Intellectual history

Network Guys

By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie

Just what makes humanity special? On a range of merely physical indicators, the human animal is downright average. Our metabolic rate is roughly what it is for other animals our size. We’re decent sprinters, but not particularly strong. Darwin said that the difference between the human and . And although we’re clearly smart, who knows how smart we would find a sperm whale to be, if we could only speak whale?

One indicator does set humanity apart.While every other mammal gets roughly a billion heartbeats over their natural lifetime, a modern human gets more than two and a half billion beats. Why?

A pair of recently released books looks to answer the question by looking at the geometry of human social life. In Scale (Penguin Random House, 2018), Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and long-time head of the Santa Fe Institute, explores what happens when things get big and small. It turns out that things from animals to trees to cities scale in very similar ways because of the special geometric properties of fractal networks. The secret to our extra billion beats lies in the scaling properties of modern life. Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower (Penguin, 2018) argues that the big creative moments of your World History survey class like the Industrial Revolution can be explained by the shape of historical social networks. Two stand out: the network, and the hierarchy. Both books present easy to understand, compelling stories about what make humans—particularly modern humans—different. Both books agree that this difference resides in the geometry of human connection.

Scale makes one big point. As a number of things (animals, trees, cities, companies) get bigger, they get bigger in similar ways. Bigger animals, for instance, have lower metabolic rates because each individual cell needs to work less; this means a slower heartbeat, and a longer life span. For every four orders of magnitude an animal grows, its metabolic rate only grows three orders of magnitude. This is true for the 27 orders of magnitude of life on earth, from bacteria to whales. There are similar scaling patterns for scores of indicators, from the width of tree trunks to the size of the aorta.

The reason for these roughly similar scaling relationships in so many different domains is that we are dealing with same kind of shape: space-saving self-similar fractal networks. A : a coastline, a tree, a lung, an org chart, a paisley pattern. Fractals have a special property that they seem to grow the more you zoom in on them. You know this intuitively. Imagine measuring the coastline of California from one of those big elementary school atlases. Then imagine measuring the same coastline on foot with a ruler, walking patiently along every cliff, every inlet, and every tide pool. The second measure would be far longer than the first, because you’d be picking up on the coastline’s fractal dimension—the little zigs and zags that are only appreciable when you get really close to them. This means fractals behave as if they have an extra dimension. Take the little fractal bags of air called alveoli that fill up our lungs. If you unfurled them, their surface area could cover a tennis court, although they only take up five liters of space in your chest. This extremely fast scaling is why fractals appear so much in nature—they are incredibly efficient at filling up valuable space, and so are continually selected for.

fractal britain
From the Fractal Foundation’s course on the Fractal Dimension

But this does not account for our extra billion heartbeats. To do so, West pushes us to see humanity as something more than just the sum of our biological processes. Look at just how much energy we use in a day. Our bodies use only slightly more energy than a 90 Watt lightbulb. But accounting for our extra-bodily energy use (the fertilizer used to grow our crops, the gasoline used to drive our cars, the electricity we use to run our computers) we use more like 11,000 watts a day—the equivalent of a small group of elephants. We have an extra billion heart beats because we are effectively much larger and greedier animals than our physical size would suggest. Here’s West summing it up: “Our effective metabolic rate is now one hundred times greater than what it was when we were truly biological animals, and this has had huge consequences for our recent life history. We take longer to mature, we have fewer offspring, and we live longer, all in qualitative agreement with having an effectively larger metabolic rate arising from socioeconomic activity.” We should consider the modern human not an animal, but as an animal at the center of a massive networks of buildings, machines, roads, businesses, and institutions. These are why we have the extra billion heart beats.

New York by Reddit user CitrusVanilla

That massive networks of buildings, machines, roads and institutions go by another name—the city—and it is in West’s discussion of the modern city that he comes closest to explaining the history of human divergence. It will be no surprise that there are robust scaling relationships tourban phenomena as well. We can appreciate this in a pair of logarithmic graphs. As a city gets an order of magnitude bigger,its infrastructure (the length of its roads and power lines, the number of its gas stations) increases by 0.85 of an order of magnitude;while its ‘socioeconomic effects’ (income, flu and crime rates, patents filed, number of restaurants) increase by 1.15 orders of magnitude. This might not seem like a big difference, but it compounds exponentially. Bigger cities become cheaper and cheaper to provision per person, and similarly they become increasingly creative, wild, interesting, varied, and profitable. It is not liberal institutions, or the special genius of a particular culture, or democracy that have led to the prosperity of the modern world. It’s the metropolis.

predictable cities
From A Unified Theory of Urban Living by Luis Bettencourt. Note the scale is logarithmic.

Has this always been the case? Will it continue? As for the future, West is softly apocalyptic. Exponential growth—that is, a phenomenon in which the rate of growth is itself growing—must always reach a limit. The past two-hundred years have been an outlier, because new innovations have effectively reset the growth curve before this limit has been reached. When steam engine spluttered out, along came steel. Big data might soon reach its peak, but within a year or two we’ll have AI. But as the growth curve gets ever steeper, the extra time bought by each subsequent innovation is a little bit less, so the new innovation must come ever quicker—until we can buy no more time at all.

growth and innovaion
A schematic of the increasing pace of innovation, from Growth, Innovation, Scaling and the Pace of Life In Cities, by Bettencourt, et. al.

The implications that these scaling patterns have for our understanding of the past is another matter. It is an unanswered question whether the same relationships existed for cities before the modern era (there is some indication that they do). Yet I suspect that before the prevalence of cheap energy from fossil fuels, big cities were simply too dirty, too complicated, and too messy to sustain major growth. Historians could do interesting work seeing how the scaling relationships in human societies have changed over time.

West, a physicist, looks for elegant, parsimonious answers to big questions. But he only gets this perspective by stripping away particularities until all that’s left is a piece of data that can be pinned on a graph. There is little room for the individual in West’s story—even the scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and kings that are the usual protagonists of doorstopper history books. There can be little confrontation with inequality in West’s story, because studying inequality means wrestling with difference, and difference here is stripped away in favor of the big picture. Why do some people grow rich and others stay poor? Why do some societies decline, while others come to a kind of supremacy? Does exponentially growing prosperity simply make a small group of people obscenely rich? Is this all good? Or is it bad? In the end, West can show us the pattern, but he cannot tell us the meaning of the pattern, because we’ve zoomed so far out the human has foreshortened to almost nothing.

One way of capturing the dynamics of scale while keeping attention on the human is to look at networks. It is the properties of fractal networks after all that give modern cities their peculiar scaling properties. Niall Ferguson attempts such a history in his recent book The Square and the Tower. Ferguson is a self-professed ‘network guy’; a man of dinner parties, conferences, and wide-ranging influence. (Ferguson even appears in West’s acknowledgements.) Ferguson, like West, sees humanity as a species defined by its participation in networks—he even suggests that humanity might be renamed homo dictyous, or Network Man. And like West, Ferguson proffers a parsimonious explanation for the modern world, in which modernity is driven by the special properties of social networks. Ferguson’s idea is that history is driven by the For most of human history, hierarchies reigned. But during certain periods, networks successfully challenged hierarchies, leading to amazing ages of human potential

square and tower
The Square and the Tower of the title, from Siena, from Wikipedia

Two moments stand out. The first happened in Western Europe between the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. Unconstrained by a strong despotic state, European men formed networks with relative freedom. Networks of sailors benefiting from the competitive patronage of Mediterranean princes traded information about trade routes and sea winds, allowing them to ride the waves of the Atlantic and exploit the Americas. The printing press allowed the creation of networks of print that spread the message of Martin Luther (but came too late to spread the equally revolutionary words of Jan Hus), unintentionally upending restrictive religious orthodoxies. Networks of scientists and tinkerers were allowed to build up knowledge of the solar system and steam engines without worrying about the hierarchy of the Inquisition restricting their inquiries. Networks of malcontents and revolutionaries egged each other on to mount the American and then the French Revolutions. But in history there must be a fall for every rise: in the 19th century hierarchies reestablished themselves—here comes Napoleon on his world historical horse, an Emperor to rip the networks of the Sans Culottes to shreds. In the aftermath of Waterloo, European nations created an unequal hierarchical world order. Big businesses expanded with top-heavy org charts. More war! 1914! 1945! Networks only rose again this past generation, prompting computers, the internet, Twitter, and the usual list of salutary or not so salutary developments. (Al Qaeda, though it means “The Base,” is a network.)

The simplicity of West’s story is grounded in precise mathematical definitions, but Ferguson’s simplicity rests on concepts that never really get firmly pinned down. It’s unclear, frankly, just what Ferguson means by network and hierarchy. Ferguson gives no end of examples: hierarchies are horizontal, while networks are vertical; hierarchies give people power, networks influence; hierarchies are kings and CEOs, networks influencers and creatives; hierarchies are bureaucratic organizations, networks loose alliances. Hierarchies are the Mughal Court, the Pentagon, the Aztecs, and the office of the Presidency. Networks are the East India Company, spy rings, the Royal Society, the conquistadors, and the friends of Henry Kissinger. In a central chapter, Ferguson proposes a formal definition from network analysis that a hierarchy is a special kind of self-similar network in which connections are monopolized by particular nodes. But this formal definition is rarely if ever mobilized to actually define whether a given organization is a network or a hierarchy. Instead if it looks like a network, then it’s a network. If it looks like a hierarchy, then it’s a hierarchy. Oddly enough for a book in which network analysis is meant to uncover new patterns in history, we hardly ever look into the geometry of the historical networks themselves. Instead we get a long string of anecdotes.

Network Models - Random network, Scale-free network, Hierarchical network

What is clear is that a previously-obscured historical actor is now uncertainly stepping to the forefront of the human drama—the network—and history has to grapple with it. But what are we to do? How can we tell historical stories using these new tools but still pay attention to individuals and difference? We are left with a series of itching inconclusive questions: How are we all connected? How can we reach beyond the dull confusion of our small lives to somehow understand the universe itself? And not to forget that there are people in those dots, love and enmity in those lines connecting them?

Think Piece

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, New England, and hemispheric visions

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Pratt model
Bela Pratt, model of proposed monument of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1916), Boston Archives and Records Management, Collection 0245.001.

American sculptor Bela Pratt imagined the above statue in 1916, but it was never built. In 1913, the Argentine congress had allotted $50,000 for a monument to their former President, renowned educator and man of letters Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888; presidency, 1868-1874) to be placed in Boston, Massachusetts. It was intended to celebrate his long-held affinity with the city and some of its famed residents. World war intervened, Pratt passed away, and sixty years elapsed before this tribute to Sarmiento arose on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, bearing a quite different aesthetic and story.  Dedicating that statue in 1973 before a crowd of locals and the Argentine diplomatic community, Mayor Kevin White reflected, “Sarmiento’s long journey back to the states has symbolic meaning; it helps to underscore both the historical importance of his pioneering role in education…and the yet unfulfilled challenge of achieving global peace and understanding through cultural exchange.” The statue now stands as the penultimate figure in the monuments marking the axis of Commonwealth Avenue. Sternly stepping forward into distinction from the rough bronze, he seems to brace himself against the world. He recalls a cloaked, much aged, and more somber kouros.

Statue of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, erected in 1973, Boston, Massachusetts.

White’s oration muffled much of Sarmiento’s life and his relationship with the United States, and the monument chiseled away the far more pointed symbolism of the 1916 model. The dedication reduced Sarmiento to an agent of modern education cast in the American mold, and implied that his subordinate and aspiring stance toward the U.S. should be a model for the world to follow. Depicting Sarmiento as a synecdoche for Argentina, and Boston as one for the U.S, the local rhetoric certainly refracted through the global prism of the Cold War. It does illustrate the extent to which monuments can become disembodied from their historical subject and context. But this is not to say that either dedication or statue was wrong about Sarmiento. Indeed, White’s depiction preserves in essential ways how a lot Bostonians would have understood the Argentine during his presidency a century ago, and the forward motion of the solitary bronze captures some of the meaning that many nineteenth-century New Englanders would have perceived in Sarmiento’s life.  However, if we keep the 1916 model in mind instead, it can in fact bring us somewhat closer to Sarmiento’s historic role within the Western Hemisphere.

Vida de lincoln
Sarmiento quickly assembled and published in 1866 a commemoration of Lincoln, which he distributed to U.S. acquaintances.

In the post-Civil War U.S., Sarmiento fastened in the minds of elite New Englanders as an avatar of their values on the Argentine frontier. In exile during the military dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosa (1835-1852), Sarmiento first encountered Horace and Mary Mann in West Newton, Massachusetts in 1848, a crucial coda to a larger Atlantic tour of educational systems Europe. Enamored of their pedagogy, Sarmiento upon his return south would expand vastly on his earlier efforts to reform and extend education in South America. As ambassador to the U.S. from 1866 until his election, he increasingly appeared to his U.S. interlocutors as a South American Horace Mann. From the vantage point of the Charles River, it was surely validating to envision Sarmiento dispensing copies of his favorite book, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, to students in the myriad new schoolhouses of the Argentine frontier. Mary (able in both Spanish and French, which enabled her to translate and communicate with Sarmiento) curated his image before the American public. She translated his classic work Facundo (1845) in 1868, which she scaffolded with a sweeping history of Argentina and glowing biography of its author. This served to amplify his prestige among the New England intelligentsia—which he thought beneficial to his political aspirations in Argentina; meanwhile, for her it promised to perpetuate the educational mission of her departed husband. (Their correspondence sprawled into the 1880s, comprising hundreds of letters.)

But Sarmiento called for a far more robust version of hemispheric integration than this, and therein we can detect a more complex and troubling historical kinship between North and South. Seldom at his station in the dreary capital, Sarmiento as ambassador roved the Northeast, forging connections with leading industrialists, military specialists, educators, and scholars. In 1866, in a notable example, he addressed the local intellectual, industrial, and business elite assembled at the Rhode Island Historical Society. With their expertise and capital flowing southward, he proposed merging the cloven paths of the northern and southern continents into one progressive historical trajectory. U.S. military officers to build forts against indigenous attacks; railroad and canal builders to incorporate their lands; schoolteachers to civilize them and the hoped for mass infusion of Northern European immigrants, and historians to craft the story. The intellectual disparity he perceived between North and South especially troubled him. Indeed, he flatteringly lamented to his audience, to tell the tale of Argentina’s ongoing war with Paraguay, the historian would need to peruse the archives and libraries of Providence.

To argue for this inter-American future, he looked to the past, and this drew him deeper into the Rhode Island archive and U.S. historical narrative. Long after the independence of the lands that would become Argentina, he yearned still to expunge what he perceived as the debilitating legacy of Spanish colonial misrule. In the U.S. he perceived a society and government guided by undiluted Anglo-Saxon reason and republican virtue; at home he bemoaned the legacy of a Hispanic population-which he portrayed as Medieval- mixed with a native population-which he saw as oriental.  In short, he articulated a broader version of the historical narrative of U.S. exceptionalism, generated in spaces like the Rhode Island Historical Society and its peer institutions.

Sarmiento spoke in the spirit of the American jeremiad, imagining the regeneration of South American civilization against barbarism—to use the lexicon of his famous Facundo. To an audience well-acquainted with the mammoth historical works of William Hickling Prescott on the Spanish conquest of America and John Lothrop Motley on the Dutch Republic, he performed a historiographical flourish. Snidely, he queried which century and civilization Prescott hailed from, given the renowned historian’s light-handed treatment of Hernán Cortés’s depredations. But enthusiastically turning to Motley’s account of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, Sarmiento depicted the subsequent history of the new world as two great oceanic arcs emerging from that Low Countries battleground: the one by Pilgrims exiled to North America via Holland, bearing liberal principles of government; the second southward, borne by Spanish captains, who in the Spanish-Dutch conflict had “learned to harden themselves to crime and to the violation of divine laws.” Disregarding the far more complex ethnic landscape of New England and echoing a familiar version of the Black Legend, this vision of a bifurcated, almost Manichean hemispheric history would have resonated with the crowd. For both Sarmiento and his northern audience, the call for a North American model for the southern continent would have rung as a pleasing analogy to post-Civil War federal reconstruction of the South.

In promoting a collaborative future and renouncing a riven past, however, he then appealed to a deeper, pre-historic, and ostensibly non-European layer binding together the hemisphere, and which he imagined as inspiration for a shared historic purpose.

“Beyond th­e frontiers and the present, are the monuments of a civilization which has had its dark age but not its renaissance. America has her petrified cities, the abode of a great people who flourished in them, pyramids which rival those of Egypt, temples and palaces which now fertilized the trunks of trees centuries old…when these monuments, which begin with the mound and end with enormous masses of hewn stone, sculptured with a thousand hieroglyphics, have been studied, classified and compared, the history of both Americas will begin upon the same page…”

Here, Sarmiento has pealed back the layers of the archive, moving from contemporary geopolitics in South America, to trans-Atlantic colonization, to indigenous American civilization. Argentina’s preeminent nineteenth-century man of letters had early and untiringly leveraged writing to enhance personal and national power. By asserting cultural continuity among a markedly diverse range of pre-contact earthen and stone structures, Sarmiento was not positing a new take on hemispheric history, but petitioning that Argentina be inscribed on equal terms within it.

In claiming this shared path, lamenting a later historical divergence, and proposing a common future, Sarmiento sought to conjoin the histories of North and South America. Toward this end, what he modeled on the U.S.—and New England in particular—was much more than the pedagogy for which he was and has been known. It was a program for the coercive acquisition and industrialized integration of vast expanses of territory, and the ideal of perpetuating the Anglo-Saxon legacy of Europe in the Americas against lesser elements. Within the creeping logic of scientific racism, he would by the 1880s see these divergent American paths as the outcome of racial segregation and Anglo-Saxon purity in the North, and the mingling of Spanish and indigenous bloodlines in the South. (This is clearest in his 1883 Conflictos y Armonias de las Razas en America, dedicated to Mary Mann.)

In the 1916 model, Sarmiento, wreathed in laurels and Roman garb, sits atop the quarterdeck of his ship of state. Along the vessel’s side is etched “Education Courage Progress.” Charismatic rowers urge the vessel forward. Upon its prow, a martial and masculine version of Columbia holds Argentina in his arm, reaching out to that future with the other. For good measure, the brig is equipped with a spiked battering ram. The rhetorical construction of Sarmiento in the postwar U.S. press, among the contemporary New England republic of letters, and on Commonwealth Avenue today have disentangled the extraordinary educational impact of Sarmiento’s civilization project from the violence, coercion, and racial theory with which it was bound up. What we read in the inscription and form of Sarmiento’s statue today is a ripple of a much more complex reality.

Think Piece

One Thousand Gophers: Information and Emigration in the Early U.S.

By guest contributor JT Jamieson

I have been to Illinois

A braggadocio writing in The New-England Magazine in 1832 asked his Northern audience, “Is it possible that no one in these parts has seen a Gopher? I have seen a thousand; and some other animals, too, that are not to be found in New-England[.]” Having apparently spent time “somewhere between the Mississippi and the Missouri,” the author was eager to bring all the “rare beasts” he had encountered in the West to New Englanders. Unable to deliver the actual specimens, though, he resolved to rely instead on print and gave his readers a virtual tour among the beasts of the West: “I cannot bring them to you, reader, and, therefore, I must e’en carry you, in imagination, to them.” The author nonetheless asserted his credibility, reliability, and expertise along his virtual zoological tour – and once more, of gophers, reminded readers of the thousand he’d seen (“Rare Beasts,” New-England Magazine, March, 1832).

“The Camas Rat”, from John James Audobon’s The Quadrupeds of North America (1851-4).

His emphasis on sight and first-hand experience was likely designed to allay the suspicions early nineteenth-century Americans harbored concerning the transmission of information about the West. Two months earlier, The New-England Magazine had taken up the topic of gophers in order to question the veracity of a Western guidebook author’s geographical information. Reviewers of J.M. Peck’s A Guide for Emigrants, Containing Sketches of Illinois, Missouri, and the Adjacent Parts nitpicked a passage on gophers because Peck, though he described the animal and its dirt mounds, failed to adequately verify his empiricism and expertise:

although one would suppose from this description that the author had inspected the animal, yet we shall venture to say that he knows it only by the works of which he speaks…he does not intimate that he has ever seen one, nor do we know that any of the many Western historians have been so fortunate as to discover the animal before describing it; and the nearest approach we have been able to make towards certainty, after wondering over many of their mounds, is the word of a friend in Illinois, who was told by a neighbor that his father had seen a hunter, who had the skeleton of a Gopher.

The precariousness of knowledge, in a guidebook, no less, coupled with Peck’s “enthusiasm” for Western geography would likely cause the New Englander to “read…with a smile of incredulity”(New-England Magazine, January, 1832).

I have been to Ohio

Believability was one important tool for early nineteenth-century Americans’ mental maps of the West. A sizeable portion of Easterners’ geographic imaginations came from the information for prospective Western emigrants inundating newspapers, periodicals, satires, advertisements, and of course guidebooks. In the press, boosters and anti-emigrationists argued about what emigrants might find in the West. The volume of deceptive, hard-to-believe, and incomplete information generated a dynamic conversation about credulity, distortion, and objectivity in geographic representation. Boosters extolled the West in a typically cartoonish fashion. Anti-emigrationists, who often fretted about their population draining to the West, promoted incredulity as a means to keep enterprising inhabitants east of the Appalachians. Guidebook authors published erroneous information but also found a market in objectivity. Despite the fact that print took on new dimensions of authority in the early nineteenth century, Americans were still living in a world where “books as well as men are fallible,” as an 1839 guidebook put it (Steele’s Western Guidebook and Emigrant’s Directory, 1839). Demonstrating the objectivity of one’s own guidebook made it stand out among the crowd of misleading or untruthful information.

Discerning a ‘truth’ was important to several genres of early nineteenth-century American writing, from gazetteers and censuses to histories to personal narratives. The preoccupation with authenticity, objectivity, or impartiality in these genres reflected the growth of numeracy, an influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism, the marketability of honest and true stories, and, for emigrants, the want of practical or useful information. Emigration commentators engaged in a war of words and Wests, convincing readers either of rosy western fantasies, or of the ruination inevitably awaiting emigrants who strayed from home. Was New England land really as stony and unproductive as boosters said? Did the West – or, could it – have schools? Churches? Locals with sufficient geographic knowledge? Food amenable to Eastern bellies? Ghosts? On that last point, at least, James Hall seemed to give a definitive answer to magazine readers in 1828: “No respectable and truly aristocratic ghost would put up with a log cabin,” no spirit would bother to endure the daily discordant music of Western settlements – the axe and rifle echoing incessantly and annoyingly. Nor would specters be so stupid as to room with the “backwoodsmen, who would as soon scalp a ghost, if a ghost could be scalped, as they would shoot a panther or an Indian” (Letters from the West, 1828).

Western Emigrant Society circular to Andrew Jackson

For the prospective emigrant, Western information was fragile – it was debatable and prone to errors, with a general air of uncertainty and incompleteness. Guidebooks might acknowledge – and apologize for – any errors readers detected. An Ohio gazetteer noted that Western states and territories were, after all, too large to describe with “perfect accuracy” – the best the reader could hope for was that the “work may generally be pronounced correct”(John Kilbourn, The Ohio Gazetteer, 1831). If reading newspapers, Easterners would have been aware that Western geographic information was always in a volatile state of becoming. Emigration societies’ advertisements demonstrated that their first task was to build a public archive of geographic knowledge. The Western Emigrant Society requested information by mailing questionnaires around the country, information that would then be reproduced in the press. Other emigration societies exhibited their dearth of geographic knowledge by naming their destinations with as much specificity as “the West.” In 1819, the New York Emigration Society stated that if it had to choose a more specific location based on “all the sources of information to which your committee have had access,” it would be Illinois. That opinion, however, “would be given with much hesitation and subject to be changed as their information should increase” (“Emigration Society,” National Advocate, August 4, 1819).

If information was uncertain, erroneous, or deceptive, then credulousness, according to anti-emigrationists, was the only rational explanation for emigration from the East. Maine’s American Advocate concluded that if Easterners indeed “hurried away from a comfortable home,” it was only because they’d “swallowed every strange report with a credulity unexampled.” Hoping to enlighten “the eyes of the credulous,” the Advocate asserted that upon an examination “into the real facts…opinions will change into a sober admiration of our own favored territories, and the desire to migrate will die away with the credulity and ignorance that produced it” (“Reflections on Emigration,”  American Advocate, October 18 and November 8, 1817). Often, as was the case with Peck’s Illinoisan gophers, the “real facts” could only be furnished from personal observation, not from the books and accounts of others. Too often Western information was derived in the forms of “fancy” or “whim” from the scheming and interested speculator. So, the author of A Caution to Emigrants clarified in 1819 that “fancy or whim…can neither produce or destroy a fact.” His ultimate caution to readers was this: “let no man, on any condition, or under any circumstances, whatever, be induced to remove his family to a distant country, until he has seen, examined and judged of it for himself” (John Stillman Wright, Letters from the West, or, A Caution to Emigrants, 1819).

Some guidebook authors took advantage of the fact that deceptive or insufficient material came into readers’ orbit. Authors justified writing guidebooks by stating that others writing about Western geography offered either unsatisfactory or untruthful information. In doing so they promised untainted accuracy in their own works. William Darby, a surveyor who penned a major early emigrant guide in 1819, was among the most ardent of guidebook authors to embrace objectivity. Even friendly reviewers of his Guide noted the “difficulty of acquiring satisfactory information” and the “suspicion with which we are obliged to view all accounts of the different parts of the United States,” and derided his failure to clearly point out what information wasn’t derived from personal observation (North American Review, July 1818). Nevertheless, Darby asserted his hatred of the erroneous and untruthful. He engaged in an angry debate in 1817, for example, with Hezekiah Niles, well-known editor of Baltimore’s Niles’ Weekly Register, over mistakes in their descriptions of Louisiana. As the two got in a spat over topographical errors and misrepresentations in each others’ work, Darby took the opportunity to proclaim his philosophy of geographic writing: “In every stage of my advance as a writer, however humble may be my attempts, I have constantly endeavored to present facts as they really are in nature. The mischief is incalculable that has been done by high wrought pictures of rapid gain held out to persons moving into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. There seems to exist a kind of mania to swell every thing relating to those places beyond the measure of common sense” (“Darby’s Louisiana, &c.” Niles’ Weekly Register, November 22, 1817).

It’s true that in many cases words won the West in the nineteenth century. But early emigrant propaganda never reached readers without first being filtered through a series of public debates about the veracity and usefulness of information. As much as the creation of the Euro-American West depended on far-flung readers’ aspirations and dreams, it depended too on their suspicions, on trials and errors.

J.T. Jamieson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley and studies nineteenth-century America.

Intellectual history

The Origins of Autonomy: Not as Lonesome as You Might Expect

By Contributing Writer Molly Wilder

Autonomous man is–and should be–self-sufficient, independent, and self-reliant, a self-realizing individual who directs his efforts towards maximizing his personal gains. His independence is under constant threat from other (equally self-serving) individuals: hence he devises rules to protect himself from intrusion. Talk of rights, rational self-interest, expedience, and efficiency permeates his moral, social, and political discourse. (Lorraine Code 1991, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p78)

Thus Lorraine Code describes the conception of autonomy in the popular imagination–and often in the academy as well. This conception of autonomy is obsessed with the self, as evidenced by the language Code uses to articulate it: “self-sufficient,” “self-reliant,” “self-realizing,” and “rational self-interest.” And the word ‘autonomous’ originally meant “self-rule” (derived from the Greek αὐτόνομος, from αὐτο-, ‘self’, and νόμος, ‘rule, law’). The image of the self that Code evokes is that of a citadel, forever warding off external attacks. These attacks are characterized as coming primarily from contact with other people—suggesting that relationships with other people are in themselves dangerous to the self. Though relationships may be valuable in some ways, they are a constant threat to the self’s interests.

Feminist philosophers have largely found this conception both accurate and deeply problematic. Though some feminists have therefore rejected the value of autonomy all together, many have instead sought to reclaim autonomy as a feminist value. Since the late 1980s, feminists have proposed and argued for a myriad of alternative conceptions of autonomy, which have collectively come to be known as theories of “relational autonomy.”

Theories of relational autonomy vary widely. Some, like Marilyn Friedman’s, still recognize the value of independence and conceive of autonomy as an internal procedure that is available to people of many different beliefs and circumstances. Such an internal procedure requires some sort of critical reflection on attitudes and actions, but places no limits on the outcome of the procedure. Thus, this sort of procedure makes it possible for a person to count as autonomous even if she endorses attitudes or actions that may seem incongruous with a liberal Western image of autonomy, such as discounting her own right to be respected or remaining in an abusive relationship.  In contrast, theories like Mariana Oshana’s put stringent requirements on the kind of actual practical control necessary for autonomy, significantly limiting those who can count as autonomous. Such theories might consider a person autonomous only if her circumstances meet certain conditions, such as economic independence or a wide range of available social opportunities—conditions that might not be met, for example, by a person in an abusive relationship.

And there are theories that aim somewhere in the middle, such as Andrea Westlund’s, whose conception of autonomy requires some accountability and connection to the outside world, but does so in a way that provides latitude for many different belief systems and social circumstances. Specifically, on Westlund’s account, a person is autonomous only if she holds herself open to criticism from other people. While this dialogical accountability is not a purely internal procedure like Friedman’s, as it involves people other than the agent herself, it does not inherently limit the outcome of the procedure as Oshana’s does. See this collection of essays for more on the theories of Friedman, Oshana, and Westlund, as well as other contemporary theorists of relational autonomy.

These theories, while diverse, share a rejection of the idea that autonomy is inherently threatened by relationships with others. On the contrary, they argue that certain relationships are in fact necessary to the development of autonomy, its maintenance, or both. These theories have provided a much needed new perspective on the concept of autonomy, and continue to provide new insights, particularly with respect to understanding the effect of oppression on selves.

But their core idea, that autonomy requires relationships, is an old one. Long before autonomy became so closely aligned with the protection of the self from others, a prominent strain of philosophy recognized relationships with others as crucial to the well-being of the self—rather than as a threat. To illustrate, consider these excerpts from an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, and a modern philosopher, Spinoza.

For Aristotle, the ultimate good in life, a kind of long-term happiness, is a self-sufficient good. The word he uses is ‘αὐτάρκης’ (derived from αὐτο-, “self,” and ἀρκέω, “to suffice”). He clarifies: “And by self-sufficient we mean not what suffices for oneself alone, living one’s life as a hermit, but also with parents and children and a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since the human being is by nature meant for a city.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b9-11, tr. Joe Sachs) Aristotle, then, explicitly understands self-sufficiency with respect to happiness to require certain kinds of relationships—those of family, friends, and political compatriots.

Though Aristotle does not discuss the concept of autonomy, this passage and others suggest that his ideal of independence was one that required intimate relationships, rather than being threatened by them. Aristotle famously wrote of humans as “political animals.” On a first reading of this phrase, it is apparent that humans are political simply in the sense that they tend to form social institutions by which to govern themselves. But the phrase might also be read to suggest that even at their most independent, humans are the kind of animals that rely on one another.

Spinoza, likewise, identifies the well-being of the self with happiness, and he argues that happiness consists in having the power to seek and acquire what is advantageous to oneself. One might reasonably summarize Spinoza’s view of happiness as the achievement of one’s rational self-interest. For a contemporary reader, Spinoza’s language naturally evokes the conception of autonomy articulated by Code, a conception in which the wellbeing of the self is naturally threatened by others.

Yet Spinoza explicitly argues that “nothing is more advantageous to man than man.” (Ethics, P18, Sch., trans. Samuel Shirley) On Spinoza’s view the only effective, and therefore rational, way for individual to seek her own advantage is with the help of others. In general, Spinoza criticizes those thoughts and emotions that push people apart—and he argues that when we fall prey to these things, we not only lose power, but we fail to act in the interest of our true selves. An individual’s true self-interest, he argues, is necessarily aligned with the true self-interest of others.

The examples I’ve given remind us that, despite the apparent radicalism of arguing that the concept of autonomy is inherently relational in our contemporary cultural context, the conjunction of terms of self and terms of relationality is both ancient and long-lived. The very concepts that Code uses to describe the kind of autonomy that sees relationships as a threat—self-sufficiency and rational self-interest—were once thought of as concepts that in fact required relationships.

Thirty years after she wrote it, Code’s depiction of autonomy as an atomistic individualism threatened by others still well-captures the general sense Americans have of autonomy. Although feminist philosophers have been fairly successful in gaining wide recognition of the importance of relationships to autonomy among philosophers who study autonomy, their impact has not been as wide as might be expected given the strength of their arguments. One major exception has been the field of bioethics, in which the discussion of feminist theories of relational autonomy is quite lively. Yet these theories have not been robustly taken up in other professional fields such as business or legal ethics. Nor have they been taken up in a pervasive way in mainstream philosophical ethics or political theory.

Moreover, they have been decidedly less successful in changing the popular conception of autonomy, particularly within the United States, where the threatened-self conception of autonomy is so revered in the nation’s mythology. Indeed, many Americans might be surprised to learn about the history of this conception and its relative novelty. While some philosophers are already doing this, perhaps it would be fruitful in going forward for people in all fields to spend some time tracing the development of their conceptions of autonomy and self—they might be surprised at what they find.

Perhaps one reason relational theories haven’t been taken up is because of their feminist origins. Some of the wariness, surely, is simply sexism, both explicit and implicit. But beyond that, there may be a perception that the theories are specifically tied to the interests of women. Yet, to borrow a delightfully biting phrase from Spinoza, if someone were to pay a modicum of attention, they would see that is not the case. The historical precursors of their ideas demonstrate this. While the contemporary standard bearers of relational autonomy may be feminists, the basic ideas are as old and general as philosophy itself, and if the ideas are true, they should prompt Americans to seriously reconsider their national assumptions and priorities. If autonomy is in fact relational, it calls into question standard American justifications and understandings of a huge array of policies and practices, everything from gun control to education to marriage.


Molly has just received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and is currently developing a dissertation that brings together the professional ethics of lawyers, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, and feminist theories of relational autonomy. She wants to know, can you be a (really) good person and a (really) good lawyer at the same time? Beyond her dissertation, Molly has varied philosophical interests, including philosophy of tort law, children’s rights, privacy, and communication. When not philosophizing, Molly enjoys reading children’s fantasy, finding places to eat great vegan food, and engaging in witty banter.

Intellectual history

Life and Likeness at the Portland Museum of Art

By Editor Derek O’Leary, in conversation with curator Diana Greenwold

It can be easy to imagine the early American republic as rushing headlong into the future during its first half-century—westward with the suppression of Indian society, seaborne to new markets with the products of southern plantations and western farms, upward in the growth of manufacturing hubs and cities, and in all cases away from the colonial past.  Newspaperman and staple of any US history survey, John O’Sullivan celebrated in this “Great Nation of Futurity” “our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes.”

This forward orientation was a common enough sentiment during these decades, yet one bound up in a much broader and Janus-faced preoccupation with the nation’s place in time. Biography burgeoned as a literary form (finely explored in Scott Casper’s Constructing American Lives, 1999); leading authors leveraged historical fiction to fashion a mythic colonial and revolutionary past; historical, antiquarian, and genealogical societies flourished as civic institutions. And in innumerable households, individuals and families marked their passage through time during years of seemingly unprecedented change.

The Portland Museum of Art’s exhibit “Model Citizens: Art and Identity from 1770-1830” (on view through January 28) provides fascinating insight into that latter world. It assembles a diverse array of household and commercial practices of marking pivotal stages of life in the early United States. Drawing on rich collections in Maine and New England art, it places in conversation a range of self-representation, organized around the life cycle: birth and childhood, marriage, adulthood, death and mourning. The exhibition recognizes its bounds within the white household, but in this space explores a far greater variety of lives and likenesses than we would typically see from this period.

Gilbert Stuart (United States, 1755-1828), Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), 1812, oil on panel, Gift of Mary Gray Ray in memory of Mrs. Winthrop G. Ray, 1917.23

Diana Greenwold, PhD., who curated the exhibition, situated “stalwarts of the permanent collections”—such as the large and familiar oil portraits by Gilbert Stuart— alongside less elite likenesses produced in households and more accessible markets, such as samplers, shadow cutters, paintings by itinerant artists, and mourning embroidery (shown below).  “For a long time,” she explains, “that type of folk portraiture was understood as being less sophisticated and telling of the moment,” a bias which the exhibition helps to revise. “By using different media,” she continues, “you open up the opportunity to show how different social classes can get at a similar goal. Not everyone can engage Gilbert Stuart, but cut paper can serve in a similar way for families to represent themselves, to both themselves and those around them.”

In depicting the shared life cycle of individuals of such disparate means, the exhibition thoughtfully examines the uses of these varied self-representations. Sewn samplers produced by middle- and upper-class girls in finishing schools served as stages to perform discipline, literacy, numeracy, and piety. But alongside sewn renditions of the alphabet, numbers, and biblical verses, girls might also inscribe their own name and age, or indeed, as in this peculiar rendition of a genealogy, a truncated, textual family tree.

Mary Ann McLellan_Genealogy Sampler
Mary Ann McLellan (United States, 1803-1831), Stephen McLellan Genealogy Sampler, circa 1816, cotton on linen, museum purchase, 1981.1063

By the 1830s, genealogy would develop into a widespread household and academic practice, equipped with institutions, periodicals, and specialists who manipulated transatlantic connecting networks. (Francois Weil’s Family Trees (2013) is the recent major work on this phenomenon in the US.) Often, it sought to link the living in an unbroken chain backward, at least to the first Anglo-American settlements, and ideally eastward to their English origins.  Yet, in a decade when genealogy had yet to emerge as a widespread practice, Mary Ann McLellan’s genealogical sampler (above) is striking: it places her father atop a small familial hierarchy, above his first and second wife and their four children. Paternity is overt; maternity only deducible by examining dates of birth and death. In this riff on a genealogical tree, more important than connecting the present to the past is inscribing an inter-generational duty: overseen by an elder generation, undertaken through a younger, promised to a future. “Let us live so in youth that we blush not in age”, the poem insists. The admonishment is surely a basic feature of gendered household management, but one cannot help but hear echoes of the broader national anxiety about the character and prospect of the country during these years, when the trope of the cyclical rise, corruption, and fall of republics was most potent.

Expanding on this analogy, Greenwold explains that “these domestically-scaled ways of representing self or family could become proxies for larger questions of national identity.” Especially in the works of childhood (produced both of and by children), “for a person in the early US, memorializing their children as the first generation of native-born citizens could be an act of establishment, visualized in a permanent and lasting way around virtues that were stressed for a new republic: industry, piety, family, etc. This notion of a domestically-scaled object had bearing not just on how folks were understanding their own families, but within a larger-scale participation in a budding national family.”

Though many of these were household products intended for a domestic space, perusing the exhibition, one can also imagine the markets for likenesses springing up in these decades before the more mechanized means of the daguerreotype and its successors. The shadow-cutters are the cheapest, visually starkest, and perhaps most arresting of works on display. Greenwold notes that these profiles cut into beige paper and pasted on black background (and sometimes vice versa) were produced at once by itinerant artists, as a popular parlor game, or in such venues as Charles Willson Peale’s Museum by means of a physiognotrace. The exhibition explains the special appeal of the profile—which features the chin, nose, and forehead—in the field of physiognomy, which sought to discern character in the subject’s facial features. In these shadow cutters of the women of the Stone family, distinctive hair styles have been inked around the silhouettes. Historian Sarah Gold McBride, whose work examines the significance and uses of hair in the nineteenth century, argues that in addition to physiognomy, hair style, texture, style, and color conveyed clues to one’s character in this period. (See her dissertation “Whiskerology: Hair and the legible body in nineteenth-century America” (2017) for more on this.)

Unidentified artist (United States, 19th century), Cut paper silhouettes of the Stone Family, 1917.11-.18

These were often products of fleeting popular or commercial transactions. However, in addition to revelations of character, as small and easily transferable objects these likenesses-and more specifically portrait miniatures painted in watercolor on ivory-could be more intimate than the finely painted portraits of Stuart or John Singleton Copley. Greenwold elaborates, that “they are meant to be very portable and physically held, near the heart or the body. That sort of physical embodiment of a loved one does something categorically different than something that hangs in a parlor, such as an oil on canvas portrait, that would be both for family and the larger group of visitors who would be in your home.”

If girls mainly executed the works of childhood in this collection, and mostly men those of adulthood, women undertook the tasks of mourning represented here. Though there are cases of men making some of the outlines of such mourning embroidery, Greenwold discusses that “in this nineteenth-century moment, women were becoming the vessels through which a family performs its mourning—the public face through which a family expresses grief, for instance.” Bedecked in Greco-Roman iconography, balanced around a central urn inscribed with the dates of the departed, these “classically-draped figures intertwine with a lexicon of Christianity, forming a hybrid language of pagan and Christian.” It is a common aesthetic aspired to by the middle to affluent classes in this period, but one which suggests again how the marking and performance of the life cycle in the early US was enmeshed with the larger concerns of the place of the American citizen and republic in history.

Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery
Susan Merrill (United States, 1791-1868), Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery, 1811, watercolor and needlework on silk, Gift of Helen Harrington Boyd in memory of Susan Merrill Adams Boyd, 1968.4
Intellectual history


By Contributing Writer Stephan Steiner

“Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance, as if there were some other way of watching” (Susan Sontag). In other words: If we want to understand visually, then we are in any case forced to keep our eyes open, be it at the price of voyeurism.

What is to be watched here is a torrent of tortures, literally winding its way through an oil painting. In the very foreground a young woman, breasts denuded, one nipple tweaked with heated pliers. Then, a group of people of all ages–men and women, babies, toddlers, elderly–huddled together as if refusing to move any further. But exactly this is asked from them by a neatly dressed man, halberd in one hand, pointing toward an ongoing scene of humiliation and torture with the other. Moving the eyes further counter-clockwise, one sights four men in a row, two with hands pinioned and shoulders exposed, while their counterparts in frock-coats raise fistfuls of switches, bound for imminent flagellation. A river marks the boundary to the background, in which a person sitting on a chair awaits decapitation in front of two clerics. At the far end of perspective, fading in the tremolo of (most probably) late summer’s light, corpses hang from the gallows. Thus, not only the spectators of today, but also some of the protagonists of the depiction itself become voyeuristic observers.

gypsy sign
Gypsy warning sign (Zigeunerverbotstafel) with inscription “Lost ihr zügäiner, alchier bleib kheiner, auß demn landt thuet weichen, sonst wird man euch außstreichen” (Listen Gypsies, don’t stay here, leave the country or else you‘ll be flagellated) (© Universalmuseum Joanneum / Volkskunde, Graz, Austria)

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the streets of the Holy Roman Empire as well as some of its bordering regions must have been full of such signposts. Yet only seven of them have survived (or at least historians have so far been able to detect that many) in museum collections in Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. The example shown here is by far the most elaborate, but the iconographic programs of all the others also abound in violence, heralding corporal punishment, mutilation, and death. The addressees of such harbingers of destruction were Gypsies, as they were referred to by the majority population. But many of this population also addressed themselves as Gypsies – long before the politically correct, but historically insufficient, combined term Roma and Sinti was created.

To contemporaries the people depicted were discernible as Gypsies by the distinct outfit they wore. Especially the woman’s schiavina, an oriental shepherds’ dress formed by a quadrangular woolen scarf, tied over the shoulder, which also functioned perfectly as a baby carrier, was seen as “typical” for Gypsy nomads.

Habsburg Empire and Holy Roman Empire, 1714

After more than one century of increasingly harsh Gypsy legislation in the Holy Roman as well as in the Habsburg Empire (which were only in parts identical), the turn of the eighteenth century marked a clear shift in mentalities away from relentless persecution to attempted extinction. In this theater of war, declared on a minority that had been in the heart of Europe for almost two hundred years, the warning signs were intended to keep Gypsies from crossing the many borders of the era and to inform them about their almost ubiquitous outlaw status (Vogelfreiheit, a cynical term in German, literally meaning “being as free as a bird”, but used to signify a status without any rights, not even the one to exist). But deterrence was only one aspect of such visualisations. The other was the elimination of any excuse of ignorance of the law by Gypsies, who when detained often claimed a lack of legal knowledge. Now, even illiteracy could not prevent them from the long arm of the law.

These signs were the perfect emblems of an absurd situation: Gypsies, not allowed in territory A, were also not allowed to switch over to the neighboring territory B, as each and every place was forbidden ground. For them there was no legal place to stay; before even being accused or tried, they were already guilty.

Gypsy warning signs made their way through half of Europe, being a new means of approaching the so-called Gypsy plague (Zigeunerplage), as it was most bluntly called by rulers and their officials. Together with common beliefs within the majority population, an explosive cocktail of (mostly ungrounded) fears was mixed: spies for the Ottomans, uncivilized “Orientals”, black magicians and notorious burglars, robbers and even cannibals–all this was ascribed to the Gypsies.

Why exactly tablets were chosen as a way of communicating the legal framework to passers-by is unclear, but probably similar signs regarding beggars, Jews, or the plague could be seen as direct precursors. The oldest trace of Gypsy warning signs can be found in a decree enacted in Kleve-Mark (a part of Brandenburg-Prussia) in 1685. In 1702, the kingdom of Prussia also ordered the erection of warning signs, as part of an edict concerning the expulsion of Gypsies. Over the course of approximately two decades, many similar orders were issued, among others in Nassau-Siegen 1707/08, the Electoral Palatinate 1709, Electoral Hannover 1710, Electoral Mainz 1711 or Bavaria 1716 as well as in the Habsburg Empire (Bohemia 1706, Silesia 1708, Moravia 1709, Inner Austria 1714, Austria above and below the Enns 1720, and Hungary 1724).

Long unquestioned from a moral point of view, Gypsy warning signs caused very practical problems instead. From the perspective of the administration, the trouble with Gypsy warning signs started even before their erection and accompanied their entire life cycle: Who was obliged to pay for them? Who would maintain them? What should be done in case they were stolen? And stolen they were, be it a simple matter of organizing firewood by the locals,  or a protest against their function as an instrument of exclusion.

Enlightenment marks the gradual fade-out of the martial mentality expressed in the warning signs. Coerced settlement first and subsequent total assimilation were now seen as the perfect solution to problems that to a great extent had been perceived in a phantasmagorical fashion or at least over-exaggerated by the majority population. But, despite all the Janus-faced altruism of the Age of Reason, warning signs in some regions quite astonishingly outlived the associated major changes in mind-set. Thus, in some parts of the Holy Roman Empire warning signs were still in use regardless of the highpoint of Enlightenment. Hessen-Kassel, for instance, renewed its respective orders in 1772, Oranien-Nassau in 1782. Some warning signs were maintained up to the first decade of the nineteenth century (e.g. in the duchy of Lippe).

Until one decade ago, pre-modern visual representations of Gypsies were thought to be extremely rare. But with more focused research by scholars such as Peter Bell and Jörg Suckow, more and more depictions of supposed “Orientals” or “social misfits” in art have turned out to be images of Gypsies instead. Interestingly enough, the phenomenon of Gypsy warning signs has so far only been studied on a systematic and continuous level in the context of the Bohemian Lands of the Habsburgs, namely in several articles by Jiří Hanzal, the Czech Republic’s distinguished scholar on Gypsies in the early modern period.

The obsession with a Holy Roman Empire or a Habsburg monarchy “cleansed” from all Gypsy riffraff, harmful and mischievous to the country (schädlich- und landesverderbliches Ziggeinergesindel) as emblematically expressed in the warning signs, was a utopia the authorities yearned for during the long eighteenth century. What seemed utopia to them, turned out to be dystopia for the various groups of persecuted Gypsies.

Sign saying Roma, back to India!, pillar stand burst by the detonation (© Peter Wagner)

On February 5, 1995, four Austrian Roma were killed by a booby trap placed next to their village. The bomb was released when these four people tried to remove a sign, which in solemn letters on black ground mocked a funerary inscription, which read, “Roma, back to India!”

Stephan Steiner. Historian. Professor at Sigmund Freud University (Vienna,  Austria). His research concerns the history of violence especially in the early modern context, but also including long-term perspectives. Detailed references concerning his blog article are to be found in a forthcoming edited volume on Representations of External Threats in History (edited by Eberhard Crailsheim). Research has been partly supported by a travel grant, kindly awarded by the German Historical Institute Warsaw.