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  • The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past by Timothy J. LeCain
  • Steven Lubar (bio)
The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. By Timothy J. LeCain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 363. Paperback $23.99.

Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.

This profound and provocative book argues for a neo-materialist history, a history that considers things as actors. The first part of the book provides an excellent overview of modernist, materialist, and neo-materialist theory, the second part several detailed case studies putting theory into practice. The concluding chapter wraps both theory and examples into an ethical argument. Timothy J. LeCain calls for "a more humble view of the human place on the planet, one that gave more historical credit to a lively and intelligent material world of organic and inorganic things" (p. 329).

One of the challenges of materialist history is that it can blur into environmental or biological determinism. LeCain offers a thoughtful summary of the work of earlier determinists and suggests ways to rehabilitate their interests in materiality. He critiques modernists for their insistence on a complete split of mind and body, cultural and material, and critiques post-modernists for wanting to see everything as symbol, text, and social construction. Both schools, he argues, can "all too easily lead to a dangerous neglect of the real material nature of technologies and technical systems" (p. 58).

LeCain follows this thoughtful critique of antimaterialist history with an equally thoughtful summary of recent scholarship that "recognizes the many ways in which humans and their histories emerge from our engagement with the … material things around us" (p. 72). He explores the roots of neo-materialist history in the work of environmental historians, anthropologists, feminist scholars, and cultural theorists. He builds on this work to suggest ways to open up Social Construction of Technology theory and Actor-Network Theory so that it might better address materiality.

Upon this theoretical base, LeCain builds three well-researched and convincing case studies. We start in the Deer Lodge Valley of Montana in the 1860s, where LeCain insists that we focus not solely on how people made cows and copper, but rather on "how the cows and copper made [End Page 963] those people" (p. 142). Cows and cowboys co-evolved, in LeCain's telling of the story of Western ranching. Longhorns knew how to cooperate with humans; the "social hierarchy and herding practices of the cows themselves" (p. 155) deserves at least as much credit for the success of the industry as the skills and power of the human participants.

Our next stop is in the Shimotsuke Plain in Japan. Here, silkworms are the star. The "Japanese coevolved with their creative silkworm partners" which had "a biological ingenuity." True, "humans needed to exercise some cultural creativity to turn this process to their own ends, but a far more fundamental creativity lay within the silkworms themselves" (p. 228).

Copper mining arrived in both the Deer Lodge Valley and the Shimotsuke Plain in the early twentieth century. Its material powers allowed it to defeat the cattle and silkworms and conquer the landscape. (More precisely, copper smelting meant that "sulfur and arsenic became powerful historical actors in their own right" [p. 172].) "Can a copper deposit make history?" LeCain asks. His answer is "not on its own," but he wants to give it equal billing with people. "Matter makes us as much as we make it" (p. 183). Copper, LeCain argues, had "a type of creativity, a material power and wildness" (p. 247).

Though some of LeCain's attempts to balance human and material contributions, it seems to me, go too far, one need not accept the entire argument to gain a great deal from LeCain's neo-materialism. He wants us to see "not a fixed and deterministic material world but rather one that is a seething cauldron of constant innovation and growth" (p. 196). He wants us to pay attention to "the inherently rich creativity of the interactions between humans and material things" (p. 299).

While LeCain sometimes skirts the ragged edge of material determinism, he argues convincingly that giving...


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