Saturday, 17 January 2015

"Marxism was primarily a theory of history—but of human history alone, whence—to a large extent—followed its failure."

"It is often suggested that Communism was such a failure in the countryside partly because Marx, a bookish townsman, was not attuned to the needs of agriculture. This is true enough, but the real issue goes deeper than that. Marxism was lacking not merely in the understanding of agriculture but in the understanding of ecology and therefore of history itself. Marxism was primarily a theory of history—but of human history alone, whence—to a large extent—followed its failure. It was an extreme case of the modernist failure to understand humanity's place in nature."—Reviel Netz, Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity, p.180.
I've just finished re-reading Reviel Netz's extraordinary book Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. It is not at all a book about Marxism or, even, about ecology per se. It is a work of environmental history, of geopolitical topology, of not historical materialism but historical materiology—of how a particular material, barbed wire, become part of the 'natural' (understood not as 'beyond-the-human' but simply as 'taken-for-granted') environment of a litany of historical actors in the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth-centuries—from the Great Plains to the Boer War, to the trenches, to the Gulag, to Auschwitz.

Ian Hacking's short review summarises it well.

It is a remarkable book in a whole number of ways. Its style of argumentation is disarmingly direct and to the point; unmistakeably angry but almost surgically lucid in its analytical incisiveness. It is a deeply ontologically and philosophically sophisticated work but not one that dwells at any moment on its concepts. The bulk of the text is a matting of expertly crafted asides but these never for a moment fail to get drawn tightly and neatly back into the narrative.

It's a model for environmental history and for historical geopolitics. For a book first published in 2004, I don't think that it has received anything like the attention that it deserves.

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