Top Young Historians: 98 – Natasha Zaretsky

TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

97: Shane Hamilton, 1-5-09

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia, 2005-Present
Area of Research: 20th-century U.S. sociopolitical, history of technology, history of agriculture and rural life, and history of capitalism.
Education: Ph.D. in History and Social Studies of Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005.
Major Publications: Shane Hamilton is the author of Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton University Press, 2008). He has published articles and reviews in journals including Shane Hamilton JPGAgricultural History, Business History Review,  Enterprise & Society, Reviews in American History, and Technology and Culture. His article, “Cold Capitalism: The Political Ecology of Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice,” which appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Agricultural History, won the 2003 Edward E. Everetts Award from the Agricultural History Society. He is currently working on a second book project tentatively titled “Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the American Century.” Part of the research for this project will appear in spring 2009 as “Supermarket USA Confronts State Socialism: Airlifting the Technopolitics of Industrial Food Distribution into Cold War Yugoslavia,” in Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users, edited by Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann (MIT Press).       Awards: Hamilton is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including, among others: National Science Foundation Scholar’s Award, “Supermarket USA: Food, Technology, and Power in the American Century” Award No. 0646662, 2007; National Endowment for the Humanities, University of Georgia Nominee for Summer Stipend, 2007; Gilbert C. Fite Award for Best Dissertation in Agricultural History, Agricultural History Society, 2006;
Herman E. Krooss Prize for Best Dissertation in Business History, Business History Conference, 2006;
University of Georgia Alumni Research Foundation, Junior Faculty Research Grant in the Arts and Humanities, 2006;
Miller Center of Public Affairs, Charlottesville, VA, Fellow in History, Public Policy, and American Politics, 2004-2005;
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, Predoctoral Fellowship, 2003-2004;
Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Cambridge, MA, Graduate Fellowship, 2003-2004;
National Science Foundation, Dissertation Improvement Grant SES-0322268, 2003-2004;
Edward E. Everetts Award for Best Graduate Essay, Agricultural History Society, 2003;
Siegel Prize for Best Essay on Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003;
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Sawyer Fellowship for “Modern Times/Rural Places,” 2001-2002;
National Science Foundation, Graduate Research Fellowship, Honorable Mention, 2000.
Additional Info:
Hamilton has been featured on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Georgia Weekly,” SIRIUS Radio Network’s “Freewheelin’,” and WABC-AM’s “John Batchelor Show.” He will also appear in a documentary film by Nicholas Robespierre, Running Heavy, when that film finally makes its way into art-house cinemas. He also writes op-ed pieces for, among other outlets, the History News Network.

Personal Anecdote

While pursuing a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 2000s I formed a band, The Atomic Harvesters, which we declared to be “Boston’s Sexiest Lounge-Country Band.” Merging the instrumentation of 1950s-60s urban jazz with the raw simplicity of rural country music from the same period, the Atomic Harvesters drew on diverse musical inspirations, ranging from Hank Williams, Sr. to Billie Holiday to the Modern Jazz Quartet and Merle Haggard. The intellectual inspiration for the band name and concept, however, drew directly on a passage in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State.

On page 272, Scott refers to Davis Meltzer’s artistic rendering of the “farm of the future” in the February 1970 issue of National Geographic magazine. In the image, two men operate a semi-autonomous farm of enormous scale from a glass-topped dome equipped with a supercomputer. Beef cattle are arrayed in what seems to be a “cattle condo,” architecturally not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum, except that cattle munching on antibiotic-laced feedstuffs fill the places of tourists and art critics. The farmer seated at the supercomputer operates an atomic-powered harvester, processing a grain field of near-infinite size into the foodstuffs of a consumer-driven economy. Meltzer’s image channels modernist Charles Scheeler’s paintings, in which individual workers are dwarfed by the machines that surround them in techno-pastoralist landscapes. Meltzer’s imagery borders on the surreal, yet evokes a very realistic world in which the Jeffersonian vision of independent farmers working the land with simple tools has been subsumed by the technocracy of late-twentieth-century capitalism.

Meltzer’s image provided the inspiration for my band’s name, as well as the title of one of our instrumentals, “Cattle Condo.” James Scott’s critique of high modernist agriculture, meanwhile, laid a cornerstone for my ongoing intellectual interest in the technology, political economy, social realities, and political culture of rural Americans living in a world of industrial agriculture, hypercapitalist consumerism, and profound antistatism-a world that I described in my first book, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy.

Meltzer’s 1970 imagining of the “farm of the future” and Jim Scott’s critique of high modernism focused on the vast material, political, and ideological gulfs separating urbanites from rural residents in the modern era. I sought in Trucking Country, by contrast, to show how the wrenching transformations of rural life in the mid- twentieth century were deeply intertwined with broader transformations in U.S. politics, economic realities, cultural beliefs, and social experiences. By thus contextualizing the historical experiences of rural Americans- even those country-music-lovin’ neopopulist truckers who self-identified as members of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority”-I demonstrated how rural workers helped to construct, from the 1930s through the 1970s, the economic realities and ideologies of neoliberalism that permeated the entire nation by the 1980s. These rural independent truckers, working in a world of industrial agribusiness, suburban supermarkets, and high modernist agricultural policymakers, found themselves with few choices other than to accept a “Wal-Mart economy”-decades before Wal-Mart became one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations.

I no longer have time to play much guitar, and the members of the Atomic Harvesters have spread to the four corners of the world. My fascination with the “farm of the future” and the rural people of the past, however, continues to drive my research-particularly as I work on my second book, “Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the American Century.” There are far more country music songs about trucks than there are about supermarkets, so I unfortunately will not be integrating my musical interests and my historical research as tightly as I did in my first book. Unless, of course, I revive the Atomic Harvesters and write a couple of lounge-country tunes about U.S. supermarkets being airlifted into Yugoslavia, Italy, and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. If anyone knows of a rhyme for “Yugoslavia,” I’m all ears.

Quotes

By Shane Hamilton

  • Every truck stop in the nation sells belt buckles that proudly declare: “Independent Truckers Move America.” Trucking Country JPG In the following pages I reveal the motto’s deeper meaning, showing how agribusiness relied upon independent truckers to shift American capitalism into overdrive, introducing lean and mean business strategies and cultivating a culture of economic conservatism welcomed by both rural producers and suburban consumers. On country stretches of asphalt, in rural food factories, and in supermarket warehouses and shopping aisles, agribusinesses sowed the seeds of the anti-statist market populism that defined late-twentieth-century capitalism. Though it may seem surprising to link the country culture of trucking to the collapse of economic liberalism in America’s post-WWII consumer economy, we might do well to pay heed to the words of country musician Del Reeves. As he twanged in his 1968 jukebox hit, “looking at the world through a windshield” helps put “everything in a little bit different light.” — Shane Hamilton in “Trucking Country”
  • Florida orange growers were prideful, greedy, even callous, in their efforts to make profits out of industrial agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s. They did not, however, do so by incessantly increasing their production despite the limits imposed by their environment. They struggled to rationalize their industry, but to them, “rationalization” did not necessarily mean stability of production or simplification of the natural world. Instead, the particular political-economic situation of Florida orange growers in the period allowed them to create an industry that maintained oligopolistic control over prices. When freezes brought instability to production, the industry consequently turned less oranges into more money. This was perfectly “rational,” although not for consumers, in the sense that it was a logical response given the conditions of the industry at the time. Thus, it seems that the concept of “rationalized agriculture” tells us more about who is using the term than it does about the actual practice of industrial agriculture. Marxist critiques of industrial agriculture, just like neo-liberal glorifications of “free” enterprise, assume a clear logic to capitalism that does not necessarily exist. — Shane Hamilton in “Cold Capitalism: The Political Ecology of Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice”

About Shane Hamilton

  • “This detailed, closely argued book chronicles the U.S. trucking industry’s history, particularly its role in rolling back New Deal policies and regulations. Hamilton is a knowledgeable guide to everything from beef trusts to the National Farmers Organization to the 1979 strike that opens the book, in which 75,000 truckers tried to shut down the nation’s highway system. Economy and market buffs looking for a different perspective on America’s 20th century economic evolution will find this intriguing and informative.” — Publishers Weekly
  • “With the US again engaged in a debate over the merits of regulation versus the free market, the book’s academic research touches on some timely historical issues. It is also a fascinating account of the political battles over the diesel engine and the refrigerated truck, which had emerged as the new technology of the 1920s and 1930s and a threat to the dominance of the railroad distribution system for beef and milk by a few large meat packing companies and local dairies.”– Jonathan Birchall, Financial Times
  • “Independent trucking is for Hamilton what Kansas was for Frank–the locus that shows a part of what has gone wrong with American politics.” — David Kusnet, Bookforum
  • “Trucking Country intervenes in [the] crowded debate over the demise of New Deal liberalism from a genuinely original vantage point: the political culture of independent long-haul truckers and the political economy shaped by the agribusiness corporations that they served.” — Matthew Lassiter, Democracy
  • “Move over Tom Frank. Hamilton shows that what buried the New Deal was not the recent rise of cultural conservatism, but a longstanding and deep rejection of government intervention in the economy. One of the best history books ever written on the origins of neoliberalism.” — Ted Steinberg, author of Down to Earth
  • “Shane Hamilton traces how an obscure loophole in transportation law helped reshape the rural economy–and, in the process, changed the way we eat. This is an imaginative, provocative piece of work.” — Marc Levinson, author of The Box
  • “Well-written and tightly argued, Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country illuminates one of the twentieth century’s most important transformations: the role of independent truckers, many of them former farmers, in seizing the delivery of agricultural products from railroads, revolutionizing food distribution, and, paradoxically, abetting the triumph of agribusiness.” — Pete Daniel, National Museum of American History
  • “A startlingly original contribution. Shane Hamilton has crafted a truly fresh, unfamiliar, and enormously enlightening account of the decline of economic liberalism in postwar America. This is a brilliant book, one that should be read by anyone interested in exploring the intersection of politics, culture, and economics in modern America.” — Joseph A. McCartin, author of Labor’s Great War
  • “Trucking Country is a highly innovative and strikingly unique piece of work. Hamilton approaches one of the most intensely studied historical topics of the current scholarly generation–the demise of New Deal liberalism– from an angle that virtually no other social, political, labor, or cultural historian has attempted. Hamilton has written a superb and persuasive book.” — Nelson Lichtenstein, author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor
  • “The best professor I have ever had, hands down. His knowledge of the material really was astonishing and he made his class very fair.”… “His enthusiasm for history was infectious.”… “He’s clearly passionate about history and makes his students want to learn. One of my best at UGA.”… “Not only did I learn a lot, but this was also one of the more challenging history classes I have taken–I really appreciate how you pushed us to think very deeply and critically about the subject matter.” — Comments from anonymous students

Posted on Monday, January 5, 2009 at 1:43 AM

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