Monday, June 25, 2012 2:47 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom
As between the
natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm
distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles
per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII,
who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over
which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a
restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by
the witches in Macbeth.
Nor do I
separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy
spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a
television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders
technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor
plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.
This inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a
faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect,
guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of
enchantment. I take my cue from Christopher Marlowe’s tragical drama Doctor
Faustus because his dreams of “profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of
omnipotence,” are the stuff that America
is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation
devoutly to be wished when America
was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present
at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher
and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian
New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.
It was an age
that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on
the far shores of the world’s oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe
Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as
the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior
150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian
Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in
hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of
Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller,
the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and
world was dying an uneasy death, but magic remained an option, a direction, and
a technology not yet rendered obsolete. Robert Burton, author of The
Anatomy of Melancholy, found the air “not so full of flies in summer as it
is at all times of invisible devils.” To the Puritan dissenters contemplating a
departure to a new and better world the devils were all too visible in a land
that “aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incests, adulteries, whoredom,
drunkenness, oppression, and pride.”
Tanks of the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries
In both the
skilled and unskilled mind, astronomy and astrology were still inseparable, as
were chemistry and alchemy, and so it is no surprise to find Marlowe within the
orbit of inquisitive “intelligencers” centered on the wealth and patronage of
Henry Percy, “the Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, who attracted to his estate
in Sussex the presence of Dr. John Dee, physician to Queen Elizabeth blessed
with crystal showstones occupied by angels, as well as that of Walter Raleigh,
court poet and venture capitalist outfitting a voyage to Guiana to retrieve the
riches of El Dorado.
The earl had
amassed a library of nearly 2,000 books and equipped a laboratory for his
resident magi, chief among them Thomas Hariot, as an astronomer known for his
improvement of the telescope (the “optic tube”), and as a mathematician for his
compilation of logarithmic tables. As well versed in the science of the occult
as he was practiced in the study of geography, Hariot appears in Charles
Nicholl’s book The Reckoning as a likely model for Marlowe’s
During the same
month last spring in which I was reading Nicholl’s account of the Elizabethan
think tank assembled by the Wizard Earl, I came across its twentieth-century
analog in Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American
Innovation. As in the sixteenth century, so again in the twentieth: a
gathering of forces both natural and supernatural in search of something new
under the sun.
Telephone and Telegraph Company undertook to research and develop the evolving
means of telecommunication, and to that end it established an “institute of
creative technology” on a 225-acre campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, by 1942
recruiting nearly 9,000 magi of various description (engineers and chemists,
metallurgists, and physicists) set to the task of turning sand into light, the
light into gold.
were encouraged to learn and borrow from one another, to invent literally
fantastic new materials to fit the trajectories of fanciful new hypotheses.
Together with the manufacture of the laser and the transistor, the labs derived
from Boolean algebra the binary code that allows computers to speak to
themselves of more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in the
philosophies of either Hamlet or Horatio.
attributes the epistemological shape-shifting to the mathematician Claude
Shannon, who intuited the moving of “written and spoken exchanges ever deeper
into the realm of ciphers, symbols, and electronically enhanced puzzles of
representation” -- i.e., toward the “lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters”
that Faustus most desired. The correspondence is exact, as is the one to be
drawn from John Crowley’s essay, “A Well Without a Bottom,” that recalls the
powers of the Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim, a fifteenth-century mage who
devised a set of incantations “carrying messages instantaneously… through the
agency of the stars and planets who rule time.” Bell Labs in 1962 converted the
thought into Telstar, the communications satellite relaying data, from earth to
heaven and back to earth, in less than six-tenths of a second.
Between the 1940s and the 1980s, Bell Labs produced so many
wonders both military and civilian (the DEW line and the Nike missile as well
as the first cellular phone) that AT&T’s senior management was hard put to
correct the news media’s tendency to regard the Murray Hill estate as “a house
of magic.” The scientists in residence took pains to discount the notion of
rabbits being pulled from hats, insisting that the work in hand followed from a
patient sequence of trial and error rather than from the silk-hatted magician
Eisenheim’s summoning with cape and wand the illusions of “The Magic Kettle”
and “The Mysterious Orange Tree” to theater stages in nineteenth-century Paris,
London, and Berlin.
fell on stony ground. Time passed; the wonders didn’t cease, and by 1973 Arthur
C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer believed by his admirers to be the
twentieth-century avatar of Shakespeare’s Prospero, had confirmed the truth
apparent to both Ariel and Caliban: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.”
As chairman of
the British Interplanetary Society during the 1950s, Clarke had postulated
stationing a communications satellite 22,300 miles above the equator in what is
now recognized by the International Astronomical Union as “The Clarke Orbit,”
and in 1968 he had co-written the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The opening sequence -- during which an ape heaves into thin air a prehistoric
bone that becomes a spaceship drifting among the stars -- encompasses the
spirit of an age that maybe once was Elizabethan but lately has come to be seen
as a prefiguration of our own.
The New World’s Magical Beginnings (and Endings)
philosophies call all in doubt, the more so as the accelerating rates of
technological advance -- celestial, terrestrial, and subliminal -- overrun the
frontiers between science, magic, and religion. The inventors of America’s liberties, their sensibilities born of
the Enlightenment, understood the new world in America as an experiment with the
volatile substance of freedom. Most of them were close students of the natural
sciences: Thomas Paine an engineer, Benjamin Rush a physician and chemist,
Roger Sherman an astronomer, Thomas Jefferson an architect and agronomist.
enlarging the frame of human happiness and possibility, they pursued the joy of
discovery in as many spheres of reference as could be crowded onto the shelves
of a Philadelphia library or a Boston philosophical society. J. Hector St.
John de Crèvecoeur, colonist arriving from France in 1755, writes in his Letters
from an American Farmer to express gratitude for the spirit in which
Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod -- “by what magic I know
not” -- was both given and received: “Would you believe that the great
electrical discoveries of Mr. Franklin have not only preserved our barns and
our houses from the fire of heaven but have even taught our wives to multiply
approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson’s best hopes for the new
nation’s colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two
centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian
Henry Steele Commager named “the empire of reason.” An empire that astonishes
the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but
one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason.
Like England in
the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a
vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous -- the lines and
letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA,
Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the
cloned sheep and artificial heart. America’s
scientists come away from Stockholm
nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes
by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system.
The record also
suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been
accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and
mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological -- nuclear, biochemical, and
genetic -- gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as
the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic.
We find our new
Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon
and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself
more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution
of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies
escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the
rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become
the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and
entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product.
How else to
classify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at
alchemy? At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of
the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the
ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the
Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling
Faustus, "Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/Lord and commander of
Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the
jingo chorus of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for
the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the
fall six months later of the World Trade Center:
is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new
realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”
So again four
years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass
destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim’s projection of “The
Vanishing Lady.” The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld emerged from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and
implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press
conference in 2002: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are
things we know that we know. There are known unknowns… but there are also
unknown unknowns... The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
What Desperate Enterprise
message accounts not only for what was intended as a demonstration magical in Iraq, but also for the Obama administration’s
current purpose in Afghanistan,
which is to decorate a wilderness of tribal warfare with the potted plant of a
civilized and law-abiding government that doesn’t exist. Choosing to believe in
what isn’t there accords with the practice adopted on Wall Street that brought
forth the collapse of the country’s real-estate and financial markets in 2008.
of the losses measured the extent to which America assigns to the fiction of
its currency the supernatural powers of a substance manufactured by a
compensation committee of sixteenth-century alchemists. The debacle was not
without precedent. Thomas Paine remarked on the uses of paper money (“horrid to
see, and hurtful to recollect”) that made a mess of America’s finances during its War
of Independence, “It is like putting an apparition in place of a man; it
vanishes with looking at, and nothing remains but the air.”
the “emissions” of paper money as toxic, fouling the air with the diseases
(vanity, covetousness, and pride) certain to destroy the morals of the country
as well as its experiment with freedom. A report entitled “Scientific Integrity
in Policy Making,” issued in February 2004 by the Union of Concerned
Scientists, advanced Paine’s argument against what it diagnosed as the willed
ignorance infecting the organism of the Bush administration.
Signed by more
than 60 of the country’s most accomplished scientists honored for their work in
many disciplines (molecular biology, superconductivity, particle physics,
zoology), the report bore witness to their experience when called upon to
present a federal agency or congressional committee with scientific data
bearing on a question of the public health and welfare. Time and again in the
40-page report, the respondents mention the refusal on the part of their
examiners to listen to, much less accept, any answers that didn’t fit with the
administration’s prepaid and prerecorded political agenda.
regard to the lifespan of a bacteria or the trajectory of a cruise missile,
ideological certainty overruled the objections raised by counsel on behalf of
logic and deductive reasoning. On topics as various as climate change, military
intelligence, and the course of the Missouri River,
the reincarnations of Pope Urban VIII reaffirmed their conviction that if the
science didn’t prove what it had been told to prove, then the science had been
tampered with by Satan.
spoke to the disavowal of the principle on which the country was founded, but
it didn’t attract much notice in the press or slow down the retreat into the
provinces of unreason. The eight years that have passed since its publication
have brought with them not only the illusion of “The Magic Kettle” on Wall
Street, but also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would
enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.
To the extent
that more people become more frightened of a future that calls all into doubt,
they exchange the force of their own thought for the power they impute to
supernatural machines. To wage the war against terror the Pentagon sends forth
drones, robots, and surveillance cameras, hard-wired as were the spirits under
the command of Faustus, “to fetch me what I please,/Resolve me of all
ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will.”
clerks subcontract the placing of $100 billion bets to the judgment of computer
databanks that stand as silent as the stones on Easter
Island, while calculating at the speed of light the rates of
exchange between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. By way of
projecting a federal budget deficit into both the near and distant future, the
season’s presidential candidates float cloud-capped towers of imaginary numbers
destined to leave not a rack behind.
body politic meanwhile dissolves into impoverished constituencies of one,
stripped of “profit and delight” in the realm of fact, but still sovereign in
the land of make-believe. Every once and future king is possessed of a screen
like the enchanted mirror that Lady Galadriel shows to Frodo Baggins in the
garden at Caras Galadhon; the lost and wounded self adrift in a sea of troubles
but equipped with the remote control that once was Prospero’s; blessed, as was
the tragical Doctor Faustus, with instant access to the dreams “of power, of
honor, of omnipotence.”
Lapham is editor of
. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the
author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater
of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has
likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong
resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This
essay, shortened for TomDispatch, introduces "Magic Shows," the
Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch, join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Image by Walter
Stoneburner, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 23, 2012 2:58 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
I speak Spanish to God,
Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
-- Emperor Charles V
But in which language does
one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response? The
questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of which we’ve learned
to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the equipment that scans
the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the EKG, arranges
the assignations on Match.com and the high-frequency trades at Goldman Sachs,
catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when and where to
connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings.
Why then does it come to pass
that the more data we collect -- from Google, YouTube, and Facebook -- the less
likely we are to know what it means?
conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the
presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no
connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has
no experience whatever.” He published Understanding Media in 1964,
proceeding from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our
tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Media were to be understood
as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware agents,” not as art or
philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers.
Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of
feeling and thought.
To account for the
transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media, McLuhan
examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological
status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention
of moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on
manuscript in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of
the world along the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph,
telephone, radio, movie camera, television screen, eventually the computer),
favored a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the
dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word
replaced with the icon and the rebus.
Within a year of its
publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy
Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New
York Herald Tribune proclaimed him “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin,
Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.” Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism --
“The electric light is pure information”; “In the electric age, we wear all
mankind as our skin” -- McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look
into the window of the future at what was both obvious and certain.
Floating the Fiction
In 1964 I was slow to take
the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a medium that McLuhan
had listed as endangered -- writing, for The Saturday Evening Post,
inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an
effect, a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an
attempt to tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children’s blocks,
and when offered the chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the
referral to what I regarded as a course in remedial reading.
The judgment was poorly
timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had gone the way of
the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news, the
distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were
increasingly difficult to parse. Another 20 years and I understood what McLuhan
meant by the phrase, “The medium is the message,” when in the writing of a
television history of America’s foreign policy in the twentieth century, I was
allotted roughly 73 seconds in which to account for the origins of World War
II, while at the same time providing a voiceover transition between newsreel
footage of Jesse Owens running the hundred-yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in
the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the Wehrmacht into Vienna in the
spring of 1938.
McLuhan regarded the medium
of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression
of a thought. The voice of the first person singular becomes incorporated into
the collective surges of emotion housed within an artificial kingdom of wish
and dream; the viewer’s participation in the insistent and ever-present promise
of paradise regained greatly strengthens what McLuhan identified as “the huge
educational enterprise that we call advertising.” By which he didn’t mean the
education of a competently democratic citizenry -- “Mosaic news is neither
narrative, nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment” -- but rather as
“the gathering and processing of exploitable social data” by “Madison Avenue
frogmen of the mind” intent on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of
human credulity and desire.
McLuhan died on New Year’s
Eve 1979, 15 years before the weaving of the World Wide Web, but his concerns
over the dehumanized extensions of man (a society in which it is the machine
that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing) are
consistent with those more recently noted by computer scientist Jaron Lanier,
who suggests that the data-mining genius of the computer reduces individual
human expression to “a primitive, retrograde activity.” Among the framers of
the digital constitution, Lanier in the mid-1980s was a California computer engineer engaged in the
early programming of virtual reality.
In the same way that McLuhan
in his more optimistic projections of the electronic future had envisioned
unified networks of communication restoring mankind to a state of freedom not
unlike the one said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, so too Lanier had
entertained the hope of limitless good news. Writing in 2010 in his book You
Are Not a Gadget, he finds that the ideology promoting radical freedom on
the surface of the Web is “more for machines than people” -- machines that
place advertising at the “center of the human universe… the only form of
expression meriting general commercial protection in the new world to come. Any
other form of expression to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to
the point of meaninglessness.”
The reduction of individual
human expression to a “primitive, retrograde activity” accounts for the product
currently being sold under the labels of “election” and “democracy.” The
candidates stand and serve as farm equipment meant to cultivate an opinion
poll, their value measured by the cost of their manufacture; the news media’s
expensive collection of talking heads bundles the derivatives into the
commodity of market share. The steadily higher cost of floating the fiction of
democracy -- the sale of political television advertising up from nearly $200
million in the presidential election of 1996 to $2 billion in the election of
2008 -- reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact.
Like the music in elevators,
the machine-made news comes and goes on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same
footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries, what was said last week
certain to be said this week, next week, and then again six weeks from now, the
sequence returning as surely as the sun, demanding little else from the
would-be citizen except devout observance. French Novelist Albert Camus in the
1950s already had remanded the predicament to an aphorism: “A single sentence
will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”
Ritual becomes the form of
applied knowledge that both McLuhan and Lanier define as pattern recognition --
Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Miller beer is wet, Paris Hilton is not a golf
ball. The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s
googling, an afternoon’s shopping, an evening’s tweeting constitutes the
guarantee of being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their
own invention -- money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl -- the technology can
be understood, in Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, as “the knack of so
arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Better to consume it,
best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified
(as corporate logo, designer dress, politician custom-fitted to a super PAC)
the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling
of things rather than from the making of them.
The Voice of Money
Talking to Money
Never have so many labels
come so readily to hand, not only on Fox News and MSNBC, but also on the
Goodyear blimp and on the fence behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The
achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of “innovative delivery
strategies” that broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with “quicker
access to valued customers.”
Maybe I miss the “key
performance indicators,” but I don’t know how a language meant to be disposable
enriches anybody’s life. I can understand why words construed as product
placement serve the interest of the corporation or the state, but they don’t “enhance”
or “empower” people who would find in their freedoms of thought and expression
a voice, and therefore a life, that they can somehow recognize as their own.
The regime change implicit in
the ascendant rule of signs funds the art of saying nothing. Meaning
evaporates, the historical perspective loses its depth of field, the vocabulary
contracts. George Orwell made the point in 1946, in his essay “Politics and the
English Language.” “The slovenliness of our language,” he said, “makes it
easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If one gets rid of these habits, one
can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward
Advertising isn’t interested
in political regeneration. The purpose is to nurture foolish thoughts, and the
laziness of mind suckled at the silicone breasts of CBS and Disney counts as a
consumer benefit. The postliterate sensibility is offended by anything that
isn’t television, views with suspicion the compound sentence, the subordinate
clause, words of more than three syllables. The home and studio audiences
become accustomed to hearing voices swept clean of improvised literary devices,
downsized into data points, degraded into industrial-waste product.
Ambiguity doesn’t sell the
shoes. Neither does taking time to think, or allowing too long a pause between
the subject and the predicate. In the synthetic America the Beautiful, everything
good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right. The
body politic divides into constituencies of one, separate states of wishful
thinking receding from one another at the speed of light.
Every loss of language,
whether among the northern Inuit or the natives of the Jersey
Shore, the critic George Steiner
writes down as “an impoverishment in the ecology of the human psyche”
comparable to the depletion of species in California
The abundance of many languages (as many as 68 of them in Mexico), together
with the richness of their lexical and grammatical encoding (the many uses of the
subjunctive among certain tribes in Africa) stores, as do the trees in
Amazonia, a “boundless wealth of possibility” that cannot be replaced by the
machinery of the global market.
“The true catastrophe of Babel,” says Steiner, “is
not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful
of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues… Anglo-American standardized
vocabularies” and grammar shaped by “military technocratic megalomania” and
“the imperatives of commercial greed.”
Which is the voice of money
talking to money, in the currency that Toni Morrison, accepting the Nobel Prize
in Literature in 1993, denominates as “the language that drinks blood,” happy
to “admire its own paralysis,” possessed of “no desire or purpose other than
maintaining the free range of narcotic narcissism…dumb, predatory, sentimental.
Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing a shelter for despots.”
Language designed to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege,” prioritized
to fit the needs of palsied bureaucracy, retrograde religion, or our own 2012
The vocabulary is limited but
long abiding. The aristocracy of ancient Rome
didn’t engage in dialog with slaves, a segment of the population classified by
the Roman agriculturalist Marcus Terentius Varro as “speaking tools,” animate
but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app.
The sponsors of the Spanish
Inquisition, among them Charles V, possibly in consultation with his horse, ran
data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the
content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the
Gestapo in Nazi Germany. In South
Africa during most of the twentieth century
the policy of apartheid was dressed up in propaganda that novelist Breyten
Breytenbach likens to the sound of a “wooden tongue clacking away in the wooden
orifice in order to produce the wooden singsong praises to the big bang-bang
and the fluttering flag.”
The Internet equips the fear
of freedom with even more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than
were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Joseph Goebbels, provides our own
national security agencies with databanks that sift the email traffic for words
earmarked as subversive, among them “collective bargaining,” “occupy,” and
The hope and exercise of
freedom relies, in 2012 as in 1939, on what Breytenbach understood as the
keeping of “the word alive, or uncontaminated, or at least to allow it to have
a meaning, to be a conduit of awareness.” The force and power of the words
themselves, not their packaging or purchase price. Which is why when listening
to New York
publishers these days tell sad stories about the death of books in print, I
don’t find myself moved to tears. They confuse the container with the thing
contained, as did the fifteenth-century illuminati who saw in Gutenberg’s
printing press the mark and presence of the Devil. Filippo de Strata, a
Benedictine monk and a copier of manuscripts, deplored the triumph of
Through printing, tender boys
and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain,
take in whatever mars the purity of mind or body…
Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us,
should be respected and held to be nobler
than all goods, unless she has suffered
degradation in the brothel of the printing
presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a
harlot in print.
The humanist scholars across
Europe discerned the collapse of civilization, the apocalypse apparent to
Niccolò Perotti, teacher of poetry and rhetoric at the University
of Bologna, who was appalled by “a new
kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany… Anyone
is free to print whatever they wish… for the sake of entertainment, what would
best be forgotten, or, better still, erased from all books.”
McLuhan in 1964 ridiculed the
same sort of fear and trembling in Grub Street by observing that, in the
twentieth century as in the fifteenth, the literary man preferred “to ‘view
with alarm’ and ‘point with pride,’ while scrupulously ignoring what’s going on.”
He understood that the concerns had to do with the moving of the merchandise as
opposed to the making of it, where the new money was to be found, how to
collect what tolls on which shipments of the grammar and the syntax. Then as
now, the questions are neither visionary nor new. They accompanied the building
of the nation’s railroads and the stringing of its telephone poles, and as is
customary under the American definition of free enterprise, I expect them to be
resolved in favor of monopoly.
The more relevant questions
are political and epistemological. What counts as a claim to knowledge? How do
we know what we think we know? Which inputs prop up even one of the seven
pillars of wisdom? Without a human language holding a common store of human
value, how do we compose a society governed by a human form of politics?
The History of the
Every age is an age of
information, its worth and meaning always subject to change without much
notice. Whether shaped as ideograph or mathematical equation, as gesture,
encrypted code, or flower arrangement, the means of communication are as
restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that
drift across the surface of the human face.
The written word emerges from
the spoken word, the radar screen from signal fires, compositions for full
orchestra and choir from the tapping of a solitary drum. The various currencies
of glyph and sign trade in concert and in competition with one another. Books
will perhaps become more expensive and less often seen, but clearly they are
not soon destined to vanish from the earth. Bowker’s Global Books in Print
accounts for the publication of 316,480 new titles in 2010, up from 247,777 in
1998. In the United States
in 2010, 751,729,000 books were sold, the revenue stream of $11.67 billion
defying the trend of economic downturn and the voyaging into cyberspace. The
book remains, and likely will remain, the primary store of human energy and
The times, like all others,
can be said to be the best of times and the worst of times. The Internet can be
perceived as a cesspool of misinformation, a phrase that frequently bubbles up
to a microphone in Congress or into the pages of the Wall Street Journal;
it also can be construed as a fountain of youth pouring out data streams in
directions heretofore unimaginable and unknown, allowing David Carr, media
columnist and critic for the New York Times, to believe that “someday,
I should be able to walk into a hotel in Kansas, tell the television who I am
and find everything I have bought and paid for, there for the consuming.”
Carr presumably knows whereof
he speaks, and I’m content to regard the Internet as the best and brightest
machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden
tongue. It is one thing to browse the Internet; it is another thing to write
The author doesn’t speak to a
fellow human being, whether a Spaniard, a Frenchman, or a German. He or she
addresses an algorithm geared to accommodate keywords -- insurance, Steve Jobs,
Muammar Qaddafi, mortgage, Casey Anthony -- but is neither willing nor able to
wonder what the words might mean. It scans everything but hears nothing, as
tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the
Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.
The strength of language
doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word
work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm,
“is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the
ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do
language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same
thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his
rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality: “So long as men can breathe or
eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
Maybe our digital technology
is still too new. Writing first appears on clay tablets around 3000 BC; it’s
another 3,300 years before mankind invents the codex; from the codex to
moveable type, 1,150 years; from moveable type to the Internet, 532 years.
Forty years haven’t passed since the general introduction of the personal
computer; the World Wide Web has only been in place for 20.
We’re still playing with
toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but
language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and
its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political
and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor
. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and
Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire.
The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair
has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared
him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Means of Communication," the
Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
@TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Lewis H. Lapham
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Image by Ragesoss,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, April 07, 2011 10:50 AM
This article was originally published at
A longer version of this essay appears in "Lines of Work," the Spring 2011 issue of
Lapham's Quarterly. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch and Utne Reader thank the editors of that elegant journal for allowing us to preview Lapham's essay here.
To read more articles on work in America, see our January-February issue on the topic.
Man must be doing something, or fancy that he is doing something, for in him throbs the creative impulse; the mere basker in the sunshine is not a natural, but an abnormal man.
-- Henry George
The news media these days look to outperform one another in their showings of concern for the lost battalion of America’s unemployed. Consult any newspaper, wander the Internet or the television talk-show circuit, and at the top of the column or the hour the headline is jobs. Jobs, the bedrock of America’s world-beating prosperity, the cornerstones of its future comfort and well-being -- gone to Mexico or China, deleted from payrolls in Michigan and Ohio, mothballed in the Arizona desert.
The nation’s unemployment rate, officially pegged at 9.4% but probably nearer to 17%, in any event no fewer than 25 million Americans, a number more than equal to the entire population of North Korea, out of work or on the run. The metrics, so say President Obama, the Wall Street Journal, and A Prairie Home Companion, are not good. The stock markets may have weathered the storm of the recession, as have the country’s corporate profit margins, but unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.
Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don’t question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man’s work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help.
Speaking Tools Versus Busy Bees
The framing of the country’s unemployment trouble as an unfortunate metastasis of the servant problem should come as no surprise. The country is in the hands of an affluent oligarchy content with Voltaire’s observation that “the comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” During Ronald Reagan’s terms as president, the income that individual American families received from rents, dividends, and interest surpassed the income earned in wages. Over the last 30 years, the wealth of the emergent rentier class has been sustained by an increasingly unequal sharing of the gross domestic product; the percentage of GDP accounted for by manufacturing fell from 21% to 14%, and the percentage accounted for by finance rose from 14% to 21%.
The imbalances become greater over time; as between compensations awarded to the high-end baskers in the sunshine and those provided to the low-end squatters in the shade, the differential at last count in 2009 stood at 263 to 1. With wealth comes power in Washington, so it’s also no surprise that the government, whether graspingly Republican or scavengingly Democratic, adopts the attitudes and prejudices of the monied sultanate. So do most of the nation’s news media, their showings of concern expressed in the lawn-party voices of the caterers distributing the strawberries.
The lines of work are as numberless as the hooks in the sea, but they divide broadly into employments bent to one’s own purpose and those bound to a purpose other than one’s own. It is the former that reflects the founding idea of America. The Puritan settlers of the seventeenth-century New England wilderness arrived from an old world in which the civilizations both east and west of Suez fetched their food and shelter from the work of variously denominated slaves.
The ruling classes of antiquity, like those in medieval and early Renaissance Europe, regarded the necessity of having to earn a living as a mortification of the body and a degradation of the mind. Aristotle had classified slaves as “speaking tools,” available for every purpose except their own, and for the next 2,000 years, in Asia as in Europe, it was generally understood that the terms of a man’s employment were settled at birth. The newfound land of North America afforded an escape from the burdens of the past imposed by the divine right of inherited privilege as well as those enforced by Barbary pirates and British naval officers, the architects of the New Jerusalem bringing with them the Protestant belief that it was by a man’s work that he was known, not only to himself, but also to God and to his fellow men.
On no less an authority than that of John Calvin, they had been given to understand that there was “no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our own vocation) as not to appear truly respectable and be deemed highly important in the sight of God.” The thought embraced St. Benedict’s Catholic certainty that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul,” as well as the meditation of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who likens the work for which men are by their nature born to that of “craftsmen who love their trade,” equivalent in turn to that of the “sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his own part toward a coherent world order.”
Further searches for a coherent world order on the western shores of the Atlantic encouraged the authors of the Constitution to conceive the document as a tool turned to the making of things, of laws as well as of ships and cider mills and songs. As with the plow and the surveyor’s plumb line, the instruments of government were meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. In answer to questions being asked in Europe about what sort of persons were likely to be well received in the new republic, Benjamin Franklin in 1782 published a pamphlet, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, in which he observed that in America people “do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do? If he has a useful art, he is welcome… But a mere man of quality, who on that account wants to live upon the public by some office or salary will be despised and disregarded.”
The love of country followed from the love of its freedoms of thought and action, not from a pride in its armies, its monuments, its manners, or its debts. Thomas Jefferson, writing his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, envisioned a republic of free-standing husbandmen who till the earth, “the chosen people of God… whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” The newfound land and its newfound independence both were to be cultivated by employments bent to purposes of the individual, their joint venture resting on a democratic holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they were rich or beautiful or famous but because they were fellow citizens.
The Elephant on the Table of American Politics
So at least was the spirit and intent if not always the practice or the case. In return for the Constitution’s ratification by the Southern slave-holding states, the politicians in Philadelphia in 1789 had compromised the principle that all men are created free and equal. They assumed that slavery was soon to become extinct, certain to be swept away on the rising tide of freedom, and so they allowed the Southern planters to temporarily retain their prize collections of speaking tools.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 remanded the case for liberty to the higher court of money. Between 1800 and 1860 the demand for cotton on the part of Britain’s satanic textile mills furnished the newly minted United States with its richest flow of capital, serving the purpose that the Saudi Arabians now extract from oil. The opulence of the trade (60% of America’s export in 1860), in large part conducted, to their immense profit, by New York banks and New England ship owners, financed the country’s westward expansion and the early development of its commerce. Without cotton, there would have been no industry, and without slavery, no cotton.
The “darkies” said by Stephen Foster to be singing sweetly in the fields subsidized the music that Walt Whitman heard elsewhere in the country in the singing of “the carpenter,” “the deckhand,” “the mason,” “the shoemaker,” “the hatter,” “the woodcutter,” and “the plowboy” -- the voices of America’s leaves of grass, the fellow citizens in the 1830s and 1840s plying trades in Massachusetts and Ohio, felling trees and building roads in Illinois, piloting Missouri and Mississippi River steamboats, tinkering with farm equipment and firing pins, going west to Texas and California.
Victory in the war with Mexico added another 529,017 square miles
to the inventory of spacious skies and purple mountain majesties acquired in the Louisiana Purchase; the population went forth and multiplied (9,638,453 in 1820; 31,443,321 in 1860), its restless collective energies geared to vocations apt to prove to be their own reward. Frontier people holding fast to what Mark Twain later claimed as “a maxim of mine that whenever a man preferred being fed by any other man to starving in independence, he ought to be shot.”
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the shooting would have needed to become extensive. The Civil War had rousted slavery from the plantations of the South, but the industrial revolution in the North required an even greater supply of hired hands bound to purposes other than their own. The employments on offer in the Kentucky coal mines and the Pennsylvania steel mills matched Karl Marx’s job description of alienated labor -- a “diabolical activity,” entailing the loss of self. “What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”
How then to accommodate both man and beast under the same beach umbrella of the American dream, make the freedom-loving argument that Franklin’s craftsmen and Jefferson’s husbandmen differ only in their angles to the sun from the hostess in the bunny costume checking coats in a Playboy club? By the turn of the twentieth century, the question of what constitutes the meaning of labor as well as a fair return on its performance was the elephant on the table of American politics.
An alienated proletariat had been imported from China to build America’s western railroads, from Ireland and Eastern Europe to service its eastern factories, and between 1870 and 1914, the bitter, often violent division between the differently purposed lines of work was made manifest in the financial markets and the streets. The great railroad strike in 1877 moved Thomas Alexander Scott, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to suggest that the strikers be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” State militia and federal troops complied with the suggestion, killing more than 100 strikers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The putting down of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, and the breaking of the Homestead Strike in Andrew Carnegie’s steel works in 1892, reinforced the rule of money; the bank panics of 1893 and 1907, preceded by heedless speculation in the stock markets, led to widespread unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and depression.
The disputes varied in their particulars (the protective tariff, the prices paid for gold and silver, the legitimacy of the labor unions), but in every instance what was at issue were the terms of service as defined on the one hand by President Teddy Roosevelt in a Labor Day speech at Syracuse, New York, in 1903: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”; on the other hand by Woodrow Wilson, still president of Princeton University in 1909, speaking to the New York City High School Teachers Association: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
Wilson’s way of looking at things aligns itself with what was to become America’s chrome-plated future, Roosevelt’s with its homespun past. The Rough Rider was trading in nostalgia, looking back to his days as a young man, a young man who also happened to be rich, shooting buffaloes in the Dakota Territory. The sentiment shows up in Norman Maclean’s remembrance of the way it was out among the tall trees in the summer of 1927, “As to the big thing, sawing, it is something beautiful when you are working together -- at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness -- maybe even something more deeply disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right.”
It is here that one finds the dignity of labor and the expression of man’s humanity to man. One can illuminate the feeling on which Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, mounted his candidacy for U.S. president in the election of 1912, attracting over 900,000 votes on the strength of his belief that “the workers are the saviors of society, the redeemers of the race.”
Wilson didn’t think so, and Wilson won the election, defeating Roosevelt as well as Debs. The establishment in 1913 of the Federal Reserve Bank overruled the prolonged objection by the instruments of labor to their uses in the hands of capital, shifting control of the nation’s currency from the public to the private sector.
The Labor of Consumption
It is man’s nature to be doing something, or at least to fancy that he’s doing something, but to what purpose, and for whom? Satisfactory answers to the questions lately have been hard to find, not only for the unemployed poor but also for the underemployed remnant of what was once a diligently aspiring middle class. It isn’t simply that the consumer markets don’t value work worth doing; it’s that the society’s ruling and possessing classes regard working for a living as the mark of inferior or damaged goods.
The attitude made its first appearance on the American scene during the Gilded Age, dancing with the newly crowned kings of finance under the ballroom chandeliers in Newport and New York. Thorstein Veblen took note of the arrival in 1899, his Theory of the Leisure Class suggesting that it is the conspicuous consumption of the product of other people’s time and effort that makes up the sum of one’s own worth and meaning. Not the doing of the work, the digesting of it. “Leisure, considered as an employment,” said Veblen, “is closely allied in kind with the life of exploit, and the achievements which characterize a life of leisure and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much in common with the trophies of exploit.”
During the years prior to the Second World War, the attitude was safely confined to a small number of people preserved in the aspic of what was then big money. The victories over Germany and Japan fostered extensions of the franchise. Rescued by force of arms from the Great Depression, America seemed blessed with the enchantments of both Croesus and Colossus, the indisputable proofs of its wealth and military power giving rise to the notion that all its children were the inheritors of a vast fortune and therefore deserving of the best of all possible worlds that money could buy. No reason not to have it all -- a new frontier, a great society, guns for a splendid little war in Asia, butter for the old folks at home, a house in the country, a boat on the lake, the face and fortune in the ad for one of Ralph Lauren’s tennis dresses.
Much of the world in 1945 was either bankrupt or in ruins, and the refurnishing of it supplied the American economy over the next 30 years with an abundance of jobs that afforded the means of independence and a measure of self-worth, while at the same time bringing forth the trophies of exploit to a consumer market more wonderful than the wonderful world of Oz, seeding ever broader acres of the nation’s human topsoil with the presumptions of entitlement favored by Veblen’s Newport heiresses. Don’t worry, be happy; go forth and shop. Leisure considered as employment.
Which was all well and good until it turned out, somewhere in the middle of the 1980s on the yellow brick road with Toto and the Gipper, that the Wizard was easy access to conspicuous credit. For how else could the American leaves of grass join their top-dressed companions on a golf course unless they borrowed money? The country’s working and middle classes discovered that it wasn’t the value of the work itself, or its manufacture of a decent living (as architect, bus driver, sales clerk, actress, lathe operator, automobile mechanic) that made up the sum of the country’s wealth and well-being.
Their great collective enterprise was the labor of consumption, and with it the derivative of debt, a byproduct, like the methane exuded by factory-farmed pigs, that funded the patriotic service owing to God, country, and the American Express card. The work was maybe mindless, a substitution of what is animal for what is human, but it fattened the gross domestic product, enriched the insurance companies and the banks, welcomed the second coming of an American Gilded Age, and now accounts for the increasingly grotesque disparity between the income earned as wages and the revenue collected as rent, interest, dividend, stock option, and year-end bonus.
Americans with jobs imagine they now work longer and harder hours than did their forebears on Mark Twain’s Missouri frontier; if so, their labor serves a purpose other than the one in hand. Finance accounted for 47% of total U.S. corporate profits in 2007; 58% of Harvard University’s male graduates in that same year (the heirs and assigns of Woodrow Wilson’s small class of persons deserving of a liberal education) took up careers as high-end traffickers in the drug of debt. It’s a lucrative trade, up to the standard of the cotton export from the dear old antebellum South. That it doesn’t add to the sum of human happiness or meaning is probably why the gentry on the lawns of Connecticut, together with their upper servants in Washington and the news media, talk about the lost battalion of America’s unemployed as a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than as a body of fellow citizens.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of
. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Lines of Work," the Spring 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Copyright 2011 Lewis H. Lapham
Source: TomDispatch, Lapham's Quarterly
Image by Charkerm, licensed under Creative Commons.
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