William Storey – Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa

21 August, 2021 - examPrep

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.


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