Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Machine in the Garden

A 1983 photo by Richard Misrach of an abandoned swimming pool at the edge of the Salton Sea (itself a product of man's failed earth engineering, as I saw in the awesome documentary film "Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea"). Neither the photograph nor the film nor the sea itself are discussed in this book, but they all could be.

Title: The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London: Oxford UP, 1964)

Leo Marx, professor emeritus at MIT in the program in Science, Society, and Technology. Marx has been the head of the ASA and the head of the American Lit section of the MLA. He simply lists his interests as "the relationship between technology and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries", and his other book is The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in America (1988). He has also produced two edited volumes, one with Merritt Roe Smith - Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (1994) - and the other with Bruce Mazlish - Progress: Fact or Illusion? (1999). Here is a page with links to articles by him in the New York Review of Books.

Argument: America, more so than other places (here's that American Exceptionalist mode of thought), is afflicted with a "soft veil of nostalgia that hangs over our urbanized landscape", the result of the conflict between our ideals of pastoral perfection - "an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages, and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness" - and the actuality of our technologized, urbanized landscape (6). While these impulses toward agrarian regression, when translated into the popular, are "the starting point for infantile wish-fulfillment dreams", American canonical writers have managed to translate this peculiarly American mode of thought into "writing that is invaluable for its power to enrich and clarify our experience" (11).


I. Sleepy Hollow, 1844
: Marx sets up his argument, then describes an incident in the life of Nathaniel Hawthorne by way of an object lesson. Sitting and recording his impressions in a supposedly "wild" spot (the "sleepy hollow" of the chapter's title), Hawthorne's reverie was interreputed by a train whistle. The use of this sound, or its thematic equivalent, Marx argues, is omnipresent in American literature, lending a dissonance that moves plots along and creates vital contrast. Referring to Virgil's Eclogues, Marx historicizes Hawthorne's mode, then describes what he will call the "pastoral design" - a complex mode which embraces "some token of a larger, more complicated order of experience" (25) - and which he distinguishes from earlier pastorals by the presence of a heightened technological power which will integrate country and city.

II. Shakespeare's American Fable: In order to understand Hawthorne's response to the whistle, Marx says, we must understand the pastoral mode "as it had been adapted, since the age of discovery, to New World circumstances" (33). To that end, this chapter looks at "The Tempest", written three or four years after Jamestown. Dealing, as it does, with "an unspoiled landscape suddenly invaded by advance parties of a dynamic, literate, and purposeful civilization" (35), Marx sees the play as a direct response to events of New World colonization. Marx sets up the two paradoxical, bifurcating ideas of American landscape ("the hideous wilderness at one end and the garden at the other" [42]), using travelers' accounts to do so. He then makes the point that "The Tempest" contains the same contrasts within it: the initial glorification of the untouched island's environmental beauties, set against Prospero's eventual triumph using the tools of Western intellectual thought and control. Shakespeare, he argues, resolved these contrasts by employing a pastoral ideal: creating a comedy which is "in praise neither of nature nor of civilization, but of a proper balance between them" (65), signified by Prospero's renunciation of his staff and book (signifiers, for Marx, of his inhuman technological prowess). Finally, he concludes, "'The Tempest' may be read as a prologue to American literature", containing elements of the heroic withdrawal from society and eventual construction of an ideal "landscape of reconciliation" (72).

An engraving of a 1776 production of "The Tempest", mounted in London at Covent Garden.

III. The Garden: Here Marx tells the story of how the pastoral ideal for America was articulated before the end of the eighteenth century, describing how the literary device was turned to "ideological" or "political" uses (73). He discusses Robert Beverley's History and Present State of Virginia (1705), describing the contradiction inherent in the text between Beverley's respect for the way of life of the Indians and the sadness or disgust he displays at seeing the land's effect on the English (dissipation, decadence, etc). Marx then jumps back over the pond to describe how the way in which Enlightenment ideals developed during the eighteenth century, between the publication of Beverley's book and that of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), "helped create a climate conducive to Jeffersonian pastoral" through the emergence of "the general notion of 'the middle state' as the desirable, or at any rate the best attainable, human condition" (88). Here is a discussion of Crevecoeur's Letters, which Marx sees as an example of pre-industrial American pastoral. Then, Marx moves into analyzing Jefferson's book, which he sees as moving the pastoral ideal beyond the literary design and into "thinking about real life" (130) and embodying in the inherent push-and-pull in Jefferson's thought: he wanted agrarian life, but in his heart of hearts understood the need for industrial progress.

IV. The Machine: What of technological progress, then? Beginning again with Jefferson and his confusing attitude to industry (he wants the new machines to come to America, but doesn't seem to connect them with the industrial cities he deplores in England [147]), Marx then describes the dawning consciousness in America that technology could bring major change. Tench Coxe (sweet name), a manufacturer who assisted Alexander Hamilton at the Treasury Dept, is an example of one who advocated industrial development, arguing that the particular landscape of America and its natural amenities rendered it perfect for manufactures (a rhetorical strategy which Marx argues drew upon the American affection for landscape [158]). Marx then describes how English thinkers such as Locke moved toward "mechanistic" thinking (describing the mind, for example, as a machine), while others, such as Carlyle, opposed this turn in thought on the basis of its denigration of the spontaneous and imaginative aspects of human life (175). Returning to America, Marx describes how the debate over mechanism played out in elite intellectual circles, with the accepted point of view holding that technology could be "the instrument appointed to fulfill the egalitarian aims of the American people" (187). By 1844, Marx says, the machine had become a public symbol, embodying all of the meanings of progress in its physical body, symbolizing the special-ness of America. Analyzing a speech by Daniel Webster (he whose virtue came from his Granite provenance), Marx shows how Webster used a rhetorical device of acknowledging his own uncertainty about technology (in this case, a railroad) in order to "reduce the psychic dissonance generated by industrialization" (213), associating such uncertainty with unseriousness and irrationality. Marx compares this speech to an article written by a pseudonymous author who was probably actually John Orvis, a "socialist lecturer" (215) and one of the only anti-technological voices apparent around this time.

George Inness, Lackawanna Valley, 1855 - a painting which Marx uses as an example of American reconciliation of the pastoral and the technological.

V. Two Kingdoms of Force: Marx explores the "Sleepy Hollow motif" in three separate works of literature, which he says embody the "transcendental, tragic, and vernacular" versions of the mode (229). First up: Emerson, who, he says, believes that geography ("the incalcuable effect of place upon the native consciousness" [236]) will mitigate technology's possible bad influence. Moreover, Marx points out that Emerson's philosophy of the alliance of man and nature holds that man, as a product of nature, cannot have produced something else natural (technology) which will represent an "unresolvable conflict" (242). Next: Thoreau, who believes, as shown in Walden, that the pastoral way of life is doomed - "he removes it from history, where it is manifestly unrealizable, and relocates it in literature, which is to say, in his own consciousness, in his craft" (265). Finally: Hawthorne and Melville, in whose work the pastoral design "conveys a sense of the widening gap between the facts and ideals of American life...the implications are more ominous" (265). Marx uses Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" (1850) and Moby-Dick as illustrations. In the latter, for example, Ishmael feels a sense of transcendence in "The Mast-Head", only to be brought back to earth with the butchering of the whale, which, as Marx says, Melville "uses machine imagery to relate the undisguised killing and butchery of whaling to the concealed violence of 'civilized' Western society" (296). Finally/finally (he said three, but used more!) is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which Marx sees as the first time the pastoral mode is "wholly assimiliated to a native idiom" (319), and The Education of Henry Adams (1907).

VI. Epilogue: The Garden of Ashes: Using The Great Gatsby's ending as case in point, Marx holds that "American writers have seldom, if ever, designed satisfactory resolutions for their pastoral fables," and that the reason we love these stories so much has to do with the intensity of our confusion about how to feel about the machine. These writers have not been able to create a "surrogate for the ideal of the middle landscape", but they have been able to "clarify our situation" and thus have "served us well" (365).

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape (1930)

Reviews: This is one of those AMS books that seems like it was part of the original firmament, and not just because its name provides the moniker for our departmental softball team. So many books cite it (for example, almost every environmental studies book I've read so far) that it's hard to imagine a time when it was new. I think a more important question for this one (rather than "What did people think of it when it came out?") would be "What have people done with its thesis since its publication?" I have one example so far, Annette Kolodny's The Lay of the Land, of a book which questions or revises part of Machine's thesis (Kolodny thought Marx didn't do enough with connections between the pastoral mode and actual actions of the settlers or other Americans). I will continue to add criticism in this space as I go along.

1 comment:

Paulo McManus said...

What a good spot just to mull over. Reminds me of infinity pool. ~ garden machinery