The Null Device

2010/10/6

Sometime around the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe, the rate of homicide dropped sharply; before then, violent death was a lot more common than afterward. Historians are still discussing why this may have happened:

''In the 14th century people are concerned with whether someone is of good or ill repute; it's a collective, community judgment. When you get into the 15th century, the question is about someone's 'governance.' There is a shift from community reputation to an emphasis on internal control.'' A proliferation of tracts and manuals on proper behavior trickle down to common, illiterate folks in the form of rhymes and ditties.
One theory is that that the decline in resolving matters of honour through violent means was a result of the rising power of monarchs and states, and the ability of the state to enforce its laws more uniformly, removing the impetus for communities to take matters into their own hands. Others claim cultural shifts for the change:
Mr. Muir describes how the Republic of Venice tried to put an end to violent feuding among unruly nobles as it extended its influence into remote rural areas in the 17th century. The wars fought over generations by the area's leading families left the region vulnerable to foreign invasion. Venice reacted by first meting out stiff punishment, then by drawing the rural noble families into Venetian aristocratic life. Here they learned to replace the clan feud with the individual duel, an important shift from collective violence to individual responsibility and violence. Finally, the feuding clans, who now prided themselves on their courtly behavior, fought it out through the publication of dueling pamphlets, trying to best their rivals through elegant put-downs and masterly argument.
''Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation put a lot of emphasis on individual conscience,'' said Tom Cohen, who teaches history at York University in Toronto. ''The conscience becomes the internal gyroscope. There is the growth of introspection -- the diary, the novel, the personal essay. Along with the kind of personal self-control that Norbert Elias describes.''
Conversely, Mr. Roth noted, one sees significant increases in violence at times of political tension when the legitimacy of government is under serious attack, before and after the Civil War, as well as after World War I in Europe. The fact that murder rates did not go down in Italy and Greece until the 19th centuries, when each country won its political independence and formed a modern national state, suggests that the decline may have had more to do with state formation than with the trickling down of court culture.

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2010/10/5

Scottish novelist AL Kennedy rides the railroads of North America whilst working on her latest novel, and writes about it:

Lately, I have been spending a good deal of time in Penn Station and have wondered – not for the first time – whether 65% of the people waiting for trains there appear to be seriously mentally distressed because they arrived that way, or because they have stepped into an alternative universe of heat, bewilderment, pain and ambient evil. You may be aware that many US rail stations are grand expressions of generous respect to their users, full of stately perpendiculars, handy benches and lots of gold leaf – high-ceilinged temples to mass transit and the communal hopes of a bygone age. Penn Station is there for balance: to remind you that this Depression will not produce a New Deal, and that many members of the general public are surplus to requirements; and to hint that your train will travel at the speed of lazy treacle on a cold day, will shudder along rails that even Railtrack would call poorly-maintained, and will give priority to freight, cars, pedestrians and any animal above the size of a healthy adult woodchuck.
(Penn Station, for what it's worth, was once a majestic railway station in New York; though some time in the 1960s, it was demolished and rebuilt as a depressing warren of subterranean tunnels that makes Heathrow Terminal 2 look like a cathedral by comparison; thus making an all-too-convenient metaphor for the icaresque fall from grace of passenger rail in car-centric America.)
Yet I continue to love American (and Canadian) trains. I am trying to rebrand my debilitating and expensive fear of flying as Steampunk Travel and – at a certain level – I find I am convincing at least myself that rail transportation is a good and lovely, as well as an ecological, option. US trains are roomy, their passengers have no expectations and therefore often eschew UK passengers' lapses into frenzied disappointment and rage when they are delayed, misled, or ignored. Plus, US trains are still rich in the iconic elements that I, lover of black and white movies that I am, find intoxicating. They are monumental: they still roll majestically into stations with their bells ringing like harbingers of strange mortality, they still hoot across the countryside in the manner of wistful mechanical whales, the conductors still wear little round blue conductor's hats and the Red Caps still wear red caps – although sometimes they're baseball caps

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