An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, June 29, 2002
S. Worthen was kind enough to write in response to my post on electricity:
David Nye's Electrifying America : Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 is a good history (I've heard) of the spread of electricity in the America and, from what I've heard, is well-written to boot (in the social constructivist school). Off the top of my head I don't know of any books addressing the wider issue of the spread of electricity globally, but I'll check my notes on the subject.The trouble with rattling these posts off is that I'm often careless with my meanings. I think I've written before of the effect of the mechanical clock on the way hours were viewed; Jean Gimpel notes
Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic water clocks had indicated unequal, or temporal, hours -- in all these civilizations the day was divided into hours of light and hours of darkness, generally periods of twelve hours each. The hours were counted from sunrise to sunset and from sunset to sunrise, so that the length of a daytime hour differed from that of an hour of the night -- except at the equinoxes -- and both varied according to the season of the year. The variation of the length of the day was greater in higher latitudes. In northern Egypt, for example, on a latitude of 30 degrees north, the period from sunrise to sunset varies only between 10 and 14 hours, whereas in London, on a latitude of 50 1/2 degrees north, it varies between 7 3/4 hours and 16 1/2 hours. Thus, "London hours" vary from approximately 38 to 82 minutes.Gimpel cites as the first mechanical clock to strike equal hours -- that is, each hour 60 minutes long regardless of season -- as one at the Saint Gothard church in Milan, and sets the date no later than 1335. He traces the clock's spread -- Padua in 1344, Genoa in 1353, Florence in 1354, Bologna in 1356, and Ferrara in 1362, before taking up the subject in France:
...in 1370 there was a public clock on one of the towers of the Royal Palace in Paris, now on the corner of the boulevard du Palais and the quai de l'Horloge. King Charles V was so enthusiastic about this striking clock that he had two others built, one at the Hotel Saint Paul and the other at the Chateau de Vincennes. He also wished all the citizens of Paris to regulate their private, commercial, and industrial life to the tempo of the authoritarian equinoctial hours, and ordered all the churches in Paris to ring their bells when the royal clocks struck the hour.I don't necessarily buy the notion that a shift from temporal to equinoctial hours in and of itself shifted men's minds from eternity, largely because I don't think the average medieval man spent all his waking hours contemplating eternity befor the advent of the village clock. In any case, thanks to Ms. Worthen for pointing out this blunder.
She's written more on the subject here, and while I found all of it interesting, this caught my eye:
Note: I've always been mildly leery of claims for the "most important technological inventions ever." They're handy as a teaching aid, but rarely do the complexities of history justice. Most of the items or processes which end up on the "most important" lists are those which are easiest to see in daily operation: books and time-keeping methods are perennial favorites. Electricity is also a fairly popular one. The telephone and steel-making aren't up there quite as often, but they often figure. So do semi-conductors. Off the top of my head, spinning, weaving, writing, boats, the domestication of animals, coinage, sewage systems, and indoor plumbing are some of the many more neglected major ones.Actually, a few of these subjects belong properly to prehistory: the domestication of animals being the obvious one, although spinning and weaving both had their origins prior to the written word. A true story: I took a graduate class at Penn in which the various theories of how animals and plants came to be domesticated (through the mists of time it's coming back to me: Optimal zone/marginal zone theories and the like). A graduate student said in one discussion, "And maybe they accidentally castrated a bull, and found out it was much easier to control." I thought to myself, "That would have been one hell of an accident."
I think there are some very good surveys and monographs on some of these subjects -- particularly sewers, boats and coinage -- and like Ms. Worthen, to whom I'm grateful for the thought-provoking response, I'll check my notes.
Friday, June 28, 2002
I mentioned that I might get back to Gnostics at some point; I thought tonight might be a propitious time. If I were as good a writer as James Lileks, I would write about the Lilekian moment I had this evening when I tried to buy a six pack at a World Market outlet. I'm 37 years old, and while I do look young (I can pass for 35, and on a good day 33), I rarely get carded. World Market carded me, I found, in order to copy down the identification number on my license, which just happens to be my Social Security number. I felt bad for harrassing the cashier and even the assistant manager who explained to me that it's a corporate policy, not his (he said this in a manner that suggested that because it was a corporate policy, I shouldn't bother myself about it), but I was adamant about them not writing down my number (I went so far as to snatch my license out of the hand of the clerk before she got a chance to write down the info). In any case, I'll never go to World Market again, and I fully intend to let them know why.
Sorry for beginning the post with a digression. The subject tonight is an odd little volume I bought several years ago entitled, simply, The Gnostics, by a French writer named Jacques Lacarriere. I do not know very much about him; he seems to have compiled a book on the wisdom of ancient Greece. In the foreword, Laurence Durrell assures us that Lacarriere is neither a scholar nor a journalist, but rather a wanderer and a poet, which is supposed to reassure the reader that what follows is ... well, neither scholarship nor journalism. An interesting aside; Durrell writes,
This is a strange and original essay -- a sort of poetic meditation on the vanished Gnostics of Egypt whose total refusal to believe in the world as outlined by the Christian theologians led to their destruction both in Egypt and in Bosnia, and lastly at Montsegur, that Thermopylae of the Gnostic soul.Interesting, because an independent Bosnian religion, which was neither Catholic nor Greek Orthodox but nevertheless had Christian characteristics, survived up until the region was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. I do not believe there is an absolute equation, but it appears that most of those Bosnian gnostics accepted Islam, whose theology was much closer to their own than either of the predominant Balkan versions of Christianity.
I wrote in an earlier post that one of the reasons I enjoy dabbling in Gnostic texts is that they persuade me that the early Church fathers had a fairly good idea of what they were doing when they excluded certain ideas from Orthodoxy. Lacarriere's essay on Gnosticism is valuable because he writes not as a scholar but as an apologist and polemicist for the Gnostics, and the result isn't especially pretty:
...our world, the circle of dark fire, is the domain of evil. This term is to be understood not in the moral but in the biological sense. The evil lies in the existence of matter itself, in so far as it is a parody of creation, a fraudulent arrangement of the first seeds; it lies in the existence of this sleep of the soul which has beguiled us into taking as reality that which is nothing but the illusory world of dreams; these are all the given data -- today we would say all the structures -- of our daily universe. Our world exudes evil fom every pore, and our thinking being is tied to evil as ineluctably as our physical being is tied to the carbon in our body-cells. At this level, certainly, a kind of vertigo siezes us as we catalogue the ramifications of this cancer that pervades all the horrors of the contingent world. We bathe in evil as if in the bosom of a polluted sea, and the waters of the soul are powerless to wash us clean, unless we use the methods recommended by the Gnostics. Hence the fundamentally corrupt nature of all human enterprises and institutions: time, history, powers, states, religions, races, nations -- all these ideas, all these systems which man has invented, are tainted with this primary flaw.A little later, Lacarriere writes,
Man has absolutely nothing to do with the curse that is laid upon him: the one who is truly responsible is the sadistic and perverse demiurge who dared to dream up such a cruel world in all its minute detail.And on and on it goes. I can't help comparing these ruminations to those of the poor Christian gospels. The notion that God deigned -- that's not the right word, really, chose would be better -- to become flesh. To live among his creatures, experience a mother's love, hunger and labor, love and hatred. To feel the sun on his skin, the cool breezes of evenings. To drink wine, to -- forgive my language -- shit, and eat -- to partake directly in his grand project. I do not mean to endorse this view, but compared with the rantings of Lacarriere, it strikes me that that the Christian view that emerged from the Hellenistic era was far more human, far more humane, than what Lacarriere argues should have won instead.
In any case, more on this later...
Thursday, June 27, 2002
For two nights in a row (Monday and Tuesday, to be precise), we lost the power on our street. A few other streets were affected; I should add that this has been an ongoing problem in our area. The softball fields behind the house still had lights, and our neighbors who live across the street from us had power, but there's a fault somewhere in the way we're wired, and when the humidity is high and air conditioners are running, something somewhere overloads and out go the lights, usually for a couple of hours until the utility crews can figure out where the problem is and fix it.
We got out the flashlights, lit candles, and hoped that the power would come back before the hothouse atmosphere of a Washington, D.C., evening overwhelmed our old house's insulation. My three year old, before we put him to bed, would automatically reach up to turn on the lights every time he entered a room, and would groan in frustration when the "click" of the switch was the only result. I sat in the dark alone eventually, thinking of all the things I couldn't do -- not even work on my iBook, since I'd let the battery run down, and had all of about 15 minutes of power left.
So I thought about electricity, and was reminded of this observation of Paul Valery's about history, from the admirable collection of essays, The Outlook for Intelligence:
Nothing is easier than to point out in history books the omission of remarkable phenomena that have occurred so slowly as to be imperceptible. They escape the historian, since no document mentions them expressly. They could be perceived and noted only by means of a pre-established system of prior questions and definitions, which so far has never been conceived. An event that takes place over a century does not figure in any document or any collection of memoirs. For example, the immense and singular role of the city of Paris in the life of France after the Revolution. Or the discovery of electricity and the conquest of the earth by its different uses. The latter events, unequaled in human history, appear in it, when they do, less prominent than some other affair more scenic, more in conformity (this especially) with what traditional history customarily reports. In Napoleon's time electricity had about the same importance as Christianity at the time of Tiberius. It is gradually becoming obvious that this general energizing of the world is more pregnant with consequences, more capable of transforming life in the immediate future than all the "political" events from the time of Ampere to the present day.To the best of my knowledge, while there are histories of the science of electricity, choosing various figures -- Volta, Franklin -- as starting points and others -- Edison, Bell -- as the endpoint, there's not a single survey of the history of the spread of electricity, and its impact on mankind. I may be wrong about this, and if anyone knows of a good survey, I would appreciate a recommendation. It would be interesting to know what cities were first electrified, what the early generation plants were like, how the technology spread internationally. Except perhaps for the mechanical, 24-hour clock, which divided day and night into 12 hour periods, no other invention so profoundly affected the work hours and habits of mankind, and this too would be a worthy subject of study.
I would wager that there are tomes devoted to the history of the twentieth century in which the word "electricity" does not appear -- this strikes me as remarkable.
Wednesday, June 26, 2002
I sometimes glance at the Kurdish Media site. I read somewhere that Saladin, who united the various bickering Arab potentates long enough to expel the Crusaders from the holy land, was most likely Kurdish, but that's neither here nor there. This story, which suffers from a poor translation, and may not be entirely accurate, was nevertheless interesting:
:London (KurdishMedia.com) 23 June 2002: On Tuesday 11th of this month, two Arab Tribes, the Tribe of Hugla and the Tribe of Badoo, started fighting between themselves because of disagreements on the distribution of stolen property of Kurds in the occupied village of Serbashakh. Two members of Hugla tribe have been knifed to death. Three members of Badoo Tribe have been knifed seriously and expected to leave this world soon to their rightful place, the bottom of the Hell.I suspect any day now, the Arab League will demand justice for the Kurdish people, who, alone among humanity, are deprived of their homelands by ... oh wait, never mind.
Tuesday, June 25, 2002
Ulrika O'Brien, who's kind enough to read Ideofact and kind enough to write, points out a flaw in my post on the Ebionites. I noted that they have been called "Jewish Christians," and added,
which sounds somewhat like a contradiction in terms -- and, if Eusebius' too cursory description of their beliefs is accurate, probably is.This is what I get for relying on Eusebius (even the editor of the edition I have warns that the historian of the early church seems to know little if anything about the Ebionites). Nevertheless, I'll probably always be fond of him, if only for his momentary burst of egotism in the midst of his Ecclesiastical History. (There's a wonderful passage in Cocteau's Opium, in which he criticizes Vasari for criticizing a canvas by Uccello, depicting a horse in an impossible pose. Vasari chastises Uccello for his limited experience of the world; Cocteau writes,
...all the nobility of the work of which Vasari speaks arises from this 'counter-pace,' from this total entry on the part of the artist, which is a self-affirmation and a cry across the centuries: This horse is a pretext. It prevents me from dying. I am here!)In any case, Ms. O'Brien doesn't quibble with Eusebius, but rather with my too quick dismissal of the term "Jewish Christian":
The notion of Christian Jews is, I think, not necessarily a contradiction at all; much depends on what you mean by "Christian". Certainly if you mean the term to refer to Petro-Pauline, Trinitarian, Nicene Christians only, then it's problematic. But Jesus himself adjured his apostles not to spread the word to the gentiles, and explicitly said that he was come to fulfill the law (Torah) and that the law (Torah) should change not one jot. If you take him at his word on the subject, then arguably Jewish Christians, ones who follow Torah and keep kashrut and are not descended from the gentiles recruited by Saul of Tarsus are the only possible candidates for Christianity, if indeed there is such a thing. (The Ebionites have a valid point in suggesting the term Paulism for Petro-Pauline, Nicene Christianity, since where there is a direct conflict between the teachings of Jesus, and those of Paul, the church has generally sided with Paul.)This is reminiscent of things I've read before, and stated with a clarity and brevity that makes it worth contemplating. Our Muslim friends argue that Christians are in possession of a corrupted text; I've read philologists who have argued that only seven of the Pauline epistles in the New Testament are genuine, and even they are heavily edited. There was something like three centuries between the crucifixion and the Council of Nicea; while one can argue that what emerged preserved Orthodoxy and eliminated error, at some point faith enters the equation, and one has to assume that Paul's theological innovations were divinely inspired, and that inspiration is accurately reflected in the works that are the New Testament, and the subsequent theology based upon it.
Sorry for the recent absence from posting. Between work and a nasty summer cold, I haven't had the time or energy to do much of anything. A few brief notes here are all I can manage. I'll try to resume a more regular schedule starting tomorrow (actually, starting tonight, since it's already past midnight).
Thank you to Andrew Ian Dodge, who dodgeblogged my post on the Ebionites. He was kind enough to email me and share that he too has a fascination for the Gnostics. I'll post a little more on the subject a bit later.
I noted that the good Dr. Afnan Hussein Fatani, who raised the Gospel of Barnabas in the Arab News a while back, has offered a slight correction of the previous claim:
Due to a proofreading oversight, the date of the Dead Sea Scrolls was inadvertently substituted for the date of the Gospel of Barnabas. This cut-and-paste error occurred during my typing of the article, when a large portion of information contained within parenthesis was deleted. The date 2nd century B.C. properly refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were dated from the 2nd century BC through the 1st century A.D. by the script in which they were written and by the archaeological investigations of the settlement near the Qumran Caves where they were discovered alongside the most ancient copy of the Old Testament available today. This date does not refer to the Gospel of Barnabas which dates to the 1st century A.D. during the time of John the Baptist who was a cousin and a contemporary of Jesus.Of course, the Gospel of Barnabas dates to roughly 1570, but hey -- what's 1470 years, give or take, among scholars? Fatani again cites as proof of the Gospel's authenticity the unsubstantiated claim that Irenaeus quotes from it at length (anyone willing to offer me such a quote will win a free, life-time subscription to Ideofact), but perhaps the best argument she offers is this one,
What is certain is that none of the Medieval Arab scholars of Islam between the seventh and fifteenth centuries ever referred to the Barnabas Gospel. This is not because they had only forged it in the 15th century as many biased historians have insinuated, but basically because they had not known of its existence until after a lengthy Italian edition surfaced in Italy in the 16th century. Since that date, many Western scholars have gone to great lengths to prove that the Barnabas Gospel was a plagiarized 15th century document and not an authentic text of the 1st century A.D.Under this reasoning, a version of the Qur'an discovered in an Ottoman library in 1917, which differed in important ways from the original and was written in, say, modern Turkish rather than classical Arabic, would have to be regarded as authentic because no Christian scholar knew of its existence prior to the 20th Century.
Definitive proof. Perhaps I'll subject it to further analysis, but I don't think it's worth the effort.
What is worth the effort, at least for me, because I can't help myself, is this quote from Borges:
Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I come to the end of them, yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and find a book on one of my hobbies -- for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry -- I say to myself, "What a pity I can't buy that book, for I already have a copy at home."I get the same feeling.