Survival of the Fittest

Searching for something else, I just came upon a comment I’d clipped and saved by Timothy Burke at Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous. The post is a few years old; SEK was talking about how “Social Darwinism” never really existed, at least not in the simple, coherent form handed down to us by Richard Hofstadter. Tim says:

There are a very substantial number of tropes, terms, events and so on which are taken as historical truths which, when you take the trouble to trace them back, rest on very slender … scholarly foundations. You could spend your life as a historian just doing skeptical investigation of many commonly reproduced ideas about the past… Eugenics is an interesting example that’s closely linked to “Social Darwinism”: it differed very substantially from nation to nation, but in England and the United States, it actually had very little to say about people of color, contra the commonly received view (which I often see in humanistic writing). It certainly had a powerful racial referent, but a lot of that was implicit, and almost always directed at white people, at a notion that the hierarchical place of whites was threatened by their ebbing biological strength due to their over-civilization. In other words, it was a lot weirder than the commonsensical invocation of it often looks.

But this is also of course where a truly intricate sense of intellectual history can enter the picture: you could ask why the idea of “social darwinism” as a past construction which we imagine ourselves to have overcome (but which can be invoked in the present to criticize some opponent) became so appealing. In other words, excavating the historiography of “Social Darwinism” can turn into a backdoor intellectual history of the time at which Hofstader published his work. You could observe that perhaps the term was so appealing at the time because it was a useful mythography for New Dealers trying to sum up how their form of capitalism was a moral triumph over the capitalism of the robber barons. Or perhaps it was also a comforting term for mid-century biologists and social scientists, stressing the evolution of proper formal boundaries and precision between disciplines. … “Social Darwinism” almost invariably gets used as a way to stress the moral and intellectual distance between late 19th Century America and now, that we are both better scientifically and morally.

When a guy’s comments–not his blog posts, his comments on someone else’s blog–are this smart and useful, maybe the rest of us should just pack it in?


Angels and Octopodes

Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG had a great post this summer with an imaginary Ghostbusters III treatment that was way cooler than any actual Ghostbusters sequel is likely to be.

Halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel–a fallen angel–and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan. Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first. …

Somewhere between AT&T and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of electromagnetized Egyptian mythology. … Manhattan is the wired center of a vast, global haunting, a transmission point crisscrossed by whispers above a magical infrastructure no one fully understands.

A friend of mine tagged the post as “MacDougall bait.” Indeed. Except apparently it wasn’t just MacDougall bait: I saw links to Geoff’s NYNEX angel on io9,, and even Boing Boing. This provokes a reaction in me not unlike the great books of John Hodgman. I know exactly why I think an imaginary Ghostbusters movie about a sentient telephone system, or a po-faced pseudo-almanac about America’s secret hobo wars, is boss to the Nth degree. But I find it hard to believe my tastes are so widely shared. Where were you, Boing Boing, when I was wandering around a European capital cooking up my own architectural secret history action flick? Or my own sentient telephone system? Where were you?

Of course, BLDGBLOG is too great a site for me to be jealous. I just ordered the book, in fact. If I was going to be jealous, it might be of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith, who got a $575,000 advance to write a new book called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Credit where it’s due: Grahame-Smith hit some kind of crazy fluke Snakes On A Plane style zeitgeist funny bone with his mashup of Jane Austen and George Romero. But half a million dollars for Abe Lincoln, vampire hunter? Ignore the fact that there happens to be a webcomic from 2007 with the same title. I have a dozen ideas that goofy before breakfast: St. George Washington versus the Dragon! Ben Franklinstein’s Monster! Teddy Roosevelt and the 36th Chamber of Shao Lin! Obamapunk! Nobody told me these things were monetizable.
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There Will Be Zeppelins

Brett Holman (Airminded) is paleoblogging the phantom airship scare of 1909. Exactly one hundred years ago this month, Britain was bedeviled with a wave of mysterious zeppelin sightings. Brett’s written on the Age of Scareships before, but now he is actually walking through the panic day by day. It’s great. You could ask for no better guide to the Edwardian UFO invasion.

This is only tangentially related, but it’s also cool: Here’s a quotation a student of mine found for a paper on Percival Lowell and the Martian canal controversy.

The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 28, 1907:
Look back upon the year 1907 and pick out what has been, to your mind, the most extraordinary event of the twelve months. Certainly it has not been the financial panic … That is, after all, a mere temporary disturbance, a mere passing cloud. The most extraordinary development has been the proof afforded by the astronomical observations of the year that conscious, intelligent human life exists upon the planet Mars.

Yeah. Get a sense of perspective, people!