Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Not-So-Brief History of Time: Daniel Smail on Deep History and the Brain


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?


Steve Muhlberger said...

By and large historians have no formal instruction in prehistory, which is the ambit of anthropologists. And anthropologists used to be fascinated by the ahistorical concept of the anthropological present, which ignores the idea of historical development.

Indeed, most working historians work on quite modern subjects, and most university courses in history must be post-1700 or -1800.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thank you so much for posting on this book, Eileen.

I read the NYT review of Smails' book back in March when it appeared in print. I even ripped the page out of the newspaper and put it in a folder on my desk where I collect hardcopy items that might be worth posting about. The reason I ultimately did not, however, mention the work on ITM include: (1) too lazy (2) too busy and (3) when I sat down to read the review a second time, it seemed to me that "prehistory" here really meant "pre-Enlightenment," and that the Middle Ages were getting lumped together as part of the Great Before (in this case, Before the Invention and Widespread Dissemination of Mood Altering Chemicals). Either that, or the book contains some overview of human neurochemistry or some such that constitutes its originary (prehistorical) state of the brain, and then it leapfrogs into modernity's interventions. So, lumped into a big category or simply ignored, the Middle Ages seemed to lose out once again ... and I had grown weary of writing yet another "Calling all medievalists!" posts.

I realize in retrospect how unfair this is, mainly because I never actually bothered to read the book. I will place it on my reading list and likely post on it in the future. Again, thank you Eileen.

Oh, and as to being locked in a Time Machine or TARDIS with anyone -- I simply wouldn't wish that on another person. Though I hide this fact by using a GPS when driving to an unknown destination, I have a terrible sense of direction and am frequently loss. I can only imagine that the temporal analogue to this sense would have catastrophic consequences -- ie, the machine would arrive five billion rather than five million years ago and we'd boil to death instantly in the primordial soup.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

And I want to underscore my own laziness and its negative repercussions in not following through on Smail and his work. He's a medieval historian, after all (something I didn't realize until recently) -- and from this post by Eileen and this article in the Boston Globe it's pretty clear that he and I are interested in many similar things.

For those of you interested in the course on the cultural construction of time I once taught, you can find the syllabus here; it is badly out of date, because I taught that seminar so long ago (almost a decade ago). More up to date -- but still getting stale fast (2005) -- is my syllabus for Fantasies of the Aboriginal.

Steve Muhlberger said...


You may have made an error this time but you can hardly be blamed for not rushing to read yet another treatment of history that fixes the essential dividing line in the Enlightenment.

If you systematically read every such treatment, you could waste your entire life.

And alcohol's not a brain altering chemical? It's tied with nicotine and maybe sugar for top of the heap.

Joseph Kugelmass said...

I confess to being far more excited about what you and Jeffrey are doing with time and theories of the human than I am about Small. Like countless other scholars benefiting from present interest in neurochemical explanations for everything, he writes a mixture of truth and untruth that helps us very little.

For example, while what he has to say about submissive states of depressive stress is interesting, it is bizarre to attribute such states to the provinces of medieval castellans and not to a modern day country like Myanmar, or anywhere ruled right now by warlords or mafias. Furthermore, he uses the 18th Century as an antipode, despite the fact that not all such stimulants were affordable for the majority of the population, and the fact that practically none of them were new (even if they might have been new in certain parts of Europe), reading and "distilled spirits" least of all.

Even his basic definition of primarily medieval "teletropy" appears to miss the teletropic effects of something like a euphoric advertisement on television, or a rise in the Dept. of Homeland Security's color-coded "alert level."

Eileen Joy said...

Joseph: thanks for your comments and for throwing out some contentious points. The first block-indented, italicized quotation is actually from Joseph Carroll to me, describing Smail's book, so I'm not sure exactly who's ideas are who's there [i.e., the medieval castellan example may be Carroll's and not Smail's]. What you are pointing to, however, is important: every time we try to put a temporal marker on the development of subjectivity, a state of mind/body, am historical phenomenon/condition [such as capitalism], we run into problems of faux "uniqueness," I think. Is there anything more difficult, in a way, than historicizing, even in science?

Nunzio D'Alessio said...

On some of the recent the promos for PBS's "Nova Science Now," the question is asked about what the Earth will hear when humans are no longer around. The answer: animals, wind, water, weather, etc. Like Eileen and others, I find such a "posthuman" view very attractive.

I've encountered Smail's work previously, and some of my historian friends really like his award-winning "Consumption of Justice" (Cornell, 2003; all his previous books were from Cornell). Much of his previous work is in the histories of medieval law and law courts and social and political organization in late medieval states. I just picked the new book, and intend to make it one of the several books I plan to read during my upcoming two-week galavant in the UK.

I'm trying not to be too skeptical or dismissive, but I do cringe whenever I hear that someone's trying to make explanatory claims about human sociality and history in terms of the biological sciences. Still, from Eileen's posting and certain friend's comments on the aforementioned book, I'm hopeful. Plus, I'm curious to see how this book might line up with Manuel DeLanda's. I'm sure that Smail's book will re-emerge as a topic here.

Here are some links I found that might be of interest:

---- P.S. ----
For the (more) theologically inclinded, something that *might* complement Smail's focus on "deep history" is the constructive work of Georgetown theologian John Haught on Darwinian evolution and Christianity. He's among the most articulate and engaging writers on the topic *advocating* the full integration of evolution into Christian theology, paying especial attention to Darwin's cosmological upshot of "deep time."

Haught's two recent books continue to engage the topic, but I'd recommend first "God After Darwin" (2000) and its sequel, "Deeper than Darwin." While Haught had been publishing very interesting work for some time, it was really with "God After Darwin" (a mid-careerish book) that he emerged has truly innovative, although there's an argument for consistency to be made with his earlier writings on revelation. Haught reads Christian doctrines (esp. "kenosis") though a group of 20th century thinkers that includes Whitehead, Tillich, de Chardin, and Moltmann.

I produce this suggestion not for any theologically inspired reason; rather, because it strikes me, at first blush at least, that Smail's desire to free history from a Judeo-Christian time frame might be complemented or challenged by someone like Haught (and he's not alone here) attempting to make that frame more expansive.