Saturday, December 14, 2019

Japanese Militarism in the Meiji Period

Japan rose to great power status thanks to a massive program of industrialization and victory in two wars, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Japan had a great tradition of woodblock printing, with dozens of active presses. So, of course, the propaganda of these wars and the creation of the Japanese Empire was accompanied by thousands of woodblock prints. In this print by Yôsai Nobukazu, Crossing the Yalu River, 1894, you can see a glimpse of the more usual subject matter of Japanese art in the background, with the stern soldiers in the center.

Many Americans were closely tracking those Asian events. Some were supportive of Japan and were happy to welcome Japan into the league of great powers, while others were suspicious of Japanese motives from the beginning, but either way they were keeping an eye on Japan's rise. Americans therefore collected many of these propagandistic prints. Hundreds of them eventually made it into museums; both the MFA in Boston and the Saint Louis Art Museum have major collections of this material. After I stumbled on these I did some searching and discovered that the MIT Visualizing Culture site has a long essay on them. (Our Army's Great Victory in the Night Battle at Pyongyang by Kobayashi Toshimitsu, 1894)

One of the themes of this propaganda is how modern and western the Japanese army and navy are, compared to the more traditional, more oriental portrayal of the Chinese and Koreans. (Top, The Hard Fight of the Scout Cavalry-Captain Asakawa by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1894, and a detail from a work by Yôsai Nobukazu.)

The contrast is especially clear in this print, Chinese Officers Captured Alive at Pyongyang by Migita Toshihide, 1894. Whereas the Japanese are in white or black, the Chinese and Koreans are always dressed in colors, with a sort of feminine softness.

Japan had of course been culturally dominated by China for a thousand years, and the decisive Japanese victory of 1894-1895 inspired a burst of confidence in the militaristic, modernizing leadership. They adopted the slogan "Out from Under Asia," meaning that they had escaped from Oriental backwardness and joined the modern, western elite of nations.

Some of the design here is of a very high level; I especially like this image by Ōkura Kōtō, in which a Russian soldier flees from a Japanese army that appears as a sort of storm cloud. (Braving the Bitter Cold of a Snowy Night, Our Troops Advanced Rapidly in a Certain Direction, and the Russian Troops That Were Already There Were Shocked at Our Might and Withdrew Again)

Many of the naval images play up the new technology of the era, as well as the bravery of Japanese sailors and officers amidst the chaos. These were among the first battles between iron-clad battleships, and by 1905 the Japanese navy was the most experienced in the world at this type of fighting. The course of the naval fighting in the Russo-Japanese War was that the Japanese bottled up the Russian Far Eastern Fleet in its two bases, Port Arthur and Vladivostok. Both Russian fleets tried to break out, but after confused, indecisive engagements in which both sides fought badly, they retreated to their ports. Then the Russian Baltic fleet arrived after a seven month voyage around the southern end of Africa, an astonishing logistical feat, only to be shattered by the Japanese in the battle of Tsushima. Six of the eight Russian battleships were sunk, and the rest of the fleet had to surrender. Many historians think it was the experience gained in their two previous battles that gave the Japanese such a decisive advantage, plus perhaps some earlier experience in the 1894 Battle of the Yellow Sea against the Chinese. When something is so new that nobody has ever done it before, even a small amount of experience can make a huge difference.

And yet while military action was always portrayed in the most modern terms, the home front seems almost medieval, the women frozen in time. Here we have the cover illustration from a sentimental novel of 1905 and A Soldier's Dream by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1894. I have a sense that this heavily gendered model of development, in which the men were supposed to charge forth and become westernized soldiers and businessmen, while the women stayed home and preserved tradition, still haunts Japan.

One reason these images fascinate me is because of a major "what if" of history. I think it's easy to understand how Japan acted in the 1870-1910 period. Humiliated by the technical prowess of the west, they resolved not to be left behind, and progress they made in two generations is astonishing. Their victory over the Russians was cheered by thousands of other non-westerners, for example in India, as proof that the non-western nations could challenge the European powers. Yes, they established an empire in Korea and China, but Britain, France, Germany and Russia also had empires, and the Japanese desperately wanted to join that club. The Japanese were not in this period particularly brutal conquerors; on the contrary they prided themselves in meeting the best western standards for the treatment of prisoners. They made major investments in the economic development of Korea and Taiwan, just as the British and French did in their empires. They might have continued on that path, becoming more like Britain or France over time.
Yet somehow they did not. Somehow the militarists continued to grow in power while the civilian parliamentarians shrank away.  Somehow the professional treatment of prisoners gave way to using them for bayonet practice, and the building of schools in Korea to the Rape of Nanking. Did it have to happen? Were the seeds of the Banzai state already sown in this earlier era of nationalism and empire? Or was there a chance for a different path, toward co-existence with the west and gradual liberation of Korea and Taiwan? Did it take the cataclysm of World War II to break the old imperial world that the Japanese fought desperately to join, or might it have faded on its own? Was their a more peaceful path toward the contemporary world? Or did the brutality of empire have to grow until it burst across the world as Fascism and ruin?  These images make me wonder.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Italic Bronze Discs, 700-600 BC

The Saint Louis Museum of Art has three of these mysterious bronze discs, which they suggest are shield bosses or ornaments for armor. I'm not sure why they think this; they don't say, and so far as I can tell these were all discovered in the nineteenth century. Anyway they all come from Italy and are dated to the Orientalizing period, c. 700 to 600 BC. Some are Etruscan, but others are from other areas and are designated Italic.

Very cool objects.

Since I liked these so much I searched for more but didn't have much luck; I found this one on Pinterest, apparently from an old sale at Christie's in New York. So these are not such rare items. But beyond these four all the Etruscan Bronze Discs or Etruscan Shield Bosses i have found have abstract designs, like this one in the Boston MFA collection. Not nearly as much fun as these.

Links 13 December 2019

Albrecht Dürer, Drawing of the Imperial Crown

Brandt Jean's hug of forgiveness.

Russian technology for spying on your citizens is not as good as China's, but it's a lot cheaper and low-rent dictators are buying it

Maybe the expansion of the universe is not increasing, says a new study based on much more data than the Nobel Prize-winning paper by Perlmutter and Riess that said it is. And if not, do we have to worry about Dark Energy? Maybe not.

Debunking the "Axial Age". (Personally I am rarely impressed by talk of revolutions in history, so I never thought much of the Axial Age, but I am not any more impressed by the approach used here to debunk it.)

Did the US forget how to make a key ingredient in hydrogen bombs?

Evidence that health insurance reduces mortality.

Indonesian cave art may be 44,000 years old.

Lots of chatter in the news about Lawrence Lessin's book on fixing American politics (They Don't Represent Us), but so far as I can tell it argues 1) We need to do away with all the blocks to real democracy, like the Electoral College and voter suppression, so the people will really be represented, and 2) the people don't know jack and we should really be ruled by elite experts who agree with Lawrence Lessing. Or anyway that's what I get out of here, here, and here. Honestly this makes as much as most reform plans I have seen.

Oliver Sacks saw his psychoanalyst twice a week for fifty years; according to this remembrance of him, shortly before he died he told his analyst, "I think we're finally getting somewhere."

Thursday, December 12, 2019

What are they for?

In Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, God gathers the archangels and announces that He has made animals. Satan—who else?—asks, “What are they for?” . . .  God answers: “They are an experiment in Morals and Conduct. Observe them, and be instructed.” So Satan goes to Earth and soon concludes that “the people are all insane, the other animals are all insane, the earth is insane, Nature itself is insane.”

-Verlyn Klinkenborg

Why So Many Protests?

Tyler Cowen counts:
As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.
In a fascinating essay, Martin Gurri tries to explain. The public, he says, feels excluded from the whole production process of society and government, and people feel that they can either say yes or no. Unhappy with what they are getting, the public says no: "All its implacable fury is invested in that act of negation."
The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure. After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale. Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation. . . .

Any attempt to sort out the consequences of the 2019 upheavals will soon bump into the inadequacy of our thinking on the subject. Consequences must refer to initial conditions: and these varied wildly. Algeria was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship. France, on the other hand, is one of the oldest democracies in the world. In the last two decades, the sectarian cliques that run Lebanon have destroyed a once-thriving economy, increased poverty, and blighted the infrastructure. In the “30 years” that sparked the Chileans’ indignation, however, their country became the wealthiest in Latin America, with the lowest poverty rate. Levels of acceptable violence also diverged broadly: the death of a single bystander shocked Hong Kong, but hundreds have been killed in Iraq. Given such an untidy tangle of starting-points, it may be futile to search for common landing-places. . . .

Beyond the oppositional stance, the public in revolt has displayed a singular lack of clarity about its objectives. Indifference to ideology and programs may be part of its consumerist charm. Pure negation – a loathing of the system and the elites who fatten on it – has taken the place of political doctrine. Ordinary people have faced bullets and beatings for that cheerless cause. The ideals of democracy are often invoked, but these are wielded like a club to smash at the temples of authority. France and Chile are well-functioning democracies with little corruption, yet the protests there have been notable for their violence and vandalism. While few are calling for revolution and absolutely no one is proposing alternatives to representative government, the public’s alienation clearly runs deeper than mere hostility to the elites. There is, I believe, a powerful if inchoate craving for structural change.
I agree, and I also agree that while that longing for change is real, so is the lack of any alternative plan. Ideology may be the bane of modernity, but without ideology, what is politics but a vapid power struggle? What is protest but destruction?

Gurri asks us to consider where this might lead:
This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis. It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system: the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration. Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality. A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart. This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.

Not every outcome is condemned to drown in pessimistic tears: the process, recall, is unpredictable. A structural reform that brings the public into closer alignment with the elites is perfectly possible. But I find it hard to see how that can be accomplished, so long as the public clings to the mutism of the consumer and refuses to articulate its demands like a true political actor. One rarely gets what one hasn’t asked for. Reform depends on the public’s willingness to abandon negation for practical politics. . . . If this willingness has been expressed in any of the revolts now under way, I have been unable to discover it.
I am reminded of the immortal words of an Occupy protester quoted by Joseph Bottum:
We want change. Just change.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Church in St. Petersburg built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was built in 1883 to 1907. Crazy, but sort of amazing.

Archaeology and Demography in Eastern North America

What does archaeology tell us about the past?

It's a question I ask myself all the time. Often when digging up artifacts of indeterminate date from soils of indeterminate origin I feel like the answer is, "not much." People were here, sure; they made pots or stone tools; they built fires and cooked things. What else?

My nagging sense of how little we sometimes learn from archaeology is what drew me to a 2010 paper in American Antiquity by George Milner and George Chaplin. They push the archaeological data to its limit in an attempt to answer an important question about the past, and they may have discovered something of value.

There is a long-running, sometimes bitter debate about how many people lived in the Americas before Europeans arrived. The bitterness comes from a sense that the low count faction is somehow minimizing European crimes, the high count faction trying to play them up, hence everybody is playing politics in one way or another.

How would you count anyway? One way is to start from those Native polities that were encountered by Europeans when they were still strong and healthy -- the Aztecs, for example, or the Timucuans of Florida who welcomed De Soto's men. You start from the explorers' or conquerors' population counts, look at how much the population of those areas fell by 1800, and then extrapolate to areas about which you have no data. Problems with this method include knowing how far to trust population estimates made by explorers and a sort of sampling error, in that Europeans were drawn to the most populous and dynamic Native communities for trade or conquest.

How might one go about estimating the population of areas that no ethnographically-minded outsiders visited until after their populations had been decimated by disease? Well, how about archaeology?

Alas, archaeology is a bad way to estimate populations; all you can really do is excavate a village and then look at historical records and see how many people explorers thought lived in similar communities, which means you are back to worrying about the accuracy of those estimates anyway.

But maybe archaeology can make a contribution here. Because to archaeologists one striking thing about North America circa 1500 AD is how many vast areas had, so far as we can tell, no inhabitants at all. The record indicates that population was quite dense in certain areas -- for example, the Mohawk Valley of New York, around the Chesapeake Bay, in the southern Appalachians, on Florida's Gulf Coast -- while other areas that look at least as good for settlement to our eyes were empty. One of these is what archaeologist have taken to calling the "Empty Quarter" around the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a place that a few hundred years earlier had been home to Cahokia and other major towns.

When Milner and Chaplin plotted the areas in eastern North America where archaeology indicates significant Native settlement in the early 1500s, they got the map above. The size of the blobs is not very important, because by and large the bigger the blob, the lower the population density. But anyway you can see that, based on archaeological data, vast stretches of North America were unsettled. This doesn't  mean that Native Americans didn't use these areas; they did, for hunting and the like. They just didn't build villages or plant corn there.

If you take those population estimates I mentioned before and apply them to this data set, taking account of all the area where it seems nobody lived, you get a radically smaller estimate of Native populations. Of course you have to consider that some villages were probably missed or mis-dated or what have you, but anyway this is the data we have.

Milner and Chaplin produce a range of estimates from their data, but their best figure for the population of the whole of eastern North America is between 800,000 and 1.6 million. This matches quite well with the lowest estimate anybody ever cites, Ubelaker's figure of 1 million, which was reached using a completely different method. Other estimates for the population of this area go as high as 5 to 8 million, so archaeology points to a figure on the low side of historical estimates.

As I said, I like this because it takes the archaeological data seriously: this is what we have, so what does it tell us?

Monday, December 9, 2019

Population Decline in Rural Texas

From 1940 to 2010 the population of Texas grew by 392%. Even so the state has 37 counties where the population has fallen by more than 40%, including 10 that have shrunk by 70%. This even includes a couple of counties in the Permian Basin oil patch. Across north Texas hundreds of town have completely disappeared.

I pass this on because I have a strong sense that the ongoing emptying out of rural America and the concentration of more and more people in suburban agglomerations like Houston, Atlanta, and Washington, DC are driving our politics every bit as much as racial change.

Pottery Faces from Medieval Nottingham

These faces were applied to earthenware vessels in the potteries of medieval Nottingham, 1150 to 1250 AD. Nottingham remained a major center of pottery production for centuries thereafter.

This is a famous vessel called the 'Knight's Jug,' found under the old Moot Hall in 1995. These images come from an exhibit at the University of Nottingham Museum, via Museum Crush.

Delightful. The "face jugs" of contemporary Appalachia are a direct continuation of this tradition.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Leigh McCloskey’s "Grimoire"

Leigh McCloskey is a former television actor turned esoteric author and artist who lives in a "Malibu dream house" and publishes on kabbalah, theosophy, and the like. He has designed a set of tarot cards and created several books of images intended to convey spiritual guidance in artistic form.

These images are from a word simply called Grimoire. According to McCloskey's web site
Grimoire was originally created for his friend the director E.Elias Merhige and his film Shadow of the Vampire with Willam Defore and John Malkovitch. The Grimoire was not in the final edit of the film and through a rather magical course of creative connectivity ended up being used by the Rolling Stones on their Bigger Bang Tour instead.
I found the page shown at the top on a tumblr of alchemical images and had to track it down. I was slightly disappointed to discover it was done in 2006 but it still looks amazing.

More here.

Pocklington Shield

In 2018 a chariot burial was excavated at Pocklington in East Yorkshire, one of two chariot burials at the site of this car park, out of 27 ever found in Britain. The site is back in the news because conservationists have released this image of the bronze shield boss, a wonderful work of the Celtic La Tene style.

Against Expertise

Ross Douthat's latest column returns to one of the themes of American politics over the past decade, a distrust of experts. "One of the key forces in American politics right now," he says, is
the distrust of technocracy, the sense that the smartest guys in each political coalition can’t really be trusted, the feeling that the whole model of credentialed meritocracy is corrupt and self-dealing and doesn’t deliver on its promises.
I think this is absolutely correct. In the US we have always had a strong strain is distrust for egg-headed experts, and recent events have only made this more intense. The financial collapse and the great recession that followed destroyed respect for economists and business leaders, and the unfolding disaster in the Middle East has done the same for the foreign policy establishment. Zig-zagging over medicine and the environment has reduced the reputation of science; a feeling that science has little to offer us in facing many of our problems has spread even among technocrats like me. The press has hardly covered itself with glory. Underlying all of this is the broad economic slowdown since 2000, along with a sense that we cannot solve either our current problems (disappearance of factory jobs) or those looming in the future (artificial intelligence).

This explains why even a technocrat like me is not very impressed by Elizabeth Warren's long litany of plans. Even if they could get through Congress, which I doubt, I don't know if they would make much difference, and I am certain that they will fail to impress most Americans. People are tired of plans.

What they want, it seems to me, is something much more straightforward. As Douthat says about Bernie Sanders, his popularity comes from his moralism and his "politics of righteous struggle." Everybody knows what Sanders stands for, what he would do in almost any situation. But not everyone wants socialism, and even some of those who do think it's a political loser.

Which brings me to what really interested me about Douthat's piece, his take on Joe Biden:
This is clearly the appeal of the other non-technocrat in the Democratic field, the still-front-running Joseph Biden. Of course the former vice president also has plans and policy papers — no Democrat lacks them — but even more than Sanders he’s running as a non-wonk, an anti-technocrat, the guy who’ll shout “malarkey!” when the clever McKinsey guy shows up with the white paper. . . .

Despite his constant invocations of Obama, Biden no less than Sanders (and much more than Buttigieg and Warren) is running against the Obama governmental style, and especially the first-term Obamanaut confidence in intelligence and expertise as the essential oil of governance. If Sanders woos voters by saying, why not elect a moralist instead of an expert, Biden woos them by saying, how about we just elect a [expletive] politician?
I think that captures Biden's appeal. Ideologically he is close to the Democratic mainstream, in style he is closer to working and lower middle class voters than any other Democrat, and he has a "no bullshit" schtick that resonates in this moment. I think the main question about him is whether he has the dynamism to sustain a long campaign against Trump, and whether in the end he would just look old and tired compared to Trump's explosiveness.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Lumpy Pearls in Baroque Europe

Some pearls are round, but others are not. I don't know what happens to big, strangely shaped pearls these days, but in old Europe they were made into luxury figurines and jewelry. Above is a baby figurine made from a lumpy pearl for Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici in 1695. In the Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Another item from Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici's collection, a small dragon. Photo set showing several more here.

Pendant showing Neptune riding a sea monster, early 17th century. In the Met, which has several of these. I suspect one of their big Gilded Age donors must have collected them.

Pendant in the form of a swan, 16th century. In the Met.

Hercules raising the pillars, 16th century. The choice of image suggests this was made for a man, quite likely Francis I. In the Getty.

Crucifixion, 16th century. In the Met.

Hippocampus, 16th century, once belonged to the Rothschilds, now in the British Museum.

Camel and dwarf, early 18th century, part of a large collection of these in Dresden.

Triton, 16th century. In the Palazzo Pitti.