The Smartphone in the Garden

[Update: If you are seeing this older post in your RSS feed, it is because I updated the post to correct a glaring factual error and the post inadvertently re-published.]

Following an extended stay in Europe, Henry James returned to America in 1904.  Shortly after landing in New York, he made his way to New Hampshire. There he was struck by how the landscape impressed itself upon him. It was full of “the sweetness of belated recognition, that of the sense of some bedimmed summer of the distant prime flushing back into life and asking to give again as much as possible of what it had given before.” James wondered what it was that triggered this reaction, “shamelessly ‘subjective’” as it may have been, but he interrupted his own introspection: “When you wander about in Arcadia, you ask as few questions as possible.” Recounting this experience in The American Scene, however, he could not help but return to the questions: “Why was the whole connotation so delicately Arcadian, like that of the Arcadia of an old tapestry, an old legend, an old love-story in fifteen volumes …?”

James’ reflections were noted by Leo Marx in the closing chapter of his classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. First published in 1964, The Machine in the Garden is a rich, absorbing study of the tension between the pastoral ideal and the intrusion of machine technology throughout American history. In the first part of the work, Marx explains how, soon after the European discovery of the New World, the pastoral ideal was seized upon to describe America. Thomas Jefferson in particular translated what had been a literary construct into “a guide to social policy.” America was to be a society wherein the opposition between nature and civilization was resolved in favor of a delicately balanced, harmonious relationship; it was not a wilderness, but a garden.

America’s quasi-mythic self-understanding, then, included a vision of idyllic beauty and fecundity. But this vision would be imperiled by the appearance of the industrial machine, and the very moment of its first appearance would be a recurring trope in American literature. It would seem, in fact, that “Where were you when you first heard a train whistle?” was something akin to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” The former question was never articulated in the same manner, but the event was recorded over and over again.

In Marx’s view, the recurring vignette describing the startled recognition of the machine’s intrusion into the pastoral ideal was an American adaptation of the traditional “pastoral design.” The pastoral design was a literary convention with roots in classical antiquity. Within the pastoral design, the pastoral ideal of the harmony between man and nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the larger reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Within the pastoral design, impinging disruptive forces always trouble the pastoral ideal.

The train whistle became, for a certain generation of American writers, a memento mori signaling death’s presence within the pastoral ideal of America. This ideal, however, was not eradicated by the industrial revolution. It was still alive in the imagination of Henry Adams, even if it appears more self-consciously quaint unto itself. Well into the 20th century, the artistic conventions of the genre are still visible, even in the technocratic vision of Charles Sheeler.

Sheeler’s “American Landscape” (1930) adopted the formal conventions of the landscape painting, down to the solitary human form provided to indicate the scale of all else, but, of course, the striking feature of Sheeler’s landscape is the total absence of land. The entire environment has been “mechanized.” Marx does not make this point, but I’m tempted to read the ladder in the lower right corner, the only archaic element in view, as a memento mori. A return to pre-industrial technology is the death that threatens. But, Marx notes, “this bleak vista conveys a strangely soft, tender feeling.” As is characteristic of Sheeler’s technological paintings, movement has been stilled. Sheeler, according to Marx, has “imposed order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos.”

It is useful to contrast Sheeler’s painting with an older attempt to harmoniously represent a new order which encompasses the machine into the ideal.

In “The Lackawanna Valley” (1855), George Innes depicts a more traditional landscape, but he has incorporated the machine into the scene, both by the presence of the train winding its way toward the foreground and the smoke rising from the mills or factories further in the background. Setting Innes and Sheeler side by side, creates a suggestive illustration of the evolution of the machine’s place within the pastoral ideal of American society. What was for Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and others of their generation a potentially destructive intrusion into the pastoral ideal, is first assimilated into the ideal and then transfigures the ideal into its own image.

Sheeler’s painting is characteristic of a trend, but it should not be taken to suggest the death of the pastoral ideal for American society. Like all deeply rooted cultural ideals, it has a way of reinventing itself and reemerging. Marx’s history, in fact, can be usefully understood as context for our present debates about the Internet and society. Seen in this light, Sherry Turkle’s Cape Cod narrative can be understood as an elaboration of a genre that goes back at least as far as Hawthorne’s “train whistle” notes. Here is Turkle writing in the NY Times:

“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”

It is no longer the industrial machine that has entered the garden, it is now the smartphone.


(More to come.)

The Art Inspired by the Religion of Technology

The American painter Charles Sheeler was contracted by Fortune magazine to create a series of paintings that captured the power and majesty of American technology. Nye describes Sheeler’s paintings as follows:

Like many artists of his generation, Charles Sheeler explored the apparent omnipotence of industrialization. In six paintings commissioned by Fortune he depicted the central objects of the technological sublime: the water wheel, the railroad, electrification, and flight. Martin Friedman has observed of the series: ‘Sheeler always depicted power at absolute stasis. In his hermetic visualizations, power is not treated in terms of crashing strength but as an intellectualized concept with its mechanisms always in mint condition.’ The immobility of these paintings creates a tension between the static forms and the reader’s knowledge that all these objects move at great speed. Published together in a single issue of Fortune, Sheeler’s images were presented like a photographic essay. The accompanying text asserted: ‘The heavenly serenity of Sheeler’s style brings out the significance of the instruments of power he portrays here … He shows them for what they truly are: not strange, inhuman masses of material, but exquisite manifestations of human reason.'”

“Heavenly serenity” was not the only religiously inflected language to appear in the text. Here is another portion of the text, cited by Nye, that accompanied Sheeler’s paintings:

“What is this incredible, elusive power that man has taken so magnificently from the waters and the hills? What unguessed secrets of the universe are hinted by its transmission unchanged through unchanging strands of copper or aluminum? In what way have men’s minds, grappling with the raw phenomena of lightning and magnetism, managed to contrive so swift and carefully guarded a channel for a force that no one can fully apprehend? … It is not surprising that the modern scientist, confronted with such questions and with their partial answers, which open up still further questions, should often be a man of deep religious feeling. And it is not surprising either that the modern artist, depicting such a scientist’s handiwork, should put a devout intensity into the painting. This is as truly a religious work of art as any altarpiece, or stained-glass window, or vaulted choir.”

This further points to the entanglement of religion and technology explored by historian David Noble among others. It also suggests to me that while some have referred to the 1930s as America’s most irreligious decade, coming on the heals of the Scopes Trial debacle and fed by H. L. Menken’s acerbic wit, this may be a mischaracterization. It may be better to suggest that in the 1930s the religious impulse was more thoroughly displaced onto technology and its possibilities. Although as Nye’s study of the American technological sublime makes clear, this was a displacement that had long been in the making.

Below is one of the Sheeler’s paintings that appeared in Fortune. Another is included in the preceding post. You can see the whole spread by following the link in the first paragraph.

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