ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Two Events Booked in Late 2014

‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh live radio returns to the Omni William Penn November 22nd and 23rd after a sold-out performance in 2013.  As with last year’s show, this year’s event coincides with Pittsburgh’s kickoff to the holiday season.  It includes dinner in the hotel’s Terrace Room, a drink in the Speakeasy and live performance. The show is an adaptation of the original Thin Man film, and features a local cast and live music.

Preceding Thin Man, Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies will present a new play August 2nd at the Cabaret Theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District.  The show, with a title TBD, is inspired by one of the first and best screwball comedies of the 1930s, with a story updated for the New Millennium. An entitled heiress runs away from her wealthy CEO  father and member of the one-percent to reunite with her fiancé, a media celebrity and reality show star.  On the way she meets a newspaper reporter who has quit his job to become a blogger and aspiring social media guru. As the two travel together, the reporter is determined to exploit the celebrity couple’s story for his own ends. Hijinks ensue when he and the heiress fall in love.

The show will appeal to Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers and anyone else navigating fifteen minutes of fame on the way to romance and relationships in the 21st Century.  Can true love prevail amidst unmitigated wealth, blocked roads and daily tweets?

Advanced Labor receives fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas a non-profit arts service organization. For more information on these events,  please e-mail outreach@alctudies or call (412) 353-3756.

 

Art & Artificiality: Selfies & Dandies

As background for our ongoing oral history on technology in literature and popular culture, I just finished reading David Hughes’ The Shock of the New . Hughes describes dandyism and art in the 19th century, along with the eponymous figure of pop art and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol.

Writing in the Paris Review on February 20th [1], Tara Isabella Burton compares the cult of 19th-century dandyism with our 21st-century predilection for taking cell phone portraits of ourselves (aka ‘selfies’). She quotes Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet, who describes the dandy as:

…transcending his humanity—by choosing and creating his own identity, he remains splendidly aloof, unaffected by others or by the world at large.

Oscar Wilde, Dandy Extraordinaire (Wikipedia Commons)

She also quotes 19th-century French writer Jean Richepin:

“…the true dandy evokes surprise, emotion, and passion in others, but remains entirely insensible himself, producing an effect to which he alone remains immune.” And is: 

“… brilliant and bored;  he lives in terror of being pigeonholed by others. “Having dabbled in nearly everything—arts, letters, pleasures—he had forged for himself an ideal, that consisted in being unpredictable in everything.” … he applies false hair and makeup to alter his appearance and confound his peers.

Hughes writes about Andy Warhol, a 20th-century dandy by any other name, whose:

… ‘autistic stare was  the same for heroes and heroines as for death and disaster… the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped… by the television tube.”

Andy Warhol
Poul Webb, Art & Artists

The period of 19th-century dandyism that Burton and Hughes cite between roughly the 1840s and 1900  coincides with the appearance of photography,  which allowed for endlessly reproducible images.

Anyone who has seen portraits of Warhol, who famously ‘liked to watch’, instantly recognizes the carefully constructed image: fright wig, the glasses, the stare. And of course Warhol utilized the replicated, mass-produced industrialized image in reframing everyday objects and celebrities as objects worthy of attention and art all the way to the bank.  As Hughes writes:

“Warhol did more than any other painter alive to turn the art world into the art business. By turning himself into pure product, he dissolved the traditional ambitions and tensions of the avante garde.

Burton quotes Jennifer O’Connel[2] in the Irish Times: “We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”  Paradoxically, O’Connel also writes about the increasing prevalence of loneliness in our lives.[3] In the 1970s, when I was in college, Christopher Lasch warned (or at least pointed out the consequence) of this direction in our culture in The Culture of Narcissism.

In addition to mass media of television, film, advertising and the web, consumer culture gives us cell phones, helmet cams, Google glasses and personal monitoring devices. These technologies purportedly give us the freedom and power to define ourselves, endlessly watching, refining, redefining and creating our image. But where is the line between the freedom to create our own identity and the demand that we do this incessantly (and exclusively) for the consumption of others ?

In Ken Gergen’s ‘The Self in the Age of Information’ the cult of narcissism calls into question the whole idea of self, in the sense of immutable character. Gergen proposes that modern technology (including now Facebook, Twitter, and evolving forms of social networking) make the plastic personality, the chameleon self, a primary asset in creating and presenting a public persona. Image is all. Warhol also creepily said ‘I want to be a machine’. But if we are all busily  creating digital versions of ourselves for public consumption, whatever our private struggles and personal joys (if these count for anything), who is the audience we are doing this for? And what happens when they move on to the next trend, or if we need a human connection beyond people just watching? – CDL


[1] Keep Smiling, Tara Isabella Burton, The Paris Review

[2] Selfie, word of 2013, sums up our age of narcissism  Jennifer O’Connel, The Irish Times

‘The Smart Machine’ Twenty-five Years Later

In this time of year to reflect on the past and look forward to our future, we often display a curious amnesia when it comes to events that predicate the present. Twenty five years ago Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power appeared. We proposed a retrospective to several publications. Those we approached were not interested or did not have room. Even while citing her work, many people in industry and academia have no notion or appreciation of its prescient nature or profound insights.

Zuboff’s contribution (besides having great hair) was to capture the thoughts and voices of people in the midst of change — in their jobs, in the way they thought, in the way work was defined. In a synthesis of history, psychology, anthropology and oral history, her book anticipated the impact of computer technology in the workplace and in our daily lives today.

In clear, articulate prose, Zuboff captures the voices of those confronting new technology in paper mills, insurance agencies and other industries. She explores the laboring body vs. the laboring mind; the skill in acting on materials vs. with people and ones and zeros; the abstraction of labor and making decisions based on ephemeral data and working with people one never sees.

There has been a lot of discussion since then of the virtual office, the global economy and social networking. The Internet is now a fait accompli. E-mail is old hat. The world wide web gave rise to Facebook, which begat Twitter,which begat instagram. But at the time the book appeared the IBM PC had only recently debuted. The Macintosh was a revolutionary machine with a graphical interface. WindowsTM(version 2.0) was barely beyond a gleam in Bill Gates’ eye. Technology for the world wide web (TC/IP protocol and hypertext linked database) was a work in progress at CERN1. Online networking was the domain of dedicated services such as Compuserve and Prodigy.

In an argument as old as the 19th-century factory system and early 20th century Taylorism2, Zuboff quotes managers and technologists who extol the virtues of separating people from the skills and experience that give their work value in the interest of efficiency and predictability.

Zuboff illustrates the cost as well as the benefits of this dynamic and the human side of the equation. At the time of her research in the 1980s most efforts focused on automating repetitious or dangerous physical tasks (e.g., mixing toxic chemicals in a paper mill) and clerical skills involving data entry.

Since then computer algorithms have invaded functions previously thought the exclusive cognitive domain of humans. Examples include data modeling, pattern recognition and predictive analysis used in engineering, medicine and the financial industries. Some of these result in calculations so complex that those who created them don’t understand their meaning and limitations. Trading instruments created by the human mentats3  of Wall Street (aka quants) to calculate derivatives helped precipitate the 2008 financial crises.

In 1988 there was still reason to feel that the benign aspects of computer automation would prevail – relieving us from tedium and danger of the workplace and opening up unlimited vistas for human beings to collaborate, share knowledge and solve problems.

You can lead people to knowledge, but you can’t make them think. The dream of finding universal laws and finding ways to create a better world (or at least workplace) and ‘improve’ human existence is as old as civilization – beginning with simple machines, followed by water power, steam, electricity and nuclear energy. Zuboff’s genius was to recognize and record a time in history when the power to do this seemed suddenly (and again) within reach. Her findings anticipate — and also warn –against the world we live in today.

Before the NSA and YouTube, she anticipates issues of privacy, autonomy and deskilling. The workers Zuboff interviews take pride in doing their jobs with a degree of autonomy — rather than simply dancing to the computer’s tune. This is no different than workers we have interviewed in the new millennium who demonstrate value and problem-solving in working around system’s limitations or to fulfill unexpected demands — even at risk of censure. In one vivid example Zuboff cites, workers in the paper mill impatient with waiting force open the Star-Trek-like doors designed to protect them from the toxic fumes.

The issues of human deskilling and the abstraction of labor (not just in performing labor, but of emotional and social interaction) from its meaning and value, still loom before us. Unchecked, the Utopian impulse may not just reform, but divorce us from our own humanity. Led by visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Ray Kurzweil, technology insinuates itself our lives more and more each day – with the goal replacing the human frailty and idiosyncracies with supposedly more efficient algorithms. Zuboff’s mindful approach to exploring technology and change has been overtaken by ever more creative ways to monetize the web and offer deals to consumers that seem increasingly Faustian. We take videos of ourselves, tweet our most innocuous and profound beliefs. Others follow us without knowing a thing about our lives. Our buying habits and selections follow us as well – whispering new product suggestions in our ear based on our lifestyle.

Fitbit Wireless Sleep & Activity Monitor

Some of these now allow us to monitor and share our sleep, our weight, and our exercise routine minute-by-minute, under the assumption that data provides connection and meaning. As writer and essayist Mathew Crawford e-mailed one of us, ‘We are coming to know ourselves too well, I fear.’ Too often technology simply enables us to clothe our old behaviors in shiny new raiment, rather than providing useful insight to understand or change them. 

After Age of the Smart Machine, Zuboff wrote The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism with her husband James Maxmin. She lectured at Harvard and wrote articles for Scientific American, Business Week and Fast Company Magazine. Most of these focus on the need for businesses to empower workers and consumers through technology, rather than exploiting them. Along with her work at Harvard, Zuboff, now just in her early 60s, founded the executive education program “ODYSSEY: School for the Second Half of Life”. A discussion board at Fast Company carries her entries through 2005 and 2006. After that they cease. One gets the impression that, having fought the good fight, Zuboff leaves it up to the rest of us to carry the banner now.

Computer technology is always waiting for a new paradigm around the corner to fully realize its potential: From ‘scientific management’ to knowledge-management; from crowd-sourcing and the wisdom of crowds to social networking. But in the workplace or on the web, in government or industry, for the most the technology is still used almost exclusively to improve efficiency by automating tasks and reducing the expertise and skill required to perform them to the lowest common denominator – often by eliminating the human element or forcing individuals to adapt to misconceived business goals and processes.

The machines may be smarter, but the human beings who create them demonstrate the same hubris and flawed thinking they have throughout history. — DA & CDL

# # #

David Abramoff Ph.D. is director emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.  For Chuck Lanigan, director of events and outreach, a previous career developing Lotus Notes workflow applications means never having to say he’s sorry.  He  writes and consults on workflow and collaborative computing and holds an M.A. in educational communication with a focus on literacy, critical thinking and computer-mediated work.  His creative work includes spoken-word presentations and live events.

1Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research)

2 Also known as scientific management, and characterized by time-motion studies applied to find ‘the one best way’ of performing physical labor and tasks. This approach is still used today in many workplaces.

3 From Frank Herbert’s Dune: A human specially trained to mimic the cognitive and analytical ability of a computer. (Wikipedia)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Related:

Thinking & Computers, by David Auerbach in Nautilus 

Saving Conversation, by Megan Garber in The Atlantic

Hard Work and Leisure, by Steven Poole in the New Statesman

The Religion of Technology, Geoff Shullenberger in Dissent

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is embarking on an oral history project on technology in literature, popular culture and the creative arts.  Starting the first quarter of 2014, we will schedule interviews to gather peoples’ reminiscences  and first-hand stories on the  role  technology has played in their work, leisure and daily life.  For questions or if you are interested in participating,  please e-mail outreach@alcstudies.org or call  (412) 353-3756. You can also use our handy contact form.

You Are There

Sixty-plus people attended our live radio presentation of ‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn Saturday November 23rd. One of the first questions people asked me was, ‘Are you going to record it?’, followed by ‘Are you going to put it on YouTube?’ We could just as well have done this for people to enjoy anonymously behind their screens — in between checking e-mails and Facebook. Instead, people braved the first real winter weather of the season to join other audience members and ourselves for the experience of hearing Nick and Nora and an array of lowlifes and highflyers do their thing. My thanks to Sarah, Bob, Tamer, Jessica and the staff at the Omni for providing a great venue.

Omni William Penn Lobby

Omni William Penn Lobby

In these days of twitter and instagram, human activity is endlessly digitized, replicated and deconstructed. Eight-word text messages count for meaningful conversation. Experience must be compressed into 144 characters. I was privileged to collaborate with a wonderful group of people who made our event come alive. Only two perform full-time. One is a musician and poet, in addition to working in the financial services industry. The rest have day jobs. We rehearsed for two months to put together a show to knock the socks off our audience. ‘Astonish me’ the theater critic said. What seems astonishing is that we pulled it off.

Whether painting or music, theater or dance, the arts at their best connect us to our deepest selves as individuals and as a community. This is more important than ever as our lives become preoccupied with self-promotion and dependent on duplication of experience — endlessly replicated and mass- produced. This trend affects everything from clothing to relationships to our emotions to the food we eat. We seek the ‘authentic’ in a safe, standardized, mass-produced palatable format — one that won’t challenge our expectations too much or result in a less than optimal experience. Andy Warhol, still revered here in his home town, reframed and resold us our own memes (the familiar artifacts of consumer culture) and took the proceeds all the way to the bank.

So we update our Facebook pages, send tweets on our own time and convenience, screen our calls (if we talk to anyone at all) — endlessly reiterating what someone else has said and what we already know. Our lives themselves are circumscribed by the virtual and vicarious so that we barely have a thought that is not predigested and shared immediately with others, hardly knowing ourselves what we think.

We are in danger of becoming commodities ourselves. We are encouraged to this by consumer advertisements and depictions of what life should be (speaking of Warhol). Smart phones, helmet cams, GPS coordinates allow us to track, monitor and share our most profound and innocuous thoughts. We watch ourselves constantly. The consequence of all this sharing with strangers who do not know us – is that experience is isolated and fragmented. We form judgments of others (and have judgments formed about us) without regard to personal history, circumstances or context.

But the process of ensuring a perfect cup of coffee every time1 does not scale easily to the arts or to being human. The happiest and most tragic aspects of living are fraught, unpredictable, messy. True art reflects this. It contains an element of the sacred, an immanence that cannot be manufactured. To be more than than just the sound of one hand clapping, it must involve an audience and a performer (or presenter) taking a mutual risk on an unknown quantity. As Stefany Anne Goldberg writes2:

“A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. “

“… in a live performance, there’s a symbiotic relationship between audience and performer, in a recorded performance, audience and performer are divorced from each other, unreal to each other.”

” Nothing else has the feeling of standing on that precipice between failure and success — the puddle of sweat at the small of the back, the fluttering heartbeat, the tingling knees; to experience that moment when everything just might fall apart and probably should and you know it will, but then it doesn’t…. “

A live performance invites strangers to invest individually and together in a communal experience that will never be repeated. On good days the result can be transcendent, enlightening, uplifting. On other days, well, at least you can make up your mind yourself. Because you were there. – CDL

1See Julian Baggini, Joy in the Task, in Aeon Magazine

2Stefany Anne Goldberg , Send in Whatever Clowns are Left, The Smart Set

Radio in the ‘Burgh

I enjoyed the first installment on AM radio in the ‘Burgh in the Post-Gazette. I vividly recall personalities such as Jack Bogut and shows such as KDKA’s Sixty-to-Six (not to mention Bob Prince) on my visits to Pittsburgh.

Retro Radio

Bob Prince broadcast Pirates baseball on a set like this during summer evenings on my grandparents patio.

Of course,commercial radio started in Pittsburgh.  One thing left out of the 10/13 article (at least the first one) is that the William Penn Hotel was the site of the world’s first live orchestra broadcasts in the 1920s and broadcasts of the Count Basie and Lawrence Welk orchestras in the 1930s. We are partnering with Arcade Comedy and the Omni to evoke this experience with a sketch comedy show on November 1st and a live radio adaptation of ‘The Thin Man’ on November 23rd.  Please see the following links for more information and tickets:

Retro Radio Review at Arcade Comedy Theater November 1st (sketches inspired by radio scripts from the 1930s and 40s)

‘The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ Live Radio (at the Omni William Penn November 23rd)

Incidentally, one of the stars of the original Thin Man film, William Powell, was a native of Pittsburgh. With a grant from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, we are hoping to do a live broadcast and streaming webcast of the Omni event during Pittsburgh’s traditional start to the holiday season. Ironically, the local stations we approached so far say that the technical demands and logistics of doing a broadcast on location in 2013 make this a challenge!

Advertisers, the news media and education often give the mistaken assumption that new technology (e.g., podcasts, Instagram and Facebook) inevitably supersedes older, established technology such as radio (and newspapers ; – )). In reality human beings rediscover and reapply older technology all the time to meet problems and create new forms of expression where there is a need and benefit.  Just ask anyone who owns a Prius or a 1904 Columbia Electric Runabout.  Please see the following links:

The Marx Brothers on Radio (marx-brothers.org)

An Appreciation of Damon Runyon  (by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker)

Original Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Recordings (Realaudio at OTR Network)

A Few Words About Copyrights  (Interesting take on a confusing subject from the Generic Radio Workshop)

- CDL

Seeing, Perceiving, Possessing

What’s the difference between a drawing and a photograph in rendering experience? In On Photography  Susan Sontag writes about the photograph appropriating the object and becoming more real than the object itself.

I spent Labor Day camping in a nearby wilderness area. On a whim I took the sketch pad and pencils along with my Android phone. I usually leave the phone in the car, preferring my solitude without actual or virtual interruption.

I camped in a small field off an old logging road. As I set up camp, I found I brought the fly and body from two different tents, so I rigged up the fly by itself with the poles. When I went to start my stove, the pump leaked. (Thanks, MSR). So I built a small fire to cook the salmon I bought along and boil water for Ramen noodles. As I finished eating, a thunderstorm rolled in. I crawled under the open fly and put the tent netting over me to keep out the bugs. I fell asleep to the flash of lightning and rain pouring down.

Next morning I woke to mist on the field but no rain. I found some fairly dry standing dead-wood under the trees. With the help of a little stove fuel, I built another fire and made coffee and breakfast. As sun burned the mist off and dried the grass, I folded my disparate tent parts. Rusted fencing surrounded the trunks of several trees in the field. One gnarled specimen with leaves like a cherry had small iridescent red berries on the branches. I grabbed my pad and made a sketch of it, then took a photo with my phone.

chokecherrieswpid-20130903_110740.jpg

I looked this up in Thoreau’s Wild Fruits . The closest I came was chokecherry, but I’m not sure that’s accurate from my previous experience.

I spent about least twenty minutes making a sketch and adding some color, before getting impatient. I’m an amateur artist, and a photograph takes just a few seconds. If what you are looking for is an exact representation or facsimile of what is seen, a drawing (at least mine) will always come up short.

On my return, I walked along a rock face beside the trail with a tree growing from it. I stopped to make a sketch, then took several photos.

cliffsidetreeswpid-20130903_121940.jpg

The static image is snatched from the ebb and flow of life.  A person or object comes into view; we point and shoot. The next day or years later (examined perhaps by strangers), the photograph is isolated from context and experience, dependent on memory or meaning imposed by the viewer. Digital photography and other forms of replication seduce us into capturing and sharing experience indiscriminately, without even knowing its significance. Drawing (or painting or sculpture or music) requires an artist attending mindfully and working within the limits of his or her skill and perception in conveying a representation of light and color, structure and space, tonality and rhythm.

Film captures both sound and motion. Artfully arranged, these render experience that reflects (or projects) what we desire to see as much as what exists. Encountered immanently (up close and personal) with all its flaws and vicissitudes (bugs, smoke, missing tent parts and failed fuel pumps), the real often proves inferior to the image. Ask anyone who has seen a Disney nature film or met a movie star or celebrity in person. Our own expectations and others’ of how life works are set more and more by the artificial (and wholly unrealistic) criteria set by others’ imagination.

Technically, you are not supposed to alter or leave anything behind in the wilderness where I camped. Someone built a couple of rock towers (cairns) in the middle of the stream. I puzzled a bit about how to suggest water flowing in drawing these. I finally added a couple of curved lines to suggest ripples. Does it work? I’m sure a practiced artist wouldn’t think twice about this.

streamrocks wpid-20130903_132322.jpg

Behind me in the image was a good-sized fire circle. I use existing ones myself sometimes when camping. I don’t really mind them unless someone cluelessly (or deliberately) leaves glass, cans bottles and other items behind.

The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps built a number of wooden bridges on the trails in the 1990s. The bridges bounce a little and creak when you walk on them. They smell like old wood and creosote. Your footsteps sound hollow when you walk across. At high water you can hardly hear because of the rushing of the stream beneath.

footbridge

wpid-20130903_145157.jpg

You don’t get any of this from a photo, drawing or Youtube. You have to go out and experience it for yourself. In our zeal to share experience virtually and instantly with others, are we losing the ability to live life ourselves? – CDL

Get the Picture?

I used to regard illustrated or graphic novels as literature for the illiterate; comic books as condescending to the callow.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a post-literature culture1, but I’ve grown to appreciate graphic novels as a medium unto themselves for telling a story and connecting to an audience. A recent article in the City Journal quotes William Eisner, creator of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and the Spirit in the 1940s:

“The comic strip… is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists.”

Illustrators have contributed their craft to storytelling since paleolithic cave paintings. Perhaps these projected early human fears and desires in an uncertain world; perhaps they were just early interior decoration. ; – )

Cave painting from Lascaux, France, ca 35,000-30,000 BCE

During the Middle Ages images in gothic cathedrals emphasized to uneducated peasants who was in charge.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

 In the 19th century Dickens’ collaboration with various artists made the characters in his serialized novels come alive.

Dickens’ Dream, Robert William Buss

Ironically, illustration as a means of storytelling came into its own for a mass audience just as print culture was evolving to electronic culture with radio and film. Newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried intricate, full-color surreal extravaganzas like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo to a mass audience.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat , appearing in 1913, anticipated the surrealist and Dadaist movements.

In the 1950s, the age of television and the gray flannel suit. Walt Kelly and his compatriots subversively explored parody and satire in the midst of (supposed) conformity.

As the cellphone and cable explosion began in the 1980s, Sam Watterson’s brilliant Calvin & Hobbes captured the truth of boyhood in the way perhaps no one else has since Mark Twain.

Bill Watterson’s Incomparable Calvin & Hobbes will always remind me of of my son. I miss it greatly. (Image copyright Bill Watterson.)

Alas, the exigencies of the newspaper industry spelled at end to the strip. Watterson and Calvin packed up their marbles (and Hobbes) and went home.

Lately, as the publishing industry has struggled and tried to capture our attention with e-books, the graphic novel has ascended to respectability.

Graphic novels lend themselves to our fragmented attention span and reading habits in the age of tweets and text messages. As life is increasingly conducted online, they create a bounded world of coherence and context in the midst of disparate words and images that bombard us daily. In an age preoccupied by our attempts to control the world through science and technology, many graphic novels and comic books dance on the edge of or immerse themselves metaphysics and fantasy. Several of these, such as the X-Men and Superman have been turned into film with varying degrees of success. A skilled illustrator and story teller creates a secondary world2 that transcends the rules of the world we know to provide a more satisfying (or at least distracting) alternate universe. Many of these, such as the Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman, explore adult themes and existential experience, turning the mythology into exotic reinterpretations that are, like our lives, dark and threatening, absurd, exuberant, whimsical or just plain funny.  — Chuck Lanigan

Related:

1By this I mean not illiterate, but one in which the ability to read (and write) sustained, thoughtful discourse is made irrelevant in a society overrun by soundbites and Twitter feeds.

2See Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories for a discussion on secondary worlds.

Measuring the Last Full Measure

One hundred and fifty years ago the terrible Battle of Gettysburg occurred on July 1, 2 and 3 with casualties estimated at greater than 50,000 souls. Four score and seven years previously on July 4th occurred the signing of the Declaration of Independence. My American colleagues are celebrating both occasions this week with reenactments, memorials and picnics,

Reports on the decline (if not end) of history and the death of the liberal arts in favor of science and technology exclusively as ways of understanding the world abound lately. As we contemplate the state of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, from the War to (supposedly) End All Wars to the Cold War and past, present and impending conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan (and who-knows-where), it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on another earlier war* and it’s depiction in one of the great works of literature. — DA

==============================================================================================================

Leo Tolstoy
War & Peace, Book 9 (Courtesy of the Gutenberg Project)
Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

“Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

“What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.

“Consequently, it would only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: “My respected Brother, I consent to restore the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg”—and there would have been no war.

“We can understand that the matter seemed like that to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the war was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178. It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.

“To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred….

“We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.

“Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

“There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him.

“Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.”

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*The Napoleonic War(s) of 1805 – 1812

Crucible of Creativity

I had a blast a week ago last Friday, climbing around the Carrie furnaces near Braddock, PA. The Carrie Furnaces are now an historic site. From the time they opened in 1884, they operated nearly 24/7 producing pig iron for Carnegie Steel from the raw materials of coke, iron ore and limestone poured down their cavernous throats.

It’s hard to imagine the constant roar and +2000F-degree heat that workers encountered on their 12-hour shifts. Furnaces six and seven sit with the remains of the original structure quietly rusting now along to the Monongahela River. The asbestos, PCBs and heavy metals have been cleaned up. Sumac, Virginia creeper and poison ivy sprout among the buildings. I joined the artists from the Alloy Pittsburgh project scrambling above, around and beneath the hulking metal structure taking pictures and sharing ideas. Carl, a CMU MFA student originally from Texas, stood looking up at the tall stack that once spewed smoke over Braddock and across the river to Homestead. We bellied up to the beast while he shared the considerable information he had absorbed.

“They would look through a glass at the end of tube here,” he said as we stood five feet away from the base of furnace number seven. “Kind of a view port to let them see what was going on. Sometimes the glass would blow out from the pressure. So they wore those blue cobalt glass goggles for protection.”

I looked through an opening where the ore, coke, limestone and oxygen-laden hot air mixed in wild combustion contained by brick-lined steel walls.

The Belly of the Beast (Photo Credit: Alloy Pittsburgh)

“Then when it was ready, they brought in this giant drill to tap the furnace. The molten iron shot twenty feet out of the hole.” He made a motion. The plates above us kept it from spewing out into the grounds.”

I looked down at the trench that carried the molten metal away to be put in rail cars also lined with brick so it wouldn’t melt through their steel bulkheads.

The goal of the project is to engage the artists in re-imagining the Carrie Furnace site. After spending a week in June attending lectures and events and touring the old mill, each artist will create their own original work to be exhibited in September. I presented one of the lectures Tuesday – sharing pictures and interpreting the stories of men who worked in the mill. I’ve never stood next to anything hotter than an outdoor gas grill or manufactured anything more than an excuse for being late to work. How do you re-imagine a place still haunted by the ghosts of the men who produced millions of tons of steel, went on strike, lived, died, worked and raised their families in nearby Braddock or Homestead?

It’s easy to romanticize steel manufacturing in comparison to the ambiguities and dissatisfactions of so-called knowledge work. Mathew Crawford and Mike Rose point out that the distinction between work done with head and that done with the hands is often arbitrary.

Stella, Before the Open Hearth (from Fitch, The Steel Workers)

Stella, Before the Open Hearth (from Fitch, The Steel Workers)

The expertise involved in makig steel (or other jobs in trades or manufacturing) is considerable. As both John Fitch and Margaret Byington’s interviews for the 1908 Pittsburgh Study reveal, workers in Homestead and Braddock took pride in taking raw materials and turning out a finished product — combining physical sense with practical skill and knowledge.

Would most of us really want to be working in the mills rather than behind a computer? From the first labor-saving devices through the factory system of the Industrial Revolution and Ford’s assembly lines, efforts to automate work have focused on distancing the body from its dirty and dangerous aspects, as well as reducing (or eliminating) the problematic reliance on workers’ skill and motivation. As automation and deskilling invade virtual work of white collar professions and management, the unique expertise and value involved in labor done with the head are becoming more ambiguous. Management oversight and IT support are outsourced to contractors overseas. Voice recognition routes our calls for customer services. Algorithms programmed for pattern recognition read medical X-rays looking for signs of disease.

Carrie Furnace Site June 2013 (Photo Credit: Alloy Pittsburgh)

Over the next several months the artists I spent time with will be working to combine their experience at the Carrie Furnaces with the skill at their craft into artistic expression – melding these raw materials in the Bessemer process of their creativity into sculpture, or painting or music, mixed media or virtual, or kinetic sculpture. They will share the results of this igniting of their imagination in the fall of 2013. I hope to follow their journey here. CDL

An Alloy of Past & Present

A number of years ago I attended a meeting of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The focus of the event was on making Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania more marketable to investors. Implicit (and explicit) in this goal was rebranding the  region’s image from its history of coal mining and steel manufacturing.

'Burgh Bus Guy

‘Burgh Bus Guy

Terms like knowledge work, intellectual capital, and global marketplace were dangled like trendy and amorphous shiny baubles before the audience. The main speakers derided the history of the region and the legacy of work performed here as superfluous for a new generation and new century.

Ironically, the conference coincided with the anniversary of the 1805-1806 Lewis & Clark expedition. The expedition’s boat was built near Pittsburgh (actually Elizabeth, PA) before sailing down the Monongahela river to the Ohio and Mississippi, then up the Missouri and into history. While dismissing important industrial innovations and struggles for worker rights, the event  sought to capitalize on the historical connection to an event in our nation’s history of which the region is justly proud.

You can’t get here without going there first. Some of the most significant innovations in steel manufacturing and labor struggles occurred in Homestead, site of the Carnegie Steel works. Situated along the Mon’, the site saw thousands of Americans and immigrants flock in the 19th early 20th centuries to work in the mills to produce steel that built the railroads in this country and others, ships for the U.S. navy and armaments for the U.S. Great Britain and the allies to help them defeat Hitler and the fascists in World War II.

'Industry' by Vincent Nesbert

Detail from ‘Industry’ by Vincent Nesbert (Allegheny County Courthouse)

The week of June 10th I will be one of several presenters for the Alloy Project, a visual and performing arts residency developed by my artist buddy Chris McGinnis and his colleague Sean Derry. Supported by, Rivers of Steel and the Kipp Gallery of IUP, the project centers around the site of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, now an historic heritage site. As Chris and Sean say on their web site, the massive furnaces have cooled. The work for which they were built no longer exists, but their energy — and the energy of the men and women who labored in the mills and the households — remains. The nature of work itself has changed, of course. That sense of identity remains.

In the middle ages, people used to be named according to the work their families did.  Does the work that your family did stay with you? Whether a mill hunky and his family in the 19th century or 20-somethings attracted by what Pittsburgh has to offer today, I am interested in their history, their songs and their stories, and the stories of workers like them. The present does not invalidate the past.  I have colleagues who have evolved with the times. Maybe you are one of them. One has worked in the steel, the aerospace and the banking industries. Another welded steel plates to build barges on the Mon’ before going to business school. Some of the most skilled and undervalued work goes into seemingly mundane jobs:  plumber, electrician, waitress daycare worker. These jobs still exist and serve valuable functions today, global marketplace or no. The distinction between physical and intellectual labor is not a simple dichotomy of mind and body. Whether the work you do involves your head or your hands, your heart or your soul, stop on by. CDL

Stories of Labor & Identity in Southwestern Pennsylvania
Presented by Chuck Lanigan for the Alloy Pittsburgh Project
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
7:00pm
The Pump House
880 E Waterfront Drive, Homestead, PA 15120
Free

Please see the Alloy Pittsburgh site for lectures by other presenters the week of June 10th.

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