Stretching fences 

Scholar tangles readers in history of barbed wire

Reaktion Books is one of my favorite imprints for random brain-lint, but to read ten pages of The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire is to realize that almost anybody could start to cobble together a cultural history of almost anything over a long weekend. You just start by picking a topic with a visual presence in a particular culture, put forth a couple of self-congratulatory theses on the topic based on obvious associative leaps, and then collate these assertions with citations from obscure academic texts and scholarly journals. It helps if you’re ostentatiously well-read in literature, philosophy and postmodern theory, of course, and also if you occupy some prestigious chair in the liberal studies department of a respectable college or university.

On some pragmatic level, I am distrustful of most “cultural histories” whose authors fit these general qualifications, and particularly of a cultural history of barbed wire written by a “senior lecturer in art history and theory at the College of Fine Arts” at the University of New South Wales, in Sidney, Australia. That’s not regional chauvinism or provincial anti-intellectualism talking, either. You just get the feeling that author Alan Krell has never set foot on a ranch in his life. So count on him for an interesting mesh of artistic and theoretical perspectives on barbed wire, but also to belabor a fairly simple topic with a lot of extravagant allusion and endless name-dropping when, for all we can tell, he’s never even bucked a roll of the stuff.

Sure, barbed wire lends itself nicely to all kinds of symbolic interpretations, starting with its original purpose of keeping things either in or out, then as a defensive but ultimately destructive fixture of industrialized warfare, and finally as a pervasive element of the urban environment. But let’s put the horse before the cart. Barbed wire was designed and patented—in France and the United States simultaneously—in the 1860s as an aid to farmers and landowners who needed a better way to contain certain kinds of animals and keep other kinds away. A discussion of western rangeland is in order before we start talking about barbed wire as symbolic of the Crucifixion. Author Krell barely makes it to page 13 (after the three-page preface that started at page 7) before he takes his first of many fancy excursions while discussing an 1867 patent application:

“Unusually, no diagrams accompany Gavillard’s description [of “artificial thorns” fastened between three strands of intertwined wire]. There is, however, a remarkable little sketch signed by the inventor himself and ‘annexed’ to the original patent. That Gavillard should turn to an image rather than carefully annotated technical illustrations introduced poetics, as it were, into the discourse surrounding the invention. His drawing of a modest, rural setting, in which the new fencing stands between an ox and an apple tree, has more than a hint of allegory. If the ‘original’ taking of the fruit resulted, among other things, in a loss of ‘innocence’ and the establishment of a code of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ the sketch suggests a time before the ‘Fall.’”

Okay, this is a picture of an ox looking at an apple-laden bough on the other side of Gavillard’s thorny apparatus—and it’s included in The Devil’s Wire as an illustration. That’s the main problem with “cultural histories” written by academics. You know how in middle school some tired old teacher was always enjoining you to find allegories, allegories, allegories in books like A Separate Peace? Cultural histories like The Devil’s Wire always seem to be written by eggheads who can’t get it through their speckled domes that not every sketch or piece of writing that can be wrung for its allegorical applications actually had them put there by the creator’s design. See, there’s a difference between interpretation and observer-created allegory, I’m sure of it. I’m just not smart enough or postmodern enough to limn it out myself.

Another important method of a “cultural history” like this one—as opposed, say, to a history of barbed wire written with the general nonfiction reader in mind—is for the author to introduce citations either before or entirely without establishing a context for them. Thus, a mere two pages after Krell’s invocation of Eden and mankind’s plummet from innocence as embodied by a cartoon ox ogling an apple tree, the first guests start arriving before the food is ready and before the proverbial table is lain. George Basalla is the first to show up, invited in by Krell just for having written something that our author found to be a convenient association at one particular juncture in his make-it-up-as-we-go narrative. “There is a strong sense here,” Krell writes, “in which human ingenuity is minimized; barbed wire simply imitates nature, producing an artefact modelled on what George Basalla has called a naturfact.”

George who? Well, if you read the endnotes, you find he’s the author of a book called The Evolution of Technology. But the offhand way that Krell introduces him—that is, without sparing so much as a line to tell us that Basalla wrote this book in the body of the text itself and sending us straight to his endnotes instead—smacks of name-dropping. At the very least, it makes the reader feel remedial for not knowing who George Basalla is right away or being conversant at the drop of a hat in his theories on biomimickry.

There again—that’s both the pleasure and the frustration of reading books like this: it’s like being cornered at a party by someone trying to show off how much he knows—more importantly, how much more he knows than you. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about barbed wire here, but the book is longer on literary and theoretical free-association than any sort of logically or intuitively ordered history. Long before you’re really into it, you start to feel all fenced in.

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