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Monday, 31 March 2014

History at the time of ontological turns

Been very enthused with Charles Mann's 1491 and his other stuff this weekend. He does manage to present a convincing story of how the Americas were diverse, far more populated than commonly thought and full of complex ecological strategies. An important part of this total history endeavor is epidemiology - and its links with demography. Small pox and chicken pox were introduced to the Americas together with the habit of living with animals and had devastated effects. The anthropocene is also the layer left by all the microbiota associated with the human modes - with herding cattle, eating domesticated meat etc. These illnesses changed the demography of the continent (in a degree that syphilis never managed to do in Europe or elsewhere). The greatest of these demographic-epidemiological plots he depicts is the one that connects malaria (to which loads of African are immune to a large extent) and slavery in the continent. Societies that depended on slavery were the ones that were infected by the malaria brought in by the whites. The Indian, the bizarre racist legend has, was lazy - because she died of malaria, or was prostrated by it - and whites would die in the infected fields. Africans had to brought in. It is a case of European slave trade making Africa provide the cure after European colonialism had brought the disease. (Incidentally, contrary to what I wrote once in an article, the malaria mosquito is not the best defender of the Amazon rain forest. Or, at least, it was also what dismantled it as an ecological complex of humans and various species that could have been to a great extent forged by Amerindian populations.)

Mann's picture has history made of agents that reinforce, distort and jeopardize human actions. Human goals are clearly just part of this history of biological, demographical, geological and commercial contingencies. White humans appear as political colonizers against a society unknown - inventing the myth of modernity, as Dussel labels it in his 1492 book - but also as part of a predation plot much beyond human control or intent. The Columbus intervention in America set the stage for everything global as it created the ecological set up we live in now. It is flat ontology history - Naturgeschichte at the times of the anthropocene - but it is fully filled with political fuel. Politics is made of alliances of all sorts - and it is not only about how to live, but about the state of affairs.

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