Ten Miles Square

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May 01, 2014 11:49 AM Elizabeth Bear on Knowledge in Pre-Modern Society

By Henry Farrell

I’ve just finished Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky sequence (Powells, Amazon). It’s fantasy, based around a rough analogue to Central-Asia-plus-China-plus-bits-of-Rus, in which pasty skinned Westerners are weird and occasional aberrations. It’s also enormous fun. It’s also technically impressive in its grasp of how feudal and tribal societies actually work. Bear really gets the consequences of imperfect information sharing in pre-modern societies and uses it as a core engine of plot. Rather than the usual fantasy model of ‘bunch of disparate comrades united on a single heroic quest,’ it goes for the far trickier ‘bunch of disparate comrades who split up and go in many different directions, most of the time with only the vaguest idea of what the others are doing.’ It pains me to think how much work she must have done to keep track of who knows what at which point, but it pays off. The really nice part is that the villain (who bears a strong resemblance to Hassan-i Sabbāh) is not a commander of the usual armies of mindless hordes. Instead, he mostly has to work through treachery, dissimulation and manipulation of collective knowledge. His magics (which are costly) mostly involve better communication, which allow him both to work more easily with subordinates, and to spread disinformation so that it takes hold quickly, forestalling some alliances while encouraging others.

All this is strongly reminiscent of Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book (which is one of the genuine classics of sociology, and far less frequently read and assigned than it deserves). Gellner’s account of pre-modern society stresses how ‘sword wielders’ (rulers and their warriors) have to come to terms with ‘script users’ (religious leaders and clerks). Coalitions between the two classes govern most pre-modern societies.1 The former are specialists in violence. The latter are specialists in communication, and over the time, the power of the second constrains and shapes the power of the first.

In any one single encounter, there is of course no question of any equality of strength: he who has, and knows how to use, the sword, need brook no nonsense from the penpusher, and is indeed most unlikely to tolerate any opposition from him. To understand the manner in which pen-pushers nonetheless can and do effectively oppose and overcome swordsmen, we need not invoke or overestimate some mysterious power of superstition in the hearts of the swordsmen, which would compel them to bend their knees to the upholders of legitimation and truth. … Each member of the warrior class controls his own stronghold and band of armed followers … These local lords are … loosely organized in a kind of pyramid …

The main point about the loose and fluid congeries of lords of diverse rank is that they are indeed loose and unstable. There are diverse reasons for this. For one thing, they are prone to conflict and warfare simply in virtue of their pervasive ethos: violence is their honour, their specific skill, and they are in effect required to demonstrate, almost perpetually, their competence at inflicting and resisting it. There are also other reasons. The balance of poewr that keeps the peace between thugs and coalitions of thugs is unstable. The power of a lord high up on the scale, of a king in effect, depends on how many lower level thugs he can organize. The availability, the “loyalty”, of a lower level thug will in practice depend on his private assessment of the strength of the king, and so, indirectly, on the lower-level thug’s assessment of the loyalty of other lower level thugs. They are all tacitly watching each other. … in civil strife, potential supporters of rival claims to legitimacy are swayed not so much by their own assessment of the real merits of the case, but by their private, unavowed prediction of the loyalties of others. If the [organization of pen-pushers] has the authority to ascribe legitimacy, and is endowed with the machinery for disseminating and publicizing its verdict, this confers great indirect power on it. It can crystallize the consensus which then brings together the larger units. … The pen is not mightier than the sword; but the pen sustained by ritual does impose great constraints on the sword. It alone can help the swordsmen decide how to gang up to the greatest advantage. (pp.95-99)

It’s unlikely (though of course far from impossible) that Bear has read Gellner. Furthermore, her imagined universe is one in which divine authority is real and can provide legitimation without the mediation of earthly intermediaries (the skies of the steppes reflect the temporal order below). Yet her ideas push in a not dissimilar direction. In pre-modern societies, the power to communicate is key. Gellner emphasizes how communication and legitimation reinforce the power of traditional religious organizations. Bear emphasizes the vulnerability of these arrangements to disruption by canny manipulation of information. Her books are a very nice example of how a clear thinking writer can use straightforward sociological insights to reinforce the power of her fiction.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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