Vincent-Van-Gogh-The-Wheat-Field--1888-133375As I lay in bed fighting the flu this weekend I found myself once again reading Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism. In my view, Braudel’s approach to history provides a model example of what an object-oriented analysis might look like. Braudel does not tell the story of the emergence of capitalism from the standpoint of ideas, political conflicts, nations, or “great men”, but rather from the standpoint of what he calls “material civilization”. Material history consists of those constraints and affordances upon which the social world is based at any given point in time. “Material life is made up of people and things. The study of things, of everything mankind makes or uses– food, housing, clothing, luxury, whether or not money is used, what sort of money is used, tools, coinage or its substitutes, framework of village and town… (31).” This material civilization thus consists of things such as the way in which food is produced, the epidemiology of disease, the sorts of foods produced, whether or not roads are present, the layout of towns and their relationship to the countryside, clothing styles, forms of cooking, weather patterns, wild animals, the relationship of nomads to agricultural society, technologies and technics, and so on.

read on!

In a manner worthy of Heidegger, Braudel emphasizes how material civilization recedes into the background precisely because it makes up the fabric of our everyday life. Nonetheless, he contends that it defines the line of the possible and impossible for civilization. What we have here is why, despite the presence of certain ideas, nonetheless social structures persist for long periods of time:

This gives the present book a certain unity: it is a long journey backwards from the facilities and habits of present-day life. Indeed it is a journey to another planet, another human universe. It is quite easy to imagine being transported to, say, Voltaire’s house at Ferney, and talking to him for a long time without being too surprised. In the world of ideas, the men of the eighteenth century are our contemporaries: their habits of mind and their feelings are sufficiently close to ours for us not to feel we are in a foreign country. But if the patriarch of Ferney invited us to stay with him for a few days, the details of his everyday life, even, the way way he looked after himself, would greatly shock us. Between his world and ours, a great gulf would open up: lighting at night, heating, transport, food, illness, medicine. Se we have to strip ourselves in imagination of all the surroundings of our own lives if we are to swim against the current of time and look for the rules which for so long locked the world into a stability which is quite hard to explain if one thinks of the fantastic change which was to follow. (28)

What we have here is a different sort of constraint, a different set of structuring principles that cannot be adequately captured at the level of texts, ideologies, minds, norms, and concepts. These are structuration principles revolving around cycles of birth and death presiding over populations, famines, plagues, the constraints defined by the absence of roads, the role played by agricultural techniques setting limits on expansion and population, and so on. As Braudel goes on to say,

In drawing up this history of the possible, we shall often meet what I called in the introduction ‘material civilization’. For the possible does not only have an upper limit; it also has a lower limit set by the mass of that ‘other half of production which refuses to enter fully into the movement of exchange. Ever-present, all-pervasive, repetitive, material life is run according to routine: people go on sowing wheat as they always have done, plantinng maize as they always have done, terracing the paddy-fields as they always have done, sailing in the Red Sea as they always have done. The obstinate present of the past greedily and steadily swallows up the fragile lifetime of men. (28)

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the issue here is simply one of obstinate habit or a reluctance to break with tradition. There is a reason that Latour (who is himself deeply influenced by the Annales school of which Braudel is a representative) refers to non-human objects as actors within collectives. When, for example, you read Braudel’s lengthy section of cereals in The Structure of Everyday Life, you discover the role that crop rotation played in the European production of wheat. Wheat crops– which incidentally, have a rather low yield –can only be planted for one year before the field must be left to lie fallow. This entails that half your planting field is fallow at any given time. But not only this. In order to obtain a good yield of wheat you need manure which requires livestock. During this period, the diet of Europeans was predominantly vegetarian (the chapters on meat are truly harrowing). The reason for this was simple: you could feed more people using the same plot of land with cereals than livestock. However, here we get a feedback loop. In order to produce more wheat you need more livestock to produce more manure but to produce more livestock to produce manure you need more land. But if you use more land to produce livestock to produce manure you diminish the land you’re farming for cereals and end up getting a lower yield.

In a manner reflective of Plato’s reflections on the ideal population of a city in the Republic, we here get a self-reinforcing feedback loop that places severe constraints on the upper and lower limit of populations. Factor in years where production decreases due to low crop yields or diseased plants, and you get an even more severe set of restrictions. The point is that the ideas can be there, but if this invisible, subterranean world of objects remains unchanged there is no place for these ideas and norms to get their purchase.

Marx famously said that Hegel must be made to walk on his feet. By this Marx meant that history does not move as a result of the agency of the concept, spirit, or the idea as Hegel would have it, but rather as a result of this material history that Braudel is referring to and which Braudel explores in satisfying detail dwarfing anything like what we find in Marx. Of course, from the standpoint of my object-oriented ontology I would include signs, minds, and all the rest as real actors as well. Nonetheless, in a philosophical context intoxicated by texts, signs, language, and mind, a historian like Braudel is discovered like a breath of fresh air, reminding us of another domain of mute objects that everywhere intertwine with imbroglios of human and non-human actors. In this respect, Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism is also a therapeutic work as it reminds us of what becomes invisible in approaches to thought saturated by textuality and a reflection on mind.

In its rejection of anthropocentric ontologies that privilege texts, signs, ideology, language, and minds, object-oriented ontology has sometimes been charged with being anti-human. However, this entirely misses the point. Object-oriented ontology is not a rejection of the human as an actor, nor as it an objectification of humans as someone recently remarked elsewhere. No. What object-oriented ontology tries to get at is these imbroglios, this mess, composed of collectives of human and non-human actors. What it rejects is the notion that humans are somehow a sovereign that stands above and outside of these imbroglios, or the view that humble grains of wheat are somehow irrelevant to philosophical speculation.