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Reviel Netz, Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004, $24.95, 267 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6719-1)Charles Mitchell, Elmira College


Reviel Netz’s Barbed Wire is many things at once: an “environmental history” of Auschwitz; a subtle indictment of the ethics of modern agriculture and the domestication of animals; an account of modernity’s triumphant extension of control over space; an argument about the connection between cattle ranching and concentration camps; an impressionistic history of the post Civil War colonization of the American West, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and World War II;  and an illustration of the maxim that “everything is connected.” It is also, incidentally, a history of barbed wire, both as a product and as something of an historical actor on the world stage between 1874 and 1954.

A Professor of Classics at Stanford University, Netz’s previous work includes a translation and commentary of Archimedes and a “cognitive history” of Greek mathematics. Barbed Wire is the kind of foray into new territory that tenure makes possible, the work of a scholar eager to venture into fields not defined by the limits of his qualifying examinations. One of the book’s central images is of lines superimposed upon space, lines whose purpose is the prevention of motion: property lines marking off what is mine from what is yours; border lines defining the limits of nations; prison walls defining the limits of freedom. In weaving together the history of these lines—from the open battlefields of Europe and grasslands of the American plains to the concentration camp and the enclosed cattle ranch—Netz himself makes quick work of the lines marking off the boundaries between various academic disciplines, dismantling, as it were, the barbed wire fences of scholarly territoriality.

And that is a good thing. General readers will be engaged by the wide-ranging synthesis Netz attempts as he links bison, Boers, and Buchenwald together on a single strand of barbed wire. Scholars of military history, business history, intellectual history, environmental history, and the history of science and technology will find something of particular interest as well: a provocative connection drawn between seemingly disparate events, an intriguing new context suggested for old ideas. But readers will also find much to grumble about here: some of Netz’s connections are too loosely drawn, he tends to reduce complicated histories to oversimplifications, he offers casual assertions when careful, nuanced explanations are necessary, and his prose style is marked by such frustrating vacuities as “this is certainly, to a certain extent, true” [236].

Netz’s argument is fairly straightforward: the coming of modernity can be discerned in the history of barbed wire:

Here is how modernity unfolded: as iron (and, most important, steel) became increasingly inexpensive and widespread, it was used to control motion and space, on a massive scale, exploiting its capacity for mass production and its power of violence over flesh. This massive control over space was the defining characteristic of a certain period of history: the eighty years from 1874-1954—from the invention of barbed wire to the downgrading of the Gulag. Throughout this period, barbed wire constructions were at the forefront of the major events of world history. This was not an accident; barbed wire was what the period required. [xii-xiii]

Barbed wire emerges as both a subject of Netz’s book and the metaphor of its structure. Beginning with the invention of barbed wire—in fact, beginning seventy years before that invention—he strings together several different stories. In places, two or more of these stories intersect, in other places they diverge and follow their own trajectory. Several strands drop out of the fence along the way, and each strand has its barbs, its sticking points, obstacles that arrest the reader’s progress.

There is, of course, the story of barbed wire as a material product, the circumstances of its invention, its marketing and manufacture. There is also the story of barbed wire as a cultural product, the various uses to which it was put, and the consequences and implications of those uses. Each of these stories has been told before. Henry D. McCallum’s The Wire that Fenced the West is the standard account of barbed wire’s invention and application in the American West. Alan Krell’s Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire and Oliver Razac’s Barbed Wire (a 2002 English translation of his 2000 Histoire politique du barbelé: La prairie, la tranchée, le camp) take the story out of the West into the trenches and concentration camps of Europe. Netz does not so much synthesize this material as use it as a springboard for his own explorations, expanding on McCallum’s study with fresh research and insights and bringing a much needed coherence and clarity to the ideas suggested by Krell and Razac.

Through these stories of barbed wire Netz strings the tale of modernity, which he defines both precisely—as the eighty years from 1874 to 1954—and rather loosely as a period characterized by “massive control over space” through the use of violence. Such a definition serves his purposes well, aligning modernity and barbed wire as if they were meant to fit together. But the centrality of modernity to Netz’s argument demands a more thorough exposition, one which explores the history of “the modern,” the way it has been understood and defined in the rich and extensive literature devoted to it. Is modernity related to modernism? How? How does Netz’s analysis of modernity fit into this larger story? Surely there is more to modernity than the control of space. Surely there is more to distinguish modernity from other periods than the application of violence and pain on a mass scale, which Netz somewhat blandly asserts as “the main feature of the period from 1874 to 1954” [230]. Netz’s ambition to make a serious argument about the very nature of modernity is undermined by the slipperiness of his definition of this central term.

The final strand of Netz’s project is the story of the major events of world history between 1874 and 1954, events which, he argues, required the existence of barbed wire to unfold in the manner in which they did. While stopping short of what he admits would be a simplistic argument that barbed wire caused these events, he nonetheless retells these histories in a way that suggests substantial causal relationships: not only did barbed wire make possible the Boer War, World War I, and the Soviet Gulag, but each of those events made inevitable the one that followed. Netz is sufficiently concerned that readers might misinterpret his argument that he repeatedly reminds them that he is not arguing for simple causation and determinism—reminders the frequency and tone of which suggest that he is not so sure himself. Still, it is in these sections that Netz is at his most engaging, highlighting the crucial role barbed wire played in the modernization of warfare and the perfection of political terror.

Netz begins with the Louisiana Purchase, the decisive pre-modern event of 1803 that gave the United States possession of the West and made the Civil War inevitable. This acquisition of vast amounts of new space would touch off an escalation of sectional conflict between North and South over which economic system—slave-based plantation agriculture or family farmsteads surrounding urban centers—would control the new territory. Ultimately, each system proved unsuited to this new land, particularly in the Great Plains, thus requiring new means of imposing control over that space. These new means would have to wait until after the Civil War, when the elimination of the bison and the invention of barbed wire made the subjugation of Indian tribes and the extension of large scale cattle ranching possible. Netz sums up the seventy years of history that began with the Louisiana Purchase: “Texas led to Mexico, which led to Kansas, which led to the Civil War, upon whose conclusion America could move on to destroy the Indian and the bison. The final act in the subjugation of the West was under way: the transition from bison to cow” [10]. Barbed wire made possible this subjugation and transition by providing an efficient means of preventing cattle from doing what cattle do, which is to wander over the landscape.

The contours of this story generally hold together; indeed, they are consistent with standard textbook accounts of the path from Louisiana to Wounded Knee. Along the way, Netz offers tantalizing glimpses of the direction the rest of his book will take: analogies between the treatment of domesticated animals and the treatment of subjugated human beings that look back toward slavery and forward to the concentration camps, a marketer’s promotion of the educational value of barbed wire—using fear to teach cows to alter their behavior—that anticipates the Gulag, and the image of hundreds of dead cows sprawled across barbed wire fences blocking their retreat from the blizzards of 1885-1887, an image which eerily prefigures scenes from World War I.

While this first chapter highlights the kind of original, provocative connections Netz makes throughout the book, it also reveals his tendency to reduce accounts of the major historical events of modernity to the broadest of summaries. Comments like “the South was all, essentially, no more than an outpost of Europe” [6] can only frustrate readers who have an informed understanding of the pre-Civil War South. Comparable passages can be found in his accounts of the Boer War, World War I, and World War II. Indeed, variations on the word “essentially” (“in a sense,” “to a certain extent,” etc.) appear to be Netz’s favorite qualifier, allowing him to, essentially, say things without saying them. While he should be commended for resisting the jargon that a study like this could so easily fall into, Netz nonetheless relies too much on rhetoric to do his job for him. The combination of bold assertion and coy qualification does not always add up to an argument.

It is at times difficult to follow Netz through all his twists, turns, and tangents, and while such complexity can certainly be the sign of sophistication, it can also point to a lack of focus. Three-quarters of the way through the book, Netz refers to “the relationship between economic and environmental history” as “central to this book,” a claim that, though valid in retrospect, seems to be offered as an afterthought [180]. For such a central relationship, Netz might have devoted some time to elaborating upon how his work brings environmental and economic history together, how it fits into those two fields. And he might have done this near the beginning of the book, not as part of a simplistic outline for lazy readers but as a fuller statement of his thesis and methodology. The strength of Netz’s book—its ranging widely across different fields, its multiplicity of arguments and perspectives—turns out to be a source of frustration as well. Frequent parenthetical comments on the order of “I’ll get back to this soon” add to the distraction.

The rest of Barbed Wire proceeds in similar fashion, mixing fascinating insights with the occasional historical simplification and dose of rhetorical clutter. One of Netz’s more provocative and compelling arguments involves the relationship between ecology and military developments: “Because barbed wire became widely available as a tool for controlling agricultural space, it also came to be used by armies” [59]. Here, Netz fully embraces the cause and effect relationship: market forces responding to the ecology of the Great Plains ensured the availability of quantities of inexpensive barbed wire. In turn, barbed wire gradually became adapted to military use from South Africa to Manchuria. This military use at first subtly, and then radically, transformed the nature of warfare. In short, if cows had evolved to be sedentary creatures, the Holocaust would have happened differently. While some students of military history might chafe at the secondary role Netz assigns to the machine gun and other “improvements” in the technology of slaughter, his argument is persuasive. Certainly, removing barbed wire from the story would have left a significant gap in the picture, a gap that would not have closed over seamlessly.

It is here, in fact, that we find the best example of what Netz means by “ecology” in his subtitle. Though he never articulates it as such, he presents barbed wire as if it were a species, one that emerged on the Great Plains, found a niche, and filled it. In the process, it transformed the landscape. It then crossed the ocean, found other niches to exploit, and transformed those landscapes as well. In each case, landscape must be understood to incorporate natural, social, political, and ethical dimensions. In short, the story Netz aims to tell is how the single species barbed wire transformed the landscape of modernity. Remove the wolf from Yellowstone and elk begin to overgraze the riparian areas; botanical diversity is diminished, song bird habitat reduced, and the relationship between every other species is transformed. So, too, with barbed wire.

Overall, I believe Netz’s book would have been stronger—more compelling—if he had made this and his other arguments more explicit. Instead, he is content to be allusive, merely hinting at some arguments while carefully dancing around others. In the same section in which he discusses the agricultural and military uses of barbed wire, he identifies a secondary, more subtle argument: “the ecological and military changes are related not only as cause and effect but also as two aspects of a single phenomenon […] agriculture and war are two species belonging to the same genus” [59]. Central to this argument is Netz’s claim that both agriculture and war represent ways of asserting control over flesh and space through violence, with both animals and humans playing the role of modernity’s victims. The significance of this argument for Netz is first suggested in the Acknowledgments where he identifies the influence of animal rights activist Ariel Tsovel. It returns in the Epilogue where Netz writes: “Modernity, indeed, brought everything under control—the world with all its species—and humans, naturally, shared the same fate. In this particular case, at least, it turned out like this: a species that enslaves another forges its own chains” [230]. I am intrigued by this argument, even inclined to be sympathetic towards it, but am frustrated by the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t manner in which Netz presents it.

It would be tempting to conclude that Netz ultimately gets tangled in the barbed wire of his own sprawling, ambitious project, but it is closer to the truth to say that the various strands of his project never quite stick together. He covers a lot of ground in this book, but at the cost of spreading himself too thin. He begins the brief but densely packed Epilogue with the revealing statement: “The history I have followed led in many directions, but in the end, the argument of the book is simple. I find I can sum it up in five theses” [228]. What follows, of course, is far from simple, and much of what Netz has to say would have been better said before. Indeed, the sense of his “I find I can sum it up” comment suggests an author looking back over his work and attempting to discern, as if for the first time, exactly what it was he was trying to say. It is easy to imagine the Epilogue as a whole, with more than its fair share of qualifying words and phrases, as having originated as a response to an early reviewer of the manuscript, someone who might have commented in the following manner: “This is all very interesting, but how does it fit together? What are you trying to say?” In the end, Barbed Wire reads like the revised lecture notes for a promising new course, a course that has moments of interest and fascination but is still very much a work in progress.

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