Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Discovery of France

The muse is a strange bird. We try to ignore it, focus on the work at hand, and remember the mantra that “ninety percent of any project is hard work.” (The Puritans must have coined this phrase. Or Reader’s Digest? Joseph Stalin?). The muse leaves me alone in these moments of productive toil, waiting until I am without pencil or palm pilot, usually in the shower or out running in Elizabeth Park. These are, for some reason, my brightest moments. There must be a good psychological explanation for this. Whatever it is, these places form the mystic triangle of my intellectual life: study, shower, park.

But it was my son Theo who played muse yesterday. We were at the public library and I was headed downstairs with my kids when he broke away, running towards the New Books Section with the lurching gait common to 18-month-old children and drunken elderly men. I caught him in New Non-Fiction, and stood there long enough to notice Graham Robb’s new book, “The Discovery of France.”

I’m only 40 pages in, but have seen enough to realize how nicely Robb’s project connects to the ideas of exploration I wrote about in my last post. To recap: the modern era (1789-present) is filled with those who have viewed exploration narrowly as the engine of geographical discovery, a way to put people in places where they haven’t been before (or, if that’s not possible, to put white people in places where white people haven’t been before).

Anglo-American Hunters in Africa

Yet there have always been critics of this view from 19th century figures such as Alexander von Humboldt and Simon Bolivar to 20th century historians such as William Goetzmann. Why do we care? Many reasons. But perhaps the most compelling one is this: how we think about exploration shapes our policies on exploration. Specifically, the goal of putting humans in places they’ve never been before has gotten more difficult and more expensive. Designing craft that can hurl living beings into space and then return them, still breathing, to earth requires gargantuan sums of money. As such, they suck the life blood out of smaller, more useful, scientific projects that would give us a better, holistic, and more integrated understanding of our solar system.

People on Mars: Expensive

Robots on Mars: Cheap

Robb’s project has nothing to do with space. But it has everything to do with re-conceiving exploration in its broadest terms. We, the scholars of the voyage, usually apply our questions to westerners who are mucking around (and mucking up) places far from home. In this case, Robb – adopting a Humboldtian perspective – turns the question upside down: how do civilized societies explore their own backwaters and terrae incognitae? Specifically, how does rural 18th-century France appear when viewed through the looking-glass of the Enlightenment explorer? Robb’s answer: exotic at best, savage at worst, always dangerous, sometimes violent. At the moment when Versailles is sending expeditions to measure and catalog the world (by Condamine, Bougainville, and La Perouse), it is woefully ignorant of regions a carriage-ride away from Paris. It was here, in these rural regions of France that Jacques Cassini sent out observers to complete a massive survey of France and here, Robb observes, that “on a summer’s day in the early 1740s, a young geometer on the Cassini expedition was hacked to death by the natives.”

Gaul: Dangerous Country

But there is more to Robb’s project than this grisly, if delicious, irony. His book exposes the limits of one line of thinking that had become too popular in the academy, namely that exploration was a monolithic enterprise, the eager forward guard of empire, ruthlessly and efficiently preparing the way for conquest and colonization. Admittedly, there is some truth to this. But it is hard to believe that European empires were monolithically controlling anything when we learn that Paris was scarcely more in control of the province of Savoie than its far-flung colony of St Dominigue. For those who’ve drunk deeply from the well of Foucault and Said, this is something to take seriously. The “gaze” of the scientist alighted on many objects, local, as well as global, white as well as native. The pompadoured aristocrats of Paris found their “others” not only in souks of Cairo, but among the shepherds of the Pyrénées.

1 Comment»

  databunny wrote @

i like your article. i found it while researching whether or not Robb’s book is one long hoax, or at least containing a few jokes to lighten those 4 years he spent in the library. What are we to make of tetaires or flocks of sheep who battled one another in orderly ranks? i love his outlandishly subtle anti-religiousness, although it seems i am in the minority there.

Anyway, thanks for your words. (And i shall let you know the address of muse headquarters as soon as i have cornered mine and wrung it from him…)

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