It's no secret that we're obsessed with time and temporality here at In The Middle, and Jeffrey's latest project, "The Weight of the Past," is partly bound up with notions of "deep" and even paleolithic and non-human time and which, in his own words, forms "an exploration of how the prehistoric can exert a power to signify within a post-historic framework, [and] which meditates upon [among other things] stony architectures and fossils," so why don't we know about the medieval historian Daniel Smail, who is at Harvard, and who has been described as a "time revolutionary" [or, if we do know about him, why hasn't someone told me, or am I so stupid I can't remember]? From Joseph Carroll, a professor of English at the University of Missouri and also the author of Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature [Routledge, 2004] and also Evolution and Literary Theory [Univ. of Missouri Press, 1995], this arrived in my email inbox today:
I was just reading a book that you might find interesting. It's by a medieval historian, Daniel Smails, and is titled On Deep History and the Brain. Your theme of the posthuman has some clear associations with what he is doing. He argues that each cultural epoch has a specific psychotropic or neurochemical profile. He interprets institutions and social practices in the light of their effect on the affective ecology of a given culture. He thus describes the neolithic revolution as "a new neurophysiological ecosystem, a field of evolutionary adaptation in which the sorts of customs and habits that generate new neural configurations or alter brain-body states could evolve in unpredictable ways." The current epoch is generating such a flood of rapidly changing psychotropic technologies that it could alter our conception of the human in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. He concedes less to the inertial effect of adaptive evolutionary motivational structures than I think one should, but it is exhilarating to see affective neuroscience brought into suggestive relation with elementary principles of human socio-political interaction (Boehm on dominance relations) and to see both used to delineate specific cultural ecologies, even if in only a preliminary way. He argues, for instance, that the whole phase since the medieval period can be interpreted as a "tectonic shift away from teletropic mechanisms manipulated by ruling elites toward a new order in which the teletropies of dominance were replaced by the growing range of autotropic mechanisms available on an increasingly unregulated market" (186). Anyway, I imagine you would find it stimulating. (Teletropic mechanisms are external devices geared toward creating specific affective states in others, for example, the random violence of early medieval castellans designed to generate submissive states of depressive stress in others. Autotropic mechanisms are substances or practices we engage in for the sake of altering our own internal chemistry, for instance, the development, in the eighteenth century, of a luxury economy based on caffeine, tobacco, chocolate, distilled spirits, and reading.)Smail wants us to give up the "short chronology" of a mainly Judeo-Christian world-historical temporality in favor of a "deeper" history that might take account of, say, one hundred thousand years or so, and which would NOT take humans and human culture as its main focus [this is a kind of reverse notion to the question Jeffrey posed in his "The World Without Us" post regarding whether or not medieval persons ever took it upon themselves, in their literary and other arts, to imagine a future without humans--now, how about imaging a past without humans?]. In his article "In the Grip of a Sacred History" [The American Historical Review, vol. 110, no. 5 (Dec. 2005)], Smail argues,
If history is biography—if the study of history, to be satisfying, requires us to make contact with the thoughts and psyches of people with names—then there is little point in advocating a deep history of humankind. But if history is also the study of the structures and patterns that shape the human experience, if acts such as handling a flint arrowhead or tracing one's mitochondrial family tree back to a small African valley can fulfill our desire for wonder, then the exclusion of humanity's deep history cannot be so easily explained. Puzzling over this exclusion, the archaeologist Glyn Daniel once wrote: "Why do historians in a general way pay so little attention to this fourth division of the study of the human past; while recognizing ancient history do they not give more recognition to prehistory? ... Historians are taking a long time to integrate prehistory into their general view of man." That was in 1962. Since then, the call for interdisciplinarity has encouraged historians to approach the past through tools provided by other disciplines. However, this interdisciplinarity has not yet been extended to the fields that constitute the realm of paleoanthropology. Deep history, for all intents and purposes, is still prehistory—a term, as Mott Greene has noted, that modern historians have been reluctant to let drop. "To abandon prehistory," he says, "would be to postulate continuity between the biological descent of hominids and the 'ascent of civilization' of the abstract 'mankind' of humanistic historical writing. Prehistory is a buffer zone."In his recent New York Times review of Smails's book On Deep History and the Brain, Alexander Star writes,
Historians by and large take biology and the deep past for granted: natural selection endowed our ancestors with their impressive bodies and brains, and then got out of the way. These days, it’s chiefly nonhistorians like Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery who seek to trace the long arc of the species and write macrohistory in a scientific key. Smail, who teaches medieval history at Harvard, would like his peers to join their company. If historians have become accustomed to studying midwives and peasants, the marginal and often illiterate members of recent societies, why shouldn’t they extend their curiosity to the most peripheral human subjects of all — the prehistoric? Even today, Smail laments, the curriculum is shaped by the prejudice that history began only when our ancestors started to write or to farm or to think of themselves as actors in a grand pageant of historical change. The presumption is curiously convenient. In the schema of “sacred history,” history began with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden — that is, in Asia, a few thousand years before Christ. In the modern schema, history begins in much the same place, at much the same time. “The sacred was deftly translated into a secular key,” Smail writes, as “the Garden of Eden became the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia and the creation of man was reconfigured as the rise of civilization.”Of course, what Smails may not be familiar with is that there is at least one other medievalist [Jeffrey] who has taught courses that are attentive to the cultural constructions of time and to pre-history. Jeffrey will correct me if I'm wrong, but I know he has taught at least one course on the construction [and theories] of time as well as another on the aboriginal/primitive in history, and one can only imagine that he is plotting another syllabus already around the coordinates of his "weight of the past" project. Now, if we put a Cohen and a a Smail into a time machine together [or into a Dr. Who phone booth], where do you think they would end up?