- Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity
"What is Modernity?" The endless debates have been unspeakably stale for a very long time. Suddenly a lightning flash, a new idea. Yes, barbed wire. This is a story of space, control, and cruelty. What is a classics professor doing writing about barbed wire? His expertise is the Greek understanding of space and geometrical relations (see The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics, 1999.) Netz's trade leads him to think more clearly than most about boundaries. Fences create an in and an out; fences are topological objects. In 1874 they began to be made out of barbed wire, in order to turn the endless rangelands of the Great Plains into areas where cattle could be contained, kept in, or kept out. Thus the West was won.
Incredible quantities of metal. Next step. The U.S. steel industry takes off, with a guaranteed market out west. Barbed wire travels and turns its attention to human beings. The British invent the concentration camp during the Boer war. Barbed wire is the human container of choice. It has become cheap because it has been mass-produced for cattle. On we go to the Great War. Trenches? The barbed wire maintains the trenches. The German camps. The Gulag.
Note how wrong it is to say that the Nazis treated people as animals (as if it were okay to contain animals). It is rather that barbed wire was and is used in exactly the same way to contain either species. The natural state of the cow is to graze in the meadow and across the plain. The natural state of the German Jew was to catch the tram to work, or out to the lake on a holiday with his family.
Netz's asides are striking. The new railways connected, say, New York and Chicago: East and center were newly joined. But on each side of the tracks was erected a wall of barbed wire to keep the cows, the deer, and the people out of the way. North and South were neatly separated. Theorem: "Every connection has an equal disconnection orthogonal to it."
Barbed wire no longer matters much. That is because it succeeded. Read Netz's account of the geopolitical success in transforming the center of power from Europe to America. Reflect also on what he says about the growing violence [End Page 142] against animals, who are no longer kept in a field by barbed wire but in a box barely as large as their bodies: "Having killed and tortured each other enough, the people of the center [that's us] now take a break as they concentrate on killing and torturing animals."
Netz writes with elegant simplicity. Most analyses of modernity are plugged with obscure words, long sentences. This book is plain, it is angry, it is very moving.
Ian Hacking is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Collège de France and University Professor at the University of Toronto. His books include The Social Construction of What?, Mad Travelers, Rewriting the Soul, Representing and Intervening, The Taming of Chance, The Emergence of Probability, The Logic of Statistical Inference, and Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?