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Just met (metaphorically speaking, although wouldn't that be fun) Raimondo di Sangro: XVIth century Italian noble, inventor, and translator. Had his own printing press. Rumored to have done experiments on... problematically fresh humans. He destroyed his own scientific archive before he died. After his death, his descendants, under threat of excommunication by the Church due to di Sangro's involvement with Freemasonry and alchemy, destroyed what was left of his writings, formulae, laboratory equipment and results of experiments.

(Sounds like somebody you could write a Dan Brown/Umberto Eco thing about.)

Also, and to showcase the depths of my ignorance, I just learned that Stabat Mater is the title of a Catholic hymn about Mary standing at the Crucifixion. And now I have to give Masamune Shirow props, because in Ghost in the Shell: Man-Machine Interface there's a entertainment/religious organization (well, front) ran by a cyborg called Mother (you can guess who) through a literal crucifixion-like linking device. Considering the explicitly religious themes — plot — of the manga, it's not just a nice reference.


It's completely obsolete from a historiographical point of view, of course — never mind the teleological, racist, misogynist, etc., assumptions embedded in Gibbon's worldview — but, still, he's one of the great stylists of the English language, and a very funny writer if you enjoy your dry deadpan in the form of long, beautifully structured pieces (and share enough of the background to pick up some of the less explicit digs; I'm sure I miss more of those than I get).

Read in the right frame of mind (i.e., without demanding historical or sociological insight, or actually not reading it for anything in particular), it works surprisingly well as a quiet, pleasingly pointless comfort read. (And not one you'll run out of very soon.)


Books! (Secrets and Silence Edition)

The Politics of Disclosure, 1674-1725: Secret History Narratives (Rebecca Bullard, 2018/#51): A look at the very specific British genre of Secret Histories as derived from Procopius's secret history of the Justinian court (secret not so much because it told secrets, but because it remained unpublished for a thousand years, and meta-textually interesting in that it amended a previous "public history" written by Procopius itself). Apparently this ambiguity carried over to the British case; it was used by Whig writers to attack absolutism (the danger of "Arbitrary rule") by exposing the way public policy was driven (in pro-French, pro-Papacy ways) by Charles's erotic affairs, and later by Tory writers — e.g. Swift and Defoe, whose career as a spy I hadn't been aware of — deploying it with more ambivalent (and at least as commercial as political) ends. The book also has a very interesting chapter on how The Spectator repurposed the (politically negative) concept of "public secrecy" into a (socially positive) idea of discretion (composed in equal parts of absolute candor between close friends, and a very conventional and polite discretion in larger assemblies). All in all very interesting, and perhaps worth pondering in our current context (cf. political leaks, social networks, etc).

The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination (Sophia Psarra, 2018/#53): A frustrating combination of interesting observations about Venetian urban history, the practice and history of architecture, Invisible Cities, and a number of other ceteras, but embedded with a lot of (IMHO) not sufficiently grounded arguments based on the network topology and geometry of spaces and cities, as well as the "group theory" of the structure of texts; at its worst, it feels like Lacan's awful "use" of mathematics, and it eventually runs off into a combination of the obvious and the almost christological, an intellectual game that makes free verse look like some hyper-regimented version of chess.

History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Charles W. Hedrick, 2018/#54): The focus is on an inscription in a Roman monument in the late 430s, rehabilitating (sorta, the sorta being the point of the book) the memory of the elder Flavian, a Senator with a good career and reputation as a historian, who happened to throw his lot with the wrong (i.e., short-lived) usurper of the Western Empire; it turns out he became a bit infamous later on to Christian writers as the last of the active, revanchist pagans, although his motivations aren't quite that clear. Didn't keep his illegitimate consulate from being wiped from records, including that statue, and his memory being generally consigned to a damnatio memoriae. Not quite an abolitio, though, as a few decades later his son (the younger) Flavian, also building quite a nice Senatorial/Imperial asskissing career, got a rehabilitation inscribed over what was probably the erased inscription before. The whole thing is a surprisingly fertile ground for the author to discuss what in fact was and was supposed to be a damnatio memoriae (it was more about honor than forgetfulness, and never assumed to be complete), scribal and reading practices in late antiquity, the parallels in the practice of history and emendatio, the complex transition between paganism and Christianity, Macrobius' Saturnalia, and a whole bunch of slightly mystical musings about the semiotics of silence, aided by the nice coincidence that the ememdated elder Flavian was not just an historian but, as pretty much everybody in his class, including the Emperor, practiced what we'd call proofreading (like all scribal cultures, not to create a perfect text, but to patch the one he was using) and calligraphy, and that the inscription actually seems to have used that metaphor. So it's all a big ball of semiotics, memory, silence, amending texts, practicing history, Tacitus' survivors' guilt, and what not. Dry at times (and at others it breaks your heart over the difficulties of dealing with classical texts and inscriptions), but not at all uninteresting.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle, 2018/#55): A reread.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle, 2018/#56): A reread.

Masterpieces of Mystery in Four Volumes: Detective Stories (ed. Joseph Lewis French, 2018/#57): Quite uneven; as much as can be argued against Doyle's Holmes stories, they do have a certain quality in them that most of those who came afterward couldn't match. The capital-d Detective story isn't just about filling in the blanks.

Masterpieces of Mystery in Four Volumes: Mystic-Humorous Stories (ed. Joseph Lewis French, 2018/#58): As above, with the added difficulties that, while the detective archetype has become quite entrenched in our culture, specific forms of humor age less well, and the mystic fiction (and non-fiction) of late XIXth/early XXth century has definitely gone out of fashion (we still have supernatural fiction and non-fiction, some of it extraordinarily influential, but there isn't a line of descent, artistic or philosophical, from The Great God Pan to Harry Potter, except in the vague sense in which the British are always re-excavating and re-purposing their own, and everybody else's, myths).


The introduction to Rodrigues Ottolengui's story in Nick Rennison's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes:

BORN IN CHARLESTON, South Carolina in the year the American Civil War began, Ottolengui moved to New York in his teens to study dentistry and remained there for the rest of his life. When he died in 1937, most of his obituaries concentrated on his career as a pioneering dentist (he was one of the first practitioners in America to make use of Xrays) and on his status as an amateur entomologist who had become one of the world's leading experts on a particular family of moths. Few made much of the crime fiction he had published in the 1890s but Ottolengui's novels and (particularly) short stories featuring the professional detective Mr Barnes and the wealthy amateur Mr Mitchel are well worth reading. 'The Azteck Opal', originally published in The Idler in April 1895, is probably the best of them all.

This demands a Netflix series where he also, secretly, solves crimes or chases spies or something.


Books! (Sinister Stuff Edition)

Sinister Aesthetics: The Appeal of Evil in Early Modern English Literature (Joel Elliot Slotkin, 2018/#38): This book deals a sort of aesthetic version of the problem of evil: as classical theories of poetry equate Beauty with Goodness, and enjoin the author to use poetry in a morally didactic way, how do you justify the use of evil in poetry — a since-influential but far from unique example in the period being Richard in Richard III — and, most worrisomely, the fact that it attracts people? Is there something wrong with the audience or with the theory? The book paints a picture of Early Modern English authors holding a fundamentally ambiguous position in which they pay lip to normative theories, while at the same time being very well aware of its limits, and therefore going ahead and showing evil anyway. Two factors of interest: the Augustinian understanding of a chiaroscuro Creation in which both evil and goodness are necessary for its proper appreciation (St. Augustine's description of his pleasure in pear-stealing because it was wicked left a nice little problem, if a very realistic and unavoidable one, for further theologians), and the fact that the way sermon preachers and printers, theater authors, and pretty much everybody else had to compete for a significant discretionary and socially diverse budget of time, money, and attention; whatever Plato had said about what should and shouldn't attract people, you had to go, within limits, with what worked in practice.

The book posits, opposed to and complementing normative aesthetics, a sinister aesthetics where people are also attracted to normatively unattractive things in ways that partially overlap and are partially in tension with the usual norms, and a perverse aesthetics where ugliness is deemed attractive because it's ugly. It makes a very interesting analysis of Richard's seduction of Anne (you know, the one literally in front of the newly-bleeding corpse of her husband, whom he killed), noting how both common sense and Richard himself make it untenable to suppose she forgets or excuses any of Richards normatively unattractive aspects, from his physical deformity to the bit about murdering her husband. Rather, Anne falls, not for Richard's falsehoods, but for the chutzpah, skill, and passion of his telling them, which aren't normatively attractive aspects but are certainly not perversely so, as proven by how often we, as audience, find ourselves entranced by the same. It's not my original reading of the scene, but I think it has a lot of value — as the author says, that scene isn't problematic because Richard succeeds, but rather his success is a synecdoche of the problem the play addresses.

The final stretch of the book extends this analysis to Paradise Lost in a most fascinating way. Quoth the author:

It is challenging but not insurmountably difficult to demonstrate, as a matter of doctrinal logic, that humanity is morally responsible for its own sins. Indeed, the Christian theological tradition is littered with such justifications. But God shapes the form that evil takes; as Shuger says, he "plots the didactic narrative of crime and punishment". It is precisely when we see divine providence as a literary narrative—as in the narratives of the Bible, of history, and of personal experience—that troubling questions arise about the sensibilities of the author.


Reconciling audiences aesthetically and emotionally to a teratogenic God is the most difficult element of a successful theodicy [The book engages quite interestingly with the way cheap prints of "monster ballads" and sermons dealt with the popular topic of "prodigious" births]. In order to make their vision of God palatable, religious writers must encourage audiences to cultivate and apply their sinister sensibilities, to take pleasure in God’s punishments rather than being appalled and repulsed by them as a normative framework would demand.

In this framework, Milton's sublime Satan (and in fact the theoretical concept of sublimity in this context was partly derived from attempts to explain the character's aesthetic power) isn't a mistake, or even in conflict with Milton's religious beliefs. It's rather a bold statement of the problem his theodicity has to deal with: not the justice of God's judicial choices, but the acceptability of his aesthetic ones. Milton does this, the author suggests, first by acknowledging the sinister appeal of Satan, and then, instead of making God's normative goodness somewhat seem more appealing, making Him a more deeply and powerfully sinister figure. In the religious world of Milton's age, that fear and dread could be part of the appropriate and pious reactions to the Divinity was much more accepted than in our own; while contemporary critics find Milton's God unappealing, that's in part because our religious normative views are, in a way, more Platonic — the Lord of Hosts was something else. He observes how the narrative shifts around the chronology so we shift from a sinisterly attractive, heroic, sublime Satan to a rather pitiful one under the heel of a much darker and, at least in Milton's intent, even more sinisterly sublime God — it's an aesthetic syllogism designed to teach readers proper appreciation of God's choices not by negating their cruel and horrifying aspects, but by activating and then leveraging the readers' own attraction for cruelty and horror.

Or, still paraphrasing the author, while other poets had to deal with justifying why they used evil in their creations (with partial successes at explanation, and very palpable ones at execution), Milton had to deal with justifying why God did it in His creation, and while the doctrinal explanation (basically, we, all of us, have it coming, whatever it might be) takes some space, the aesthetic appeal of the story itself is Milton's theodicity.

Applications to contemporary literature and media, even in our more secular age, are both obvious and interesting.

Shakespearean Arrivals (Nicholas Luke, 2018/#39): First the regrettable bits: the theoretical underpinnings of this are Hegel (ugh) and Badiou (double ugh; listen: trying to use the mathematical language of Set Theory to try to "prove" things about the metaphysics of political or literary events is either confused or deliberately confusing cargo cult thinking, but, again: Hegel (ugh)). That said, the overall argument on its own, despite the frequent dips into unwarranted metaphysical wordplay-as-argument, is interesting. Luke claims that some of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare don't (even in Watsonian terms) pre-exist their plays. Rather, Romeo and Juliet become Romeo-and-Juliet through, and because, what happens to them in the play and whether or not they choose fidelity this this exogenous, transformative Pauline Event (capital-E in the book) that's not something due to the character or the situation of the play, but rather in excess of it. They may or may not have some sort of previous receptivity — Macbeth isn't Duncan — but it's the Weird Sisters who introduce what I'd call a metanoia in the character, turning Macbeth from whatever he was into the Macbeth we care about (the book has a very ugly way of implying that only transformed characters matter, both in literature and in history, and fuck you — a couple of times it veers into defending revolutions because they are transformative, and screw the sheep and the bloodbath) .

Hamlet, as always, is a pickle. Luke identifies two transformative events: The explicit one is the Ghost, who both tries to re-normalize the situation so Hamlet can Get On With The Program and undermines it drastically by, well, being a bona fide Ghost; Hamlet's sort-of-but-not-quite-action root of his character, in this view, isn't a pre-play feature, but rather emerges from this encounter, as he tries to grapple with both the ghastly (heh) demands of the situation and the obvious inadequacy of the situation itself (what the book frequently and annoyingly calls the Void). The second transformative event isn't fully in our view, or localized in time and space; it's a bit of the trip to England, a bit of the graveyard scene, and a bit of everything, but whatever it is, it's what makes Act V Hamlet who or what he is, whatever the heck that is.

Finally, the book deals with Othello (identifying as the transformative event Desdemona's love; it's an interesting view, and I can see how it can be de-stabilizing for Othello) and King Lear; in the latter, and straining the interpretative framework almost to its limits, but what can you do, Cordelia's Nothing *is* the Event, the unexpected, impossible excess (specially if you're Lear), but instead of transforming her, it ricochets and spreads, transforming the entire kingdom and many of the people in it.

All in all, it's an interesting framework — that Shakespeare's characters *change* is one of the most obvious and powerful things about the plays — you just need to ignore the author's metaphysical underpinnings and slightly problematic (implied) politics.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Twelve (ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2018/#40): Generally competent but, I don't know, uninspired? The "present concern bits" are handled perhaps too straightforwardly, and the "newness bits" are, by and large, the standard ones.

Society and Individual in Renaissance Florece (ed. William J. Connell, 2018/#41): A set of essays on Renaissance Florentine society, from urban violence to the economics and symbolism of dowries to the ways in which Florentine migrants and exiles did and did not integrate elsewhere. The writing is uneven, and overall it felt less interesting than I thought it'd be.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Hugh Greene, 2018/#42): Don't be confused by the shared title: this is the collection of Master Detective late Victorian/early Edwardian stories compiled by Graham's brother and journalist/BBC honcho, not the collection of Master Detective late Victorian/early Edwardian stories compiled by Nick Rennison. Anyway, the usual suspects are there: Max Carrados, Dr. Thorndyke, etc. No specifically brilliant stories, but reliably enjoyable if the genre is among your jams.
Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (Roger Crowley, 2018/#31): See a previous post. Adding to it, I underestimated how deliberate, focused, and dedicated was the Portuguese crown in getting to India and exploiting it — the combination of constant anti-Islamic warfare (brutal, and not even warfare in the political sense; in some places they engaged in literal ethnic-religious cleansing, killing every Muslim man, woman, and children in a previously existing multi-ethnic society they had just arrived into, just because they were Muslim) and greed was a powerful motivator, yes, but they were very well-organized (at least at the beginning) exploiting it. For all of their geographical and cultural ignorance — they didn't know Hinduism was a thing, and thought for an embarrassingly long amount of time that they were just strange Christians with multi-armed saints decorating their strangely shaped churches — they knew the importance of precise knowledge, and were avid information collectors in a way that prefigured the companies that followed (you could argue that, in sociology, geography, and biology, the West learned empiricism because and in order to effectively deal with the Indies and, to a lesser degree, America, and only later did an epistemological version of the Foucaultian boomerang and turned it on themselves; physics/mathematics/astronomy seems to have been a different matter). People like Afonso de Albuquerque and Duarte Pacheco Pereira are rather disturbing: brilliant, driven, courageous and honest — and the way the book tells it, anything less than extraordinary skills would've been insufficient, given the distances and numbers involved — but at the same time bloody, barbaric fanatical religious fundamentalists of the most terrifying sort. While the book is about the Portuguese, it's told in a way that both includes and illuminates the (in some cases inferred, in others documented) reactions of the local inhabitants. A highly recommended, but at times unsettling read (specially if misunderstandings and bullying are among your squicks).

The International Handbook of Shipping Finance: Theory and Practice (Eds. Manolis G. Kavussanos and Ilias D. Visvikis, 2018/#32): At times a bit dry (I'm so sorry), but overall fascinating; if you ask me, the underbellies of the world look more like this — not secret, just infrastructural — more than Rosicrucian-like esoteric weirdness.

The Book of Five Rings (Miyamoto Mushashi, 2018/#33): A reread. He reads like a man trying to explain a mathematical insight without the proper vocabulary; he strives for clarity and practicality, yet words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, will not stay still (I'm... less sorry about this one).

Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman (Michael Jonik, 2018/#34): An interesting (if at times, IMHO, going too much on a limb) look at Melville's works from the point of view of how his characters aren't really fully independent personalities interacting with their environment, but are rather open to, or actually partly constituted by, it; it's a form of politics, although not an anthropocentric one — hence the role the author posits for Spinoza's non-anthropocentric ontology, one in which "stones become characters, just as characters become stone" (paraphrased). Might be further paraphrased as an Actor-Network Theory approach to the spirit. Suggestive more than conclusive, although conclusiveness might be impossible in this field.

Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism (Joelle Rollo-Koster, 2018/#35): A complement and prequel of sorts to the other books I've read about the usual violence during sede vacante, linking it to an older, medieval custom of looting by everybody from kings and archbishops to crowds of the property of dead ecclesiastics (with some interesting further roots in the rather charmingly imperialistic looters-keepers Roman property law). The book takes an anthropological/symbolic rather than game-theoretic angle (and from the point of view of the perpetrators, rather than Church officials); it notes that the shifting from looting dead popes to looting the just elected ones (even by their conclave peers) coincided more or less with the shift from an open electio process to a very closed (in all senses of the word) and regimented one, suggesting a compensatory process in which the Roman people sought to obtain redress from a much reduced political role. Although wide-ranging, the book looks particularly at the Great Western Schism. The way the author tells the story (and, as the book recognizes, everybody sort of takes a position on it), the cardinals in the "first election" of Urban VI didn't feel unduly pressured by the threats of violence and expectation of looting during the election — the key observation being that it had been long customary and par for the course, even if in that first post-Avignon election the Romans themselves asked clerics about whether the looting was traditional or not — with their immediate communications afterward giving no hint of any disqualifying issues, and it was Urban VI's haughty and not entirely balanced behavior what made them shift the narrative, lacking any formal way to impeach or remove a Pope who wasn't going to quit (take the obvious contemporary comment as given).

The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State: Venice c.1400 to 1617 (M. E. Mallet and J. R. Hale, 2018/#36):: A somewhat in-depth look at the Venetian military of the period, giving most weight to the army and to administrative and financial procedures. Some takeaways: The Terraferma dominions weren't just or mainly a retreat from Ottoman pressure, but rather a way to gain something of an edge against the Genoese, ensure access to transalpine markets, etc (and of course, this being a commercial/aristocratic oligarchy, once your influential citizens own something, you have a tendency to keep it). Manpower was more of an issue than money, although the latter wasn't plentiful related to the expenses. Civilian-military relationships were surprisingly good and professional (with some friction, mind you), but the quality of financial oversight was more or less adequate only when the civilians were extraordinarily good — they lacked soldiers and money, but, specially, accountants (or, less anachronistically, people not only literate, but also trained in book-keeping; and that's even as they, and Florence, were probably the most numerically literate societies in Europe at the moment). The condottieri model feels both modern (war as a professional endeavor) and ancient (you need famous, ideally noble captains so they can talk in equal terms with your enemies); an slow transition to a model of long-term, easily renewed contracts was an intermediate step to later standing armies, which Venice was never quite able to pay for on the scale it'd have preferred. In these terms, Enrico Dandolo leading the Venetians in the Fourth Crusade would have looked both admirable and weird to later doges — that's not what they were for, or wanted to do. Venetian military tactics and technology were neither hopelessly obsolete nor cutting-edge (after all, the conduct of war was an international affair, with plenty of labor mobility, to the point that all condottieri contracts had, essentially, temporal noncompete clauses); their gunnery was considered to be quite good, and their scuolas were top notch. Overall, I think they made an spirited go at it, but unless you have a definite edge in technology, organization, and/or doctrine (e.g. the first Mongol waves, or the Portuguese in the East), scale ends up mattering.

Diplomacy in Early Modern Culture (Ed. Robyn Adams and Rosanna Cox, 2018/#37): A close look at some of the least formal but not least important aspects of diplomacy in Early Modern Europe, from Bacon's fascinating binary stenographic code (for handwritten letters — ignoring that detail is, hilariously, what eventually led to the Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare nonsense), to the harsh financial realities of being a semi-formal spy for the crown (always more a matter of patronage than profession), to Alexandrine of Taxis, Postmistress to Europe (with a side business running a few Black Chambers, as much as contemporaries thought at first her being a woman made that sort of initiative unthinkable), to the way Henry Wotton drove his peers crazy with his informal and personalized approach to ambassadorial duties (his famous quip, "An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.", almost cost him his career — they didn't take it very graciously at the moment). Another funny bit is how much of a hot secret commodity were cartographic maps of the latest discoveries and fortifications, even as they were usually not very good, or even better than what was given as gifts or made public for propaganda reasons.


The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (Christopher I. Lehrich, 2018/#25): The concept of analyzing magic/"the Occult" in its own terms is an interesting one — I think of it as akin to fannish meta in its Watsonian mode — but the author spends most of his time dissing contemporary authors in ways that, to the degree that I can evaluate it, oscillate between the intriguing observation and the malicious misreading. The book contains a number of nice turns of phrase and striking conceptual images, but... I guess a way to put it is that, while I'm interested in, although not swayed by, "magical" conceptual constructs, I'm neither interested in nor swayed by the more Derrrida-esque structuralist/post-structuralist theoretical arguments and battles. But then, as an undeconstructed positivist with a weakness for Borgesian aesthetics, I'm more a subject of the author's analysis than part of his intended audience.

Familiar Quotations (1905 ed.) (ed. John Bartlett, 2018/#26): It's sobering to see how much that was found memorably felicitious but a few generations ago is now almost unreadable in feeling and composition, if not language itself. But the right editor can do much, both in selection and commentary; I love Bergen Evans' Dictionary of Quotations, even if many of its quotations are as old as Bartlett's.

News Networks in Early Modern Europe (Ed. Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham, 2018/#27): There's quite a bit of space dedicated to methodological issues I'm not very interested in, and to detailed quantitative descriptions that (perhaps ironically) feel fishy to me, but nonetheless it's a large book full of goodies about avvisi, newsletters, newsbooks, the fine line between grateful travelers informing patrons and paid crown spies, and a lot of ceteras. While reading it I was frequently swept by the desire to launch a newspaper of some sort — so dynamic, scrappy, and full of potential were the networks and textual, technological, and commercial practices they were coming up with at the time — which is of course insane; we're living on the other side of that threshold now, and empathy and sympathy aside, what was a fascinating plunge *then* would be a manneristic affectation *now* (nothing wrong with manneristic affectations — under atheist conditions, a lot of life (excepting of course interpersonal ethics at both micro and macro-scale) is an act of style — but, if nothing else, it's convenient not to be delusional about what you're doing and why).

Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World (Anna Winterbottom, 2018/#28): A look at how the knowledge development initiatives of the (early, pre-territorial) East India Company (and very closely associated organizations, like the Royal Society) actually played out on the ground through the specific activities and interactions of (poorly supervised) agents with multiple overlapping agendas, natives with different sets of goals and degrees of autonomy (from the kings and officials on whom the very survival, not to mention profits, of the EIC settlements depended, specially during the XVIth/XVIIth century before the military balance of power shifted, to slaves, going through ex-captives, phonies, and other individuals with multiple, hybrid cultural identities). Issues of official and unofficial patronage, the balance between commercially valuable secrets and reputationally necessary publicity, collaborative networks of doctors, traders, seafarers, scholars (and most people were at least two of those) sharing local know-how and samples, the practice of "medical diplomacy", etc. — paraphrasing a bit, it's Latour knowledge-building under conditions of *serious* power asymmetry. A note of interest is how racism is, at that stage, more geographical than physiological; it's less "how you look" than "where you live" and a bit of "how you live," with climate and geography assumed to have insidious, cumulative effects on the old moral fiber. It's only slightly later and partially as a reaction to the ambiguous, shifting contact and interaction between "races" that more "scientific" concepts of races as biological categories developed.

The Mughal Empire (John F. Richards, 2018/#29): Quite a revelatory book to me. The Mughal empire was the second (if not the) largest and richest empire in the world, giving the XVIth-XVIIth century Ming a run for their money. The book makes clear the astounding wealth of the Indian subcontinent, and the effectiveness and sophistication of the Mughal's fiscal and political arrangements... that is, while they worked. It was only in long range/military seamanship and, eventually, the most concentrated gunpowder-based forms of violence that they (and China) fell behind Western societies — before the Industrial/Scientific revolution, that is — and there's a point to be made that the various East India companies took advantage of the deep self-inflicted wound of the Decaan wars' quagmire. It was a world of multiple overlapping religions, ethnicities, and cultures (the way Islam fostered violent and non-violent long-term relationships is interesting; conquest was of course the main way, but there was also pilgrimage and the way reputation and religious authority was contested and diffused; Iranian/Persian culture and governing methods — including very document-intensive patterns — had a huge influence); the Mughals could teach the Habsburg a thing or thirty about building and ruling that kind of empire (that said, the Deccan Wars...). Of note, the Central Asian/Mughal/Ottoman inheritance-by-deathmatch protocols were as spectacularly destructive as you'd imagine, and I'd argue that having a civil war every generation might not be the best way to build an empire over the long term; sooner or later you get a relatively evenly matched set of candidates, and then it gets really bad. Recommended; non-teleologically speaking, that's where the action was during those centuries.

Echopraxia (Peter Watts, 2018/#30): A reread.


Currently reading Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, which is a pretty straightforward, if at times darkly comical, description of how the Europeans were essentially socially- and geographically-ignorant thugs crashing into an enormously wealthy market that encompassed most of the world's wealth, with nothing to trade with except technically superior weaponry and ships (almost the only area of knowledge the West was at the forefront of, although that was about to change), and a vicious combination of commercial greed and aggressive religious fundamentalism that was quite beyond what the multi-ethnic, not tolerant by our standards but all in all generally more practiced at collaboration, societies of the area had been used to.

Barbarians, indeed. It wasn't the only thing they had going for them — once you start developing more efficient research processes and then come up with industrial methods, then societies without them pretty cannot compete regardless of their sophistication in other areas — but the existence, discovery, and exploitation of the Potosi silver mines is one of the great historical contingencies of the last few centuries; violence and American silver (extracted with violence, but from a much sparser and weaker population) where the only way Europeans could interface with the civilized core of the world.

Nobody with an empire is innocent in any sense, that's not what I'm saying, and if, say, American societies of the era were fucked up from 1492 on, the Ming and Quin Empires, the Tokugawa, or the Mughals, could have imported, over-developed, and exploited scientific and technical advances before European empires were comparatively powerful enough to block their attempts, or ahead enough to make the catch-up a long and fraught effort. Europeans were thugs with better weapons slightly before they were thugs with scientific-industrial complexes and much better weapons; you could tell quite an interesting story in a sci-fi-ish key about this event from the point of view of Indian Sea societies (the "violent and ignorant aliens with better weapons" is, after all, a trope), and maybe an AU outcome if you felt like.

Anyway, the original point of this post was the childish observation that the apparently the Arabs called these awful Frankish traders ferengi, and now I understand that The Next Generation reference (and a daring one indeed: making the Ferengi the series' philosophical counterpart of the Federation would have aligned the latter with the South Asian meta-society of XVIth century, not the European one) if only thirty years late.
The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (Daniel Goffman, 2018/#1): Focuses on similitudes and relationships as much as in differences and distance; after all, the Ottomans weren't just Islamic (rather heterodox ones at the beginning, although this changed after they took over the Sunni sacred sites) and Turkish, but they also took from the Byzantine empire not just Constantinople, but also peoples, government structures, and so on, and even, in a way, their role as heirs of the Roman empire and as the hub of the Eastern Mediterranean. The author emphasizes the adaptability of the Ottomans, a necessary trait given that at one point most of the people they ruled were Christian. They were helped in this by Islam's approach to non-Muslims in their territories, which under the more flexible readings of its tenets can be allowed to exist lightly taxed (compared to some of the Christian states they took over, specially when Orthodox ruled Latin or vice versa; the Ottomans conquered so much so quickly in part because and most often where they were fighting societies where rulers badly abused the ruled, even by the standards of the age) and in some minor but significant ways self-governed, although of course not equal to Muslims. Not tolerance in the modern sense, by any degree, but still better than what most Christian societies offered at the time. The author makes the interesting point that this sort of formal allowances given by the Ottomans to traders from Europe might have inspired some of Venice's seminal developments in diplomatic practice. Paraphrasing, ultimately the Ottoman Empire didn't collapse as much as failed to keep up with Northwest Europe, hardly an indicator of inherent civilizational inferiority when you consider that pretty much nobody in the Eastern Mediterranean did, Italian city-states included.

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Timothy Brook, 2018/#2): A look at China during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. It's a very good book; it mixes (without overdetermining developments) ecological changes, cultural changes, economics, and long-distance interactions in interesting ways. In many senses, what we (i.e., me, a not very informed layperson) think of as classic China is really a reflection of/construct of the late Ming, so seeing how they came to be, and in response to what, is illuminating. Besides, the book begins with dragon sightings, and what more can anybody ask for?

Mediterranean Identities in the Premodern Era: Entrepôts, Islands, Empires (Ed. John Watins and Kathryn L. Reyerson, 2018/#3): Some of the essays are interesting: a look at the multiple material translatios Venetians used to define their identity, the fascinating issues of janissary identity, the pragmatics of polyglot rulership, even, to a degree, the strange "gineteadas aren't Moorish, they are *Trojan*, read the Aeneid" thing of post-Reconquista Spain, or the a posteriori troublesome in their historical echoes biological metaphors of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega); other were, I'm afraid, quite bad. But the good ones justify picking up the book.

The Chinese State in Ming Society (Timothy Brook, 2018/#4): What it says in the can. The Ming state was both absurdly intrusive (for Medieval/Early Modern standards) and quite weak. The dynastic founder's initial reorganization of spatial arrangements is fascinating as an attempt (as is his pivot from pro-Buddhism (as an orphan he lived in a monastery) to awfully suspicious of unregistered, vagrant monks), but more successful than latter attempts to keep up to date registers of who lived where, or, as tax bases changed, what was raised where and who owned what. Given the size of the Empire and the sparseness of bureaucracy — the central government's lowest functionary wasn't somebody you'd necessarily ever see unless you were part of the local gentry — mapping taxable resources was both critical and impossible; all things said, I don't think they did a bad job. Ditto when it comes to rice polders and larger common infrastructure; getting local gentry to paid for them, specially as social arrangements shifted and things became more mercantile and wealth-driven by the late Ming, was a headache. Even censorship was, practically speaking, outside the power of the late Ming, given the fascinatingly huge and pervasive commercial book sector (the size and number of private libraries, and the sheer social spread of reading as a pleasure activity in late Ming China, makes the West at the time look positively ridiculous; I knew there had been a catch-up process, but I hadn't internalized how large it had to be. The fact that schools had to first build libraries because, as gifts from the Emperor, the official books coming from the court (the Four Treasures) had to be appropriately housed is kind of funny. Another tidbit that struck me: the way some Emperors sold what were basically "monk certificates" as a way to raise extra revenue — because monks didn't pay taxes, everybody understood that this was a way to pay, as it were, all your taxes in advance, forever, so nobody took those certificates into account when estimating the monk population (as moving, non-tax-paying/corvee-able? people, monks were rather suspect). Very highly recommended.

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952 (Ed. Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 2018/#5): Short version: the British were pretty much indefensible on this, but then, so was almost everybody else. I hadn't realized the structural importance of opium not just at the level of international trade, but also for colony- and state-building in South and East Asia. In many places it was the first mass consumption "recreational" commodity, as well as a necessary ergogenic for early forms of exploitative export-driven enterprises — more significantly, addicting (already indebted) workers in mines and plantations to opium meant that essentially work was free; this made viable previously unprofitable projects. It was so profitably taxable, in fact, that pretty much every colonial, occupation, or native regime found difficult to reject the revenues, and most did a back and forth between different forms of opium farming and government monopolies (with justifications varying between "control it because we need the money" and "control is so we can eventually shut it down"), and, generally speaking, only did away with opium for good when popular opinion shifted drastically against it. A very special mention goes to Du Yuesheng, the most powerful boss of the Green Gang in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s, incredibly well-connected politically, and all around an slippery son of a bitch. One of the articles refers to him as "the Chinese Al Capone," but that'd only be true if Al Capone had had or controlled banks, newspapers, logistics companies, and a huge cetera.

Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo (Peter Ackroyd, 2018/#6): Another volume of his history of England; as readable and interesting as the previous ones.


Historically, medieval fairs (and thus the re-birth of intensive urban commerce in Europe) took place during religious feasts, and under the protection not only of ecclesiastic authorities, but also, and explicitly, of relics and saints, who were considered to own the lands and assets donated to each religious organization. What if this was literally true, and — in a purely Christian version of The Black Monday Murders — the invisible hand of the market was in fact a miraculous one? (instead of transubstantiation, the miracle being utility-maximizing market clearing)

In an alternate universe like this, a legal person would not only be a theological travesty (I have to side with Harold Bloom on Americans (really, Republicans) being not so much lousy Christians as belonging to a completely different religion), but also a commercial dead end. So saints, as effectively immortal and financially efficient entities, would end up owning most of the economy. Establishing a new saint would be like setting up a start-up (or getting a taxi medallion, with the Church very tightly regulating this). In a world where relics have even more of a financial impact than they did — in the real world, a "good" relic, by attracting pilgrims and donations, could save a struggling congregation, or even make it rich — the concept of "furta sacra", or sacred theft, becomes doubly meaningful. You'd notice your city's main relic was stolen because the next day the damned (pun intended) market would crash.

The financial/metaphysical Renaissance conundrum about usury would take a whole different look. Charging high interest rates would, in fact, lead you to bankruptcy, so you either go through the Jews (whose economy seems to obey different rules, in a very theologically problematic way), or figure out workarounds by trial and error (what they actually did, through wonderful and very Wall Street-like contortions with bills of exchange and other financial esoterica).

Throws a whole different light on the Protestant Reformation, by the way. Slightly facetiously (in an already very facetious post), it's something like the contemporary cryptocurrency libertarian thing... Saints and so on are paper money/government oppression, in a truly free market you interact directly with Him/It, etc. (Makes you wonder what the schism with the Orthodox Church was really about, and makes the way the European economy ended up being dominant after the massive theft from Constantinople of pretty much every relic in 1204 more of a cause-and-effect sort of thing.)

Making the later US economic dominance depend on some sort of unholy pact within a different religious framework would be the logical continuation. Note that the Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution (slash onerous taxes, like how Apple and Google are, theologically and legally speaking, Irish companies), and that, as a matter of historical fact, they did sign an honest-to-goodness contract with God, promising rigorous, saintly behavior in exchange for prosperity. Early Puritan America was a drab, brutal theocracy where God's favor was measured by how well you and your community were doing, financially speaking.

Er... Crap.

It's kind of frustrating when you start rambling about a nicely horrifying take on alternate history, and it turns out it's pretty much what they were actually doing.



cass, can you not

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