495 Words on Deep History

A Review of Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail (Eds.): Deep History. The Architecture of Past and Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.


If historical facts are indeed always situated in a web of socially given references, as the authors suggest, then this is true a fortiori for the part of the past that is accessible exclusively by imagination: the ‘deep time’ of history, hitherto relegated into a realm of the ‘pre-historical’, and pursued by biology, anthropology, or linguistics – but not the historical discipline per se. This book’s goal is to present a number of ways in which such an imagination can be rethought outside of the disciplinary boundary between ‘history’ and ‘pre-history’ – or, as the authors call it, shallow history and deep history. Its principal means to do so are a survey of hard scientific methods and their contributions to the study of deep time, as well as a critical reconfiguration of social imaginaries accompanying scientific work.

In the section entitled ‘Frames for History in Deep Time,’ this critique gives way to a positive reconstruction of ‘deep time’ through notions and interpretations of body, environment, and language. In each section, the authors’ goal is to reduce the strangeness of deep time that led to its relegation to notions of glacially slow movements, animal instincts, and smooth transitions. The goal, therefore, is to make it more accessible for historical, rather than ‘pre-historical’ scientific narratives.

The section following, entitled ‘Shared Substance,’ examines the penetration of human bodies and societies by their natural and ancestral environment. Its goal is to dispel the myth of human impenetrability – ultimately telling us more about ‘history’ than about ‘pre-history,’ where the popular image had assumed a biological existence of humans anyway.

The last section, entitled ‘Human Expansion,’ traces migration as the expansion of social bodies, as well as the appropriation of goods as the expansion of neurological bodies. Finally, the section entitled ‘Scale’ does away with contemporary means of mapping time, thus questioning both the notion of glacial ‘pre-historical’ time and modernity’s stubborn assertion of being the culmination of history.

It would be all too easy to criticize the book’s efforts in terms of their unquestioned use of so-called ‘scientific’ vocabulary. Another easily open critique is the inevitable anachronism a book such as this employs in its explanations. Since the authors recognize both cliffs, and give convincing reasons why they are both inevitable, I will not follow this path. Rather, I think this book deserves praise for its skillful attempts at reducing the strange otherness of so-called ‘pre-historical’ deep time, and its inhabitants. Kinship is indeed, I maintain, an excellent tool to allow questions – though, most unfortunately, no answers – into the ways our ancestors thought, interacted, spoke, dreamt, and lived. In short, it is precisely the anachronistic approach of this book that is its principal strength, rather than weakness. I am especially fascinated by McMahon’s, Trautmann’s, and Shryock’s recollection of experiments on the emergence of language (pp. 118-123), gesturing at a linguistic criticism supported by Claude Shannon’s seminal stochastic information theory, and William Burroughs’ notion of the word virus.

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