Monday, July 7, 2008

"All that is solid melts into air"

Modernity began in 3 revolutions that remain unfulfilled; the American, the French, and the Industrial.  Not only does the Industrial Revolution that began in 18th century Britain remain unfulfilled, it is unfinished.  We are still in it.  Its transformations continue.
The Industrial Revolution is the biggest transformation of daily life for millions of people since the invention of agriculture ten thousand years ago.  And yet, even now, the primary fuel for a third of humanity remains firewood.
It is hard to overstate the impact of Industrialism.  It is a great 2 edge sword that cuts very deeply in both directions.  Scientists and engineers continue to harness forces of nature, forces once thought to be divine attributes (the "Mysterium Tremendum" of Rudolph Otto), to processes of production.  This has been going on for a little over 2 centuries now.  The descendants of illiterate peasants who were tied to estates for centuries and centuries, now enjoyed the comfort, decency, and dignity of the 19th century family in the photograph above.  Linens, cotton underwear, silk ties, personal jewelry, these were for centuries the attributes of princes.  This family certainly lived in greater comfort than their ancestors, and probably with greater comfort than the feudal lords who effectively owned their ancestors.  Mass production made these things in bulk, in consistent quality, and inexpensively.  For the first time in history, large masses of people (who were once barely a step above the cattle in the eyes of their rulers/ owners) could live with a certain measure of comfort, security, decency, and dignity unknown to them since the beginning of civilized life.  
The photograph at the top by Lewis Hine of "breaker boys" in a Pennsylvania coal mine remind us of that other aspect of Industrialism that cut so deep, its brutality.  Industrialism changed the nature of work.   People who were once master craftsmen who owned their own tools, their shops, and their homes, whose skill of hand gave them a certain measure of power and influence in the community, now became wage earners and renters.  With the end of the made-to-order economy, their skills were no longer needed.  Machines could do what they did faster, in larger quantities, cheaper, and in some cases, better.  People now did small tasks as part of a much larger process of mass production, tasks that did not require the craftsman's skill of hand.  Work for most people was not only hard, it was dull and meaningless.  What was true on the factory floor was true of the office.  A large rationalized system required an army of clerks each doing a certain task to make a system productive. Old social contracts of mutual obligation broke down.  The owner felt that he owed his employees nothing beyond the wages he paid them for their time and labor in the production process.  Laborers became estranged from each other as workshops became factories and towns became cities.  In this new bigger world, there was a clear separation between the private home, and the vast anonymous mass of the industrial consumer state.  There were few institutions left that came between the individual and mass society.  As industries and economies grew and became regional, then national, and then international, this new rationalized economy made greater and ever more intrusive demands on the lives of all involved with it whether worker, clerk, manager, or owner.
This new international economy and the inventions that it produced would not only alter life, but the way we see and think about the world.  Industry and technology profoundly altered war and altered peace.  They created new perspectives to view the world that we take for granted but were unimaginable to our pre-industrial ancestors (such as the world viewed from a speeding train or car).  Industry more than anything else, turned the world as we have understood it for thousands of years, upside down.  The very idea that anything has intrinsic meaning and value was no longer so certain.  This new ever changing world remains dizzyingly disorienting to those of us who inhabit it.  The author who understood this best and expressed it most eloquently was that most enthusiastic admirer of the radically transformative power of industrial capitalism, Karl Marx:

Constant revolution of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.  All fixed fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.

Keep in mind that these are words of praise, not protest.


it's margaret said...

Counterlight--I went to a presentation by James Cone (Harvard) here in Richmond recently. It was over the top exciting to hear this man speak --but one of the things he spoke of was the commodity of religion, and how churches now broker faith.... and makes believers consumers of religion.... really gave me pause, what with "designer" liturgies, and parishes offering "niche" worship --one choosing a church because of how it feeds you, not because it is the church in your neighborhood.

And now your discussion....and the unfinished revolutions. Guess the church is also not finished with the reformation/revolution!

Just thinking outloud.
And I like the new name of your blog!

Counterlight said...

Very interesting comment. I just had dinner with a friend recently who remarked that going to a museum these days was like going to a department store. He went to a show of work by the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt that was relentlessly marketed throughout the museum, complete with piped in waltzes in the gift shop (he wondered aloud if these folks were aware that this was the same music piped into Nazi concentration camps). They were trying to sell, notjust books and souvenirs, but that whole Fin-de-Siecle Vienna ambience.
It's not just the commodification of art or religion, it's the commodification of everything. The whole business of meaning and value changes radically in the wake of Industrialism. As I hope to demonstrate, artists ever after are dealing with this issue.

it's margaret said...

Good, and amen. I look forward to your posts....

Interesting though --a living must be made. Where/how do artists draw the line around art for art's sake, and marketing for a living?


David G. said...

I have pics to go with this post, Mansions of Splendor, ....{erased for progress}..sad times ...

The 60's and 70's destroyed what architectural significance there was in buildings, and erased Creativity, for 20 years.

It's just now coming into fruitation the true significance of Product Barons, only from die hard Historians, such as myself, and others who really care where we came from.