Some deaths in 2019
There will never again be anything like the twentieth century for cultural anthropology, a time when still-surviving tribal societies were studied in depth by several generations of fieldworkers. Napoleon Chagnon is among the great ethnographers. Even in this company he is exceptional for the range and depth of quantitative data he collected. He is exceptional as well for his interest in bringing evolutionary theory to bear on understanding human behavior – including violence and revenge. This made him a figure of controversy in cultural anthropology, where the duumvirate of Blank Slate and Noble Savage still have a strong hold. Here’s a post on Chagnon, and the controversy.
Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory is a spatialized version of Marxism: a prosperous Core of developed nations grows rich by glutting themselves on an exploited, underdeveloped Periphery. As a historical-sociological Theory of Everything, it probably ultimately doesn’t work better than classical Marxism. But it’s not entirely wrong either. Silver from Potosi, sugar from Haiti, corn from Wallachia, rubber from the Congo; Wallerstein and World Systems Theory have forced our attention on one of the dark sides of the making of the modern world.
Thus I became acquainted with all the thoroughfares and with many an unfrequented corner – granaries with lofty bins and demonic cats; windswept ramparts overlooking gangrenous slums; and the pinakotheken, with their great hallway topped by a vaulted roof of window-pierced brick, floored with flagstones strewn with carpets, and bound by walls from which dark arches opened to strings of chambers lined – as the hallway itself was – with innumerable pictures.
Many of these were so old and smoke-grimed that I could not discern their subjects, and there were others whose meaning I could not guess. … After I had walked at least a league among these enigmatic paintings one day, I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. …
The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.
This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it … into … mountain forests. … It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.
A remembrance of things past from Severian, born into the guild of torturers but now exiled, on a weary, war-torn Earth perhaps a million years in the future, under a dying sun. He is looking, all unknowing, at the picture of an Apollo astronaut, one of the few relics left of our forgotten age. (See picture at the top of this page, under December.)
Gene Wolfe is one of the finest literary artists the field of science fiction has produced. His tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, bears reading and rereading. (This quotation is from Book One, The Shadow of the Torturer.)