monumental architecture and civilizationist bias

Thu, 11 Aug 1994 15:27:22 EDT

[CHICAGO via telnet] Yesterday it had slipped my mind, but the U Mass Library
in question was pointed out to me by lizzy (Doctress Neutopia) herself, back
in January, and quite frankly it does not resemble the male genital of any
real or conjectural species. What it does resemle, however faintly, is
monumental architecture; U Mass/Amherst is an enormous school. As a selfstyled
"conceptual" or "performance" artist, she is of course emancipated from having
to say anything defensible, let alone valid, but she let slip the opportunity
to make a good if ungross point about the relation between monumental
architecture, "civilizationalist bias," and patriarchy, which *are* related.
"Civilizationist bias" is the assertion, more commonly the domain assumption,
that it is good, normal, and natural for one crowd to do the work, while a
wholly different bunch does the civilization. This has led to assumptions and
assertions as to the relation between civilization, ie, hierarchical class-
exploitative society, and material well-being or technical innovation which
are false, or when true are the unanticipated by-products of rapacious class
interests of parasitic ruling classes. This was the case for thousands of
years until very recently; and may be reversible. Civilizationist bias is
congenial to social theorists who eat regularly. (One of the reasons this
is written from Chicago is, I was *starving* on Long Island due to difficulty
"moving around." Given rails, I can eat *twice* on the same day!)

What follows is an offline discussion, in the context of a review of
[Article] by [Author] on [Theorist] with [Name Withheld], historical socio-
logist and Editor of [Journal].
This writer to Name Withheld, Sun, 26 Jun 94 01:32:38 EDT:

[Name Withheld],

[Deletion of review to here]. [Author] himself alludes [page 45] to "one
aspect of [Theorist]'s theory, the absolute centrality of investment." To
which is added an only slightly less important emphasis on "invention,"
technology, increase in per capita productivity, and so on, which makes
possible "expansion" of a civilization as opposed to mere "growth." Can
you see the problem with this already?

It is ahistorical. It takes categories and a dynamic peculiar to capitalism
and retrospectively projects them onto other historical periods. Consider
that, in the exploitative class relation of capitalism, the exploiter is
structured into a condition of chronic labor shortage, in which either the
capitalist installs labor-saving devices, or sweats the laborers at lower
wages, where the latter is limited by [historically relative] costs of
subsistence, said capitalist will sooner or later be undersold by more
efficient (or rapacious) competitors at home or abroad. The wage bill looms
largest in the inception of the capitalist mode of production, where, say,
in a Florentine woolen mill, the wage bill was sixty percent of total costs.
(As it happened, the Florentine factory owners in the fourteenth century
attempted to sweat their laborers, since raw materials prices were fixed by
the international bankers and production methods were ferociously regulated
by the state. The result was near social revolution, 1378. In the end the
Italian textile industry was wiped out by English competition, early
seventeenth century.)

Pre-capitlalist ruling/exploiting classes were in no such position. There
is no evidence of technical innovation, or investment to that end, by such
classes except in one situation, which was a subjectively, that is to say,
ideologically mediated, condition of *absolute labor shortage*. Which is
not a condition which, in a world-empire, readily obtains: *More often than
not*, the economic-demographic core will be disaggregated from the politico-
military core. The reason why this is to be anticipated is obvious, that the
world-empire, such as the Persian, Roman, or Chinese, was the outcome of the
unification of a state system. In the cases named as well as others, the
unification was accomplished by a marcher state. The rulers could have
surplus delivered as tribute to the politico-military base area and capital
city. Or they could move the capital to or near the source of the surplus.
(A variant of the first, when slavery is an option, is to move human labor
bodily to create a new economic core, in terms of surplus extraction, to
the politico-military base. The Romans thus Civilized the former Wild West
of Europe, planting vast estates and cities where before there had been
Fierce and Warlike Tribes whose chiefs became Senators. The bulk of the
population however remained in the East. When epidemics ruined urban life
in the West, the moving of the capital to the East meant relegating the
Wild West to its former condition.)

An "absolute labor shortage" may appear when the population is *not*
decimated when interstate competition does not permit any alternative but
pouring resources into basic food and tool production. The Chinese state
system of the Warring States period, 4th and 3rd centuries BC, is such a
case, when mass-production of cast-iron agricultural implements, as well
as weapons, was undertaken by the major states. Slavery was not an option.
Economies of scale were much smaller with millet, virtually nil with wet rice,
than was the case with European crops. Peasants could apparently migrate
in the earlier stages of interstate war, filling up lands of states with
low taxation. Wars were fought in the plain between massed peasant armies
firing crossbow bolts at each other until ammunition was exhausted. Striking
power of armies was limited by the food resources available; hence, increasing
the food supply by an order of magnitude meant an edge in the arms race. Cast
iron implements were manufactured, even mass-produced, but imitation was
swift. (The contest was finally decided from about 315 BC when the western
marcher state of Qin acquired a vast rice bowl in Sichuan by conquering the
former Kingdom of Shu, of non-Chinese culture, and exploiting it as a settler

The watermill offers an example of reaction to decimation. It was invented
in the first century in the Roman empire, but not widely used (an exception is
a military bakery at Vienne, Gaul). The Frankish landlords of the sixth
century were however depicted as squabbling over mill sites on the Isere
River by Gregory of Tours; this was a reaction to the labor shortage brought
about by the Plague of Justinian. The construction of 6,000 mills in England,
recorded in Domesday Book, was not chronicled by written sources. (The Franks
also resorted to the slavery option, whence the derivation from "Slav.")

The purpose of this digression, which has been admittedly excessive, is
to make the point that what corresponds most nearly to "investment" in
precapitalist societies rarely occurs at all; does so under special
circumstances which remain to be elucidated; and most likely is a drastic
alternative to a reduction in elite consumption. [Theorist], if he was prey
to the historians' commonplace that "civilization" does the average human
good, for which there is no evidence until recent decades, should be made
explicit on this point. (I favor McNeill's view of "civilization" as a
euphemism for "macroparasite.")

[Deletion of "relevant" business-type text from here.]

Daniel A. Foss
Name Withheld to this writer, Tue, 28 Jun 94 16:08:19 EDT. (Observe the
mention of "monumental architecture"):

in my own view there is something like investment goin on in non-capitalist
societies. but it is done differently and has different consequences than
capitalist investment. all that monumental architecture is a kind of
investment. so are Hawaiian fish ponds and irrigation systems. even stateless
societies accumulate surpluses and "invest." the error is to attribute the
specifically capitalist connotations and attributes to these other kinds of
resource storage and expenditure.
[Ritual closing text deleted.]

[Name Withheld]
This writer to Name Withheld, Tue, 28 Jun 94 20:02:16 EDT:

[Name Withheld],

I'm not sure what to call Pyramids, Mounds, Cathedrals, other sorts of
high-cultural artifacts or fine art, but it sure as hell is not "investment"
or "invention" with intent to increase the absolute or relative size of the
surplus product. It is the surplus product, as used up. Consumed. Productive
consumption, on the other hand, is more often found practiced by the mass
of cultivators themselves. Think we oughta get together with the anthropo-
logists and archeologists and thrash this thing out. Tremendous amounts of
horse-manure misconceptions flourish among us; I know I've yet to clean up
my share.

Am leaving for Chicago. [Deletion.]

Daniel A. Foss
Name Withheld to this writer, Wed, 29 Jun 94 08:55:54 EDT:

Ok, pyramids may be consumption but what about irrigation systems and
flood control and roads and cities. These do produce surplus product, but
not surplus value. that is why they are not "capital."
if you are interested in how the anthopologists have worked on this i suggest
some of the work of Jonathan Friedman. If you want to know more I will
dig up the ref.
[Name Withheld]
Roads are for troop movements, cities are strongholds of administration
and consumption, and irrigation-flood control may be undertaken, at the outset,
by local cultivators, if on a small scale. What is more cogent about great
river valleys, which they share with smallish islands like Crete, is the
"caging" (sociology, Mann) or "circumscription" (anthropology, Carneiro) of
the cultivators, so as to facilitate the battening of the macroparasite on its
host. The exception again proves the rule.

In the above discussion of the peculiar strategic importance of massive
food supplies in ancient Chinese warfare (not to minimize its importance
elsewhere of course, but to emphasize its greater importance by orders of
magnitude in Ancient China than in the Ancient Mediterranean), which depends
on Steven V. Sage, Sichuan and the Unification of China, Stanford 1992, I
mentioned that Qin, the Rome of Ancient China, developed its conquest, Shu,
as a settler colony. It was here that Ancient Chinese water control came to
fruition. Francine Bray, The Rice Economies, 1989, tells us that in 269 BC
the Qin government sent a hydraulic engineer who built an enormous water
diversion project on the Yanzi which is still in use; and the engineer was
subsequently deified by the cultivators of the region.

Let me end this with the development of the humble cart in Antiquity, as
summarized in J.G. Landels, Engineering in the Ancient World, p. 173:

Speaking in general terms, the Greeks and Romans do not seem to have made
any very important advances in the design of vehicles. By contrast, the
evidence from North-West Europe, in the form of some relief illustrations
from France and Germany, and some archeological evidence from still further
north, suggests that Celtic wagon-makers of the early centuries A.D.
developed their designs to a highly sophisticated level. It is difficult
to find any convincing reasons why this should be so."

How about: There is innovation where you can eat it; not where you can't.

Daniel A. Foss