March 24, 2012


A BBC documentary on Pi-Ramesses sparked me to write this post. Pi-Ramesses was a city that I had never heard of- located in the Eastern Nile Delta, it was built by the Pharoah Ramesses the Great, three thousand years ago. It stood somewhere underneath what is now Quantir- however after Ramesses's death the Nile's course changed and the buildings were moved to Tanis, along the new course of the river. The documentary chronicles this movement and how it was discovered but epitomised for me some of my frustrations with the way that modern documentaries are made. I have no particular knowledge of Ancient Egypt: but I think the subject itself is fascinating, how could it not be? However that's not what the BBC documentary conveyed.

Instead it preferred sweeping music to actually showing anything about the city. Furthermore it concentrated on the archaeologists in a facile way, purportedly telling the story of how the puzzle of Pi-Ramesses was solved but without getting into what I'm sure is a much more interesting and deeper story. The documentary told the story as though the Archaeologist's train of reasoning was absurdly simple, as though the discovery was not complicated. Perhaps it wasn't: but I suspect the documentary makers presented a deeply simplified view. Furthermore they never really attacked what life was like for people in Pi-Ramesses: only one past inhabiant, Ramesses the Great, was mentioned and no indication was given of why the Pharoah was great. No description was given of where trade came from to maek the city so prosperous- of what was bought and sold there. We heard of an army stationed there: but its only through looking at Wikipedia that I understood a little of why that army was placed there- to look northward towards Asia.

I wonder sometimes with documentaries- particularly history documentaries- whether they are rightly named. This appeared to be more of a tourist brochure- with atmospheric pictures and video reconstructions than something that told one anything about the past. The development of Pi-Ramesses is a fascinating subject that I would like to learn more about and I watched to the end of this documentary precisely to learn more about it- and I got fragments- but the combination of sound and image and narration could be used in a much more powerful way to really get at interesting and important questions about Egypt and to teach.

March 23, 2012

Fishing merchants

Allan Dwyer's wonderful article about Fishing merchants in Newfoundland deserves to be read, if only to show how complex 18th Century Commerce really was. He takes as his cases two particular merchants: Benjamin Lester and John Slade. Lester was, according to Dwyer, an international commercial merchant: he had trading links going up and down the coast of North America and was heavily involved in trading lots of goods across the Atlantic. Slade on the other hand was a more disreputable character- who functioned on the boundary of British rule in the same areas as Lester but less as a merchant and more as a bucaneer. The account is very interesting and shows how each man structured his business and what they did to thrive in the brutal world of 18th Century commerce.

But I think there is a deeper interest here, for a wider community, and that's this. In an earlier post this week I discussed how context forms value. That's absolutely right and I'm sure that Dwyer would agree- context is key. But equally different contexts can create very different ways of behaving: in this case Slade fought and Lester sold. Both strategies were successful. And this brings me to a second major point- a second truism if you like- and that's that each strategy was in a sense mutually dependent. Lester represented legitimate authority: in addition to being a merchant he served the crown in other capacities. Slade extended British territory into the Notre Dame bay and therefore solidified the British claim- by illegally taking on and fighting his French or Indian opponents. Its not just that these are different strategies- they are- but they are compatible to the point of being mutually parasitic.

That raises all sorts of moral and political issues which are fascinating. Historically though it reminds us to see societies hollistically, rather than purely biographically. Only then can we understand which choices were open to them within their context and possibly also how they sought to effect their context and drive the choices of others.

March 21, 2012

Accessible Philosophy

Ashok writes persuasively here about the need for accessibility to the great literature and thinking of the past. I think he is right (well I would, wouldn't I?) but I think he misses something else about the scenario of 'everything on the web' that he mentions. When I was a kid, I basically taught myself what to read. I've taught myself which films to watch on the same principle. I basically worked out which were the classics and read or saw them. So for example, as a child I read Penguin and Everyman classic editions. Now if those things go out of business, it would be harder for the future 'me' to find out what to read and therefore easier for him just to give up because he couldn't find the clue to maze. I'm not saying that would happen or will happen: but there is a use for things like public libraries and bookshops and imprints of classical books, and its not just that they make these things accessible, they define a canon for those who don't have a teacher to guide them to what is good and what isn't good. Definitely for me the presence of that canon was liberating...

March 19, 2012

Freedom or Agency

Daniel Walker Howe's history of America between 1815 and 1848 currently occupies a place on my bedside table. Occupies is a rather important word here: weighing in at over 800 pages it is a formidable volume. But Howe has the ability to make some quite precise observations- one of these is what this blog article is about and I think its worth thinking about. What do you think is the difference between Freedom and Agency?

Howe says that the early 19th Century American smallholder possessed the latter but not the former. He was dictated to by a strict regiment of economic conditions and was not really free in terms of the things he could do or be. However he did have the ability to pursue his and his family's goals as an agent within a constrained society. Its a very interesting distinction- and I'm still puzzling over how it works and whether for example there is a difference here between two values: freedom and independence. The smallholder knows he cannot have freedom- for obvious demographic and economic reasons but also because his community is so tightknit- but believes he can be independent. However I think Howe is right- independence doesn't quite capture this belief because there is a sense in which agency is what is being fought over here.

Its an important distinction because what the settler farmer was fighting for when he used the word 'freedom' is not necccessarily the same as what I might be fighting for when I use the 'freedom' today. Freedom today comes with a much less constrained habit on it and I think what Howe captures is that one of the reasons for that, the reasons for what we might call the modern liberal view of freedom, is the fact that our social conditions have changed. Modern liberalism is in a sense the ideology of cities: becauses its only there that agency within social bounds can leap over social bounds, its only there that curtains can cease to twitch.

Whatever one thinks of that as an observation about normative values (whether one thinks freedom is a good or bad thing), I think what Howe shows is that any value is constructed within the context of the society that it inhabits. By just showing the difference in the words, he shows us the difference between present and past and the contingency of our and their judgement of value upon social situations. Interestingly he can only do this by divesting their texts of the word that they used- freedom- and using a modern word- Agency- in its place.

March 18, 2012

Richard Evans strikes again

The New Statesman carries a scathing review of A.N. Wilson's latest biography of Hitler by Richard Evans. Evans notes a number of errors that Wilson makes- I'll leave you to discover them in the review- and scornfully remarks that Wilson knows no more than the casual reader of popular biographies. The Professor sniffily comments that the journalist knows no German. Evans's critique is no doubt accurate: he increasingly sees his role as guarding the preserve of the second world war from charlatans and miscreants and has performed a vital role in doing this.

It is important because the work of charlatans can remain in the public mind- can become a version of truth out there in the real world. Someone out there in the real world will read Wilson's book and believe that this is what there is to say about Hitler. There are uncountable books which have had that kind of effect: every Waterstones for years was festooned with a book called 1421- read a review here and see what you think of that particular marketting decision! Historical untruths have distorting effects politically (is that necessary to even mention now?) and there is an important utility in citizens within a democratic state knowing the truth about the past. Reviews like Evans's though are good things because they show how one can debunk lazy work: they are examples of good reasoning for us to follow in making our own arguments.