Daniel Headrick – Power Over Peoples [Featured Review]

May 4, 2012 — Leave a comment


Page 2 – Daniel Hedrick – Power Over Peoples

If there is any single drawback to Headrick’s work, it is the sheer scope of his work. By offering a single volume which attempts to cover nine distinct epochs into a story that is simultaneously technological, political, and environmental, some aspects of these conflicts are inevitably left out. To be fair, Headrick is trying to illuminate one thesis: that the relationship between technology and conquest is not a straightforward story. This approach has innumerable benefits, which I will describe shortly, but by trying to cover so much ground historically, rather than select a few narratives to demonstrate his thesis, Headrick runs the risk over oversimplifying his complex topic. In his defense, he offers many caveats against such simplifications, but covering any of these episodes in their totality seems to be the subject of whole books, not single chapters.

Despite this limitation, the benefits of Headrick’s volume are manifold. Not only does Headrick successfully complicate our understanding of how technology enables (and doesn’t enable) one civilization to overtake another, he expands our imagination beyond the simple equating of “technology” with “machine”.  By including immunology and disease into the conversation about “technology”, we have an expanded understanding of how cultures are encountered, and thus, the limits to what technology actually accomplishes in these instances. Additionally, by placing a number of these instances in conversation with each other, Headrick’s thesis is strengthened: we are able to see, how in one context, weaponry suceeds whereas – due to changes in topography, time, or culture – they fail miserably.

The payoff for this volume is an appreciation for the limits and possibilities of technology, both in their applications for good and for subjugation of populations. One of the intriguing insights of Headrick is that these technologies in many ways, though intended for use by one group, take on a life of their own. Horses bred for Spanish invaders are appropriated by their opponents in the Americas; weapons meant for subjugation become turned on their attackers. In many ways, one is reminded of Foucault’s admonition that power is never unilateral, but circulatory, and that resistance to power occurs precisely because power is always emerging in unforeseen ways. This volume undermines any simplistic explanations of how technology is used over against populaces, reminding us that any tool can be a weapon, and that any weapon can be undone in the right circumstance.