Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Meditations on Machinery

This is a response to Life Under Compulsion: The Billows Teaching Machine
which I felt was too long to put in the comments.  I highly recommend the entire Life Under Compulsion series at Front Porch Republic.

The first time I started to really question the machine it was on reading what is probably one of the greatest (and most unusual and underrated) pieces of feminist literature of all time:  "Birth as an American Rite of Passage" by Robbie Davis-Floyd, where she criticizes in great detail the Modernist concept of the body-as-machine (she is a major proponent of natural childbirth).  I began to slowly realize how fragile the basis of modernism was at that moment as I sought what would replace it.  Her book clearly is quite complementary to this essay here.

But then I kept noticing how this falls in place.  As far back as we can see, the body is seen as a universe in miniature.  If the universe is a machine, so is the body.  If the universe is like a tree, so is the body.  The metaphors are always the same.  This is why Plato's tripartite structure of the person relates to society, and by extension to the divine (leading to the idea of the Trinity rather directly, practically in Plato's time).  To the Platonists, the body was the universe, and the seven fold planetary bands of differentiation were present in the self as well as the world, as was the band of sameness (to borrow the model of Timaeus).  Interestingly this reduces astrology largely to a "science of synchronized clocks."  If the universe and the body are on some level the same, then we can deduce certain things about the body by looking to the movements of the planets.  The changes in the bands of difference in the world correspond with changes in the bands of difference in the self.

But then I read "The Sacred and the Profane" by Mircea Eliade, and noted that he pointed out the modernist secular view of the house is that it is a machine, and that this is removed from the traditional sacred nature of the dwelling, and I realized that Eliade was partly wrong.  The secular view of the house was still traditionally the body made large and the universe in miniature, just that everything is now a machine instead of a tree, or the sky.  This view of the world, society, and the self as mechanical systems is thus to a good part what is wrong with the world today.

So what should replace this "everything as machine" approach?  How do we move towards a more organic way of living? 

Readers will have their own ideas or perhaps will find them.  Personally I have come to enjoy a different model, that of "everything as ecosystem."  The human body is an ecosystem not only of cells but of various microbes, etc.  Many of the processes such as bone remodelling can be thought of not so much as rigidly mechanical but rather as ecological flows.  This works in part because just as in an ecosystem everything fills more than one function, this is true also in our bodies.  Bones for example, function as calcium reservoirs, structural supports, energy storage areas, and immune organs.

But the large point is that this organic model of spontaneous, highly complex order is one which supports a vitality of life that is not present elsewhere.  This is not quite the Hayek's spontaneous order.  It lacks the mechanical sense of liberalism.  Rather it is something else.

But the metaphors we attach to have tremendous influence on our thought processes.  If we think in terms of ecosystems instead of machines, then perhaps we can move our own lives and the communities we are members of in the right directions.

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