IAN BOAL, 3/91
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
Can we look at all thought in terms of metaphor? I'd say the answer is, yes.
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Ian Boal. He's historian of culture and technology, visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, author of Resistance to the Machine. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Boal. Where do we first find the resistance to machines?
IAN BOAL: The first interesting resistance in the modern world, about 1811 to 1816, the first generation after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, in England, there was a series of machine breakings by people now called the Luddites. Now, Luddite has come to be seen as a kind of major swear-word. The Luddites are now thought of as, kinda like Canutes, standing in the face of progress, inevitable progress. They were mostly skilled artisans, who found that with the coming of the factories were being deskilled and thrown out of a job. And they began selectively to break the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution, in particular, textile machines. It turns out, however, that the story that we've come to be told about the Luddites is profoundly wrong. It's important that we should go back, look very hard at this first generation of resisters, and ask ourselves, Is there not something to learn from them? Because, in a way, many people I think are now coming to see that we stand perhaps on the cusp now. It's not clear that the very conditions of our existence are not threatened by that system of production, which the Luddites resisted. The standard interpretation, even by those favorable to the Luddites, was that they were in a sense just premature trade-unionists. And, I think that's wrong. The Luddites, kind of an umbrella term, there were many different kinds of people who at that point were resisting what they saw was a kind of a horrific, new set of conditions of their livelihood, described of course by Dickens and others. The machine for them was the kind of the controlling metaphor, the mythic metaphor, against which they were able to kind of mobilize resistance. Of course, they didn't have a very probably developed theoretical account of what they were doing, but I would suggest that in the contemporary situation perhaps, the forest plays perhaps, or could play, a similar role. That is to say, the inhabitants of northern California are making common cause with the indigenous inhabitants of Amazonia. Both of them are being mobilized by this great mythic metaphor of the forest. And yet both of course could not be said in many ways to have common cause. I mean the differences between somebody using the redwoods as recreation and natives of South America, their interests are very far apart in many ways. And yet they can come together under this mobilizing metaphor. And that was true, I would say, for the Luddites. The machine, which in a sense one could see as the controlling metaphor of the Victorian Age, becomes the master trope around which people can mobilize. It in a sense becomes the enemy. This is slightly surprising because, if you take the major theorist of resistance of the Victorian Age in the Western world, Karl Marx, in fact it turns out that he was very impressed by machinery. He was in fact a very normal Victorian gentleman in that sense. He subscribed to the notion of progress. Against which, of course, the Luddites are reckoned to be kind of the absolute antithesis. These are people who were absolutely dedicated to the past. Hopeless primitives, in a sense. And I use the word "primitive" here purposely. That's to say, I think the contemporary analog of the Luddites are those Third World peoples who apparently are not willing or are unable to move on to the highway to the future, the road to progress.
MP: The Luddites had a rather different machine to confront. As artisans, they probably hadn't seen very large scale machinery, the large presses. In 1820, we're only dealing with mostly wind or water-generated power sources, with long belts and devices geared off of it, mostly pressure.
IAN BOAL: You're right. These were relatively small machines, but they were being put together in batteries under one roof. They were in fact machines that were designed often by the artisans who then went to smash them, so that the standard view that the Luddites were somehow mindlessly against the machine is in fact nonsense. What they were against was the new social organization of work, which was prefigured by, say, somebody like Adam Smith in his description of the pin factory, the glories of specialization and the division of labor.
MP: So that makes the analogy to contemporary Third World much more potent. It was a reaction to that very evident social destruction of the institutions they were a part of. Whereas Marx, who was also delighted with the prospects of this alienated proletariat.
IAN BOAL: Well, he was delighted because they would become the agent of the overthrow of capitalism. Which Marx himself was very ambiguous about, if you read his journalism. Some people don't know that he wrote in the 1850s for a New York daily newspaper, and some of his journalism there, for example "The British in India," reveal him to be thrilled in many ways by the possibilities of capitalist enterprise. So in that sense, as I said earlier, he was a fairly standard Victorian progressivist. Now of course, he thought that this was also a system of grotesque exploitation, that would be superseded, but nevertheless would still continue to use the system of production that the Luddites saw was so alienating, and he would have been, and was, implacably opposed to that kind of resistance.
MP: You've suggested that understanding the Luddites, Luddism, would contribute to our contemporary social perspective. We're in a world where science and technology are almost seamless with our daily life. Where would we reach back to get that sensibility? Where do we have common metaphors?
IAN BOAL: Well, I think perhaps here I would draw on one of the patriarchs of the field that I work in, on sort of culture and technics, and that is Lewis Mumford, who died last year, I think. His over-arching framework, which informed all his sort of life's work on this was, the machine in opposition to life. He was trying to elaborate a vitalist theory, and what he suggested was that, when we look around at the technological world and the world of science and its artifacts, that we ask ourselves, in any particular case, Does it or does it not affirm life? Now, of course there's enormous difficulty in defining what is life, and those who've argued for "life" in quotes have often been as regressive, if not fascistic, as those who argue for the machine. Nevertheless, it seems to me that that Mumfordian criterion is a very, very important one. And we can look at the contemporary world and ask ourselves, What is the effect of the introduction of this or that technology? To my knowledge, the only people doing that consistently in the contemporary world are small groups such as the Amish. Now, again, you think of the Amish as Luddites and it's not obvious that, say, most Americans would regard the Amish way of life as desirable and, indeed, in many ways I think that's quite right. But! They do in fact ask themselves just that questions. And again, they are Luddites in the sense that they resist certain kinds of technology. On what grounds? Well, on the grounds that it's inconsistent with their own flourishing. It's not that they are against the machine; in fact, apparently, according to my friend Richard ?Sclove, who I think just finished a book which includes an important exploration of Amish technology, apparently the Amish are actually innovators in certain branches of agricultural technics. But, for example, they refuse to plug into the national electricity grid, because they regard their way of life as threatened by what Mumford would call, you know, the Megamachine. Hnh. So, they refuse the automobile, and because they regard it as corrosive of the social relations that they desire, and it's now, by no means a scandal, it would scandalize not many people to see that the automobile is a very problematic piece of technology.
MP: There's enormous parallels, I hadn't realized that between many Third World countries where megamachine comes in an imported form, they can make a conscious decision not to import, because of the conception of the megamachine and its, and the obvious implications of dependency on it, of dependency on imported mechanisms and then creation of domestic mechanisms to support imported values. I should give you a chance to talk about how society creates or constructs some of its own views of technology, and the technology itself. We're talking about an Amish society which has an enormous degree of self-consciousness, of its structure. Are the same phenomena available, accessible to us, in a society that seems less definable? One about which we're less sensitive?
IAN BOAL: I think we need to go back into history to understand the enormous sea change in relation to techniques that began to emerge in, on the edge of the Eurasian land mass around the sixteenth/seventeenth century. You must remember that archaeologists have discovered that in pre-history, looking at stratagraphic evidence in caves and that kind of thing, it seems that perhaps for as long as, say, 50,000 years at a stretch, there was no technical advance. So, when we notice now that technical change and innovation is kind of the norm, that hasn't been the case in, for most of human history. Where did this change take place? and why? That, I think, is kind of the central question that informs the history of science and technology and medicine. Something happened around the seventeenth century in northwestern Europe, something profound, and nobody, I think, has got yet a satisfactory answer of why it happened then. Why didn't it happen in China? Well, we simply don't know yet. There are some good guesses, but we don't know.
MP: This is Social Thought. I'm Michael Phillips and our guest today is Ian Boal, historian of culture and technology, visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, author of Resistance to the Machine. So far, we've talked about the history of resistance to the machine, then we've moved into the general area of megamachine of our society, and then we've asked the question, which you just asked, Can we possibly identify some of the rudiments that have led to this development? We're in the beginning of the seventeenth century in Europe. What are the plausible, what are the scenarios that you're comfortable with?
IAN BOAL: Well, I think that the most compelling explanation, it's only the beginnings I think of a really full treatment of this, is that the scientific revolution socalled, was one moment within this huge change that we call the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There are slogans that are handy when we talk about this. The death of nature, or, the disenchantment of the worldócapture the spirit of this change. The world from being seen as a living organism becomes retheorized in the work, famously, of Descartes, as a dead machine. Matter in motion. The great Newtonian synthesis was, if you like, the acme of this view. Newton has a system which in a sense runs itself. There is nothing of God in it any more. God has retired, if you like, to the edge of the universe. In fact, Leibnitz made a, sort of joked with him, and said, "Your God, you know, Mr.ÝNewton, seems something of a retired engineer." This dead world, you could argue, was necessary for the new system of production which, the one we discussed earlier, the Luddites, does something very dramatic to the world. It makes commodities of three key things, namely, the land, the earth itself, people's labor, and money. And in a sense that projection onto nature seems to me to be a fairly satisfactory starting point for trying to understand the contemporary view of the earth. Not that that isn't prefigured, I should say, in the, say, in Genesis, what has been called the Judaeo-Christian view of the world, where the world is set over against humans for our use. God has created everything for us. For humans. And either God did it as a kind of executive fiat, "Let there be light, let there be fishes, let there beó" and so on. That it's for our use. So it's not that there's only, this is a brand new tradition. I mean, certain other older traditions feed into his view, of the death of the world, if you like. The disenchantment. And, in a sense we are inhabiting that world now, that's the world that we learn at school and in physics. Not of course that we all act that way. We don't, in our own lives, entirely act that way. It's not thorough-going. But it is the view that conditions the system that we live within.
MP: This is your material, but since you've just focused on a point in time and geography that's so rich, you've got Shakespeare, Harold ?Bloom argues that Shakespeare was the first person to bring, make people aware of their own consciousness. We've got the Protestant revolution, going rampant in England. We've got David ?Landis's material on the role of clocks, not only the metaphor of clocks, but clocks and the middle class and emergence of middle, trading middle class.
IAN BOAL: Yes.
MP: Where is the synthesis coming that'll allow us to see the modern scientific mind?
IAN BOAL: Well, I think there's a lot of enormously good work. David ?Landis, David ?Noble's work is terribly important on the history of the clock. Again, that comes out of some very suggestive, almost off-the-cuff, remarks by Lewis Mumford, who regards the clock, the horological metaphor, as the, in a sense the master trope of the modern world, where lived time becomes superseded by clock time, and the English historian Edward Thompson has done some fascinating work on the resistance to the regime of the factory, the resistance to clockingin precisely, the way that the clock does terrible things to our natural rhythms. It's probably only students and perhaps artists who work according to natural rhythms. Maybe farmers do. That's to say it's a sort of task-based livelihood. I certainly often tell students that they're not being neurotic when they leave their essays to the last minute and work through the night. That's the sort of the task-based, you know, burst of human activity that you, you do it, you finish it, and then you have fun, you know, you party for a while. As opposed to the 9to5, the dead world of the mechanical clock. David ?Noble has explored this and quite rightly is I think picking up on Mumford's insight into the crucial role of the monastery, for example, in the emergence of the modern world. The monastery, in that sense, becomes the proto-institution of all those others which are absolutely typical of modernity. The factory, the hospital, the barracks, the asylum, the school, the university. These make up the institutional fabric of the modern world, and in a sense they're all prefigured in the monastery.
MP: I want to come back to our contemporary world, because, with Mumford, we now see that we have a social construct, in which this is now, the attitudes toward nature and science and progress are so deeply embedded. Do we as a culture have a sense that will allow us to look at the way we construct those particular ?outlets?
IAN BOAL: Well, I think it's a race against time. It's partly a question of which metaphor we choose, to. Are we, if we think of the world as a web, a web of life, that seems very fragile, and it may be that the metaphors we choose will condition the way that we think about this and the ways in which we might mount resistance to the system. Which of course is not monolithic, because the captains of industry now, of course, are becoming environmentalists. I mean it was not that long ago when Margaret Thatcher and George Bush stood up and declared themselves to be environmentalists. Now, this is just a reflection of what one might call the crisis of the conditions of production, that which hitherto, ever since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, that which has been regarded as sort of free goods, you know, the water, the air. These are now soiled to the point, and I hate to use the word "soil" that way because part of our attitude to soil is wrong for a start. But this is a crisis of the conditions of production, and therefore it's those who are in command of this system of production, of industrialism. And I use that word "industrialism" because I don't want to distinguish from this point of view between the, say, the East and the West. Between, shall we say, the Soviet bloc, as it was, and the socalled West. Because, they're both predicated on that same worldview. The question is, How do we get there from here to a sustainable world? And, at least in part, I think, it's going to hinge on, literally it's going to hinge on metaphor. Now, that sounds perhaps absurd, but if you look at the history of science and technology and social thought, it turns out that all theories are deeply metaphorical. So, metaphor, in this sense that philosophers and historians of science now use it, is not just a question, it's not a sort of a literary trope, it's the deepest possible framework. For example, Is the world a machine? or is it a body? That kind of thing.
MP: If we move toward the web metaphor, is that a deep metaphor? that we can individually identify with.
IAN BOAL: I think so. Let me give an example. The last paragraph of Darwin's Origin on Species contains two controlling metaphors, in tremendous tension. It probably come out of his sort of daily walk, he was a reclusive man, and he had a daily walk around his house in Kent, and he imagines what he called "the tangled bank." And the first half of this final paragraph in his great work, he imagines a tangled bank in which everything is connected, it's precisely sort of the web metaphor. One would now think of it as a deeply wise, sort of ecological metaphor, of a very rich set of interconnections. The second half of the paragraph, he moves into the sort of Newtonian, cold Newtonian world in which he talks about the laws of nature, of competition and so on, in which there is, if you like, a sort of a disconnection. And, I think there are resources we can draw on to look for inspiration in our, in the resistance that I'm speaking of. Partly we can look to indigenous peoples and their myths, and, as I say, I think we have our own myths to draw on, the machine, the forest, what have you.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Boal. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest was Ian Boal, historian of culture and technology, visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, author if Resistance to the Machine. The books we mentioned were David ?Landis, Revolution in Time, David ?Noble, America by Design.