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Barbed Wire

An Ecology of Modernity

Reviel Netz

Publication Year: 2004

In this original and controversial book, historian and philosopher Reviel Netz explores the development of a controlling and pain-inducing technology--barbed wire. Surveying its development from 1874 to 1954, Netz describes its use to control cattle during the colonization of the American West and to control people in Nazi concentration camps and the Russian Gulag. Physical control over space was no longer symbolic after 1874.

This is a history told from the perspective of its victims. With vivid examples of the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the environment, this dramatic account of barbed wire presents modern history through the lens of motion being prevented. Drawing together the history of humans and animals, Netz delivers a compelling new perspective on the issues of colonialism, capitalism, warfare, globalization, violence, and suffering. Theoretically sophisticated but written with a broad readership in mind, Barbed Wire calls for nothing less than a reconsideration of modernity.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press


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Title Page

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pp. i-iii

Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iv-v


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p. vii

List of Maps and Figures

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p. viii

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p. ix

Research for this book was begun when I was at MIT as a fellow at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology. Then, and since, I was fortunate to have access to important collections: at Harvard, the Widener Library and the Baker Business Library (housing the U.S. Steel and Wire Company archive); at Stanford—where I teach—the Green Library and the Hoover Institute...

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pp. xi-xiv

Define, on the two-dimensional surface of the earth, lines across which motion is to be prevented, and you have one of the key themes of history. With a closed line (i.e., a curve enclosing a figure), and the prevention of motion from outside the line to its inside, you derive the idea of property. With the same line, and the prevention of motion...

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1 Expansion

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pp. 1-55

Your first question is simple: when and where was barbed wire invented? Let us start with the simple answer: barbed wire was invented in 1874, for use on the American Great Plains. Let me be more precise so that we may begin looking for the essence of the tool. Its goal was to prevent the motion of cows; its function relied on violence; its success...

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2 Confrontation

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pp. 56-127

It was remembered as a period of peace and civilization. War was somewhere else; one could combine the thrills of warring with those of sightseeing. Let us follow, for instance, Winston Churchill, a youthful journalist-soldier. We join him in 1895 as he sails to Cuba (merely twenty-one years old, he works for the...

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3 Containment

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pp. 128-227

Would barbed wire be useful for the problem of controlling civilians? At first sight, it might appear to be incongruously violent. Its very function was based on inflicting harm. This was quite appropriate for animals, with which humans always did communicate through the language of pain. But with humans, verbal threats are as effective...

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pp. 228-238

...The first thesis is straightforward: history is embodied. We sometimes think as if history is made of names, dates, and ideas that interact in an abstract space of relations and influences. But history is not at all abstract: it is a matter of flesh-and-blood individuals interacting in material space. History is not like chess; it is more like wrestling. Of course, this point...


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pp. 239-250


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pp. 251-259


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pp. 261-267

About the Author

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p. 269

E-ISBN-13: 9780819570765
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819567192

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 10 maps, 2 figures
Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 728243601
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Barbed Wire

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Barbed wire -- Political aspects.
  • Concentration camps -- History.
  • Wire fencing -- History.
  • Wire obstacles -- History.
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