Sunday, June 12, 2011

El Dorado and the Botanical Garden, Part II

‘The Tool Precedes the Garden’

In which I discuss the role of technology and tools -- as physical manifestations and expansions of man's ability to act on, in, and upon the world -- on the frontier and the frontiersman mindset; incorporate David Nye's discussion of technology in the discursive framework of America as an attempt at a human instantiation of Eden on Earth -- as the second act of Creation, following God's original creation; drag Frederick Jackson Turner back into the affair to talk about the corruption of that which has gone into the wild, whether to tame it or not; and discover the existence of the 'blockquote' tag in HTML.

The idea of a technological mankind is well articulated by David Nye, whose work deals with (to co-opt the title of his book) the technological narrative of ‘America as Second Creation.’ He serves a central role in outlining the dialogue between the sacred and the profane (the civilized and the wild) that occurs in American narratives. These, as I have said, are themselves versions of preexisting and anciently rooted Western notions, altered in a beautifully self-reflective meeting between the Western conception of wilderness and the forces of civilization as enacted by settlers who forged into that wilderness. What Nye does is to articulate the uniquely American aspects of the industrialization of the world, the role of paradigm-shifting tools — the axe, the mill, the railroad, and irrigation — in the development of America:
As every gardener knows and every colonist soon learned, the tool precedes the garden. If some seventeenth-century locations looked like Eden, it was because Native Americans had burned off the underbrush or had shaped the landscape with hoes, digging sticks, hatchets, and other tools…

The axe, the mill, the canal, the railroad, and the dam stand at the center of stories about how European-Americans naturalized their claim to various regions of the United States.1
Technology is, according to Nye’s narrative of America, that which Americans make use of to define mankind, the epitome and basic description of who we are and what we can do in the world.

In this Western narrative, technology is a creation entirely of man, made as a result of the expulsion from Eden. God commanded that man till the soil of the Earth so that he may eat from it and survive, but it was this manifestation of man’s will and capacity to enact change in the world that allowed him to imagine that he could thrive.

Tools are objects imbued by man with his agency, his capacity for influence and change. They are what precipitates and makes possible the dream of recreation and simulation of Eden, for without them, man is limited in his potential. It is technology that provides the potential to magnify, to fully realize and make manifest, the immense power of which is man is capable. Nye’s technologies can be understood within this context as the things which make possible in America both the first steps – the taming of the wilderness – and the imagined future steps of simulating that which has been lost – the transformation of the land from the wilderness, to the rural, to the garden.

In an American settler’s hands, tools became instruments of familiarity, transforming the land “while establishing communities similar to those they [the settlers] had known before.” Under the influence of Americans’ progressive narratives, which “naturalized the technological transformation of the United States so that it seemed an inevitable and harmonious process leading to a second creation,” “machines were dominant yet democratic, transformative yet conserving.”2

Nye’s is an interesting perspective in that it places agency firmly and unshakably in the hands of man. It is very much a product of a post-Lapsarian, modern existence, in which man’s interactions with the world are inseparable from the tilling of the earth, unaccomplishable without investing some of our agency into material objects. From this investment, we return power, and the ability to imitate and surpass the acts of our forefathers.

Abraham Lincoln gave an address in 1859 that invoked the 'first of the old fogies, father Adam' in describing the simplicity and blissful ignorance in which he lived – he was without neighbors with whom to share knowledge, and ate no part of his breakfast from the other side of the world (and, in fact, had no conception of such a thing as another side of the world). Lincoln admitted that he was materially wealthy, though: “In the way of land and live stock, Adam was quite in the ascendant. He had dominion over all the earth, and all the living things upon, and round about it. The land has sadly been divided out since; but never fret, Young America will re-annex it.”3

This re-annexation, which would be carried out only in America and by Americans, is inseparable from the space and experience of the frontier, and a necessary first step in re-creating that Paradise that Adam inhabited before the land was divided out. This work occurs in a space between wilderness and civilization, which we may describe as a space of liminality. The various embraces and rejections of that space in ‘civilized’ society speak to the in-between spaces present in the progression narrative of Edenic recovery/ simulation.

Emissary and Exile: The Corruption of the Agents of Civilization in the Wilderness

Frederick Jackson Turner’s collection of writings on his frontier thesis, mentioned earlier, includes a chapter that reckons with the overwhelmingly negative reactions of the Atlantic states, particularly elite easterners involved in national politics, to the West. Theirs was a reaction that classed the frontiersman as near savage himself, unworthy of and unable to participate in national politics, to make ‘civilized’ decisions that would affect the rest of the nation. The idea of frontier states having equal representation in government horrified these civilized men, who deemed it necessary, prudent, and urgent to argue in Congress for a change in the system of representation in the American government, such that the East Coast states would never suffer the risk of having less than a majority say in the government. They conceived of pioneers and frontiersmen as being “[m]aterialized in their temper; with few ideals of an ennobling sort; little instructed in the lessons of history; safe from exposure to the direct calamities and physical horrors of war; with undeveloped imaginations of sympathies...”4

The frontiersman was a bizarre hybrid, some in-between object, negotiating civility and savagery, wilderness and civilization. He was painted as an emissary of civilization, “an agent of civilization battling man's traditional foe on behalf of the welfare of the race,” and so he set out into the wilderness, with Nye’s technologies in hand, to do the work of civilization, which also remained the work of God and the sacred.5 During the course of his duties, however, he was cast out, alongside that which he was attempting to cleanse, purify, and civilize, for he was corrupted, polluted, dirty with the savagery he took on in the frontier. He negotiates liminality, communitas, and habitus6, engaging with the world of the civilized as representative and creator, emissary and exile at once.

The concept of abjection (as articulated by Mary Douglas) provides a useful and applicable model by which to understand the place of the frontiersman (and the frontier), as well as the place of the Indian, the natural, the savage — in short, all that the forces of civilization cast out. In the minds of the Atlantic state politicians and elite Easterners that I mentioned above, the frontiersmen and the space he has occupied both exist at a minimum distance from the peoples and space of civilization.7

We can more clearly imagine how the frontier and its settlers were considered to both pure and corrupted, civilized and savage, sacred and profane, through a brief consideration of and reference to Amy Kaplan's work on domesticity in America. I'll talk about this more next week, and introduce the second part of this whole affair -- the contemporary influences of these narratives in America, focusing specifically on the military and our relationship with war.

Thanks for reading. I'd love to hear your comments.




6. These concepts are drawn from Pierre Bourdieu and Victor Turner (not to be confused with Frederick Jackson Turner, of course). Turner’s concept of the liminal is that which exists in the areas between white and black, civilized and savage – the areas that we can’t quite account for in our social order, the people who aren’t quite either in or out of the area that we imagine ourselves to occupy: they are liminal. A find example is the shaving of recruits’ heads upon entering boot camp, which is a jarring change of ontological space at the same time as it solidifies the group that has been pushed into that space as being one unit.
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Bourdieu’s notion of habitus describes the inculcation of social habits and limits of behavior as proscribed and prescribed by the dominant social order – the naturalness and ease of the experience of getting onto an escalator, and the ways that we limits and boundaries, often unexamined, of our views of the world brought on by the mere experience of living in one place and not another: these are habitus.

7. The idea of the abject, that which is outside of the symbolic order that we inhabit, exists primarily in our encounters with it, the moments when we are forced to interact with it despite its position outside of our world. There is in these encounters an important spatiality, which lends itself to the concept at large; relegated to its own separate zone, the abject inhabits a space of abjection, outside the symbolic and social order through its physical separation from the civilized. In this spatialized understanding of the abject, we find echoes of Eliade, in the notion that the abject inhabit the profane, while those within the symbolic order inhabit the sacred.
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1. David E. Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 5.

2. Nye 6.

3. Nye 284.

4. Turner, Chapter 7.

5. Roderick Nash. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. 41.