[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
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[L.Q. cover, quotes, and images are from Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology, unless noted.]
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[NEW to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 50+ LQ summaries I jump right in.]
[This is a READING section, apologies to those who might stumble in looking for photography.]
“You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say
It’s only words and words are all I have
To take your heart away”
—WORDS, song by the Bee Gees
To conclude my summary of this issue:
Previously, on Technology:
Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology – Pt. 1
Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology – Pt. 2
The last section of Voices In Time is Obsolescence.
Of the 22 extracts/essays, I thought 14 of them worthy of additional notation.
My favorites were the following. Links are to available online info (left to extract, right to author):
2020: Khartoum | Jina Moore
c. 500 bc: Jin | Zhuangzi
c. 150: Thessaly | Lucius Apuleius
c. 1915: Detroit | Louis-Ferdinand Céline
1812: Yorkshire | Charlotte Brontë
2001: Outer Space | Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke
1954: Rapid City, SD | Pearl S. Buck
c. 960: Exeter | Exeter Book
1942: Dublin | Flann O’Brien
1840: New York City | Samuel F.B. Morse
The Future: Underground | E.M. Forster
1863: Christchurch | Samuel Butler
2020: San Francisco | GPT-3
2026: Allendale, CA | Ray Bradbury
Aye, there’s the rub. Obsolescence, planned or unplanned. It seems things are not built to last. If they were, we wouldn’t build or buy another one.
Jina Moore reports on the Khartoum, Sudan massacre of June 2019. In addition to mass murder and rape, the internet was shutdown and as a result the city came to a standstill:
“All of that commercial movement effectively ceased during the shutdown. Grocers watched their businesses shrivel as customers counted the pounds they had on hand and prioritized emergency over necessity. Cybercafes, supermarkets, PlayStation parlors, and pirated-movie hawkers said their revenues plummeted between 60 and 75 percent or more. Where people once waited at registers to pay with bank cards or mobile money, they instead either handed over the little cash they had or simply stayed home.” (p. 144)
Thorstein Veblen (‘conspicuous consumption’, The Theory of the Leisure Class) is, wordily, anti-technology and industrial progress:
“And here and now, as always and everywhere, invention is the mother of necessity. The complex of technological ways and means grows by increments that come into the scheme by way of improvements, innovations, expedients designed to facilitate, abridge, or enhance the work to be done. Any such innovation that fits workably into the technological scheme, and that in any appreciable degree accelerates the pace of that scheme at any point, will presently make its way into general and imperative use, regardless of whether its net ulterior effect is an increase or a diminution of material comfort or industrial efficiency. Such is particularly the case under the current pecuniary scheme of life if the new expedient lends itself to the service of competitive gain or competitive spending. Its general adoption then peremptorily takes effect on pain of damage and discomfort to all those who fail to strike the new pace. Each new expedient added to and incorporated in the system offers not only a new means of keeping up with the run of things at an accelerated pace but also a new chance of getting left out of the running. The point is well seen, e.g., in the current competitive armaments, where equipment is subject to constant depreciation and obsolescence not through decline or decay but by virtue of new improvements.” (p. 145)
Any technological advantage gained by one competitor forthwith becomes a necessity to all the rest, on pain of defeat. The typewriter is, no doubt, a good and serviceable contrivance for the expedition of a voluminous correspondence, but there is also no reasonable doubt but its introduction has appreciably more than doubled the volume of correspondence necessary to carry on a given volume of business, or that it has quadrupled the necessary cost of such correspondence.” (p. 146)
Apuleius relates an amusing tale of a man transformed into a donkey and his unpleasant new experience at turning a baker’s mill. On humans, who fares worse:
“Ye gods, what a pack of runts the poor creatures were who looked after us! Their skins were seamed all over with the marks of old floggings, as you could easily see through the holes in their ragged shirts that shaded rather than covered their scarred backs; but some wore only loincloths. They had letters branded on their foreheads and half-shaved heads and irons on their legs. Their complexions were frightfully yellow, their eyelids caked with the smoke of the baking ovens, their eyes so bleary and inflamed that they could hardly see out of them, and they were powdered like athletes in the arena, but with dirty flour, not dust.” (p. 147)
Celine writes of man and humanity being swallowed by the factories of the Ford Motor Company:
“…we were sent off in slow-moving files, hesitant groups, in the direction where the stupendous roar of machinery came from. Everything trembled in the enormous building, and we ourselves, from our ears to the soles of our feet, were gathered into this trembling, which came from the windows, the floor, and all the clanking metal, tremors that shook the whole building from top to bottom. We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din, it gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick, continuous jolts. The further we went, the more of our companions we lost. In leaving them we gave them bright little smiles, as if all this were just lovely. It was no longer possible to speak to them or hear them. Each time three or four of them stopped at a machine.” (p. 149)
I think Jacob Riis and his 1890 muckraking photojournalism How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York would fit well right here. (Wiki.) Technology and industrialization did not come easy and was not kind to the working class. ‘Other Half’ is lengthy, but available free at Project Gutenberg.
No obsolescence with Charlotte Brontë, from her novel Shirley. It’s outright revolt against technology. She speaks of the Luddite uprising against advances in textile machinery which threw thousands out of work in England.
“Misery generates hate. These sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them. They hated the buildings which contained those machines. They hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.
“Is all right? I say,” again asked Moore, when the elephant-like leader’s nose almost touched his.
Someone jumped out from the foremost wagon into the road. A voice cried aloud: “Ay, ay, divil, all’s raight. We’ve smashed ’em.”” (p. 152) Free. Not a long piece.
Because I couldn’t wait, I mentioned HAL the computer in Pt. 2. Those familiar with Kubrick and Clarke’s movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ know that HAL goes rogue and kills humans. He/she/it is apparently not familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, or ‘chooses’ not to follow them:
First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Wiki.)
Words to live by perhaps.
Pearl S. Buck, from her 1954 autobiography, is noteworthy:
“We had no machinery in our Chinese bungalow, only the reliability of human hands and feet. Therefore, the oil lamps always shone every night, and no thunderstorm or even typhoon could put us into darkness, as any slight storm can do with electricity in our Pennsylvania house.
I had an exaggerated idea of machinery before I knew anything about it, and finding reliable human hands and feet very rare after I left China, and frighteningly expensive when and if found, impulsively I set up a way of life upon our American farm entirely entrusted to electricity and machines. The years have taught me that nothing is less reliable than these can be at times, singly or in combination. Electric current can stop and render useless an otherwise perfect machine. Or the electric current may flow full and free and be repulsed by the indifference of a machine made idle by some cog or contact that will not work. Such accidents, if they are accidents, almost invariably take place on weekends when we have guests or when the entire family is home for holidays and a large turkey is roasting in the electric oven. I have never known the electric dishwasher to stop except when it was full of silver, china, and glass, and another lot waiting, necessitating the removal of everything and washing and drying all by hand. This, too, happens only on Sundays or important holidays when essential experts cannot be found, because they have prudently learned to spend their own holidays far from home. The machine must therefore stand idle, perhaps for days, a hideous monument to its own power and the helplessness of men.” (p. 158)
Portrait painter Samuel F. B. Morse (developer of Morse code and ‘an’ early inventor of the single-wire telegraph system) enthusiastically advocates for the daguerrotype photographic process as an art form. Free.
Postscript: Full essays conclude the issue. Always thought-provoking, always free:
The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.