Thursday, May 26, 2005

Barbed Wire: Tool of Violence and Oppression?

Edward N. Luttwak, who owns a cattle ranch in Bolivia, reviewedBarbed Wire by Reviel Netz and summarized and commented upon some of the author's central arguments.
For Netz, the raising of cattle is not about producing meat and hides from lands usually too marginal to yield arable crops, but rather an expression of the urge to exercise power: “What is control over animals? This has two senses, a human gain, and an animal deprivation”. To tell the truth, I had never even pondered this grave question, let alone imagined how profound the answer could be. While that is the acquisitive purpose of barbed wire, for Professor Netz it is equally – and perhaps even more – a perversely disinterested expression of the urge to inflict pain, “the simple and unchanging equation of flesh and iron”, another majestic phrase, though I am not sure if equation is quite the right word. But if that is our ulterior motive, then those of us who rely on barbed- wire fencing for our jollies are condemned to be disappointed, because cattle does not keep running into it, suffering bloody injury and pain for us to gloat over, but instead invisibly learns at the youngest age to avoid the barbs by simply staying clear of the fence. Fortunately we still have branding, “a major component of the culture of the West” and of the South too, because in Bolivia we also brand our cattle. Until Netz explained why we do it – to enjoy the pain of “applying the iron until – and well after – the flesh of the animal literally burns”, I had always thought that we brand our cattle because they cannot carry notarized title deeds anymore than they can read off-limits signs. Incidentally, I have never myself encountered a rancher who expensively indulges in the sadistic pleasure of deeply burning the flesh of his own hoofed capital, opening the way for deadly infection; the branding I know is a quick thrust of the hot iron onto the skin, which is not penetrated at all, and no flesh burns.

We finally learn who is really behind all these perversities, when branding is “usefully compared with the Indian correlate”: Euro-American men, of course, as Professor Netz calls us. “Indians marked bison by tail-tying: that is, the tails of killed bison were tied to make a claim to their carcass. Crucially, we see that for the Indians, the bison became property only after its killing.”

We on the other hand commodify cattle “even while alive”. There you have it, and Netz smoothly takes us to the inevitable next step:

“Once again a comparison is called for: we are reminded of the practice of branding runaway slaves, as punishment and as a practical measure of making sure that slaves – that particular kind of commodity – would not revert to their natural free state. In short, in the late 1860s, as Texans finally desisted from the branding of slaves, they applied themselves with ever greater enthusiasm to the branding of cows.”

Texans? Why introduce Texans all of a sudden, instead of cowboys or cattlemen? It seems that for Professor Netz in the epoch of Bush II, Texans are an even more cruel sub-species of the sadistic race of Euro-American men (and it is men, of course).
The only additional commentary I can offer is my previous post.

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