Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Question Concerning Sandwiches

If you go far enough west and don't go too far south you'll hit some rocky shores on the central California coast. It was on the rocks of these shores that I sat, while waves crashed against them, reading Heidegger.

But that is a lie. They were not rocks upon which I sat, nor were they waves that crashed against them. It was not the sun that warmed my face, nor was it the Pacific Ocean that I gazed upon through squinted eyes. Or, if you please, the Ocean could not be brought forth-hither to me. Point being that our continent has no west coast.

"Are you local?" asked the nice woman at the Central Avenue Bakery.

"No, I'm just in town for the half-marathon." (But perhaps I wish I was local... nah, I don't think I could stand living in such a boutique town... maybe I need to let my hair down about that kind of thing a little, maybe I should allow myself the imagining of being local in a place like Pacific Grove...)

"Is the race over?"

"Yes, it started at seven this morning." (Haha, actually I just stopped in for a mid-race snack.)

"It must be not quite as hard to run 13 miles if you've run one before..."

"Actually this was my first half-marathon." (Actually, I'm quite superstitious; at the end of the race I kept right on running past the finish line so I could finish at 14.)

This is really distracting from the point of this post, except that the post is a part of this blog and this blog is in part an awkward conversation blog. Anyway, she thanked me quite profusely as I left, and I oddly said, "See you later," which is probably technically true, and I will realize that truth when it manifests and she will not, because I've only met two bakery employees in Pacific Grove and she undoubtedly runs into several hungry runners with severe aversions to barber's scissors every day (this is California).

As I was saying, we have no west coast. All that stuff that acted upon me while I read is set into order by the Monterey and Pacific Grove chambers of commerce, so that I would come and run their half marathon, and later that day buy a sandwich from the Central Avenue Bakery. It is the very essence of modern sandwich-hood that orders the rocks and the ocean thusly. In the general (that is, the not-necessarily-modern) case sandwiches, of course, could rely on the whims of nature. If for a spell the shoreline was hideous the sandwich ingredients would go stale from disuse (and lots resort workers would get laid off, the golf ball factories would back up; in short, the downfall of Man). But today, with the precision of modern science we've measured that the shoreline is always beautiful, and ordered it as an element of our plan. Our plan for sandwiches. Delicious sandwiches. And a cookie.

Except that I just can't take that kind of cynicism.

Wait, who the fuck am I kidding, I am all about that kind of cynicism. I think that Heidegger, if anything, is too reluctant to apply it to his vision of the idyllic old-fashioned farm. Using the words of the translation I've read, farming has unquestionably "set upon" and "ordered" the countryside, with some of each harvest set aside as "standing reserve". Farming, in fact, has ultimately re-imagined the vast prairies of the midwest as "farm land", to the extent that people unconsciously talk of and accept the corn fields down I-57 as natural things. When people calculate "urban sprawl" they talk the same way about the encroachment of urban areas onto both open space and rural farms. By so often using farming as his example of non-modern technology Heidegger almost let me convince myself that there was no non-modern technology.

But that's not his fault, I'm just too eager to convince myself of things. One example of technology that I wouldn't call modern is Donald Knuth's TeX. It doesn't impose its order upon the computer system, it works within it. In fact, Unix programs in general are strongly encouraged to find elegant ways to work within Unix. Non-modern technology if you accept for a second Unix as a created but "natural" environment. Some old Unix guys realized that "modern Unix" was getting ugly, and this was because it was full of modern technology that imposed new order on the way the system worked. So they "reinvented nature" with Plan 9. One might also say that Emacs is a newly created nature for text editing, in many ways modern relative to Unix but allowing for many extensions non-modern relative to itself.

On the other hand the stereotypical Windows program is modern technology, trying to dominate and order the system (think anti-virus software through WinXP). And when Microsoft tries to create a better nature and tell programmers not to set their order upon it the programmers make a stink about it. Because they have actual money riding on their ordering. They'd rather reign in Hell, and just hope it never burns down.

Actually, given that just about nobody uses Plan 9, it's safe to say lots of Unix programmers would rather have the familiar orderings of X11, sockets, terminal emulators and other modern impositions than live in a world that allows for so much more simplicity.

OK and this post doesn't really make any sense if you (a) haven't read Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology" or (b) aren't a massive computer geek. In fact, it might not make any sense at all. But here it is.

7 comments:

Danielle said...

And nary a hint of how the race went amongst all that!

Al Dimond said...

The first rule of blogging, taught to me in blogging school when I was just a wee lad, is to always know your audience!

Accordingly, I deliberately blogged about everything I could think of except the race, just to annoy you.

heatrose said...

i have shit-tons to say and might need to run to get my bike soon (my friend is taking me to the far-away north side bike shop on his motorcycle), but...

whats this about no west coast?

and so Heidegger. SUPER SUPER SUPER response with the computers, i think. there might actually be papers on that sort of stuff, or at least on Heidegger and computery things in general if not OSes. (and woo, i might be trying to learn latex to write my thesis in it, and perhaps that is another reason to).

with the farming thing...

actually, first... so in general. don't get stuck in his jargon; its not nearly as complicated as he'd have you think, and a lot of it is words you already have and use but spelled slightly differently or in italics or quotes, especially with how and what you particularly think about this stuff in general.

so farming. standing reserve and the exact sciences are the jargons here. he argues that modern tech makes things into resources (standing reserve) as opposed to things with

the first, a comparison, between, heidegger's idyllic farm and the modern factory farm.

uhm, to be continued. (note to self: scale versus kind? significant? control issues?)

Al Dimond said...

The "no west coast" thing was me being super-over-the-top-melodramatic about the idea that beauty of California's central coast had been turned into a resource that the Pacific Grove sandwich industry (among many other industries) used to lure in folk from less spectacularly beautiful areas...

When you say, "scale vs. kind," I think you might be thinking of something I thought about. That we don't notice things on small scales that we would on large ones.

I think people have a strong reaction to seeing human life turned to resource. Think of corporate HR departments, their name literally spelling out the situation of employees. And how everything that the department does has to be de-personalized, systematized, buried in mountains of delicate doublespeak. As if speaking straightforwardly about its business would make the whole place revolt. This reaction is explored often in visual media, film. The harvester of Soylent Green, and the rounding up of the people. In at least a few movies the idea of a "clone army" and the image of thousands of identical-looking people in perfect rows, divided into squares with isles in between. Which is the same picture we get on TV and filmstrips to inspire fear/dehumanization of an enemy army. The Matrix films have the people arranged in three dimensions rather than just two, into their blocks.

But kids lined up for school, marching bands and concert audiences use a similar visual pattern, and don't cause that reaction at all. Maybe because they're smaller groups. I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with this, and it's getting late, and I'm out of food again. Noooo!

heatrose said...

scale vs kind. inspired by lots of stuff we've been reading in my "evolution and pragmatism" class.

yr point is not the scale vs kind thing i'm going to bring up, but its also a good one.

human life turned to resource, that is a big thing heidegger shouts about in the essay (if he were an activist, he'd be shouting about it at a demonstration, what have we done to ourselves!). people respond, for sure... its eerily fascinating, that we dont really know HOW to respond. the matrix shit, people (that i know) are instinctually revolted, but often dont know exactly why or how to respond. and then you bring up marching bands etc and things get more confused, and people try to get rid of that revolted instinct... i think the difference there is one of control, but this is just me rambling without thinking much (butwhoa, i had put control in as another notetoself, and wrote about it without looking at that, woo!).

farming. i meant to talk about that.

so back in the day, at one extreme, you have farmers living off of the land. the land is sort of a "resource", used to bring forth food and things for the farmers and maybe some others, but in living off the land, they are very and very clearly tied to it. they are dependent on it as one is dependent on something independent; the land has characteristics of its own-- it is not a completely passive/machine-like/built-world resource. so the farmer, say zie only grows for one season. zie is tied to the land, dependent on cycles. food and things are stored for energy, but only until the next spring. so the farmer is effected by various characteristics of the land.

on the other extreme, the factory farmer... the characteristics of the land are subdued by knowledge of 'exact sciences'... fertilizers, pesticides, genetically alteration, everything to make the farmer not dependent on the character of the land itself (what, it used to have a nice smelling deep orangeyred soil? you'd better wear an impermeable suit while in the field now), on the seasons (get as much as you can, not what you logically need but far beyond, and extend the growing season as much as possible... the creation of standing reserve).

i think that was the difference heidegger was going for with his farming example. he IS saying it is a difference of kind, that the use of the exact sciences and the identifying of the world as resources is distinctly modern and distinctly (relatively) new.

you could probably make a reasonable argument, and agriculture does a super job of it, and i think it is what you saw, that the difference is merely one of scale, that the roots of all of these were present in previous agriculture. agriculture is frickin' weird. have you read ishmael? i am not being terribly coherent, having somehow acquired a dizzyness, so if this is not understandable or interesting enough let me know and i will read it again later either way to check. yeah.

Al Dimond said...

Yeah, I have read Ishmael; actually I think that's one of the reasons I recognize agriculture as being generally not natural where many people don't (this post right here is going totally Ishmael). The question of scale is an interesting one. In pre-agricultural days we have hunters and gatherers who really, really live off the land every day and are subject to its whims. They don't, and can't, store food any more than, say, squirrels do. The early farmer takes control of the land to a greater degree, and stores the grown food as long as it will keep. The farmer owns the land and does what he can to control the growth on that land; he plants in rows, drives off other plants and animals. What I forgot to mention in my last post (I did mention it but then edited it out and forgot to reinsert it) was that the images of people in grids to me are strongly agricultural; the farmer uses non-human life as resource. Pre-agricultural humans were on the same plane as other life; people can imagine themselves as these other parts of nature, what a liberating thought/image: the eagle, the tree, the mountain. But the idea of being in the place of our agricultural subjects inspires terror! To me, that's the sign of change. The corn grows in rows at the whim of the farmer that sows it. And the farmer, once his stock is fully in agriculture, lives not at the whim of the earth but at the whim of his farm. If he has a bad harvest he starves, he doesn't go out to the forest and gather nuts, he goes in to the city and looks for work. I believe that from the moment the farmer reaches the point where he is committed to subjugating the land he is also committed to subjugating it as well as the tools he has will allow him to. The old farmer may not have known exactly why, but he did know that rotating in a crop of soybeans every few years would replenish the soil and make the next year's crop grow better. Wikipedia says that the farmer knew that more than 2000 years ago. The farmer always has strived that the farm he depends on be perfectly reliable and predictable. That the exact sciences help him to such a degree, to me, is merely a matter of scale.

That said, I have a couple of biases that are influencing me. The first is obviously Ishmael, from which a lot of this thinking is derived. The second is that I'm from Illinois and all the farms that I saw on the way from my house in the 'burbs to visit my family in central Illinois, and then later just 30 miles farther down the same road to college, are gigantic, thoroughly modern and probably never had much pre-modern history. On the other hand, German agriculture that Heidegger was exposed to has been around much longer. Illinois was inhabited by American Indians and then the land was turned into farms using techniques that had been developed elsewhere for centuries. It was a very short transition. And also I don't have (biologically or culturally) ancestral ties to pre-agricultural Native Americans, whereas I think (and I might be wrong) that there probably is a line of continuity from pre-agricultural Europeans to Heidegger.

Al Dimond said...

So one of the things I hate about blogger (besides that it overformats things greatly) is how narrow its columns are, both in the blog and in the comment view. I already have a tendency to write really long and wordy paragraphs, and blogger makes them look even worse!