "frontier" could change according to political expediency. For example, in Chinese records and statements, Yunnan's status changed from being a foreign state to being a part of Ming China when the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, set out to conquer it in the late 1370s. That transposition was veiled by declaring that Yunnan had been a part of China since antiquity, turning conquest into mere recovery, not invasion. Similar declarations were made regarding Dai Viet when the Yongle emperor launched his attack against that polity almost three decades later, in 1407 China's particular advantage throughout this history was its capacity to control the written record, which has in turn influenced how historians have read, and often misread, the documents that the Chinese state left for them to find.

All of this changed, although complexifying rather than erasing the past, when the Western powers essentially forced Asian states into "modern" forms of nationhood and diplomacy. There was a very convenient flexibility in the concept, as the rights and independence of "proper States" depended on their "civilized" nature, which in turn depended ultimately on military power (alright, in theory on Western laws and proper furniture and so on, but, as usual, the Western powers tended/hoped/wanted to believe it was all a package). This was all very unsettling to existing polities, which naturally viewed the process as an unwelcome loss, but it was the Japanese who arguably understood the lesson best: their forced-march Westernization was based on the idea that in order to be respected they had to be a major Western-style nation, and that this involved guns, chairs, Western laws, and bullying less civilized polities to build an Empire. This isn't to say that earlier Asian polities didn't use war for political or economic enlargement, but it is true that the process, reasons, and forms of the Japanese came to be shaped by a strong attempt to mirror Western nations. And they did pursue specific protectorates, colonies, and so on, in a deliberate attempt to act in ways the Western world would recognize as Power-like.


Bram Stoker and the Gothic: Formations to Transformations (2019/#14): An uneven collection of articles about Stoker, the Gothic, etc., referencing of course Dracula but also paying significant attention to (and actually focusing a few articles on) the rest of his work. A few observations that stuck with me:

  • The way Northern Europe went through the same "runes are the first original language/Sweden was actually Atlantis/etc" weird thing a lot of European societies seems to have gone through in a rather regular way (including, for the English, the transparent but long successful hoax of "Ossianic Poetry").

  • Quoth: Pursuing a similar, if less excessive, line of what had become known as Gothicism was the Dane Ole Worm (1588–1654). Here again, doubtless in response to Swedish assertions, runes were the issue. For Worm, runes provided not only an insight into Danish origins, character and vocation but also into the origins of language, for, he argued, Danish runes, that is to say all runes, are derived from Hebraic script. With the help of the Icelanders, most notably Magnús Ólafsson (1574–1636), Worm's RUNIR seu Danica literatura antiquissima … eller literatura runica (Runes or the Most Ancient Danish Literature) of 1636 drew particular attention to "Krákumál", a heroic poem rendered by Worm in both runic script and Latin that became widely translated in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as "The Death-Song of Ragnar Lodbrok". In this, the hero, Ragnar, has been cast defenceless into a Northumbrian snake-pit, where he proudly reflects on his many triumphs as a Viking warrior. "Laughing shall I die", concludes Ragnar, for he is sure of his glorious transportation to Valhalla by Odin's Valkyries, where, according to Worm's text, he will drink ale from the skulls of his fallen enemies. However, while the arresting idea of a human skull-cup is one that would become widely quoted by future enthusiasts for "runic poetry", the text provided for Worm by Magnús Ólafsson had misinterpreted the Old Norse phrase "ór bjúgviðum hausa" as signifying a human skull, whereas it actually means "from the curved branches of skulls", a poetic locution for "drinking-horns" (Gordon, 1981: lxix–lxx).
  • The observations about the financial and real-state aspects of Dracula's attempted invasion of England (invasion being a constant topos of the articles) are quite interesting, as is the fact that, except for the rape and so on (which, I might add, was mainly problematic because Lucy and Mina were, you know, white, wealthy women already "promised" to white, wealthy or at least respectable men) and perhaps the general breaking of natural laws and so on, it was all perfectly legal.


Gift and Gain: How Money Transformed Ancient Rome (Neil Coffee, 2019/#15): A study of the, let's call it dynamic tension between what the author calls "gift culture" and "commodity trade" culture in Rome, from the Early Republic (and a bit before) to the Early Empire. This is an interesting topic and not at all a minor one when it comes to Roman history, as the pattern of patronage was always a central one in its social and political dynamics, even as its meaning changed — in no small measure due to the growth in influence (and, eventually, in acceptability) of more transactional modes of relationship. Some impressionistic bits and pieces:

  • Attempting to preserve traditional gift culture — e.g., by forbidding large gifts between spouses — was something of a constant in Roman history, which lets you know how little of a success they were.

  • It wasn't until, if I recall correctly, Claudius that you could legally pay a lawyer. Given the enormous importance of legal suits in Roman society, what this means is that lawyers were either rich on their own and exercised their abilities to recruit clients and further their political careers in other ways, or they got suspiciously timed gifts and loans from clients. Or both.

  • Patronage was both a custom and a legal concept. As people generally voted for their patrons (I'm reminded of how walking down to the Forum followed by a throng of your clients was the basic power move, unless of course you had a triumph or something like that), it was also a core mechanism of politics.

  • Rome was also more deeply, and more openly, commercial than contemporary Greece: Romans could trade (while in other societies that was left to foreigners or other Others), they had rather sophisticated public financial arrangements (e.g tax farming), and moneylending was a pervasive activity and a big source of income and political leverage, although elite opinion about it shifted over time from "I'm shocked, shocked!, to see there's lending going on here" to "well, sure, if you aren't gauche about it".

  • Unrelated to the main topic: Your paternal uncle, or patruus, had a responsibility to raise you and so was notoriously more stern than your avunculus, or maternal uncle, who could just spoil you. I had known the origin of "avuncular", but not that it was specific to the maternal branch of the family.

  • The author describes Caesar as an innovator not in the use of gifts to sway soldiers and the population in general — something already done by Sulla, and counter to tradition, in its difficult-to-hide transactionality and lack of a previous patron-client relationship framing it appropriately — but rather in the scale and skill with which he did it. He took truly enormous debts, but spent the money on his soldiers and the population much more openly and effectively (with better timing, understanding of popular taste, consistent self-fashioning, and social skills) than anybody before him.

  • Despite his dislike of the Gracchi, Cicero appears to pick up Gaius's thought when he at one point associates their opponents with greed. In a discussion of rhetorical technique, he describes the actions of a certain Septumuleius, who was once a client of Gaius Gracchus. After Gaius was murdered, Septumuleius took it upon himself to bring the head of his former patron to the praetor Quintus Mucius Scaevola and claim the advertised reward, its weight in gold. Not content with the bounty, he further asked Scaevola to reward him with the prefecture of the province of Asia. Scaevola replied that Septumuleius had better stay in Rome. With so many wicked citizens there, a man like him would make a fortune in no time. Later authors expanded on Cicero's anecdote. The moralist Valerius Maximus, writing under Tiberius, refers to Septumuleius as the most avaricious man who ever lived. According to Valerius, he carried the head of Gaius through town on a spear before turning it over to the consul, but only after hollowing it out and filling it with molten lead to increase his reward.

  • The author also dedicates individual chapters to Cicero's friend Atticus (who was very rich both from landed and financial/commercial endeavors, but also mastered the art of playing it safe in perilous times by being generous with everybody, never seeking political power, and, by the way, living far away in Athens, hence his cognomen), Augustus (his near-monopoly of large-scale gift-giving is of course central to our understanding of his political strategy, but the author claims he was also engaged in a heartfelt if futile attempt to morally reform the gift-giving mores of Rome – not sure I buy that), and Seneca (who wrote extensively about duties and relationships, building up a philosophical position where profit-seeking was no longer intrinsically bad, but where heartfelt friendship was still possible, necessary, and, to borrow, exploit, and misuse a term, salvific – Emily Wilson's The Greatest Empire is a good book to pursue this, and him, further).

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