The Maypole is the Medium: A Review of The Networked Wilderness by Matt Cohen

The Maypole is the Medium: A Review of The Networked Wilderness by Matt Cohen

The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England
Matt Cohen
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

From early modern texts to “publishing events,” Madeleine Monson-Rosen’s review follows Matt Cohen’s exploration of the “networked wilderness.” It turns out that the English colonists and native Americans were already information theorists, centuries before cybernetics emerged at MIT.

In a discussion of Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of information, N. Katherine Hayles writes,

The theory makes a strong distinction between message and signal. Lacan to the contrary, a message does not always arrive at its destination. In information theoretic terms, no message is ever sent. What is sent is a signal. Only when the message is encoded as a signal for transmission through a medium—for example, when ink is printed on paper or when electrical pulses are sent racing along telegraph wires—does it assume material form. (18)

It’s hard enough, for most literary scholars, to think about print and type in the abstract terms of medium and information. Matt Cohen’s The Networked Wilderness argues that we should take Shannon’s theoretic abstraction even further, expanding the categories of medium and message to encompass actions and events well outside the realm of conventional literary scholarship. This study argues that wars, medicine, and jokes are all encoded as signals upon the media conferred by the seventeenth-century American landscape. Substituting the term “publication event” for publications, Cohen’s book applies methodologies derived from the fields of information theory, print culture, and media studies to the actions and events that characterized relations between English colonists and Native Americans in the period leading up to the Pequot war of 1634-1638.

The Networked Wilderness begins its project, in fact a relatively constrained analysis of texts and events that emerge from colonial New England in the 1630s, by both proclaiming a field-transforming rejection of the divide between oral and literate cultures and by close-reading an often-cited, often-read event: Thomas Morton’s erection of the Maypole at Ma-Re Mount. Cohen suggests that conventional notions of print literacy operate with a far-too-narrow definition. Written and printed texts convey meaning even to those who cannot read them, and the techniques of textual analysis can be applied to a wide range of objects, including clothing, buildings, and the bodies of individual persons, on whom the actions of other individuals can be wrought. Implicit in Cohen’s claim is the assumption that literary analysis is itself already information theory, and therefore it offers a technique for analyzing “publication events” with a much broader purview than written and printed words. Cohen argues that there is no such thing as illiteracy, and that texts often communicate to those who cannot read them.

Thomas Morton’s maypole offers a case study of the way in which texts and events can signify without requiring conventional print literacy. “Let us think of the Maypole as a publishing venue,” Cohen writes:

Morton himself refers to it as a kind of beacon for traders, but if we see it as a sophisticated communications tool, with poems tacked on for communal reading in a public place, it assumes a different significance. Fourteen years before the first printing press was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay, Morton built a tool for distributing information publicly—and for creating a space of authority for oral proclamations as well—that competed with the Pilgrim leaders’ control over local oral and written exchanges.” (33)

Morton’s Maypole is, among all its other significances, a threat to Puritan hegemony in the sphere of communication. What Cohen denotes as a “publication event,” the erection of the Maypole and the affixing to it of Morton’s own “allegorical poems, presented as riddles or ciphers” (33), also functions, in this context, as a “homograph.” A homograph, as coined by Lee Edelman and expanded in Cohen’s usage,

applies to either a material object (such as a Maypole) or an aggregation of gestures that require such a material context (the Maypole ritual, the ceremonial reading of poems from a sheet of paper). Such objects or gestures must also be recognized as the center of temporary apparent agreement about “meaning” regardless of the actual diversity of interpretations among observers. (43)

The Maypole functions as a homograph because, in addition to its symbolic association with England’s pagan history, the pole also has significance for the Native American groups with whom Morton was in contact. “The village-central poles that appear in many east coast Native archaeological sites and in some other European reports form the most obvious homograph with the Maypole” (43). Morton was not only setting himself and his community dead against his Puritan fellow-colonists, he was also engaging in “purposeful cultural brokering” (43).

Events as disparate as the erection of the Maypole by Morton, Edward Winslow’s curing of Massassoit’s constipation, and the Pequots’ terrifying battle practices, which included unearthly howling to frighten the colonists and dressing in the clothes of Europeans whom they had killed in order to terrorize their Puritan antagonists, form the “texts,” the homographic publication events that signify to both European and Native audiences.

In reading such publication events, events in which “texts” are “read,” Cohen turns print culture’s dependence on reading paper and ink on its head. On the one hand, Cohen’s project attempts, successfully for this reviewer, to wholly call into question an oral/literate divide that persists in anthropological accounts of the interactions of cultures possessing technologies of print and writing with those that don’t. On the other hand, Cohen’s work close-reads the texts (paper-and-ink texts), and the lives of the texts, that constitute the archive of encounters between English colonists and New England native populations in the 1630s. Such publication events as the Maypole or the terrorizing of the colonists by the Pequot can only be approached through their textual archive, but Cohen demonstrates that their signification extends far beyond their imagined readers. In this sense, Cohen’s study has the potential to reorient the field of print culture, and to reconfigure the intersections between literary studies and network science.

In reorganizing the conventional categories of medium and message (increasingly when investigating accounts of Native life in New England, persons, features of the landscape, even imitated animal noises, function as media, while the message might be medical information, or a joke), Cohen presents a profound claim, reconfiguring the persistent opposition between literate and oral communication. As that opposition is conventionally constructed, print cultures produce a reliable archive, engage in contracted proprietary exchange, and possess the capacity for reliable communication. Cohen argues that we ought to consider the erection of the Maypole and the curing of Massassoit as exercises in systematic “oral” communication networks as much as they are events to which our access comes through a print archive. He also argues that we must consider Native signifying systems such as wampum, an international currency used throughout New England before and after colonization, as “printed,” at least in the sense of being fixed and stable, forms of communication.

The stated goal of The Networked Wilderness is “to break down the separation of indigenous studies from the history of the book. To do so means engaging the implications of dissolving orality and literacy into a continuous topography or spectrum rather than thinking about them as a series of overlapping but always distinct cognitive categories or habits” (25). While the objects of analysis in Cohen’s book are relatively specific, the methodology outlined in the book’s introduction has the potential for widespread effects in the field of print culture and literary history. The Networked Wilderness proposes the rejection of illiteracy as a category, both in general and in particular as an oppositional term, arguing, instead, that so-called “illiterate” cultures and persons utilize a multimedia literacy. This multimedia literacy informs a methodology that recognizes that books often speak to the unlettered, and that “oral” or illiterate societies nonetheless have elaborate, systematic, and reliable forms of communicating and recording information. The radical expansion of the scope of communication theory in this book’s extraordinary introduction makes an invaluable contribution to the study of the history of communication.

What is unfortunate about The Networked Wilderness is that its impressive methodology does relatively little to illuminate the communication networks in early New England, although it does confer an enhanced close reading strategy for both texts and events in the region and in the colonial mother countries in the 1630s. The study of networks per se is limited to a few instances, such as Massassoit’s cure, which includes a joke that takes almost twenty years to tell and depends on the expediency of Algonquian long-distance communication, especially as compared to the colonists’ limited communications capacity.

Not only is Edward Winslow’s cure a publication event in the sense that it earns him, and by extension his fellow inhabitants of Plymouth colony, a privileged relationship with Massassoit’s Wampanoag people, something that a formal treaty or contract could not do between such apparently disparate cultures, it is profoundly significant in that the curing of Massassoit’s body, the body of a king, becomes a metonym for the ideal relationship between the two groups: Native and English. When Winslow heals Massassoit, he also heals the Wampanoag society, in danger of dissolution or coup d’etat during his illness. This act seals a sort of compact of cooperation between the two groups. The cure signifies in the way a treaty cannot because, in a methodology characterized by opposition between literacy and illiteracy, written communication and contract is in effect a kind of protection racket, in which European theories of property relations produce the need for agreement in the first place, and then locate all the power for enforcing (or for that matter reneging on) the contract in the European colonists themselves. Part of what Cohen is asking us to see is a degree of agency on the part of Native Americans even in the middle of the process of aggressive (such as violent attacks) as well as passive (such as contagion) damage to them by Europeans.

In memory of Winslow’s cure of him, and the false reports of his death that preceded it, Massassoit orchestrates a practical joke on the inhabitants of Plymouth on the anniversary of the cure. According to John Winthrop’s diary, Winslow was traveling home to Plymouth in the company of a Wampanoag “olde Allye” Osamekin. “But before they took their Iornye Osamekin sent one of his men to Plim: to tell them that mr winslowe was dead, & directed him to shewe how and where he was killed: whereupon there was much fear and sorrowe at Plim.” Of this dubious joke, Cohen writes,

As Mark Twain might point out, premature reporting of mortality is one of the oldest ones in the book. But the deliberate deception has a complex relationship to the past. Reversing the roles at the crisis of Sowams eleven years earlier, Massassoit sends deliberate misinformation to the Plymouth colony. The news of his own death having been exaggerated, he reenacts and reverses the confusion of Winslow’s midnight trip through the woods. He then augments the misinformation in answer to the naïve question about his motives. Massassoit mocks the English notion of culture itself—a warning that still resonates as we try to read this incident today—by claiming that such deliberate misinformation is a Wampanoag trait or ritual. It is a many-edged joke, even leaving aside the amusement the recorder Winthrop clearly enjoys…. Where would the colony be without Winslow? asks Massassoit implicitly. (89)

This use of information and misinformation to effect a desired outcome informs Cohen’s most persuasive chapter. In an analysis of the publication event of the cure and its subsequent references, Cohen depicts the “wilderness” of New England as truly networked. Winslow’s cure and the later joke at his expense work because the Algonquians (including the Wampanoag, the Pequot, the Narragansett, and numerous other North American tribes) had an extensive, efficient, and well regulated system of communication.

“When meeting of any in travell” [Roger] Williams reports, Algonquians would “strike fire either with stones or sticks, to take Tobacco, and discourse a little together.” By this means, each exchange between messengers became a node in a web of news sharing that could, with even a small number of “discourses,” swiftly distribute news over a widespread area and, in many cases, across political boundaries. Williams notes that the Narragansetts seldom traveled alone, which increased the likelihood of both the message’s transmission (in the event of attack or accident) and, under normal circumstances, of its fidelity. Not all news was intended for broadcast; Bradford and Winslow both report of “secret” communications frustrating their search for political agreements with local leaders. Such transmissions were governed by a different set of protocols. (71-72)

Were this passage more representative of its analysis, The Networked Wilderness would offer an exciting new instantiation of the theory of networks, a fact of social organization first identified in the 1960s, and an increasingly common way of describing social organization. Although made culturally current by the ubiquity of social media, social networks are themselves typically mapped by the spread of information (as well as pathogens such as flu viruses). Social scientists use the vectors of, for instance, conspiracy theories, in order to identify loosely organized social networks. The spread of information reveals links between persons without any evident social connection. In observing that the Algonquian peoples utilized extensive communication networks, Cohen sets the stage for what initially promises to be an important contribution to the study of social networks, connected, as they always are, by technologies of communication, whether individuals traveling in pairs or message blocks routed through fiber optic cable. Unfortunately, The Networked Wilderness does not fully deliver on this promise. While there is no shortage of significant and signifying publication events, the analysis of the networks that communicate those events falls short. The concluding chapter, on a Pequot publication event of the postmodern age, applies literary critical methodologies to a complex work of representation, but leaves aside any discussion of the networks, in early or postmodern New England, that communicate the significance of that work.

One of the final “texts” discussed in Cohen’s analysis is the Pequot Museum dedicated to the Fort Mystic Massacre of 1637. The Museum’s multimedia exhibits include simulation, of sights, sounds, and smells, as well as simulacra, such as mannequins representing Pequot men, women, and children, in order to restage the events of the Mystic Massacre, a decisive event of the Pequot war. Cohen proposes to read the museum “as a source equivalent in importance to the seventeenth-century published narratives of Captain John Underhill, one of the leaders of the attack, or the Reverend Philip Vincent, who was not present for it,” but who wrote and published an account of the attack (134). In reading the museum and the massacre it commemorates as multimedia representations of the same event, Cohen suggests that what might appear a “postmodern” use of simulation and simulacra in the museum in the 21st century might also be a re-mobilization of a Pequot practice of utilizing simulation and simulacra in the service of communication:

Perhaps the most disturbing Native simulation—more than the storytelling, the camouflage, or the howling—was the wearing of clothes taken from slain English people. After the Wethersfield attack, the Pequots had rigged English clothes as sails symbolically in their canoes, a macabre mockery of English seagoing technology. (152)

Cohen suggests that the Pequot museum’s use of simulacra and simulation might not, in fact, be an effort at representing Pequot lifeways and might instead be a revival of that “macabre mockery”: “a deliberate use of simulacra designed to unsettle visitors” (139).

Cohen concludes The Networked Wilderness by relating fables of the cooptation of media. Like the simulacra and simulation used by the Pequots to terrorize the English settlers, modern simulations resist the cultural imperialism that originates in the interactions marked by the book’s publication events. Taking a page from Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and proponent of religious freedom, Cohen argues,

Planned interactions between cultures that might result in territorial or economic change must be entered into with ontologies of law and history suspended, but they should also be subject to consensually devised rules, mutual respect, and extraordinary patience. It is the constitution of consent—a social relation designed as a fulcrum to mutual advantage—that is the technology of justice. (174)

This model social relation, the “constitution of consent,” is exemplified by Morton’s Maypole and Massassoit’s cure as well as his joke. Contemporary Onondaga artist Gail Tremblay’s work, Strawberry and Chocolate also represents such an ideal relation. Strawberry and Chocolate is a traditional basket woven not from ash splints but from strips of celluloid (175). Repurposing the medium of film in order to communicate something both critical and complicit, both instrumental and useless, both European and Native American, Strawberry and Chocolate is, for Cohen, the signal that communicates the message of justice to both white and Native audiences.

But what, then, of the networked wilderness? Although Cohen successfully proposes multiple messages to be interpreted according to methodologies developed by scholars of print culture and the history of the book, he leaves the media that convey those messages, and that form the links (known also as edges in network theory) between the nodes (or vertices) of individuals, tribes, and colonies, relatively unmapped. As “the framework upon which distributed dynamical systems are built,” social networks remain relatively unstudied, especially historically (Newman et al 4). Cohen has done significant work towards interpreting the messages encoded and signaled across the communications networks of early New England. The networks themselves, however, have yet to be uncovered.

Works Cited

Hayles, N Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1999.

Newman, Mark, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, and Duncan J. Watts. The Structure and Dynamics of Networks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 2006.