William Storey’s Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa explores, well, just that. I can’t summarize it any more succinctly than its own title does. Storey argues that the exclusion of non-European citizens from citizenship and its attendant rights and privileges, the production and proliferation of better guns, and the desire for political unity were not, in fact coincidental, but that these technological and political processes were related. He also argues that “when South Africans discussed the gun trade and gun control, they were shaping broader aspects of colonial political culture,” arguing, in essence, for the inherent political-ness of at least some technologies. Connected to this argument is the claim that “the rise and decline of various shooting skills were related to the formation and destruction of African communities, settler communities, and indigenous wildlife.” This relationship between shooting skills and social, political, and ecological communities necessarily entailed the politicization of guns and gun skills. In fact, one of Storey’s novel historiographic interventions involves understanding skills with mimeomorphic or polymorphic traits to better understand sociotechnical changes changes through changes in the mimeomorphic or polymorphic qualities of associated skills.
Before we get to that historiographic intervention, I would first like to discuss another. According to Storey, the historiographic exigency of his study is predicated, in part, on the fact that previous technology histories of guns were written before historians of technology had articulated “a subtle model for understanding the ways in which technology can be both influential and subject to human control at the same time.” In other words, historians of guns previously struggled to elaborate guns as historical forces without falling prey to the trap of technological determinism. Storey describes “hard” technological determinists as those who “actually believe that technology has agency.” Storey does not, apparently, count himself among them, for he states later that he utilizes coproduction as “an idiom that helps us understand how guns became important in South Africa without attributing agency to guns and without denying the importance of guns for social and political change.” I disagree with Storey’s description of hard determinism as the attribution of agency; it seems quite simple to me to attribute agency to an actant artifact without also attributing to it a deterministic force. In fact, even in Storey’s own conception of the role of technologies in “social and political change,” one could argue that to claim technology and the sociopolitical coproduce one another is to, by definition, claim some agency for technology.
Returning to the historiographic intervention of mimeomorphic versus polymorphic skills. I was a tad disappointed to find that this analytic does not seem, in the body of Storey’s book, to wield the degree of explanatory power he claims for it in the introduction, where he emphatically describes it as “crucial for an understanding of the use of any technology.” It seems the best example of the usefulness of this analytic in this story is in the transition from muzzle-loading to breech-loading guns. Though rapid muzzle-loading as part of an infantry volley may have been a repetitive (i.e. mimeographic) skill, muzzle-loading during hunting involved a lot of circumstantial judgment (i.e. polymorphic) skill in determining the amount of powder to use in the barrel, the amount of powder to use in the pan, the size of shot to use in relation to how gummed-up the barrel was, all in consideration of the wind, wetness, and size and distance of prey. When breechloading, on the other hand, all of these polymorphic judgements are alienated from the shooter, predetermined by the gun manufacturers. While Storey does periodically mention the importance of skill, and occasionally reminds the reader to be mindful of the distinction between polymorphic and mimeomorphic skills, he does not leverage this analytic in the body of the text for what I believe is its maximum explanatory force.
Storey also briefly alludes to the technology-historical issue of whether such an such society is an [x technology] society — in this case, was colonial South Africa a “gun society”. Storey approaches this issue quantitatively, wondering at what point (of market penetration or technological adoption) a society becomes a gun society. While the quantity of a type of technology in a society is certainly salient to the social or cultural resonance of that technology in that society, I think it is less interesting than qualitative considerations. Is x technology somehow integrated into a society’s national identity? Does x society retrospectively see x technology as historically significant to the formation of that society? Has x technology substantively shaped the lived experience of all, or a significant portion, of the members of that society? The United States is sometimes spoken of as an automobile society (though we could equally plausibly be referred to as a gun society). Our “love affair” (as it is often described) with the automobile has had profound historically-salient effects on our music, our infrastructure, the distribution of residential and commercial zoning within cities, the racially-motivated fragmentation of neighborhoods and their resident communities, the rural-suburban-urban, distribution of populations, the relationship of our society to our fuel supply (and all its attendant, often militaristic, consequences). In short, the way automobiles are designed, built, used, misused, and disused in our society has profoundly affected our culture, politics, and foreign relations in way that people from outside and inside the US see as symbolically representative of US culture. These kinds of qualitative considerations for the issue of x technology society could have been very compelling for colonial South African in Storey’s hands.
- Xi – I argue that when South Africans discussed the gun trade and gun control, they were shaping broader aspects of colonial political culture. I make the related argument that the rise and decline of various shooting skills were related to the formation and destruction of African communities, settler communities, and indigenous wildlife. While social political, and ecological changes occurred, the representation of guns and shooting skills became highly politicized.
- 5 – This conjunction of problems, the exclusion of non-Europeans from citizenship, the production and proliferation of better guns, and the desire for political unity, may have been coincidental. I argue that it was not, and that these technological and political processes were closely related.
- ~8-10 – historiography of guns/Africa
- Probably a good roadmap for the social history of technology in any colonial context
- 10 – Yet at what statistical point can we say, with accuracy, that a gun society exists? Besides, the widespread ownership of a technology does not determine a society. Nineteenth-century South Africans owned many iron pots, but we do not say they lived in an iron-pot society. To be sure, pots have less cultural resonance than guns, which symbolized citizenship, dominance, and masculinity, in different ways to different people.
- What’s the historiographic payoff for labeling a country as an [X technology] society? It certainly, as Storey suggests, makes more sense for culturally/politically resonant technologies. What is the nature of this “resonance” that enables a society to be defined, at least in part, by its relationship to that technology? E.g., I have heard US spoken of as an automobile society — via infrastructure, the automobile has come to strongly shape lived experience in the US (we could, also, be thought of as a gun society).
- 11 – Today there are a variety of ways in which historians may describe the relationship between technology and the human capacity to change the course of events, or ‘agency.’ . . . ‘hard’ technological determinists may actually believe that technology has agency, while ‘soft’ determinists seek the origins of technological power in human actions. In this way, technology can still be seen as a force influencing history; it is just a force whose creation and use is subject to human decisions. Marks, Atmore, and their fellow authors had to qualify their views about the influence of guns, since historians of technology were not yet providing a subtle model for understanding the ways in which technology can be both influential and subject to human control at the same time.
- So basically his study is historiographically exigent, at least in part, because the extant technological histories of guns in Africa predated the historiographic elaboration of technological agency as we currently understand it.
- 13 – Coproduction is not a theory but an idiom that helps us understand [articulate?] how guns became important in South Africa without attributing agency to guns and without denying the importance of guns for social and political change.
- 14 – This book will address one such issue that cropped up persistently in South Africa, the politics of skill . . .. Mimeomorphic skills are easier to replace with machinery, as would happen with guns during the nineteenth century, although in some circumstances mimeomorphic skills might be valued just as highly as polymorphic skills. At any rate, the distinction between mimeomorphic and polymorphic skills is crucial for an understanding of the use of any technology, including firearms.
- 18 – To save money and reduce the amount of time it took to train soldiers, they began to develop infantry tactics that were better suited to the use of firearms. These mainly involved the use of combined units of musketeers and pikemen. These units drilled and marched to make the best use of their weapons, so that the technical skills of using a firearm were supplemented by cooperative social skills.
- 31 – Doman did not only interpret the Dutch language for the Khoi, He also interpreted the Dutch use of guns.
- Is there something to this? The role of technological translator in a technocultural boundary?
- 81 – Mimeomorphic firearm skills that would appear to be universal were subject to local variation. . . . In fact, the relationship of hunting skills and shooting skills to the political, economica, and ecological transformation of South Africa can only be understood fully when we consider the ways in which South African guns were skillfully adapted to the local environment. Local adaptations are significant in that they show how the everyday practices, skills, and technologies under colonialism were not just derived from Europe and imposed on people in Africa, but were sometimes culturally and environmentally hybrid.
- What does it say about the mimeomorphic/polimorphic heuristic when mimeomorphic skills aren’t universal?
- 106 – In order to achieve independence, the [Boer] republics had to ban slavery and also prohibit the trade in guns and ammunition with Africans, even though it had already gone on to a considerable extent.
- This is as good of evidence as any, though Storey doesn’t mention it, for the “gun society” argument — in order to legally and politically integrate with British sovereignty in the Cape, the Boer republics had to adopt British technological cultural surrounding guns — no other technological cultural adaptation was required, just that of guns
- 108 – In some northern district of the Transvaal, like Zoutpansberg, malaria and sleeping sickness were prevalent, which meant that European reliance on African marksmen, called ‘black shots,’ was quite high.
- Why? What is the connection between malaria/sleeping sickness and the dependence on black marksmen? Was it an environmental containment policy that necessitated culling to keep large mammal population densities low to control the tsetse population and limit the spread of sleeping sickness?
- This is a perfect opportunity to elaborate his thesis
- 133 – The capitalist revolution and the breechloader revolution were related: as more Africans were drawn to migrant labor, they often spent their money on weapons. Yet this is not the only way in which the two revolutions were linked. They were also associated with deskilling: it took fewer skills to fire a breechloader than a muzzle-loader. IN South Africa the breechloader revolution resembled the capitalist revolution in a certain way: African men with multiple skills, especially skills in managing cattle, might find themselves employed by settlers and miners as unskilled labor. It also took less skill to fire the new weapons.// At the individual level, interaction with the material world became less meaningful, or more alienated, as it was drained of skill. As weapons became more industrialized, shooters could not effect their own repairs and modifications, or let community members help them, either. Local specialization was no longer required, say, in making bullets or simple repairs. Al shooters came to depend on highly skilled city gunsmiths, as well as on European ammunition factories.
- Isn’t there a bigger story to tell here? About how this deskilling/alienation (coincidentally?) made it easier to regulate arms and ammunition markets — connecting it to the larger story Storey is telling?
- 185 – Policymakers in Great Britain and South Africa debated the creation of a new state with new terms of citizenship at the same time as they debated whether or not all should have the right to buy, sell, and use guns.// The debate was exacerbated by the arrival, in the 1860s and 1870s, of breechloaders, which were much more effective than the old muskets and which caused greater concerns about risk. And finally, the opening of the Diamond Fields near Kimberly stimulated the gun trade, as African migrant workers earned cash to buy guns. The new industry, the new rifles, and the new citizenship were all taken up or rejected by different people at different times. Were there technological limits to political rights, or political limits to technological rights? Ideas about economy, technology, and state stimulated each other in such a way that it is best to describe them in terms of interdependence or coproduction.