Monday, 1 December 2014

'The Great Hedge of India' ‒ a work of historical materiology

As regular readers may have noticed, I've started to write short blog posts about books I've just finished reading and films I've just seen (when they're of some political or philosophical interest).

The last book of this kind that I've finished is Roy Moxham's The Great Hedge of India. I won't write too much in the way of description as Oliver Dixon wrote a nice summary on the Royal Holloway critical geopolitics blog a couple of weeks ago:
"British colonial history tells many remarkable tales, none more so than the story of the Great Hedge of India. This relatively unknown story was rediscovered recently by author, Roy Moxham. He tells of a botanical and architectural structure, an impenetrable 8ft high hedge, 1500 miles long, that stretched across Central India. How is it that a wall, comparable to The Great Wall of China, has completely vanished from the story of the British Raj? And what relevance does it have to bordering today?"
It's a fascinating book, engagingly written. Stylistically it's a mixture of personal travelogue and academically inflected journalism. It isn't especially dramatic or action packed but the way in which British colonial history is intertwined with techniques of violence, cartography and fortification, as well as the cruel, 'bare life' biopolitics of the salt tax is tremendous.

It is the epitome of what one might call trajectorial thinking, trajectorial geopolitics ‒ another more major exponent of this being Reviel Netz's magnificent Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. By this I mean that it does not begin with a domain and attempt to understand it as a whole that must be separated from other domains 'for analytical reasons'; moreover, it doesn't attempt to explain the whole's parts on the basis of systemic functions but, rather, works through an array of threads that cut across a complex, indeterminately delimited space, tracing cascades of action and reaction that, when knotted together, build up a partial picture of a world in motion. It is a kind of historical materiology.

The interesting historical materiological connection between Netz's and Moxham's books can be found in Nicholas Blomley's wonderful article Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges (may be paywalled). Blomley refers to thorn bushes, such as those used in the Indian hedge, as 'organic barbed wire.' Before the developments that Netz traces, it was precisely these plants that were technologically enrolled in order to enclose spaces, for various reasons. These methods had many drawbacks.

The hedge that Moxham traces was only necessary but also only possible due to the extremely lucrative tax on salt imposed by the British. The hedge was costly to both build and maintain and, with its raison d'etre removed, it rapidly disappeared to such an extent that it was almost completely forgotten about. Barbed wire was not only cheap but also, crucially, inorganic and hence durable. On the battlefields of the World War I, it took enormous barrages of shelling to even partially dissolve the roll after roll of barbed wire that were lethally strewn between the trenches. By enrolling iron rather than various fragile, slow growing and imperfectly violent plant species, history was irreversibly transformed.

Read alongside Netz and Blomley, Moxham's work seems not only interesting but also profound. Were we to have more trajectorial accounts such as these, the world we perceive in motion through such mediators might be better understood.

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