Books Update: July 2021

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (James C. Scott, 2017)

Scott is better known for his book Seeing like a State (which I have not read) but his writing is familiar to me through The Art of Not Being Governed (a Southeast Asian history). Against the Grain goes back further in history to discuss Neolithic peoples’ development of the first farms, domesticated plants and animals, and walled cities. This took place before written history, so we also hear about research methods and the biases toward what is preserved in the archaeological record. The prototypical preserved city-state of the book is Uruk, in present-day Iraq, and the book covers the thousands of years leading up to it.

The revelation is that instead of a focused turnover to modern civilization, there were thousands of years in between each step of organized planting, permanent settlements, and establishment of governments. This logic is intertwined with a ‘paleo’ diet thread that the earlier nomads were healthier and had access to dozens of redundant food sources. This was replaced with dependence on a few grain crops and frequent epidemics caused by communal living. As in The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott explains that leaders used these grain crops and livestock to attach people to their land and to tax them. The reasons for a global shift are left unexplained, but the timing lines up with a dramatic and devastating cold period (Younger Dryas).

I don’t know enough about Neolithic history to say whether this is something like the ‘Aquatic Ape Theory’ which is firmly out of mainstream. Wikipedia is careful to write (re: Dryas) ‘this theory of the origin of agriculture is controversial in the scientific community’.
If the book is going to hype up the health and wealth of pre-settlement nomads and pre-government villagers, there ought to be more examination of women’s experience in these communities. Maternal health is a major motivation to this day for people to move from remote islands and villages into cities. At times Scott shows some awareness by mentioning fertility rates or skeletal changes from women’s work grinding grain, but when it comes to quality of life as a nomad, he offers no narrative history or contemporary info.

The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Dan Hicks, 2021)

How do we ‘decolonize’ museums when their collections were built up at the cost of human lives and rights around the world? Hicks, the Curator of World Archaeology at the UK’s Pitt Rivers Museum, tells the story of the Benin Bronzes, a collection of hundreds of artifacts now spread over the world, including in his own museum. This platform lets the author access information about what the museum knows about its collection.

Benin is Hicks’s focus because it was such a brazen theft during the British takeover of the Benin Empire and larger ‘scramble for Africa / world war zero’. The book dismantles common excuses that taking these artifacts were uncontroversial in their time, a type of liberation or protection, accidental, a form of fundraising for soldiers lost in battle, or various other claims. The documentation is clear (colonial officials continuing to plan an attack through the drafting and signing of a treaty, a todo list of what to burn). I was shocked that there are still museum officials who did not concede at least some shame, imperialism, or hands-tying bureaucracy. Instead there are quotes saying “nothing in the British Museum was obtained illegally”, that Benin was “the sack that never was” (I couldn’t find the original but did see a rebuttal), or that a museum had created new work by displaying them.

In addition to the war and trade movements of the British, we also get hints into their mindset. ‘Dracula’ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ were the type of mystical / demonic content which inspired their obsession with the local religion and reporting Benin as a ‘City of Blood’.

One key argument is that museums, by showing the loot of colonialism, continue that violence and narrative. I was surprised to read that London museums began showing Benin treasures only 6 months after the attack. Thus unless you totally reframed the exhibit, you are bringing out the same war trophy cabinet as the colonial powers. Hicks collects statements from a variety of museums on how they contextualize their displays.
This does ultimately get too deep into ‘what is a museum, what is the role of a curator’ theory talk for me to recommend this book unless you’re deeply interested in museums? But overall it does a good job of describing the British navy’s actions and tracing the Bronzes as best can be researched today.

The latest update, from Berlin:

Related museum news:

There’s another book on the Benin Bronzes, which also came out this year.

Returning Southeast Asia’s Past is another 2021 book about returning art, but with a different regional focus.

The Tenement Museum researches specific families who lived in their building to make a realistic presentation. The New York Times has a story about how they incorporated the story of a Black family into their tour.

The Moynihan Report: An Annotated Edition (2015)

This appeared on my radar sometime in the past year and was one of my long-open, long-unread tabs. It’s not a book but a feature in The Atlantic.

The Moynihan Report was published in 1965 under the Johnson administration, to explain the roots of Black poverty and inequality. The message was something like… we have the 1964 Civil Rights Act, what remains?

This excerpt sounds a little 1619 project:

The Negro American revolution holds forth the prospect that the American Republic, which at birth was flawed by the institution of Negro slavery, and which throughout its history has been marred by the unequal treatment of Negro citizens, will at last redeem the full promise of the Declaration of Independence.

One difficulty in reading and applying the Moynihan Report is its focus on men needing to be the provider. We get the impression that the problem of poverty is not hungry children, access to education, or the continued discrimination of the 1960s, but how emasculating it is:

Consider the fact that relief investigators or case workers are normally women and deal with the housewife. Already suffering a loss in prestige and authority in the family because of his failure to be the chief bread winner, the male head of the family feels deeply this obvious transfer of planning for the family’s well being to two women, one of them an outsider. His role is reduced to that of errand boy to and from the relief office.

But other parts are prescient, for example, the uncertainty about how to bring about an economy with more income equality, beyond just removing legal barriers. The authors anticipate that measures toward further equality will seem unequal to white Americans.

The demand for Equality of Opportunity has been generally perceived by white Americans as a demand for liberty, a demand not to be excluded from the competitions of life — at the polling place, in the scholarship examinations, at the personnel office, on the housing market. Liberty does, of course, demand that everyone be free to try his luck, or test his skill in such matters. But these opportunities do not necessarily produce equality…

The report also has an awareness about the roughness of Census statistics, such as the White/non-White categories not being specific enough to study Black families alone, the mean and overall statistics being affected by a growing middle class, and unemployment at a single point in time understating the problem of underemployment or seasonal unemployment at some point in the year.

I’ve pre-ordered The Essential Kerner Commission Report, a modern revisiting of the 1968 Kerner Commission on race, riots, and policing. That’s coming out this summer and will hopefully be a more complete overview.

Updates on previous food books

Food Action Cities:

There were a few food-Twitter threads about pellagra in the South, which is more concisely explained here:



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