Sunday, November 23, 2008

Some thousand-words are more boring than others

A pile of bison skulls, c. 1870. Click to enlarge. Image found here.

(Greetings and welcome to visitors from The Valve--and thanks to Aaron for the plug there.)

Reading Zunguzungu's reading of a picture of Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt posing with a just-shot buffalo in Africa reminded me for some reason of the picture you see above, or one very similar to it, which the Mrs. and I saw in an exhibit in a museum on our trip to Dodge City two summers ago. Z. titles his post "Just a couple of dudes" and, as he makes quite clear, it's no strain from a psychoanalytic perspective to read the TR and Kermit pic as a celebration of the phallus. Even though I'm not a hunter, I am a guy, and I'd be in more than a little denial if I said that that picture didn't hold some small, primal appeal to me: even with rifles, killing a charging buffalo requires intestinal fortitude that, I'll admit, I don't have and wouldn't care to act upon even if I did but still and all can't help admiring even as I nod in agreement with Z.'s reading of the picture.

But as I say, that picture made me think of the one you see here--chiefly, how boring this one is by comparison. You'd think, if a picture of one dead buffalo gets the old masculine juices flowing, wouldn't a pile of a few thousand bison skulls cause them to flow exponentially? Well, no.

Some comments below the fold.

The commonplace way of talking about what happened to the bison during the latter decades of the 19th century was that it was slaughter, and pictures like this one do nothing to mitigate the use of such language. Indeed, this picture serves as a useful reminder that The West Was Won not by men per se but whole gangs of men: these bison skulls are the handiwork of far more men than that of the couple of dudes (who, interestingly, do not have rifles with them) you see in this picture. Indeed, the only machine visible in this picture is the large, now-empty cart in the lower-right of the picture that, I assume, was used to carry the skulls to this place. Moreover, it could be that the two men you see here aren't hunters at all. The top-hatted fellow at the base of the pile, seated and gesturing rather inadequately with his right arm (why not outspread arms?) may be, perhaps, an agent for one of the rail companies who paid the buffalo hunters for their work. Meanwhile, the man at the summit of the pile (a hunter, or one of the carters who has just emptied the cart in the picture?) holds up a single skull to drive home to the viewer just what it is that this pile is constructed of--for, truth be told, it's difficult to tell just by looking at the pile itself.

Those of us horrified and dismayed by the destruction and loss of this planet's wild places and the creatures in them will, with good reason, read this picture as both evidence and an indictment of that destruction. But that's too easy an observation. In fact, I'd argue that that's our reading of this picture but not the one intended by its maker. I'd like to suggest that its real subject--and its real horror for us--is not the killing of the thousands of animals whose skulls you see here but the work of bringing the skulls to this one place, both the actual labor and the reason for that labor. In that labor lies slaughter's banality, its pre- and post-slaughter logistics that render incidental the actual killing. What matters here is the market for which the heads of these animals--not the animals themselves, mind--serve as units of exchange, and the mechanisms, literal and figurative, that make possible this market, as represented by the empty cart and the (presumed) moneyman. Perhaps somewhere these men's names are recorded, but it would be very much in keeping with this theme of banality if those names were lost. Just a couple (more) dudes.

Work, friends, is boring, and this picture is a proof of that. Some narratives of the winning of the West have flashes of romance, to be sure, but there's no romance here. What's shown here is not the triumph of the phallus but a kind of bean-counting.

Funny how the thread that is the bean-counting narrative doesn't often get talked about as part of the larger tapestry of the West's winning. But then again, this pile of skulls, not to mention the apparent difficulties in getting this other version of the bean-counting narrative turned into this, suggest that there's a horror lurking beneath the surface of the bean-counting narrative that we're not quite ready to see pictured for us . . . and may never be.


aaron said...

Man, that picture is wonderfully grisly. It totally reminds me of the piles of hands that the Belgians used to pile up in the congo, which shows you the direction my mind tends. There are pictures in Adadm Hochschild's book, but I couldn't find any pictures on the internet. Anyway, here's Peter Forbath's description:

"The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected."

Bloody meridian indeed!

John B. said...

Thanks for this--chiefly for the link that it's not the killing but the "collecting" that becomes the point.

In Blood Meridian, scalps are referred to as "receipts."

Pam said...

Yes, this pile does have the air of 'currency'.

But I can't help that it is a 'mine is bigger than yours' thing going on - and I imagine that somewhere close by (a neighboring town?) is another, somewhat smaller, pile...

And where's the images of the guy CLIMBING the pile?

This is all very interesting.

Maybe there's something more alluring about a 'fresh' kill. It even could be chemical - something that is primitive, hence the attraction of the other image vs the pile of skulls. To me the pile of skulls is more interesting, more mysterious - the image of Teddy and Kermit really leaves little to the imagination comparatively.

But perhaps this is a gender thing? I don't know.

John B. said...

Thanks for your comments. They made me look at the picture some more.

Re "mine is bigger than yours": Perhaps so. It is a certainty that there were other piles, given the sheer numbers of bison killed. Also, as I mentioned, as best I remember this doesn't quite look like the picture I saw in Dodge City.

As to this picture's holding more appeal for you than the Roosevelt picture, I think I would be able to say the same if I were to think of this pile in terms of its being a future ossuary. Then, the sheer quantity of skulls would fascinate in and of themselves: "Why so many? To what end?" But it's hard for me to separate the pile from how it got made. By the same token, if the Roosevelts were to leave their buffalo to rot there on the African plain, it would be, well, a little dull as a single skeleton. It would no longer signify as a singled-out quarry.

I don't know, either.

Jim Sligh said...


I have that exact photograph, ripped out of somewhere, in a portfolio in a box somewhere in the States.

If you're looking for a bean-counting narrative of the West, what about DEADWOOD? There's a lot of other stuff going on, but I'm thinking about the way that the focus of the series, unlike a lot of westerns, is on the town, not the wide plain or the drifters. It's on the people that stay, & the action takes place indoors, & economics matter much more than they do in most Westerns.

I feel like there's a better, longer argument to be made for it, but it's a saint's day today, & they´re eating sardines on the mountain by the castle.

John B. said...

I had thought about Deadwood, too, though I (so far) have seen only a couple of episodes of it and so didn't mention it. "A little knowledge" and all that.

Felíz día del santo.