Category Archives: agency

145: John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine

The five essays that make up John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 all examine different aspects of the relationship between technology and Republican ideology.  Using a wide variety of primary sources, including speeches, newspaper accounts, sketches, and writers like Emerson, Bellamy, Thomas Jefferson and Tenche Cox, Kasson shows that Americans first rejected technological development because they feared becoming corrupt like Europe; then incorporated Republican ideology into industrialization to stave off that same corruption by lending moral purity, industry, and restraint to technological development; and then found themselves being exploited by the very technologies they hoped to control, all in the name of Republicanism.  Kasson thus uses the relationship between political ideology and industrialization in the 19th century to complicate the relationship between technology and culture.

Despite following a roughly linear trajectory (similar to Thomas Hughes’ technological momentum), the five chapters examine technology and culture from widely different angles.  Kasson’s first three chapters cover the Jefferson/Hamilton debates as a fear of cultural corruption by industrial technology, and early capitalists’ efforts to keep their systems of production from adversely affecting workers’ lives; the mix of Republican ideology and nobless oblige at the Lowell Mills; and Emerson’s ruminations on whether technology was creating classes, stifling or nourishing creative freedom, or alienating people from their environment.  His fourth problematizes Kouwenhoven’s argument that 19th century Americans preferred a simple, functional machine aesthetic, arguing instead that Americans liked ornate machines, and even considered the utility and beauty of complex/ornamented machinery to be high art.  And his fifth chapter examines utopian and dystopian fiction of the late 19th century by Bellamy, Twain, Donnelly, Howells, and others; he shows both that Americans saw increasing evidence that technology leads to greed, corruption, chaos, and anti-Republican values, and that they saw social and technological reform as the only way to save America from the machines.

While Kasson’s mostly elite sources don’t really speak for the majority of Americans, insofar as they speak to a certain class of  Americans his book problematizes the relationship between technology and culture.  More importantly, I think, he shows how a fear of technology distracted people from realizing that industrial capitalism was the real enemy, and Republican values of individualism, thrift, hard work, and restraint meshed so well with capitalist enterprise – shaped it, even – that they foreclosed their own freedom without realizing it.


141: Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization

Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) is a massive history of technological development in the Western world in three phases: the Eotechnic, from AD 1000 to the 18th century, which was characterized by diverse, unsystematized inventions and ideas; the Paleotechnic, from the late 18th century to the late 19th, which was “reckless to the point of barbarism” in its war, death, brute strength, and industrialization; and the Neotechnic, which began in the early 20th century and is hopeful that new alloys, electricity, communication technologies will lead to better, more organic social and technological projects.  Throughout, Mumford argues that “No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does not form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill.”   He advocates a more egalitarian technopolitics via an increased understanding and assimilation of the machine.

While the book is a history of countless technological developments spanning all of human time (itself revolutionary, since most accounts of technology before his had focused on the 19th century), the heart of it is Mumford’s program to create a “life-sustaining technological order” that would reorient the essential economic processes in which technology is employed from capitalism to basic communism: 

  • Conversion: turning the environment into energy.  Under capitalism, this process is inefficient; communal ownership of the means of production and agricultural fields, centralized planning, and economic regionalism could reduce the inefficiencies of market-managed, uncoordinated extraction and increase conversion.
  • Production: manufacturing goods.  Under capitalism, increased production means increased profits, which can be reinvested in more production facilities.  Automation without respect for the worker leads to strikes and absenteeism, not to mention dehumanization.  Communal ownership and centralized planning would coordinate production so that each region only produces what it needs, and re-developing manufacturing processes so they’re more interesting to humans would shift the focus from quantity to quality.  This combination would increase efficiency and reduce the average work week from 40 hours to 15-20.
  • Consumption: capitalism drives consumption by using style, fashion, and poor workmanship to manufacture wants and desires.  Mumford hates trendy clothes and thinks we should really just consume commodities (produced en masse) and a few luxuries (produced by smaller, specialized firms).  Reducing consumption would reduce production, which (again) would reduce work hours and make more time for culture.
  • Creation: This is the end goal of Mumford’s balanced, centralized system of production and consumption: enough surplus leisure time from work for people to develop the humane side of society: technical inventions, art, history, science, theory, communication.  The idea here is to socialize creation so that each individual adds to the collective pool of knowledge about the world we live in, that technology can be harnessed to sustain and better life rather than increase profits, and that everyone gets to guide future development.  
Mumford’s critique of technological development is thus also a critique of capitalism, and a call for a new social order that uses technology to communist/human, rather than capitalist/profit-driven, ends.

130: JB Jackson’s Landscape in Sight

Landscape in Sight: Looking at America is a career-spanning collection of Jackson’s essays edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz.  From my notes from March 2012:

Horowitz writes in her introduction that Jackson’s two main purposes are to discover the American (cultural) landscape and to compare it with the landscapes of Europe.  She implicitly raises a host of questions that Jackson addresses in his work – is there a distinctly American landscape?  If there is, what makes it distinct, and why is it different?  What does this landscape say about American culture?  I like that she situates his work within the physical landscapes of Europe and America, but I suspect the ideological landscape (not that Jackson would like that use of the term) in which he was writing influenced him at least as much as the physical.  His work in landscapes belies a deep interest in culture and politics, showing him to be just as interested in ideas as he was in his physical surroundings. 

Situating him within cultural theory lends his interpretations of American landscapes a decidedly democratic bent.  After WWII, Adorno was interpreting fascism and the Culture Industry; Reisman bemoaned the “other-directed man;” Orwell and Bradbury and Huxley were drawing out totalitarian governments to their logical ends.  Conversely, Jane Jacobs was lauding the “eyes on the street,” David Potter was celebrating the “land of plenty,” and Kerouac was rejecting ideology in favor of personally experiencing reality.  Like the latter three, Jackson favors the material, the physical, and the creation of culture by both government and people.  He uses front yards and highways and garages to examine the interplay between top-down and bottom-up theories of culture in the same way that Jacobs uses New York or Kerouac uses San Francisco.  His arguments – that landscapes can and should be interpreted culturally and that the vernacular, the pragmatic, the environmentally or temporally contingent has at least as much to do with their development as the ideology of architects and government planners – indicate a faith in the American people to create a landscape that is uniquely, well, American.

Key to Jackson’s argument, I think, is that planned and vernacular development interact to create cultural records on the American landscape.  His articles reveal vestiges of the Turner thesis, of a faith in American individual enterprise, of the importance of perspective, of the twin foci on desire and commercialism that underpin the development of the landscape as he sees it.  His emphasis on the physical lends itself to an interpretation of the cultural, and he embraces popular culture and leisure (rather than work or city planning) as driving forces in American cultural landscapes.  He simultaneously encourages objectivity in defining the landscape and subjectivity in interpreting it.  While I don’t particularly think that highways, suburban sprawl, or mobile homes indicate much individual agency, I really like that Jackson still looks for that agency, still teases out that element of personal desire and emphasizes its role in the creation of the landscape.  His faith in individual agency and the vernacular contrasts with the more structuralist(?) approaches of people like Adorno and Don Mitchell in a very welcome way.

Today, I would only add two things: an emphasis on empirical observation of landscapes as a primary way of collecting information about them, and a definition of landscape that makes it both visual and discursive, a text whose meanings can be divined by looking.

118: Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that far from being a passive act, consumption, whether as use of an object or space, “ways of operating,” or art/ “ways of making” (combination, selection, cut-and-inversion), is a kind of spatial production.   
Building on (but rejecting) Foucault, Bourdieu, Kant, and others, de Certeau conceives of the physical world as divided into two classes: those with power and capital who are in control of space and production, and those with neither, but who exercise their agency by taking advantage of opportunities and consuming creatively.  The powerful side of things is also the scientific, the rational; this side creates static places of power, characterized by rational utopian uniformity, legibility, clarity, strategy, and centralized control.  The weak consumers take advantage of cracks in the rational system of these places; dependent on time, these peripatetic storytellers (walking and narration are inseparable) combine the fixed elements of the city/story with memories and inventions triggered by circumstance and audience to subvert the rational powers and create something new.

If power creates place, these storytellers operate in space, an undefined realm within place that is created as they walk/perform their narratives.   Critical is the connection between space and discourse; critical also is that this storytelling, while it carves out spaces of agency, is fleeting and momentary; it can subvert the rational powers but it cannot develop capital or power itself.  The whole point is that walking/ narrating is the illegitimate, illegible, other to the rational system; it unites discourse and practice, and as such it cannot be abstracted or contemplated from outside itself.   Or accumulated, for that matter.

Stuff I like: de Certeau is very clear: even in a Foucauldian system, there is still ample room for human agency.  That agency may not be able to build the kind of social capital needed to overthrow rational powers, but it’s not going away – the walker/ storyteller/ city inhabitant is the necessary corollary/ internal contradiction in the rational system.  Also, he combines narration with spatial movement, which links discourse to performance – sometimes with an audience, sometimes not.  His use of myth is interesting: myths humanize the city by layering legend, memory, and dream into the rational place and thus subverting its rational, logical (objective?) order.  They function as an escape from oppression.  The way he sets up the space/ place opposition is interesting: like Tuan, he argues that places “stay put” and spaces are for movement or for practicing place: one gets the feeling that the walker opens them up and they close again once he/she has passed through.  Memory also subverts place: ghosts of people or things or businesses that are no longer in a place haunt it and link people  to a place/ convert place to space in a way that defies the logical, rational order.  I also like his method: he clearly sets out the five or so theorists he is working with, pokes holes in their arguments, and shows how everyday practice links theory and discourse AND allows for human agency and ingenuity in a way that the other theorists seem to have missed.  And he clearly sees technology as rationalizing society in a way that’s no bueno.
Stuff I don’t like: To attempt to see the system from any perspective other than direct experience – to try and take it in conceptually, as a whole – is to alienate yourself from the system and to see it from the perspective of the rational powers, not from the embodied  consumers.  To study the production of space, then, requires giving up any chance to see the whole and only studying the stories on their own terms, which, sorry, just feels claustrophic and unnecessarily limited (though useful in the whole PoMo turn bit, for sure.)  Also, it makes me sad that these seem to be practices for surviving a utopia, not for changing it – unless he’s just being descriptive instead of normative.  He seems to take a technological determinist stance on the relationship between technological rationality and place/space.  Also, individuals are not atomized, but they are anonymous in the masses; without the potential for generalization, how are they not atomized again?  Further, it’s not like people are wholly irrational, and to classify them in binary opposition to rationality (er, technology and machines came from somewhere) is doing individuals a disservice… and may even be taking precisely the birds-eye view he so eschews.  From above, walkers in a medieval city probably look like rats in a warren; but from the perspective of the opportunistic walker, thinking on the margin, every movement she makes probably makes perfect sense.  Beware seeing people in the aggregate.
Connections: Laclau’s empty signifier, especially in the section on belief (to make people believe, offer them something and then don’t give it to them); Hardt & Negri, anything really, because they believe in the power of excess to overthrow the utopia (tho they allow for the development of capital among the oppressed).  He directs engages at length with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, Freud (both his psychoanalysis and his more social piece, Civilization something), Durkheim, and Kant (though admittedly I didn’t read the bits on Kat or Durkheim.)  He also uses Lacan’s mirror phase bit as a way at getting at the relationship between the individual and society.  He is fascinated by the basic premise of anthropological work in Durkheim: to go somewhere else to study yourself; and although he picks on Foucault in particular for cutting out a small piece of culture (panoptics, for instance) and then inverting society so that that small piece of culture becomes the organizing principle of a social analysis, he uses it as the basis for his definition of tactic: cutting up, reassembling, creating narratives out of fragments.  I guess the point is that it is a tactic of the weak, not a strategy (which requires vision!  Of the big picture!) of the strong?
What are the implications of de Certeau’s walkers for performance?
Why is it so important to link space and language?
What cities is he talking about
How does this work fit in with other PoMo (vs post-structural theory)?
Originally published on 6.26.12.

108: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman cautions against jumping on the PoMo bandwagon to make sense of the world.  Against Postmodernism, which he sees as a dead-end way of interpreting the world that only leads to the I, death, and fragmented searches for authenticity in depthless space, he argues that Modernism, and the larger Enlightenment project of which it is a part, have room for human agency, collectivity, and social change.  Further, instead of being the way out of global capitalism, Postmodernism is just a phase in the modernist dialectic, one of those moments when Marxism and modernism collide.

Berman accepts that Modernism in the mid-20th century became the top-down, monolithic grand narrative that Postmodern theorists reject, but for his definition of Modernism he points instead to the 19th century, when Modernism was a way of making sense of a chaotic new “modern” world and asserting human agency in the face of totalizing industrial development.  Modernism is a dialectic between top-down and bottom-up culture, and the Enlightenment project of Progress proceeds not in a

smooth grand narrative but through the public resistance, systematic rebellion, protests and other struggles by which “modern men and women assert… their right to control their future” and their right to “make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”  Within this dialectic, if modernization involves social fragmentation and detachment from place, Modernism is about reattaching, creating roots, and connecting to the past through history and memory and to each other through shared experiences.  If this interest in place and developing roots sounds like a Postmodern project, that’s because Postmodernism is a phase of Modernism; Modernism, Postmodernism, anti-modernism are all interrelated in the same project.

Two things that Berman finds essential in Modernism that he doesn’t see in PoMo are time, which he associates with progress, and dialectic, which is the process by which structure and agency struggle to move history forward.  He also hones in on modernity as contradiction: between place and placelessness, subject and object, old and new modernities, global corporations and individual workers.  Mired in a search for authenticity among the depthless surfaces of Postmodernism, we are likely to become so obsessed with our navels that we don’t even realize we’re being increasingly controlled and oppressed.  Like Marx, Berman argues that we need to make ourselves both subjects and objects of history; to peel back the surface and see how the system really works, and then to work together to make sure modernization doesn’t eclipse human agency altogether.

100: James Duncan’s Superorganic

In “The Superorganic in American Cultural Geography,” James Duncan calls out cultural geography for laboring under an outdated and undertheorized concept of culture, and argues that cultural geographers and social geographers would both benefit from interconnections between their disciplines.

According to Duncan, cultural geographers in the 1970s (the essay was published in 1980) were largely still working from Carl Sauer’s “superorganic” theory of culture in his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape.”  Building on the work of Berkeley anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, Sauer theorized culture to be both autonomous and the determinant of individual human action.  This separation of the individual from culture causes several problems for cultural geographers because

  • it separates humans from the cultural symbols and meanings they themselves create, so it can’t explain how culture came to take a particular form
  • it reifies culture, which is problematic because it suggests that an abstraction can somehow be a causal agent
  • it assumes internal homogeneity within a culture, as if everyone participating in a culture thinks and acts alike
  • it characterizes culture as a configuration of modal personality types and idealized values, which too easily slides into “All Americans are outgoing” or “All Mexicans are hardworking”
  • it implies Pavlovian conditioning theory, where individuals grow up in a culture and absorb its norms and values, and then these guide us forever
  • it suggests that humans have no agency outside of culture

While this static view of the relationship between humans and culture has obvious implications for cultural studies, namely that it cannot explain diversity within a culture, human agency, cultural change over time, or even the relationship between this cultural superstructure and its economic base, it causes even more difficulties for cultural geographers, at the very least because it cannot explain individual variations in the relationship between humans and the landscape.  Duncan suggests that a better way to approach the relationship between culture and individuals is to follow post-1940 anthropologists, who see individuals as “strategists who manipulate the contexts in which they find themselves” and emphasize “how individuals, interacting with other individuals through institutions, create, maintain, and are in turn modified by their environment.”  In this far less static model,

  • culture is a context for, not a determinant of, individual choices
  • If culture dictates people’s behavior, it’s because they allow those norms in, not because culture is an autonomous, agentive force
  • Following Geertz’s emphasis on empiricism, “‘culture’ can be reduced to the interaction between people.  An individual’s interactions with others shapes the nature of his self.  The individual is thus in part a product of this context as well as a producer and sustainer of the context.”
  • Different individuals and groups, “depending on how much access to power and other resources they have, are differentially able to arrange and modify these different contexts.”  Power determines the scale of geographic influence
  • “culture” can also be seen as “a set of traditions and beliefs that may guide action especially when they are defined by the actors themselves as ‘natural’ or ‘correct’ modes of behavior.”

However, despite his emphasis on individual agency, Duncan is careful to couch that agency in the kinds of social, psychological, and political divisions and struggles studied by social geographers, so that his final recommendation is not to study geography as the product of atomistic individuals but as the product of “individuals and groups of individuals in relation to particular socio-historical landscapes.”

While I think Duncan oversimplifies Sauer’s theory of culture – Sauer was very interested in both empirical data of individuals’ interactions with the landscape AND the subjective interpretation of those data – his argument for human agency is a welcome antidote to the structural determinism that was still hanging around in the 1970s.

21: Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk

When I write a book, I want it to be like Sidewalk.

Mitchell Duneier is a sociologist who uses what he calls “diagnostic ethnography” to study the lives of poor, black, urban people.  In Sidewalk, he focuses on three blocks of Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, where a group of magazine and book vendors, scavengers, panhandlers, movers, and assistants form a complex social network that has ties to both the formal and informal economies.  Duneier is interested in the moral choices his subjects make within the constraints of larger racial, political, and economic structures, but he is also deeply committed to helped these people get their voices heard; this commitment, and the respect that it entails, is what really makes this book for me.

It took Duneier 7 years to research Sidewalk.  He began by making contact with Hakim Hasan, a well-read vendor who specialized in “black books,” and Hasan introduced him to other vendors, who in turn connected him with their assistants and eventually with the panhandlers who sometimes work with them to make a little extra money.  Three years in, he began working for Marvin, a magazine vendor, during summers, and he also started leaving a tape recorder on at his table all day so that his transcriptions could be faithful to the original conversations.  He interviewed a wide variety of people, from influential lawyers and city officials to pedestrians, regular customers, vendors, and relatives of the vendors, and he corroborated vendors’ accounts with those of others wherever possible.  He also worked with Ovie Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Chicago Tribune, to create a photographic record of the blocks, so that photographs and text could inform one another.  And whenever he felt he needed to explain a phenomenon in larger structural terms (the self-respect vendors got by bargaining with customers, for instance) he delved into whatever relevant research he could find to help him make connections (in this case, he used research about the relationship between worker satisfaction and self-direction.)  This wide variety of methods and sources allow him to reconstruct both the individual people he worked with and the larger structures in which they operate.

His discussion of the “Fuck it!” attitude discussed by many of his subjects is a case in point.  After noticing that saying “Fuck it!” seemed to have a pattern to it, especially for the unhoused people he spoke to, he began to ask them what they meant.  They told him that people who espoused this attitude often recognized that their addiction to drugs or alcohol played an active role in their becoming unhoused, and they talked about having finally given up trying to maintain their former lifestyle – saying “Fuck it!”  For these people, this attitude had several consistent components and was directly related to their homelessness: pervasive application to all areas of their lives; embarrassment or shame, and hope that their loved ones don’t see them in their new state; indifference to behavior that the person once saw as necessary or natural, like sleeping in a bed or urinating in a toilet; and the freedom they gained from having let go of their responsibilities to other people.  There were also different levels of “Fuck it!” which ranged from ignoring family responsibilities to actively stealing from others.  For these people, saying “Fuck it!” was a way of regaining a small amount of control over a life that was rapidly spinning away from them; it was also, in the eyes of the people to whom he spoke, something their community helped them avoid, because it was destructive on both an individual and a social level.  Duneier reads into this discussion not a judgment against addiction or homelessness but a strong community that works together to combat depression and excessive drug use, and a support network that works with the few resources it has to keep its members afloat.

Duneier’s respect for his subjects is visible in other places as well.  He respected the many hours they gave him for interviews, and returned the favor by paying them for their time.  He eventually chose to tape record their conversations so that their words wouldn’t fall prey to his own recall errors.  He asked Hasan, his original contact, to co-teach a seminar with him and secured him a semester-long lecturer position to do so.  When he had finished the manuscript, he sat down with every single person he had interviewed, showed them where they were in the book, and made sure his representations were accurate.  As a result, he was able to use real names for almost all of his subjects.  And, by way of thanks, he returned his publisher’s advance and a portion of the book’s royalties to 21 prominent figures on the sidewalk.

And, perhaps most respectful of all, he reminds his readers that he cannot speak for his subjects, that he was never quite sure how much of their trust he had earned, and that no one, not even a sociologist, can truly know what is going on inside another person’s head.  He emphasizes these points to argue that racial, class, and cultural divides are sometimes insurmountable, but, truthfully, I can’t think of a better way to level the playing field.