The Changing Notion Of Steam Engine Spectacle

October 20th, 2010

The World's Smallest Working Steam Engine

Centennial Exhibition. Philadelphia, PA. 1876.

These two images, from vastly different time periods, speak to how greatly the steam engine has changed, but more importantly how man’s fascination with technology has held strong yet has altered in its purpose.

The older image is of the Corliss steam engine which was used to power all of the exhibits in the Centennial Convention of 1876, held in Philadelphia, PA. The grand stature of this steam engine is the most immediate and obvious aspect of it. Due to the work being in black and white, it is hard to make out all of the details of the engine, but the numerous ladders, and three floors/decks really spell out how enormous it is. Surrounded by rails and what appear to be guards, it is apparent that this  was a highly valuable piece of machinery as the power source for all the other exhibits. This also makes the engine itself a form of display and showcasing of the technological powers, as all around it there are people marveling.

In some ways, the greyscale color scheme informs the aspects of technology of becoming an overwhelming force in society, as it gives off a somewhat dark, ominous feeling. With all the people gathered, yet none of them that greatly detailed, it conveys a sense of technology taking focus over people, and the attendance of the people somewhat signifying an acquiesce to this new, dominant being.

In the former, more recent picture, is a photograph of the world’s record for smallest working steam engine, as constructed by Iqbal Ahmed of Nagpur, India. The size of the engine is accentuated via the comparison with Ahmed’s thumb. This record stands as on accomplishment on very debatable grounds, as examination of this steam engine shows it to be “working” in only a technical sense, as one would be hard-pressed to find a useful application for such a tiny engine. This miniature engine symbolizes some of the minutia of purpose that some technological exploits are grounded in during modern times: no change or improvement is brought out through this, but more of a celebration of an individual’s talent/abilities.

Study of the thumb works to symbolize the effects of technology and man’s constant connection to it throughout history. Ahmed’s thumb shows the wear-and-tear of a man who, as a 61 year old 9th grade drop-out, has spent most of his life in workshops and machinery; he started his steam-engine making in 1975. The callouses and indents shown on his thumb exemplify the dedication and obsession man has with technology and to achieve it’s desired creations. Furthermore, with how small the engine is compared to the human aspect, this ironically comments on how our obsession with technology has led to it being so compressed that it is sometimes forgotten what an impact it has on human life.

Illuminating Enlightenment Theory in Robinson Crusoe

October 14th, 2010

The Age of Enlightenment was a time in which many of the traditional philosophies and ethics, grounded in institutions like government and church, that affected human discourse were pushed aside and questioned by an influx of thought based on rationality, reason, and science. While this era is a big starting point for notions of inherent human agency/autonomy/individuality, it has not been without it’s critics/detractors. Inspection of much contemporary political theory shows criticisms of it’s nihilism in place of religious faith and it’s belief in the universal human reason over its respect/qualification of diversity; one of the definitions for the Enlightenment in the Oxford English Dictionary characterizes it as “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority, etc.” However, these criticisms of both atheistic nihilism and pretentious intellectualism are challenged when reading the eponymous protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In his discovery of faith and purpose as a result of his autonomous decision to travel characterize him as a hybrid of traditionalist/Enlightenment thought.Crusoe’s duplicity of rebellion-induced-faith can be taken from the following statement from Elizabeth Einstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:

One might compare the effects of listening to a Gospel passage read from the pulpit with reading the same passage at home for oneself.In the first instance, the Word comes from a priest who is at a distance and on high; in the second it seems to come from a silent voice that is within . . . . I think that the ‘deep penetration of new controls’ to all departments of life becomes more explicable when we note that printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain are more easily internalized.

When attempting to characterize Crusoe as this hybrid of rebellious Enlightenment spirit and traditional values, first consideration must be of who/how Crusoe was before his life-altering time in isolation on the island. As Crusoe put it “having been… not bred to any trade, [his] Head began to be fill’d very early with rambling Thoughts” (4). This serving as the launching point for his resilient desire to go to the sea rather than hold a more civilized, safer job such as law (5). Compound this desire for adventure over complacency with his disregards for the smooth ride of middle-class life (Upper Low Life, as his Father put it), and Crusoe in his pre-traveling days seems to epitomize that aimlessness of prior Enlightenment criticism.

However, it is important when calculating who Crusoe was before his formative experience on the island to also account for who and how he was in his time as a plantation owner in Brazil. While there, Crusoe leads a fast-rising life (“the happy View I had of being a rich and thriving Man in my new plantation”) that actually has him vaulting his neighbors in terms of prosperity. However, despite this success, he still possesses the nihilism and aimlessness of much Enlightenment critique; he displays a lack of morality or deep thought (29).  When he is approached by three merchants/planters about embarking on a secret trip to Guinea to take “Negroes” on board, bring them home, and then have them work on their plantations (as a way around public slavery prohibition), Crusoe has no moments of consideration as to the ethics or politics of this; all he thinks of is whether or not the choice makes fiscal/economical sense. In a way, his lack of a moral compass serves as the catalyst for his growth on the island, as here he agrees to go on this trek despite his plantation being well-off enough (“But I was born to be my own Destroyer”).  In a sense, his consistent propensity to throw himself to danger facilitates his gaining of a grounding, as his life in England and Brazil are so effortless that he need not concern over much. In adventuring, and becoming shipwrecked, he brings himself to a condition in which everything requires calculation and interest.

Crusoe, in his time on the island, undergoes a vast change in consciousness; he finds religiosity. Following his sickness-induced-religous vision, he reflects on himself:

“But a certain stupidty of Soul, without Desire of Good, or Conscience of Evil, had entirely overwhelm’d me, and I was all the most hardned, unthinking, wicked Creature among our common Sailors, can be supposed to be, not having the least Sense, either the Fear of God in Danger, or of Thankfulness to God in Deliverances.”

Thus, in his Enlightenment-esque self-interested desire to travel for the sake of travel, he brought himself to his own personal attachment to the traditional value of religion. This discovery becomes one that governs his moral compass (albeit, doesn’t make him a perfect person as his race relations still reflect ethnocentrism/hegemony) throughout the rest of the story: as his justification for not immediately killing the cannibals, and his later apprehensions about travel (which again, he goes with still, and nearly kills him… again).

Essentially, if I may conclude my analysis/characterization of Crusoe, it’s that he conveys a sense that a man attempting to claim/discover a new canvas of life away from society will inevitably bring with him that society. To go with the Einstein quote from before, he disregarded the “pulpits” of his Father, family, and society when in England, but when he was out on the island he discovered his own manifestation of their qualities, by economizing his life, finding religion, and by assuming property/ownership of the land.

(I will be adding pictures to this shortly, I have to get showered and drive to school)

Disenchantment By Way of Magic

October 8th, 2010

Desmond Zantua
English 399W
Professor Buell

Disenchantment By Way of Magic

Technology is often used to describe advancements made in institutions, art forms, machinery, and anything else that is involved with human discourse. While these advancements are considered progression in how to accelerate the speed or alleviate the difficulty of carrying out certain tasks, they also further implement man into the gridlock of societal constructs and institutions. The inventions of the automobile and the airplane have brought mankind the ability to travel at faster speeds than anything before, but their use is largely focused on the ability to conduct business and occupational duties at faster speeds rather than exploring and observing the world. Conversely, Magic has been imagined and held with transcendental regards. Two of the most popular film series of the past decade, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, have gained much of their acclaim and fandom from their use of magical characters, powers, and settings. As such, magic is held as existing outside of the restrictive world of man-made constructs and institutions. However, The Tempest conveys a movement of mankind being incapable of escaping the institutionalized society setting in how Prospero’s use of magic is not of transcendental or revolutionary qualities, but of desires for power and control in the “civilized” society from which he was exiled by Antonio. In the exposition of the use of magic in the The Tempest, the message is apparent: man has become obsessed and settled in the established notion of society and uses technology for power rather than a deconstructionist life outside of power relations.

A prime example of the static leaning of man to institution is in Prospero’s focus of his magical powers being exerted on seeking retribution on Antonio and those he deemed to have usurped him of his dukedom, rather than starting anew on the island. Prospero explains his motives for causing the shipwreck to Miranda:

I have done nothing but in care of thee Of thee my dear one, thee my daughter–who Art ignorant of what thou art, naught knowing Of whence I am, nor that I am more better Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell And thy no greater father. (1.2.15-21)

Prospero claims that Miranda cannot even know who she really is as she doesn’t have proper understanding of her father’s identity without knowing his royal rank, and characterizing his current state as lowly and worthless with regards to knowing his valued character. Prospero sees himself, despite his magical powers, as a lesser person without his prior societal rank as Duke of Milan; due to his current living situation as a shack-dweller on an uncolonized island. Furthermore, a factor that left him vulnerable to being usurped was his fixed attention to magic study, as he put it “neglecting worldly ends” (1.2.89). Taking blame for his vulnerability due to his interest in magic both reveals the extent to which he put in learning magic, yet also his perspective of it as a technology for rational purposes, for “the bettering of [his] mind” as Prospero put it (1.2.90), rather than for transcendental appreciation.

Prospero’s institution-focused application of magic is also conveyed in his subjugation of Ariel. Ariel, described in the character list as an “airy spirit”, has the ability to alter the weather, distract/disorient senses through song, and become invisible. These superhuman powers, much like Prospero’s magic skills, are representative of a transcendental/sublime existence unconcerned with limitations of the empirical world. With such fantastical creative powers at his disposal and a new canvas for living in the island, Prospero has an opportunity to live outside of the power-relations-based, commodification-focused nature of institutionalized society; the one from which he came and was rudely exiled from. However, Ariel is treated as a servant instead of a peer, as Prospero uses him as a tool for his revenge plot. In his subjugation of Ariel, Prospero uses his magic to summon/control another being, further conveying magic as a form of technology used for societally-influenced ambitions. Not only does this further indicate magic being used as mechanistic vehicle for societal gain, but the attitude held by Prospero toward Ariel indicates either an obliviousness or conscious disregard for Ariel’s agency/autonomy. Prospero uses his rescue of Ariel from Sycocrax as a justification for Ariel’s servitude being due compensation to Prospero, and uses this to guilt and threaten Ariel upon Ariel’s first request for liberty (1.2.243-293), and eventually twists into a threat of imprisonment for “twelve winters” (1.2.296) should Ariel ever ask again. Prospero’s magical powers were used not to liberate, but rather to make a commodity out of Ariel, gaining an instrument to make his plot for returning to his former dukedom. Furthermore, the use of magic to subjugate another being, and then consequently turn the concept of his agency into incentive for compliance marks a fashion of magic not just being used for societally-created ambitions, but also being used to create power relations itself.

Another application of magic to adhere to the societally-constructed, power relation world is exemplified in Prospero’s treatment of the island’s sole native, Caliban. Unlike Ariel’s servitude to Prospero, in which there was no violence exerted (despite disciplinary threat) and there was an understanding of temporal servitude, Caliban is referred to as a “slave”; no sense of rapport and no indication of emancipation. Prospero’s magic is exerted in punishing Caliban with “apes that… bite [him]; then like hedgehogs… mount / their pricks at [his] footfall; … [wounded] with adders… hiss [him] into madness” (2.2.9-14) at Caliban’s slightest mistake or misgiving. With all of his magical powers on a mostly uninhabited island, Prospero chooses to enslave Caliban, making a technology out of his existence, turning his own environment against him, and disturbingly creates a hierarchy on his island where there was just organic, non-institutionalized living before Prospero’s arrival. Due to the constant threat and recurrence of punishments via Prospero’s technological advancement in magic, Caliban is seemingly hopelessly under Prospero’s dominion, as he comes back into his role as slave at the end of the play, after being pardoned for plotting with Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero. Although Prospero’s pardoning is one of many he gives following expositions of all the play’s characters, it is to be noted he is still condescending, saying “He is as disproportioned in his manners / As in his shape” (5.1.290-291) and demanding Caliban to clean Prospero’s cell if he expects forgiveness (5.1.292-293). Both in his power-by-magic-obsessive nature throughout most of the play and after his supposed spiritual awakening at the end in which he forgives even his broth Alonso for usurping his dukedom, Prospero always views Caliban as someone he inherently holds dominion over due to his technological advantage.

Prospero’s use of Magic is shown here to indicate the loss of ambition to modify human discourse of living (as in, alteration of how man lives within time and space; society) and a consequential reflection of complacency to seek power relations and commodify natural things. However it should be noted that such a theme occurs throughout the play by other characters. The slave Caliban uses Trinculo and Stephano for both their alcohol and the hopes that his worship and subservience will translate to Prospero’s death. Gonzalo, the romantic of the play, still seeks to create a Utopian society on the island. Although he is the only character to admire the beauty of the island as a place containing “everything advantageous to life”, with “lush and lusty” green grass (2.1.49,52), Gonzalo’s view of this new place as a platform to try and form a romanticized notion of a “perfect” society still is tinged with this imperative desire to create order and systemize life instead of existing within it as is. With even the slave and the romantic as partaking in the man-made technologies of societal institutions and power relations, Prospero’s use of magic for power gain is in accordance with societal norms– that very correlation between the use of magic, a symbol of the supernatural/fantastical, being used to serve common, man-made constructs/concepts exemplifies the extent to how The Tempest conveys a perspective of technology as focusing on ascension in current societal setting instead of changing human lifestyles; technology’s changed focus from what can be invented to change life to how can man make things easier for himself.

Works Cited

The Tempest. Norton Critical Edition. New York, NY.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. 3-78. Print.

Summer Solstice, New York City

September 15th, 2010

Sharon Olds’s “Summer Solstice, New York City” offers a depiction of technology’s duality of both being a predominant, omnipresent force as well as a means to preserving human life. The narrative of the poem details a man on the verge of suicide by way of jumping off of a rooftop in New York City. The poem’s makes many references to technological creations/constructs the suicidal man encounters on his ascent to the rooftop: “He went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building… over the soft, tarry surface… over the complex green cornice” (2-5). This repeated emphasis on physical imagery creates a sense of  technology being a smothering force, and when considering the opening line makes referencing it being the “longest day of the year”, the desperation felt by the man can be traced to the societal construction and application of time. As such, time is shown as another form of technology, as it is a tool of sorts used to measure human life and discourse. The man serves as an allegorical figure for the notion of humanity being lost amidst a world of technology when considering the lack of description or personality; The man is nameless and his only words are not direct quotes, but reported speech (“…said if they came a step closer that was it” (5)).

While  such imagery and characterizations form a perspective of humanity being destroyed and overrun by technology, “the huge machinery of the earth” as the narrator put it, technology is also shown to be self-preserving and life-enhancing (6). The same aforementioned “machinery” of life started to work in favor of the suicidal man through the systematic response of the police to prevent the man’s suicide: both physically-crafted technology of the “hairy net with its implacable grid” to catch the man should he jump as well as the use of negotiation tactics of the police officers on the roof; a persuasive tool for the police officers to achieve its desired end (22). Beyond focus of the suicidal man, technology is used as a reference for life preservation in the cop’s use of a bullet-proof vest as a “black shell around his own life, [the] life of his children’s father” (12). The technology of the vest is not just to protect the police officer, who in this role is an agent of the construct of law, but also to protect the father that he is to his children; a much more human, natural role. The difference between the expected reaction of the cops once they were able to get the man off from the ledge and what their actual response was serves to convey a sense of commonality among people overriding power struggles or societally constructed roles. The narrator said he/she “thought they were going to beat him up, as a mother whose child has been lost will scream when it is found”, an expectation that the cops were going to enact their institutional superiority, but they had just all lit cigarettes which “burned like the tiny camp fires we lit at night back at the beginning of the world” (40-42). This simile takes the modern stress relief act of smoking and links it to acts of campfire camaraderie and closeness at the beginning of human civilization, long before the age of technology. Thus, despite all the technology used for either smothering or assisting purposes, the poem ends on a point of continuous human commonality.

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