Been thinking lately about industrialism and the erosion of the particular, the enthronement of the generic.
The train of thought is a familiar one but it took on new definition when I was working on the battens for the new sails for my junk-rigged boat (also my home). The boat is steel but the battens are wood. The story of this wood and how it was worked illuminates some strong contrasts between the industrial worldview and what I can only call “reality.”
First, it was hard to find good wood… because all the really good timber has been cut by now: what is coming out of the tree plantations euphemistically called “managed forests” is not timber, but fibre; some of the wood-products companies are honest and call it that. So for a start, to seek decent ship-building timber is to come face to face with the devastation of the forests of the Northwest, a realisation that we are poor now, poorer than people on this same coast in 1950, radically poorer than people on this same coast in 1900. If we had to build ships out of wood today, we couldn’t build anything of a size and utility that used to be quite ordinary. So that’s sobering in and of itself.
But through local contacts I managed to find some grade-B spruce (in the form of a 14×14″ cant 20 feet long). I went to the sawmill and inspected the cant and picked which half of it I liked best (it’s a guessing game, trying to intuit which way the knots run and which half of the cant will be more clear than the other): I drew on the cant end with a marking pen showing where to rip it. Also bought some old hard doug fir that had been left outside too long and (when cut) turned out to be rotten with a fungus called “conk”, or “conky” in local parlance. The sawmill operator did not ask payment for the bad wood; he accepted the risk of a bad sale. The bad wood became firewood. Not much gets wasted around here.
I bought other spruce from a friend who has a small business making oars and paddles. It came in 2×4-like lengths (but full dimension, not Home Depot). It was mostly clear, but a few pieces had knots. It came from different sections of a tree, and from different trees: heartwood varied in density, rings varied in spacing. Some lengths were notably heavier (stronger, denser) than others. In other words, every single piece of wood was individual, unique. I spent a lot of time staring at it and thinking about where best to use each piece: stronger pieces should be used for battens aloft, because those would be exposed when reefed for heavy conditions. Lighter pieces could be used alow (lower down), because they would only be exposed in light air. Each batten would be made of two halves bolted together; the two halves would have to be matched, then.
Some battens were so long that they needed to be “spliced” (woodworkers call this “scarphed”) with a long diagonal glue joint. So each half would have a glue joint in it and be made of two pieces, and those two pieces should be well matched in density and grain. And the pieces should be cut from the original lumber so as to avoid knots and “swirls” in the grain as much as possible.
There was a point where I was surrounded by lengths of spruce, carefully writing numbers on them with pencils and permie-markers, trying not to get confused, trying to figure out whether I had enough good wood for the project… and I thought, “Gee, if I had just used aluminium extruded box-beam, I wouldn’t have to do any of this thinking.”
Because every length of extruded box beam you buy from an aluminium foundry is — failing an industrial accident or QC error — identical. That’s what industrialism promises, that’s what it delivers (with remarkable success too): every unit produced is the same, to within very stringent tolerances, as every other unit. You can count on it! Every length of box beam, every iPod, every McDonald’s cheeseburger, every Toyota Celica, every cowling for a Boeing jet engine of a certain model, every Ticonderoga pencil, every Postit-note… we are surrounded now by what I have just named the warholistic universe, a universe which consists of the identical replication of fabricated objects. You can trust them. They are all the same. You don’t need to think.
Every one of my pieces of wood was an individual. I saw them a lot of times: during selection, during grading and matching (I weighed them in my hands, sorting by density; I examined them for grain, admiring the fine ribbon grain of the best pieces — so beautiful you almost wanted to save it for panelling or cabinetry); during gluing and clamping and routing and sanding and endless coats of sealers (Cetol and Brightside, two excellent marine paints that are made to very stringent tolerances, so that every can is exactly the same; you can trust them, you don’t have to think; but you do have to work hard with a brush for a while). I joked with someone in the yard that I could almost give them all nicknames, I knew them so well. They were not generic. They were particular.
This particularity is the focus of very mixed feelings of gain and loss. The warholistic world offers us a kind of reassurance, so dear to us grabby primates: the other ape’s iPod is just the same as yours. You need not worry that they picked the better one, you need not pick over the bin to choose the best. Every iPod of a given model is the exact twin of every other iPod of that model, and this is quite relaxing — you know just what you’re getting and need not glance suspiciously at the other ape’s papaya to see if it’s bigger and juicier We feel comfortable and secure in a reliable universe, where things work predictably, where a Starbucks Cafe Americano tastes the same even when we’re travelling in a strange city. If I buy a wrench from a tool shop, which claims to be a 7/8 inch box end, I can trust that this wrench will in fact fit the hex-shaped heads of perfectly identical cap screws bought in a 7/8 cap size. If it doesn’t, I get my money back: everyone’s expectation is that standards will be honoured and identicality will be guaranteed.
This is in some ways a good thing.
And yet… many people name their cars. Almost everyone names their boats, even production sailboats whose manufacturers are trying hard to reach the iPod standard (a Catalina 27 is a Catalina 27 is a Catalina 27…); a huge aftermarket exists in products to “personalise” (particularise) your iPod, cell phone, car, luggage, and other Taylorised products. There is something we miss about the particular.
Sometimes the assembly line hiccups. Human error creeps in; machine failure does occur from time to time. When this happens to some items in the warholistic world, like a printer’s error in a batch of stamps, it adds to their value: that one print run becomes magically individual, particular, exceptional, collectible. Its very particularity becomes desirable, rare, inspiring covetousness: it gives people a thrill to own one of the stamps with the image upside down or the colours backwards. Rarity is always associated with value, but I suspect there is more to it: I think we are also attracted to the moment of individuation of what is expected to be identical.
The denial of individuation begins to be troublesome when it reaches into the biotic realm. Our expectations have been moulded by the factory system; in the warholistic world, an apple is an apple is an apple, and our agriculture is increasingly oriented to the production of standardised product. A bin full of apples should be blemish-free, no apple better or worse, larger or smaller, than any other apple, all the same shape and colour — just like a bin of iPods. For many shoppers, this is now a baseline assumption: they don’t pick over produce any more, just grab however many generic tomatoes (or whatever) are desired and plop them in a generic bag.
In reality, however, the biotic world is not the warholistic world. There is a world of difference between wood and aluminium: the wood was once alive and still bears the unmistakable fingerprint of individuality, the signature of life and self-organising systems (as opposed to fabricated systems). Not all bunches of celery are the same, even in the supermarket, and the celery this week may not be the same as next week. Weather alters the appearance and taste of produce, as do the seasons.
Our agribusiness nexus has tried manfully (and I use the word with forethought and intent) to emulate the factory system, to prioritise standardisation, to provide generic food items year round, with minimal individuation by variety, locale, or season. More has been written about the unwisdom of this than would be needed to stun a herd of oxen, so I won’t go over all the ways in which this quest has been insane and self-defeating. I merely note that there is a big disconnect between the biotic and the fabricated, and that much of the abuse and folly of our present food system derives from a stubborn insistence on treating animals and plants as machines, farms as factories, food as standardised warholistic Product. By insisting that soil is soil is soil (when actually soil is incredibly complicated, alive, and varies hugely from location to location even over short distances), we have done ourselves and our descendants no favours: our insistence is deeply stupid and ignorant.
The quality of honouring the particular in food and farming is called “terroir” in French, and it’s a lovely word, barely translatable as “earthness” or “landness”, the unique quality of particular, individual earth or land, the flavour of particular grapes from a particular vineyard or cheese from particular milk processed by a particular cheesemaker. This quality of terroir or particularity was once (ironically) universal, something you could count on; if you visited a different county (let alone a different country) you would taste interesting, different, sometimes subtle and sometimes spectacular variations on the taste and texture of familiar foods from home. It is a quality that industrialism has all but exterminated from the world. This is not such a good thing.
The warholistic universe often seems like an extension of the arrogance of privilege, because it is arrogance and privilege that disindividuate human beings (also known as objectifying) — regarding another person as merely a generic “servant” or “peasant” or “woman” rather than a person with authenticity and agency equal to that of the observer/speaker.
The factory provides the same reassuring reliability that force and privilege used to ensure for aristocracy: a chambermaid is a chambermaid is a chambermaid. The live-in help wore identical costumes, enacted identical rituals of deference and service, and were barely distinguished by names unless they rose to upper-servant rank. In my family there is a story — perhaps apocryphal — that when my grandmother was in service as a housemaid, her mistress asked her name. “Lily, ma’am,” she said shyly. “I don’t like that name,” said the good lady of the house; “I shall call you Phoebe.” And from then on, my grandmother had to answer to “Phoebe.” This is disindividuation: my housemaid will always be called Phoebe, regardless of who she really is.
The same disindividuation is notoriously part of male privilege and sexual prerogative. It is a factory mindset that declares “They’re all the same with a bag over their heads,” meaning that sex is generic and it really doesn’t matter what woman you “get it from” — a f*ck is a f*ck is a f*ck. The individual texture, grain, weight and strength of another person within your intimate space (the very meaning of intimacy) is ignored in favour of the predictable aluminium box-beam — the same every time, you don’t have to think. It is a utilitarian or functional view of another human being: as a tool or product, considered only from the perspective of their usefulness to your own purposes. Reliability, predictability, is in this case the opposite of freedom or agency (for the objectified/enserfed person, at any rate): what is expected and valued is their conformity to an imposed standard, their fulfilment of expectation. “They all look the same to me,” is another way of saying the same thing: I am unwilling (too lazy, too threatened, too stubborn) to perceive the particularity of the Other. I insist that they are generic.
The warholistic universe in which we now live is unlike any that humans have ever lived in, other than a tiny sample of humans belonging to the highest elite (and even they, before industrialism, saw more variation and particularity in their food, textiles, etc. than our poor people do today). The precision and replicability which once required enormous human labour and could only be commanded by extreme wealth and power (like a court dress made by thirty lacemakers working for a year, or the ultimately fine and regular linen in which Pharaohs were wrapped for burial), is now commonplace; and what is rare (and now reserved for the wealthy) is particularity: bespoke shoes, fine wines, sole-sourced chocolate, artisanal cheese.
What is a little hard to grasp is that two hundred years ago, the whole world was artisanal. Even factory (manufactory, in those days) products, though fabricated more quickly through the isolation of repetitive tasks and shared machinery, were still manu-factured, that is, made by hand. Regularity, identicality, were very difficult to achieve and highly prized (as in a matched set of silverware, a perfectly matched pair of duelling pistols, a set of perfectly formed porcelain dinnerware, a set of eight nearly-identical dining chairs). A hundred years ago, certain items were industrially produced to tolerances then considered high (some still would be, as in edged-tool manufacturing), with remarkable identicality: but those items belonged to a “machine world”, a warholistic sector that was still fairly small and limited. Steel and iron tools, machinery parts, sewing machines, guns, steel and iron cookware, stamped (affordable) tableware, mass produced fasteners: mostly involving metal. But tooling begets tooling: the replicable tools can be used to make replicable furniture, replicable clothing, replicable newspapers, replicable containers for bulk goods.
As of our time, warholism is ascendant and particularity seems targeted for elimination. Industrialism is radically simplifying whole ecosystems, viciously eliminating variation, reducing species counts; human language groups have been eliminated ruthlessly, cultures assimilated or decimated. Identical replication (replication that is virus-like, in other words) has itself, like a virus, replicated across the globe. McDonald’s has junk-food outlets in Beijing, where a cheeseburger will be identical to one served in Chicago. Agriculture — once fostering a bewildering and glorious, highly particular wealth of national, regional, and local varieties and traditions — has been brutally simplified. Low-cost “cookie cutter” construction methods have rendered dwelling-places into identical replicated units: a suburb is a suburb is a suburb. Much of this reduction of particularity to identicality is hazardous to our survival. Much of it is experienced as loss and alienation, even as the apologists for the process deride this sense of loss as “sentimentality” and “unrealistic nostalgia.”
There is no moral to this story. It’s merely a musing on the cost of the particularity of things — the thinking, the comparing, the evaluating, choosing, knowing, understanding required to relate to a world of individuated things rather than identical things… and the cost of the mcdonaldisation of things, the alienation, laziness, and aching dissatisfaction that seem to lie just beneath the comfort and convenience of the warholistic universe.
It is as if (to me) we found a powerful idea (identical replication, standards, repeatability) — an idea of such power that it self-replicated with unstoppable momentum (didn’t hurt that it was profitable and advantageous for those who adopted it) and overshot its beneficial applications, crossing into negative-returns territory as soon as it invaded the biotic world.
Me, I choose mostly organic produce at the supermarket. I look at each fruit or vegetable before I buy it. I notice whether the celery is dryer or juicier this month than last. I avoid the contra-seasonal fruits flown in from around the world, and try to eat what is available in season (not within 100 miles, I am not that conscientious, but at least on the West Coast and transportable by land rather than air). I notice with pleasure the resurgence of varietal apples (6 or 7 different kinds out of the over 5,000 which used to be grown in N America prior to industrial ag). I seek particularity in the biotic — in my food, in my lover, in the wood for my spars. And yet I feel the comforting predictability of a 7/8 wrench that reliably fits a 7/8 head cap screw. Despite the doomy outlook of e.g. Derrick Jensen, despite my agreement with much of what he says, I still feel somehow that a balance might be struck between the power of replicable fabrication and the realities of biophysics: that the warholistic universe can be shrunk again into a warholistic sector — a small, contained, focussed sector — of a particularised and individuated biotic and human universe.
I am curious to know how other people experience the tension between the replicable and the individual, the generic and the particular, the warholistic universe and the real, wildly variegated, unpredictable, living world.