Tag Archives: work

The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)

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I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

The Sedulous Farrago of a Woman’s Mind

However, the majority of women are neither harlots nor courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon. But what do they do then?  –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (88)

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The well-known first few lines of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, sum up her thesis neatly; she declares that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write. Having come into a bit of money, Woolf was in a position of some authority to make these statements.  At nearly one hundred years distance, it offers a still (depressingly) prescient message.

There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away – the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. (38)

Cash rules everything: that is as true for men as it is for women, however, we women simply have always been, and still are, the poorer half of society. I am, regrettably, neither an expert on having money, nor on having a room of one’s own. However, I wondered, as I read this rather brilliant little book, about that last point. Woolf spends a lot of time talking about the dearth of female literature, she adds odious quotes that would make most humans cringe, showing up the dumbest things a man is capable of saying on the subject of women and their intellectual capacities. She also clearly understands that the difference between men and women is potentially the all-important and wonderful thing.

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? – (87)

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As women were slowly “allowed’ to write more than letters, and then to show their work publicly, one of the problems, according to Woolf  that presented, was the difficulty in writing about a world in which a person knows so little. Confined as these early female proto-writers were, their writing was limited. Much in the same way, she adds, that men knew, and therefore wrote, next to nothing (and nothing at all interesting) about the all-important female to female relationship- they simply had, historically, no idea what that entailed and so female characters were by and large relegated to the role of lover or femme fatale with some female relations thrown in. Imagine, she asks, if everything written by a man was stripped of its male to male friendships? I can’t even get past re-imagining  The Epic of Gilgamesh, so let’s not try…I do seem to recall a vitally important prostitute in that tale, yeah Virginia, point taken.

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But here I run into a slight problem. I get, theoretically, the whole room of one’s own thing, it sounds very nice. And yet, and yet…I believe this is one more of a piece. This is a man’s problem, not a woman’s. If a woman has money- which gives time; and confidence – which gives energy, a room is superfluous. Are we not the multi-tasking half of the sexes? It’s built in. Tend to children, roll the dough out, plan the dinner, read a book, jot down a brilliant thought, hang the clothes to dry, drive in circles taking kids to and from and back again to practices, friends, and libraries, and then sit down to write while answering homework questions and making plans for the week (you’ll notice it’s the having money part that would eliminate what many of us have to add in – doing all of the above for a minimum wage – a serious blow to both time and confidence). All this is done while the same writing-male sits in his room of his own. I’m not saying either is easy, or one easier, simply that a hermetic room of peace is not the key thing in a woman’s life. We don’t have time to be precious. Sorry, that came out wrong, what I meant to say is…it is possible…we have an innate capacity to hold a spoon in one hand and a pencil in another. We only needed to be respected for doing it- our way.

There are people whose charity embraces even the prune. (19)

All I’m saying is, don’t wait. The money problem is a definite problem, but if you are a woman, and you are waiting for a room of your own- it may be a long wait. You’re probably much more likely to get an hour snatched here and there with lots of workable minutes strung in between. As a client of mine, who gave me her delightfully underlined copy of A Room of One’s Own and was born years before it was even written,  always says- we must take what we can get. Although come to think of it, she had money and room, so…on second thought, I’m open to the experiment- someday!

My motives, let me admit, are partly selfish. Like most uneducated Englishwomen, I like reading – I like reading books in the bulk. (107)

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie