From the late 80s through the middle 90s I spent most of my nights out at bars making photographs. When I got home at night, for a time, there was a book I picked up in a used bookstore that I’d read before I went to sleep. It’s odd to come across it in my office so many years later. I passed a lot of time with this skinny little volume.


Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt. As he turned over the almost ​endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

“ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)

The first lines in most of Jane Austen’s books strike right at the core of what follows. Though Sir Walter is not the hero, or even the principal character in Persuasion, his attitude points to the general object of persuasion: to move someone or something away from the tradition which we have become accustomed to, which gives us a sense of “place” in the world. Tradition is a comfort to most people, and reaching back into personal history is the most common trope at a writer’s disposal to elicit some sort of identification or sympathy with an unknown audience. Attention to the past can be a diversion or salve against the pressures of the present, but it provides one means of gaining grounded authority against uncertainty.

The common center of any definition of rhetoric is that persuasion is the goal, and I was surprised to find a twenty-five year old article from the DGS at Minnesota during my time there, Art Walzer, about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Art argues, and I think rightfully, that this novel has at least a minor spot in the rhetorical canon due to its interface with rhetorical theory. Art’s core thesis is that Austen pursues the idea that persuasion functions using reason as well as desire.

The tension in the persuasive process between desire and reality is an instance of this broader theme, a process in which the will, under the influence of the imagination, is moved to act. As such Austen’s depiction of the process follows in its basic mechanics the account provided by the theorists. But while for Austen reason is often an effective critical faculty disciplining judgment to attend to what Bacon calls the “nature of things,” reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process, a function of desire in the case of characters such as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who are in the grip of their appetites, or of the moral passions in the case of Anne.

The relevance to my project here is that “reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process” – Art always had a certain spare eloquence in scholarly writing. When humans desire new technologies, these desires are always rationalized using a number of strategies implying that new technologies are generally superior to old technologies. In this case, reason often fails us, blinded by better faster shiny new. Reason is simply one tool among many, urging us ever onward on our technological path, ignoring the inconvenient reality of planetary destruction.

Reason cannot, and will not, win over desire– particularly when there are as many reasons to gratify our desire as there are to deny ourselves. Resistance to technology (and change in general) often takes the form of a nostalgia for a time before the change, and like Sir Walter thumbing through the Baronetage to trace our place, we ignore the new at our peril. Witold Rybzynski’s second book, Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology (1983), recounts the long history of the failures of reasonable means of resistance to technology. Desire, whether for technology or people, is tricky and often tragic given that what we want and what is good for us are seldom the same thing.

In Persuasion, once Anne Elliot is persuaded by Lady Russell that Captain Wentworth was a poor match for her, she resists desiring him although his circumstances have changed. She applies reason to her passions in service of thwarting change. Reason, in an Austen heroine, often restrains and disciplines decision making. It’s a complex and interesting tale in which competing interests apply a wide range of persuasive techniques to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Everyone involved is pulled between what they feel is their duty and their desires.

A similar process occurs when we suddenly discover a new attractiveness in old technologies, “quixotic attachments” to old realities as Rybczynski labels them: “The picturesque medieval hamlet is appealingly portrayed in charming paintings, but the smell, the putrefaction and decay that were part of a sewerless society are forgotten” (225). Self-satisfied revisionary reasoning slows decisions, but it does not stop the progress of change (or desire). The troubling part, regarding technology, is that new technologies are generally portrayed as inhuman while older technologies get a makeover as somehow more human in their impact on our lives. This does little to thwart the “progress” of technology. Most people inevitably give in to their desire for better faster shiny new. Does this make us weak?

The answer, for Austen, lies in a sort of feminist rhetoric. As Art Walzer describes it:

That persuasion is under the sway of the passions does not, however, make persuadability a sign of weakness, for the novel complicates the simple dichotomy of the rhetorics between a non-rational, weak, feminine persuadability and a strong, rational, masculine conviction. The novel invites the reader to subject the ethical questions the theory raises to Elizabeth Bennet’s more complicated test-whether a persuadable temper might indicate an affectionate heart, rather than a weak will, and a mind characterized by a discriminating moral sensibility rather than by a timid suasibility.

Understanding that we persuade ourselves to accept technological progress is an important part of my current thinking. It’s not simply a matter of capitalism overshadowing all decisions through “bad rhetoric.” Wanting things, however, may not be a bad thing. A desire to improve the range of possibilities seems natural, and perhaps admirable. But there should be a limit to what we expect from the tools we use. That’s the hard part.

Langdon Winner’s seminal The Whale and the Reactor: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986) aims at understanding how technology might actually be tamed (limited) by political will. In the eponymous essay that ends it, Winner describes visiting the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant as a whale swam by, driving the realization that reason wasn’t always the best way to approach the presence of the technology that surrounds us: “The thing should have never been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit, calculations may have shown” (176). The implication, obviously, is that deference should be given to the natural world that provides for our “common humanity.” It’s an old trope, really: the book of nature cannot be understood through reason. Like Sir Walter Elliot, he opens the book for comfort.

The core of Winner’s book, however, is frequently cited for a reason. It presents a cogent argument that we have been “sleepwalking” our way to our own destruction, largely by taking refuge in the idea that it isn’t the technology that’s evil, it’s the men that deploy it. The view doesn’t hold— technologies are far from neutral instruments of our will. Arguments for limits, or to position technology as “savior” for the human condition are notoriously bad. It’s time to work on better, more workable policies towards it in the political sphere. I found myself wanting to substitute “rhetoric” for “politics” in many key arguments in his book, wondering how that might change a reading of it in the 21st century.

Rybczynski’s aim is different from Winner. He suggests that it’s fruitless to try to separate “human” from “inhuman” technologies, and that we would be better served by thinking of technology (and the desire for it) as being inseparable from being human. This would be a positive turn and it necessitates better definitions of just what we consider to be technologies. The limits then, are not simply on which technologies we condone or adopt, but rather on our own desires and expectations for technology.

Whether  we control technology by directing its evolution, by choosing when and how to use it, or by deciding what significance it should have in our lives, we shall succeed only if we are able to accept what appears at first to be an impossible shift in point of view: different as people and machines are, they exist not in two different worlds, but at two ends of the same continuum. Just as we have discovered that we are a part of the natural environment, and not just surrounded by it, so also we will find that we are an intimate part of the environment of technology. The auxiliary “organs” that extend our sight, our hearing, and our thinking really are an extension of our physical bodies. When we are able to accept this, we shall discover that the struggle to control technology has all along been a struggle to control ourselves. (227)

We control things by political choices we make, as Winner frequently invokes, but we also control ourselves by self-persuasion. I think that the future of our relationship with technology lies as much within, as it does without. It isn’t about not being persuaded by technology and our desire for it (Luddism) but rather by exercising better judgment with more meaningful expectations. Both technophobes and technophiles will be better served by being persuadable.

Bread Labor

Memphis, TN ©2006 Jeff Ward

I first came across the concept of “bread labor” in Helen & Scott Nearing. It was part of a time management strategy. They divided their time by self labor, community labor, and bread labor. A person should budget time to read and reflect, to think and work on themselves, to interact with others and maintain social bonds, and to work satisfying the more mundane needs of life– bread labor.

Changing social conditions during the twenty years that began in 1910 cost us our professional status and deprived us of all our means of livelihood. Whether we liked it or not we were compelled to adjust to the new situation which war, revolution and depression had forced upon the western world. (12)

The Nearings were in their 50s when they purchased several farmed-out Vermont farms in the Green Mountains for small sums in an attempt to find self-sufficiency outside the money economy. Their first thought was collective living, but no viable communal options were available. Land was about $3 per acre at that time, and they reasoned that they might sell timber for a small living, but they ended up turning to maple sugaring instead. They survived, not because they were lucky enough to find a productive enterprise but because they so totally altered their expectations of what “livelihood” really was.

The Nearings confess that they had a problem with the “social” part of the equation. They ate primarily raw nuts and fruits, excluded all domestic animals from their economy (no dependent dogs or cats, no dairy or meat products), no tea or coffee (for political reasons), and no alcohol. They also weren’t fond of dancing. Theirs was not a very lively hood. It’s little wonder that they had a problem bonding with the local social groups, preferring instead productive work and solitary reading and writing.

Living outside the circulation of money came at a price. Sugaring provided enough revenue to pay their taxes, and they mostly tried to use materials found on their farm to build with while trading the produce of their garden with neighbors to get the other necessaries. They called it “The Good Life” and it certainly was a considered life, though it’s hard to imagine it being attractive to most: crude bread or handfuls of grain, no milk, beer or cigarettes. Eventually, the beer and cigarettes crowd showed up when a ski resort opened up adjacent to their farm and they had to relocate to Maine.

Still, I am drawn to their leisure driven idea of the good life. They sought to have four hours to read and write each day with four hours dedicated to bread labor. Bread labor included the household routine of meals, washing and cleaning; organized homestead activities including capital improvements and gardening, wood cutting, and repairs, etc.; and work on the cash crop or crops. All these things constitute productive work, and curiously they also had strong feelings about labor saving machines: they were against them.

The Nearings felt that human labor alone was adequate to sustain things once all the politically questionable activities (stimulants, animal slavery, cooked foods, etc.) were removed from the domestic economy.The soup of ideas that the Nearings drew their program for the good life from is a complex one, filled with references to communist, anarchist, and capitalist sources.

Bread labor is lifted from Tolstoy, and it also factors heavily in the writings of Gandhi, although the asceticism seems distinctly New England. A few of their new neighbors in Maine, including Bill Copperthwaite and Eliot Coleman, share the same intellectual DNA. All of them, to varying degrees, thought that adjustments to our theory of value were necessary in order to attain “the good life.”

Though the Nearings would be loathe to admit it, in contrast to Marx, their value system is anti-social. The emphasis is on moving as far away as possible from exchange value by deepening the care taken to access use value in all aspects of human production, which largely places the emphasis on individuals doing the using. Tolstoy’s great political awakening in Tsarist Russia was that his comfort was built on the slavery of others. That’s why the Nearings swore off many products, like coffee and tea, because the foundation of their production and exchange was built on slavery.

The implication in these communal and individual movements “back to the land” at the turn of the 20th century was that only by staying in touch with the skills and technologies necessary to stay alive would we ever abolish slavery through better understanding the relations between production and consumption.

The Nearings sought, to their credit, to make it possible to support themselves through better labor management, matching their effort to local conditions and history, both in terms of their productive capabilities and reducing consumption whenever possible. Obviously, it’s not scalable as a solution and is reliant on an ableist view of the social contract, where all members of society can contribute equally to the production of food and shelter.

The argument that humans are not created with equal abilities— even if they may have equal rights, a separate issue— is easily mounted to answer this sort of Yankee idealism. Some division  (and segregation) of labor has historically been necessary to increase efficiency. The capitalist mode, reliant as it is on surplus production, a thing studiously avoided by the Nearings, is central to the foundation of city-states. In the same time period as the Nearings, another movement for technological management emerged, and assumed surpluses would be bureaucratically distributed.

Genetically related to Edward Bellamy’s popular utopian vision, Technocracy was heavily reliant on “scientific management” to envision a future without money, a future where machines would satisfy our needs in an equitable fashion. Rather than money, the proposal was “an energy system of value” where the potential to do work was currency. Bellamy and the technocrats had a political bent more aligned with fascism with its egalitarian authoritarianism.

Obviously, there are problems with integrating humans into these proposals, perhaps making Technocracy the most anti-social idea of all. It persisted in thinkers like R. Buckminster Fuller. The societal emphasis on alternative (and conventional) energy sources continues, as well as the multiplication of automation, which never seems to consider where humans fit into all these utopian plans. Machines have no need for bread.



Bakersfield, 1983 © Jeff Ward

Instrument has a variety of usages reaching back to the middle ages. I’ve been encountering it in Hannah Arendt and Frederick Engels as the compound “instruments of violence” and in Karl Marx as “instruments of production.” Other uses include “musical instruments” and “legal instruments” –the term has been around seemingly forever. Another somewhat unique usage was by Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s tale where he called the penis a “holy instrument” of generation. With a nod to John S. Hall, it seems to me that the overriding characteristic of most usages of instrument is that it is detachable from the human who employs it.

Musical instruments are of course one of the oldest types. The connotations are vast; these instruments are used to generate sounds, sounds that are within the grasp of human beings but always just outside of our control. There’s always the possibility of arbitrary accidents, slippages, wanted and unwanted resonances that simply can’t be completely predicted or controlled. When they work, whether in skilled or amateur hands, they produce sounds that can easily be identified as fundamentally productive, and yet through dissonance (intentional or unintentional) they provide a force that can disrupt and overthrow the status quo. The link between music and aggression is summoned at critical cultural moments, and besides its power to sooth and cajole, music also incites violence.

Frank Zappa once suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that in countries where beer consumption was high, nations were often warlike because they were susceptible to marching music.

I have a theory about beer: Consumption of it leads to pseudo-military behavior. Think about it — winos don’t march. Whiskey guys don’t march, either (sometimes they write poetry, which is often more horrible, though). . . .

Maybe there’s a chemical in beer that stimulates the [male] brain to do violence while moving in the same direction as other guys who smell like them [marching]“We, as a group of MEN, will drink this refreshing liquid, after which we will get together and beat the snot out of that guy over there.”

(Real Frank Zappa Book)

Wine drinking countries are more associated with love songs. It’s not really a stretch to say that popular music is almost always tied to, as Chaucer might put it, “the holy instruments of generation.”

The detachable nature of instruments is perhaps best illustrated by the usage of legal instruments, which  are just as old as musical ones. A writ, or a warrant carries with it the force of authority granted by law, codes which have been separated from individual human judgement. It amounts to an order, and can be directed by nobody, as evident in a building code. Laws, of course, can be arbitrary and have unintended as well as intended consequences. They can promote productivity, of course, but they can also incite violence. It’s worth noting that the production of the instruments of violence (guns, bombs, etc) is referred to manufacturing ordinance. Ordinance, of course, shares its root with ordain, that is, to issue a ruling.

The point I’m getting at is that all instruments have the potential for generative or destructive usage, and all instruments have an arbitrary and uncontrollable quality which always seem just outside of human control. That may be because they are by definition detachable from humans, and as John S. Hall, referenced earlier, suggests– they can be lost.

But there is one usage of the term “instrument” which doesn’t fit the detachable thesis. Also in use since the Middle Ages: a person may be described as an instrument of destruction; initially, this appears when writing about a murder or killing, but in contemporary usage this usage is probably best labeled as metaphorical rather than actual. People, knowingly or unknowingly, enter into causal chains (generally involving other, detachable instruments) that bring about destruction.

In What Are People For Wendell Berry writes forcefully in an essay called “Damage” of his attempt to put a pond on his property. He sought advice, and hired a bulldozer to dig one in a plateau nestled in a hillside. Everything went well at first, but then after an extremely wet fall and winter a slice of the forest above his pond broke free and slid into it. He had destabilized the hillside, despite the best advice and intentions, and was now forced to live with the scar on the land he had created. He invokes the proverbs of hell from William Blake:

“You can never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation can permanently destroy the route.

The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.

Blake gives the just proportion in another proverb: “No man soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.

No thought or word called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect– and so to describe the limits of what can be done without damage.

The use only of our bodies for work or for love or pleasure or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture— such as I was when I made my pond— is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.

Berry is in line with Engels in thinking that in order to do violence, man requires detachable instruments. There’s another discussion of pond construction that bears mentioning here, which involves instruments of a different category.

In a chapter of Cræft: an Inquiry into the Origins and Meanings of Traditional Crafts Alexander Langlands describes pond construction, both his own attempts and the archeological evidence regarding a particular pond the Oxna Mere. It is situated within a series neolithic clay ponds in Wessex, along well worn migratory routes. the consensus is that these ponds were human made, using livestock. It’s short sighted to think that all extensions of human strength are recent developments in the construction of mechanisms, or that instruments began in the industrial age.

Langlands attempted to work backward from the ethnography of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century pond practices to determine how these ponds were built and maintained. Clay is a porous material, and in order to make them hold water it was longstanding practice to drive herds of animals across the area to compact the clay to make it hold water. Obviously, there’s a lot of technique/craft involved. Why does this matter? As Langlands argues:

The implications of using puddled chalk were important to me in the context of the Oxna Mere. Ultimately, its significance lay in the simple revelation that if you had the knowledge and the skill to puddle chalk, you could create a watering hole using materials sourced entirely from the hilltop. In turn, this facility would make an important contribution to the methods of husbandry used by valley community in that it enabled them to exploit valuable resources of summer grazing in a more effective manner. This is the kind of thing I get excited about: resourcefulness on a level almost inconceivable to the post-industrial pond maker whose favored materials were concrete and asphalt. (250)

What seems to be at work here is the use of animals as instruments in a way inconceivable to us now; we think of them solely as raw material.  They fit the parameters I was looking at earlier. They are arbitrary and frequently outside human control, capable of both generative and destructive aspects. And yet they have been successfully operating in concert with human beings assuring our mutual survival; without herd animals we wouldn’t survive, and with our coordination in the construction of ponds in the neolithic period, they also thrived and multiplied.

If we admit the possibility of a living instrument, there’s another aspect consider. Marx offers another paradigm for instruments. His class theory (and theory of alienation) presumes that man himself can be transformed into an instrument.


Alan Gross, my advisor in graduate school at University of Minnesota, frequently accused me of wrestling with pudding. Of course, he also demanded precisely considered and systematic vocabulary for discussing whatever problem/research question at hand. That’s what I find most attractive about Hannah Arendt. The problem is that most terms become slippery under pressure.

Often, people trace the lineage of the instrumental view of technology to Heidegger and stop. Arendt directly cites Engel’s 1877 text, Anti Duhring, which provides a completely different sort of slippage. Why assert that violence requires instruments/technologies? What grounds that? Oddly enough, Engel’s example (taken from Eugen Duhring) is from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a refutation of Duhring’s completely different definition of force. Recall that Arendt considered force to be a term reserved for elemental/non-human means. Duhring (as cited by Engels) had different ideas:

The formation of political relationships is historically the fundamental thing, and instances of economic dependence are only effects or special cases, and are consequently always facts of a second order. Some of the newer socialist systems take as their guiding principle the conspicuous semblance of a completely reverse relationship, in that they assume that political phenomena are subordinate to and, as it were, grow out of the economic conditions. It is true that these effects of the second order do exist as such, and are most clearly perceptible at the present time; but the primary must be sought in direct political force and not in any indirect economic power. (Anti-Duhring)

It’s pretty easy to see what got Engels upset. He (and Marx) were certain that economics was primary. Engels summarizes Duhring’s position, which he sees as unexplained and unargued:

The whole affair has been already proved through the famous original sin, when Robinson Crusoe made Friday his slave. That was an act of force, hence a political act. And inasmuch as this enslavement was the starting-point and the basic fact underlying all past history and inoculated it with the original sin of injustice, so much so that in the later periods it was only softened down and “transformed into the more indirect forms of economic dependence” {D. C. 19}; and inasmuch as “property founded on force” {D. Ph. 242}, which has asserted itself right up to the present day, is likewise based on this original act of enslavement, it is clear that all economic phenomena must be explained by political causes, that is, by force. And anyone who is not satisfied with that is a reactionary in disguise. (Anti-Duhring)

Engel’s proof that Duhring’s assertions are ridiculous rests on his reading that Friday was enslaved by Crusoe at the point of a gun, a gun that had been manufactured by technological progress brought about through economics. His analysis is fascinating, and of course wraps around to suggest that in the end all carefully wrought political and economic systems can be destroyed by someone in possession of a superior gun. The idea that violence is instrumental, then, at least partially stems from a particular reading/counter-reading of Robinson Crusoe. In detail, Engel’s analysis goes like this:

The childish example specially selected by Herr Dühring in order to prove that force is “historically the fundamental thing”, therefore, proves that force is only the means, and that the aim, on the contrary, is economic advantage. And “the more fundamental” the aim is than the means used to secure it, the more fundamental in history is the economic side of the relationship than the political side. The example therefore proves precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to prove. And as in the case of Crusoe and Friday, so in all cases of domination and subjection up to the present day. Subjugation has always been—to use Herr Dühring’s elegant expression—a “stomach-filling agency” (taking stomach-filling in a very wide sense), but never and nowhere a political grouping established “for its own sake”. It takes a Herr Dühring to be able to imagine that state taxes are only “effects of a second order”, or that the present-day political grouping of the ruling bourgeoisie and the ruled proletariat has come into existence “for its own sake”, and not as a “stomach-filling agency” for the ruling bourgeois, that is to say, for the sake of making profits and accumulating capital.

However, let us get back again to our two men. Crusoe, “sword in hand” {D. C. 23}, makes Friday his slave. But in order to manage this, Crusoe needs something else besides his sword. Not everyone can make use of a slave. In order to be able to make use of a slave, one must possess two kinds of things: first, the instruments and material for his slave’s labour; and secondly, the means of bare subsistence for him. Therefore, before slavery becomes possible, a certain level of production must already have been reached and a certain inequality of distribution must already have appeared. (Anti-Duhring)

Being the kind of guy I am, of course I had to look at the interlude in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that they insist on pointing at. The course of events that binds Crusoe and “his savage” whom he names Friday is the man’s escape from a group of cannibals, assisted at one point by Crusoe. Crusoe shoots one of the pursuers, nervous that the other thirty cannibals might hear. But he felt threatened because the native had pointed a bow and arrow at him and was about to fire; the second pursuer was laid low by the butt of Crusoe’s rifle. The escapee was grateful:

I beckoned him again to come to me, and gave him all the Signs of Encouragement that I could think of, and he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every Ten or Twelve steps in token of acknowledgment for my saving his Life. I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckon’d to him to come still nearer, at length he came close to me, and then kneel’d down again, kissed the Ground, and lead his Head upon the Ground, and taking me by the Foot, set my Foot upon his Head;  this seemed to be in token of swearing to be my slave forever; I took him up, and made much of him, encouraging him all I could. (188)

The gesture, at least the way I read it, is one of fealty. Crusoe interprets it as consent to be a slave; as the native who has been clubbed stirs on the ground, the escapee gestures at a sword at Crusoe’s side and he hands it to him. The escapee then beheads his pursuer, as Crusoe marvels at the ability of the “savage” to wield Western technology. None of the conditions Engels argues from are actually apparent in the novel. Crusoe is barely surviving; he can barely offer even subsistence to his new companion, and only when Friday joins him does he then work out the means that he might enjoy some comforts. Emphasis on the slave dynamic, and superior force are roundly dismissed by Defoe– though Crusoe was initially worried that his companions access to instruments might result in violence, he quickly finds his cares unfounded. Theirs is clearly a political relationship. He is a “slave” through consent, not force.


Trying to work my way through the terminology offered by Hannah Arendt in “On Violence” (1968) because they seem quite useful: power, strength, force, and violence. I got sidetracked searching for an umbrella term to group these terms as, and the closest word I could arrive at was means. The O.E.D. had an interesting obsolete definition of mean, which disappeared just after Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” circa 1616.

A condition which permits or is conducive to something; an opportunity. In early use also plural: conditions or offered terms (of peace). Obsolete.

Arendt is speaking directly to the human condition in “On Violence.” Power is something that is defined as being a condition that emerges from human beings acting in concert. It is not a property of an individual, or a structure, or an apparatus– power is a motive term reserved for specific moments of human beings acting or having the potential to act in concert. This contrasts with strength, which is the ability/potential for individuals to provoke an action or response. Force is reserved as a term used for elemental forces, such as the wind, which cannot be possessed by humans only exploited.

What is interesting to me about the early definition of means is that it conflates with opportunity. Rather than offering the criminal justice proposal of means, motive and opportunity, for a short time, means was taken to imply opportunity. Thus, if people have the power they also have the opportunity– Sí se puede! Yes we can!  

Violence, in Arendt’s reasoning, is the opposite of power. Following Engels, Arendt asserts that violence  requires instruments. This is the intersection with technology, and technological theories. Specifically, weapons of violence are instruments that multiply speed, strength, and reach in order to inflict harm. They have an element of arbitrariness, and inflict harm usually with unpredictable consequences, save one– they destroy power.

To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where one rules the other is absent. Violence appears when power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (155)

There is much to think about here. It is tempting to think that the arbitrariness of violence is brought about through the arbitrary nature of its instrumental means– technologies always have unintended consequences, but that would be a logical fallacy. Equivocating technology and violence is dangerous, I think. But it is hard not to wonder if all multiplications of speed, strength and reach (even in, for example, communication technology) aren’t violent in one way or another.

Arendt asserts categorically that violence cannot create or increase power because it promotes disunity. The arbitrary way that communications technologies, in the name of promoting unity, have increased polarization and disunity, promoting distrust and creating variations on a hallucinatory vision of reality makes me wonder if the idea that technology can lead to a better future dubious at best.

Can technology empower people?

I’m beginning to suspect not. People already have the power.

Community Collapse

I suppose the reason why I’ve been thinking hard against the 70s lately is to try to get a grip on my cynicism. I was exposed to a lot of optimism, early on, through the Whole Earth Catalog and 60s “counterculture” and it didn’t necessarily jibe with the world I saw emerging around me. When Buckminster Fuller spoke in 1977 (drawing on his book Earth, Inc. published in 1973) It was starting to become obvious that founding communities based on these theoretical practices was not particularly likely. Thanks to Witold Rybczynski, I’ve started reading a different perspective from a contemporaneous curmudgeon, Martin Pawley. I wish I’d read him then. From The Private Future (1974):

In the private world of the West the chain mail of the old social contract has rusted away, and overlaid upon it is a new, linear pattern of supply and consumption which has erased all intermediate regimes. There is now nothing but a vacant, terrorized space between the government– which controls and maintains production–and the isolated consumer, who increases his consumption in proportion to his isolation. Public life today is the glimpse of the celebrity linked with the product. No one knows his place any more, only what he wants. (5)

It’s a dark and depressing book, really. When Pawley claims “no one knows his place” he isn’t speaking of social level, he’s actually making the claim literally. The central argument of the book is that words like community, society, and family have become meaningless because (by choice) we have designed these groupings as things to be rebelled against and avoided at all costs, in favor of a private world of self-gratification through intense consumerism. And yet those constructare preconditions for satisfying those desires. In short, it’s not late capitalism that destroyed us, we destroyed ourselves by desiring and insisting upon the current system of consumption and constant progress towards oblivion. What we want, ultimately is to be lost in ourselves rather than present in the world.

The Private Future is a fascinating polemic. The subtitle is “Causes and Consequences of Community Collapse in the West.” I find it fascinating that he’s identified “colony collapse disorder” among humans, long before it became apparent in bees.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the finale of Wim Wenders Until the End of the World (1991). In the wilds of Australia, William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin are lost inside virtual reality headsets that allow them to live inside their own dreams. It’s not necessarily as well argued as Pawley’s book, but it’s certainly entertaining.

The conclusion of the book is striking. I’m not surprised that it’s not mentioned in most reflections on the 70s. Pawley mercilessly calls out the hypocrisy of sanctioning most bourgeois pleasures while criminalizing drugs, pornography, etc.

Drug taking has confirmed a pattern of private indulgence in the face of punitive attempts at prevention. Popular photography, cheap color reproduction and the cinema have converted millions to an image-based, voyeuristic form of sexuality. All these expressions of private freedom, irrespective of their legality, are part of the widespread unremarkable social experience of the citizens of the consumer societies of the West, which is no different in any way from the legally approved forms of private pleasure associated with consumption in any society of private wealth. (210)

For Pawley, the process of privatization– not in the sense of central corporate or governmental ownership, but rather the triumph of individuation over community and retreat to the private sphere–,  is inevitable. His vision of the future is chilling:

Alone in a centrally heated, air-conditioned capsule, drugged, fed with music and erotic imagery, the parts of his consciousness separated into components that reach everywhere and nowhere, the private citizen of the future will become one with the end of effort and the triumph of sensation divorced from action. When the barbarians arrive they will find him like some ancient Greek sage, lost in contemplation, terrified and yet fearless, listening to himself. (211)

Don’t look for any suggestions from Pawley about how to avoid this; for him it was simply inevitable. I certainly hope he isn’t right.

Savage Aesthetics

One passage in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) has haunted me since I read it. The protagonist is navigating the Thames river and passes through an old style pound lock and wonders why the centuries old technology is still in use. In this pastoral vision of the future, the answer he’s given is this:

‘You see, guest, this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us, and we are now content to use such of its inventions that we find handy, and leaving those alone which we don’t want. I believe, as a matter of fact, that some time ago (I can give you a date) some elaborate machinery was used for the locks, though people did not go so far as to try to make the water run uphill. However, it was troublesome, I suppose, and the simple hatches, and the gates, with a big counterpoising beam, were found to answer every purpose, and were easily mended when wanted with materials always at hand, so here they are, as you see.’

‘Besides, said Dick, ‘this kind of lock is pretty, as you can see; and I can’t help thinking that your machine-lock, winding up like a watch, would have been ugly and would have spoiled the look of the river: and that is surely reason enough for keeping such locks as these. (192, Penguin Classic ed. 1993)

Today, our aesthetic choices might be different. I remember a story not long ago about some of the locks on the Erie Canal still using electrical equipment well over a hundred years old. It looks quite pretty to modern eyes. What makes one technology good and another not worth using? For Morris, it seems, it was a question of looks.


Trying to figure out the clearest take away from Typee (1846), Melville’s narrative about his time among the “savages” of the Marquesa Islands, it’s hard to shake the closing anxiety Melville faced at the prospect of having his face tattooed. This was long before Adolph Loos proclaimed ornament is a crime using tattooing as his benchmark for savagery; indeed, Melville seems to show great admiration of the natives and their technologies (especially food technologies) through the book. But having his face tattooed? That was a bridge too far— he could never return to polite society if he allowed this. His choice to leave centered on aesthetics.

While he lived with the Typee, Melville was frequently in awe of their way of life; in fact, the book represents to me a powerful allegorical (and direct) questioning of the nature and bounds of civilization:

As I extend my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the advantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Terra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom so many of the ills and pains of life— what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may “cultivate his mind,”—may “elevate his thoughts,”—these, I believe are the established phrases—but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer that question. (149, Library of America ed.)

The facile answer regarding civilization and technology (as alluded to here) is that technology frequently can better our lot in life by alleviating our pains and wants; if there’s no need of this, then what other benefits does civilization accrue? Not many, when it comes to the islands of Hawaii, as Melville rightly states. The population was decimated, and was still being decimated at the time that he composed this. In the United States, the same thing was happening to the Native Americans, particularly in California. The “voluptuous natives” of the Pacific Coast were among the most devastated by the encroachment of so-called civilization. Those who needed it least, suffered the most at its hands.

This passage is not an isolated reflection, but to be balanced in discussing the book it is not entirely a political diatribe (one of the only books of Melville’s to be censored and  modified for the US audience), but also a titillating exercise in voyeurism, “a peep” at Polynesian life as the title states:

I happened to pop in on Mehevi three or four times when he was romping—in a most undignified manner for a warrior king—with one of the prettiest little witches in the valley. She lived with an old woman and a young man, in a house near Marheyo’s; and though appearance a mere child herself, had a noble boy about a year old, who bore a marvelous resemblance to Mehevi, whom I should certainly have believed to be the father, where it not that the little fellow had no triangle on his face—but on second thoughts, tattooing is not hereditary. Mehevi, however, was not the only person upon whom the damsel Monotony smiled—the young fellow of fifteen, who permanently resided in the house with her, was decidedly in her good graces. I sometimes beheld both him and the chief making love at the same time. (224)

The explanation that Melville unfolds is that this is a polygamous society where women are allowed to take several husbands. Women’s issues frequently surface in the book, particularly taboos for women. They apparently weren’t allowed to ride in canoes, which Tommo (Melville’s alter ego in the book) fights and manages to overturn for his paramour, Faraway. Note however, the little joke about tattoos not being hereditary. Society, though inherited, doesn’t mark us quite that directly.

The sexual overtones of the book tend, in many critical accounts, overshadow several discussions of technology. For example, Melville’s description of his valet Kory Kory’s efforts to start a fire with a spinning stick is frequently summoned:

At first, Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their sockets with the violence of his exertions. This is the critical stage of the operation; all his previous labors are in vain if he cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant spark is produced. Suddenly he stops, becomes perfectly motionless. His hands still retain their hold of the smaller stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had just pierced through and through some little viper that was wriggling and wriggling to escape from his clutches. The next moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air, the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory almost breathless dismounts form his steed. (135)

I would to defy anyone to watch, for instance, a Massai tribesman perform this procedure and sexualize it the way that Melville, ever the bawdy sailor, has:

This, I think, is primarily Melville the showman doing his best to earn a living as a writer. The real meat of the scene occurs after the lascivious passage:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who  through the instrumentality of a lucifer, performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wits end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without ever troubling their parent, pluck from the branches of every tree around them. (136)

Note the description of Western fire starting as “the instrumentality of a lucifer” rather than a gift from Prometheus, which would apply to both indigenous and Western fire starting. What makes a good technology? A technology that solves our needs, I suspect, would be Melville’s answer. I find it interesting that with the proceeds from Typee, Melville bought a farm of sorts, perhaps so he could pick food from every tree around him.

His cautions against the incursions of imperialism and conversion, particularly conversion:

How little do some of these poor islanders comprehend when they look around them, that no inconsiderable part of their disasters originate in certain tea-party excitements, under the influence of benevolent looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit alms, and old ladies in spectacles, and young ladies in sober russet low gowns, contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, the object of which is to ameliorate the spiritual condition of the Polynesians, but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish their temporal destruction!

Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time shrinking the forms of its unhappy worshipers. (230)

Melville’s resistance to the “tea-party excitements” that surrounded polite western society chafed against Melville (see his reaction to Hungarian fund raisers a few years after), but he was not immune to the potential benefits of “civilization” as he knew it, particularly the benefits of technology. Given his later narratives regarding the whale oil trade, I found it interesting the way he painstakingly described the Polynesian technology for lighting the night:

At this supper we were listed by several of the native tapers, held in the hands of young girls. These tapers are most ingeniously made. There is a nut abounding in the valley, called by the Typees “armor,” closely resembling our common horse-chestnut. The shell is broken, and the contents are extracted whole. Any number of these are strung at pleasure upon the long elastic fibre that traverses the branches of the cocoa-nut tree. Some of these tapers are eight to ten feet in length; but being perfectly flexible, one end is held in a coil while the other is lighted. The nut burns with a fitful bluish flame, and the oil that it contains is exhausted in about ten minutes. As one burns down, the next becomes ignited, and the ashes of the former are knocked into a cocoa-nut shell kept for the purpose. This primitive candle requires continual attention, and must be constantly held in the hand. The person so employed marks the lapse of time by the number of nuts consumed, which is easily learned by counting the bits of tap distributed at regular intervals along the string. (244)

Besides providing light, the apparatus, as designed is also a clock. There’s an obsessiveness about his technological descriptions which is fitting what Morris labeled as “the age of invention.”

Melville’s excitement about technology in Typee is closely matched by his interest in food and tattoos. In the next paragraph, he rails against sushi: “Raw fish! shall I ever forget my sensations when I first saw my island beauty devour one?” But, his aesthetic sense was not offended because she didn’t eat “vulgar-looking fishes: oh no; with her beautiful small hand she would clasp a delicate, little, golden-hued love of a fish, and eat it as elegantly as innocently as though it were a Naples biscuit” (245).  If things are pretty, then they are okay. This jibes with Morris’s attitudes towards technology perfectly: only beautiful technologies— or foods— should be celebrated.

There is of course a lot more to say about the book, but I must press on to its sequel Omoo.

Hats off to Hungary

While reading Typee, I found myself marveling at the sheer density of his descriptions of food on the Marquesa islands. It’s a romance of sorts, so I was expecting and not disappointed by the number of interludes with native girls and such; but food? Why so much attention to food?

Melville wrote Typee while living in Troy, New York (coincidentally the point of origin for the character/ caricature “Uncle Sam”) in 1845 and because of its success he made enough money to finance a home across the Hudson near Pittsfield, Massachusetts he named “Arrowhead” in 1850. I found a letter written December 28, 1851 from Mrs. Sarah A. Morewood, his neighbor, that speaks to hungers of various kinds.

I hear that he is now so engaged in a new work as frequently to leave his room till quite dark in the evening when he for the first time in whole day partakes of solid food— he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health

If he frequently starved himself to write, this might explain it somewhat. Or, it might be the memories of a sailor who had spent much time thinking about food while at sea. But the food references don’t end there, as the letter continues:

I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think that he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself but if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hunger would suffer

I pondered a moment what he meant by “the cause in hunger” without any really satisfactory conclusions, but the punning is tantalizing, as is Mrs. Morewood’s further observation:

—Mrs. Melville is looking better in health than I have ever yet seen her look— I am strangely and strongly attracted to her and her family now that I know them as well as I do.

Curiously, a book suggesting an affair between Melville and his neighbor has just been published. What interests me more is the reference to Hungary. Hershel Parker, Melville biographer extraordinaire, has a direct explanation for the passage in his appendix to a volume of Melville’s poetry:

Late in 1851, when all good Whigs and Democrats were telling themselves they had set the slavery issue to rest for their generation by the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law, Americans gave Lajos Kossuth a triumphal tour of the country on behalf of the liberation of Hungary from Austria at a time when the United States should have been confronting its own political crisis, there was an element of hysterical displacement, a feel-good ineffectual celebration which required no national outlay of money and no commitment of American troops.


Melville would have read in the Literary World of December 6, 1851, the “Lines Addressed by Walter Savage Landor to Kossuth on his departure for America,” an appeal to the north wind Boreas to spare him so that the United States might arm him for a return to his home: “Hungary! no more / Thy saddest loss [Kossuth] deplore; /Look to the star-crowned Genius of the West, /Sole guardian of the oppress. / Oh! that one and only nation dared to save /Kossuth the true and brave!”

Calling this particular passage a “grim pun,” Parker explains it thusly:

His attitude, expressed in a grim pun as he was completing the short version of Pierre, was that if he left home to look after Hungary (that is, to join in the feting of Kossuth) the cause of supporting his family “in hunger would suffer” (.)

800px-kossuth_104th_rsd_jehThis makes as much sense as any other explanation really; though I must say the few pages I scanned from Parker’s two volume biography of Melville contains a great deal of information about Sarah Morewood, which might merit further investigation. Zeroing in on the matter at hand though, Kossuth was revered around the world, including a statue in New York City.

I was intrigued to again find myself face to face with Austro-Hungarian history, as I was before when I was reading a lot about Adolph Loos. Stranger still though, was to find myself enthralled by stories about hats. Apparently, the statue as erected leaves out what Parker feels is the most salient characteristic of Kossuth:

After Kossuth’s departure, Americans, already manifesting a short national memory, turned their attention elsewhere, although for a while people remembered Kossuth whenever they saw an ostrich plume on a man’s hat. The fad he created outlived his cause.

Indeed, there is, as it turns out, a Kossuth hat. A bit of research groups it in a peculiar group of soft felt hats that culminate in the sort of rough-rider hats popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, a popular military headgear in both the U.S. and Australia.

Stephen Beszedits questions the connections between Hungary and the hat though, claiming that the Kossuth hat was the creation of a New York City haberdasher, John N. Genin. He claims that it’s an adaptation of another fad, the Jenny Lind hat, modified with the addition of a feather. However, Kossuth’s revolutionary credibility, and scientific justification, was quickly attached to the headgear, even if they felt the feather was silly.

Buchanan’s Journal of Man a medical journal published in 1851 reported:

The Kossuth Hat.—The Common and Kossuth Hat are thus described in the Scientific American:

“The common silk hats have what are termed felt bodies. These are made of felted wool, are soft and pliable, and allow the gas that passes from the head to escape freely. This is the Kossuth hat. To make it a common silk hat, this felt body is saturated with lac varnish, and a covering of silk plush is ironed on to it, and smoothed to shine like a mirror. This hat, then, the common sober hat, is then hard as sheet iron and quite stiff; it greatly resembles a little pot, and in warm weather it most effectually prevents the evaporation of the pate. It causes headache, makes the hair to decay early in principle: oldish people of a sedate turn, although they would prefer the Kossuth hat, do not like to adopt it just yet, from a prudential fear of becoming conspicuous. This is our feeling exactly upon the subject—we like the black felt ‘Kossuth hat,’ barring the little feather, (that may do well for a military man,) and we hope to see it come into such general use as will warrant us in doffing the hard shelled silk head kettle. There was never more ungraceful head gear than that of the common hat.”

I truly love the image of the conventional hat as a “hard shelled silk head kettle.” It seems no wonder that both the Austrian laden and the Kossuth hat were more attractive to military men who didn’t want to bake their pates. That aside, there is no question that Kossuth had an impact in New York and beyond, with or without his hat. I noted from the Wikipedia page on Lajos Kossuth that there was a street named after him in Utica, NY (about an hour from where I live) so I wanted to figure out why. Looking at a history of Utica from 1900, I found this:

In this year, (1851) the great singer, Jenny Lind, visited Utica and gave a concert in the Bleecker Street Baptist Church.

The following year, Louis Kossuth, the illustrious Hungarian patriot, was received by a committee of citizens (June 1, 1852), and a public meeting was held at the Museum, which stood on Genesee Street between Elizabeth and Bleecker.

There yet remain in Utica a few of the notes, “good for one dollar each, if presented one year after the attainment of Independence by Hungary,” mementos of the patriot fund raised during this American visit.

The location in Utica now looks like this, according to Google:


I’ve driven through here many times. The historian, writing in 1900, is not nearly so dismissive of the Hungarian patriot as Parker, Melville’s biographer. Parker claims that that Kossuth was soon forgotten, as the poets moved on to consider the problems of the unification of Italy. Hungary, like the Greek battle for independence that so obsessed Byron, faded from the cultural consciousness.

In the shower this morning, I suddenly thought to myself that the flood of Italian immigrants to America would have been just a bit after this; I wondered about the lyric in Yankee Doodle about “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” might have been somehow related. I was wrong, as Wikipedia points out that a Macaroni is a completely different sort of head gear from a much earlier time.



28906339014_fd25b9065b_oI went to Kinney Drugs yesterday to get my biannual supply of Williams shaving soap, and as usual, everyone rushed the front and there was a line. The cashier called for help, and I stood about third in line behind an old man with a shopping cart. I didn’t look too hard at what was in the cart, but I noticed the man’s cap. It was covered in embrodiery and patches, proclaiming him as a Navy veteran of two wars, WWII and Korea. I suspect there aren’t that many of those left.

As the second cashier went to work and all those behind me rushed to her, the vet offered to let me go ahead of him. I said, “that’s okay I’m in no hurry” (I never am, these days).

“Where did you find those!” he said, pointing at the three packages of shaving soap in my hand. I misheard the question, and though he was commenting on my somewhat unusual choice and rambled off something about the fact that my father used to use it… He stopped me and said, “no, where in the store do I find those?”

I had taken the entire stock of the drugstore, so I quickly offered him one of boxes I was holding. He said that he used it all the time, and he was heading off to Florida and knew he’d have trouble finding it there, which is true. Not many drug stores stock it these days. The cashier got to him, and rang up his items, which came to six dollars or so, and he quickly paid with a credit card. I noticed that he was wearing hearing aids in both ears, but it was me who misheard him rather than the other way around.

He was just about to leave the line when the cashier pointed to the cart, and he said, “oh, I almost forgot” handing over a few bags of empty plastic bottles for recycling. She painstakingly tallied them up, and he commented that it would be nice if the drugstore had a redemption machine so the line wouldn’t get tied up, ever apologetic for taking too much time.

In fact, he started to walk away as the cashier exclaimed, “Stan, don’t forget your money!”

He said “Just put it in there” gesturing at the charity collection box on the counter. Looking at one of the women who had just finished up in the other line, Stan said “Wait a second, I want to talk to you.” It dawned on me that Stan was a part of the fabric of this drug store, everyone knew him but me it seemed. It choked me up to think that a life filled with service is long, and worthwhile.

During my trip to Maine earlier in the summer, I suddenly started to understand the difference between the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. New England is the land of voyagers, people who travel and yet always seem to return home. I started to think of generations that have gone to sea, and returned to the hard scrabble bits of land. Running into the Navy man here was a bit unusual; in New England, it’s the historical norm.

I’ve often lamented that New York is filled with provincial people who seldom look further than their neighborhood, let alone saw much reason to leave it. New England just isn’t like that; people leave, but unlike the Midwestern streams of migration, they don’t stay where they travel. They try, desperately sometimes, to get back.

I began to understand Jack Kerouac returning to Lowell to drink himself to death better, and the popularity of seafaring narratives. That’s when I decided that this year I was going to try to read Melville again. I’ve made it through Typee with great enjoyment, and stopped to read a biography, a couple of doctoral dissertations and a handful of articles before pressing on to Omoo.

I still don’t have great affection for the whale, but I’m beginning to at least understand the voyager spirit.