Anarchy, technology, and community: Some thoughts on The Dawn of Everything

A year or so ago I read The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. At the time I jotted down a few notes, and it has taken me this long, I’m afraid, to beat them into something like coherence. Hey, it’s about 40,000 years of human history: what’s another thirteen months?

I won’t attempt a summary or a proper review; for an overview of the work I recommend this review from Science News.

The authors observe, from archaeological and historical evidence, that humans long ago constituted their societies in a dazzling variety of ways, and indeed reconstituted themselves thoughtfully, deliberately, and relatively often, perhaps to ward off inequality or escape an authoritarian system. As my own study of history goes back only a few hundred years professionally and at most a thousand years in amateur terms, I’m not in a position to disagree with anyone’s meta-analysis of archaeological evidence. I do worry that it reads like a book heavily informed by, and perhaps at least partly driven by, present political concerns, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong, only that I’m wary.

I do, however, want to dissent from the authors’ optimism—that is, their belief that if our ancestors thought creatively about politics and radically changed their situations, we ought to be able to do the same. We are limited, structurally, in ways our ancestors could not. They could pack up and leave a society they didn’t like: we can’t, for there are no longer any margins to speak of. They could play with agriculture for millennia without domesticating their crops and inducing mutual dependence, but that genie is out of the bottle now. I could go on.

Maybe the simplest objection is that what looks like a rapid change in deep history or the archaeological record may have seemed a terribly long time to those who lived through it. Reading about the sundry ways people have thoughtfully organized themselves in the past (and about how deliberately and thoughtfully they seem to have done so) gives me hope that, when this civilization falls and 99 percent of the people on the planet die, the remaining few will be able to come up with something better than Mad Max, indeed to lay a foundation for a far better future. But I’m not sure most people would consider that statement optimistic.

In any case, quibbling about hope and hopelessness is boring. So let’s talk about something else.

book cover

Now in print! The Pirate Panther Princess

My long-awaited novel The Pirate Panther Princess is now available in print! For the time being, you can buy the softcover via print-on-demand. You can also read a free preview of the first six chapters.

book cover

A seaside civilization emerging from a long dark age…

Rough but noble traders who ply the coastal waters…

Brilliant makers renewing the world with their craft…

Black-hearted pirates with a ship that sails itself…

An evil prince who would rule the known world…

And a runaway girl lost at sea and struggling to survive who becomes a character in a folk tale and the unwitting hero of a revolution.

Though it will especially interest younger readers, there is much that will appeal to adults. The first six chapters will be available free at www.piratepantherprincess.com, so you can decide for yourself!

I’ll have more to say about the novel in January. A global edition available through retail booksellers may also be available early next year… if printing and paper costs don’t go up again.

grocery store display of fruitcakes

Fruitcake. Seriously

grocery store display of fruitcakes
Just say no to… whatever these guys are selling. Photograph of Curtis Candy Company display in Jacksonville, Florida, 1947, courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

For the most part, I am a fairly practical baker. But the road to sobriety is pocked with potholes of madness. Fruitcake is one of mine.

I have always liked the idea of fruitcake. As with so many once-traditional things, I detest what it has become. And so, for years now, I have made a hobby of redeeming it.

Fruitcake used to be serious business. It has its origins in late-medieval spiced breads, whose spice and sugar alone made them suitable for festivals, and it remained expensive and laborious until the end of the nineteenth century. In Northern Europe and America, oranges, lemons, and citron had to be imported from warmer climes, and white sugar to candy them was pricey. Raisins too had to be imported, and then seeded — one at a time, by hand. Then California farmers developed seedless raisins and Florida farmers turned to citrus; by 1900 raisins were a cheap source of iron to stick in children’s food, and by the 1950s you could stock your freezer with concentrated orange juice. Industrialization made fruitcake ordinary, and dyeing glacéed cherries green and selling bricks by mail order made it a joke.

But the idea remains sound: a sweet, complex, festival cake that is both accessible to home bakers and laborious enough to be special; fruited, spiced, boozy, and completely over the top; powerfully enjoyable but easily shared, because a slice or two is probably all you need. Perfect for Christmas. In theory. How to restore it?

The first step is to candy your own citrus peel and use a mix of dried fruit for color and flavor. No technicolor goo, nothing not identifiable as food. That was easy to figure out but takes a bit of work — but hey, it’s Christmas, right?

The second step was harder to figure out but, as it happened, far easier to implement. How do you make a cake sturdy enough to hold monstrous quantities of fruit and nuts without its turning into a brick? The cake part of fruitcake is essentially a pound cake, and you need lots of eggs, but you also need something I only recognized once I’d started researching historical baking: gluten structure. Many old cakes were beaten hard after the flour, butter, and eggs were combined, and that’s what holds this fruitcake together. The method here is much the one Rose Levy Beranbaum uses in her “Perfect Pound Cake,” though it appeared decades before in a 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook (go figure). It is both an easier and a more reliable way to get all the eggs into the batter without its breaking, and the resulting crumb is about perfect.

Here, then, is real, serious fruitcake. Note that it must rest for two weeks before serving — so get started early!

Sometimes a pair of chopsticks is just a pair of chopsticks

To have a meal with chopsticks is to engage in the immaterial world of relationships and ideas. People don’t use chopsticks in a restaurant to show their dexterity. Rather, it demonstrates one can navigate different cultural contexts, adapt to various social environments, and demonstrate a level of open mindedness. These are all fine purposes, but they have little to do with the pragmatic task of moving pieces of food from the plate to the mouth. And in many contexts, the temptation is to master chopsticks to fake sophistication. Seth Higgins, “On Lug Wrenches and Chopsticks, in Front Porch Republic

When I worked in an office, back in the early days of this century, I used to walk across the street to the grocery store on my lunch break to make a salad at the salad bar, which I took back to eat at my desk. I have always loved salad bars, maybe because when I was a kid they were the only chance I had to choose whatever I wanted to eat. Choice and abundance! Very American. Anyhow: I enjoyed my salad-bar lunches, but I found them difficult to eat. A fork is lousy at picking up raw carrots, no less so if they are grated — and more so if the fork is one of the plastic ones they give you at the store. Actually forks are pretty lousy at picking up raw vegetables, period. Radish? Cucumber? I felt like I was trying to kill Dracula. Have you ever tried eating raw spinach with a plastic fork? And let’s not even talk about those baby ears of corn.

Then I found, in my desk drawer, an unused pair of takeout chopsticks from a Chinese restaurant. And they worked. They worked really well. They picked up everything, from baby corn to the last little bits of shredded carrot. They worked so well that to this day I eat salad with chopsticks — at home, when nobody is watching — simply because they are more efficient than a fork.

Sometimes, to paraphrase something Freud may or may not ever have said, a pair of chopsticks is just a pair of chopsticks. And pretty much all the time, you’re better off choosing the right tool for the job instead of thinking of tools as symbols.

Of lunatics and vocabulary

I recently finished reading Rebecca West’s classic 1940 tome Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, chronicling her travels through what was then Yugoslavia along with pretty much everything she learned about the history of that region. There are many, many things I could comment on in that book, and maybe I will in the coming days, but one thing I find sticking with me is her distinction between “idiots” and “lunatics.” When West learns that the King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated and reacts with horror, her nurse assumes she must have known the man personally. West comments:

Her question made me remember that the word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.

I could observe that the last eighty years have brought us to the point where women are as apt to be lunatics as men, and where the prevalence and penetration of public media into daily life makes it difficult for anyone to be an idiot, however hard they may try: think of the elderly shut-in who does little all day but watch television and thus has an opinion on every damned thing that happens in the world. A hundred years ago she would have been an idiot; now she is, at best, a kind of lunato-idiot hybrid, kept from full lunacy by her incapacity for action. But set that aside.

What’s really interesting to me about this distinction is simply that West makes it. Here are two words apt to be used almost interchangeably by way of dismissing their object, which become, thanks to this combination of etymology and poetry, useful tools for distinguishing among similar concepts, yet endowed with the power of metaphor to prevent those distinctions from growing too narrow. What words ought to be, I think. Much later in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West observes that women’s idiocy has often been the only thing to save civilization from men’s lunacy, and the words are both shorthand and illustration, at once zipping up an argument and unpacking it. Beautiful.

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is the interchangeability of all the various words we have to praise a thing, the words we trot out when “good” isn’t enough. All come from different roots, and considered etymologically ought surely to mean different things, or at least to shade meaning differently. Excellent is fairly clinical: to excel, to exceed, to stand outside the usual and the expected. Wonderful ought to mean full of wonders, a thing to be wondered at, a mystery. Fantastic suggests fantasy, a thing that surely cannot be real. Fabulous also suggests untruth, but more pointedly: a fabulist is a liar. A thing truly awesome ought to bring us to our knees in an attitude almost of worship. And so on.

Homeschooling: A valediction

(Valediction: “a farewell, a bidding farewell,” 1610s, from past participle stem of Latin valedicere “bid farewell, take leave,” from vale “farewell!,” second person singular imperative of valere “be well, be strong” (from PIE root *wal- “to be strong”) + dicere “to say” (from PIE root *deik- “to show,” also “pronounce solemnly”).

My daughter graduated from homeschool high school at the end of May and is headed to college in the fall. For seven years, through middle and high school, I taught her math, science, and arts every week, plus a bonus-senior-year literature class. As this means that I am also graduating, in a sense, or at least retiring, I thought I should be allowed to make a speech. And since there’s no one around to stop me, here it is. I’ll keep it short.

Biodiesel people vs. electric car people

The subject of biodiesel came up last week, and in explaining the concept to my daughter I remembered how much I’m drawn to it—as opposed to electric cars, which I instinctively distrust. That statement says as much about me as it does about the two technologies, so let me unpack it a little.

Here’s why I’m drawn to biodiesel:

1. Biodiesel piggybacks on existing technology. We already know how to build and maintain diesel engines.
2. At its best, biodiesel turns waste material—used vegetable oils—into fuel rather than requiring new production.
3. You can literally make biodiesel in your back yard. More practically, it can be made on a community scale.

Will biodiesel solve all the world’s problems? No. It is a small and partial solution to an enormous global problem, which though it cannot solve the whole, nevertheless—by virtue of being small!—empowers people to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Moreover, in principle, it creates no new problems that others will have to solve later, e.g. waste that will have to be cleaned up.

The electric car, by contrast, promises a total solution to that enormous global problem—but one that, by its very totality, disempowers people. The electric car…

On “good work” and the Tao

I have been (slowly, irregularly) making my way through Jonathan Star’s translation of, and commentary on, the Tao Te Ching. I read another translation of the Tao some years ago and remember little enough of it. I like this edition because Star offers not only a literary translation by line and verse but a verbatim translation: an analysis of the various possible meanings of each character in the original, thus giving the Westerner a better idea of just how difficult and dangerous a literary translation may be. As he explains in his introduction:

Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language; it is unlike English and other Western languages, which are perceptual. Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences. Ancient Chinese is based on pictorial representations, without grammar. Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. (p. 3)

Any specific literary translation into English should therefore be held lightly—if not taken lightly; the concept is dear, but any specific perception of it is necessarily partial. I offer this as preface to everything I may say about the Tao: I know about enough to be dangerous, and anything I say should also be held lightly (if not, again, taken lightly).

I ought also to admit that I am approaching the Tao with a particular guiding question, which has to do with what I will loosely call good work. This is not the proper way to introduce that concept, but I’ll try to get around to an introduction later. What I mean right now by good work has to do particularly with technological making, and I’m guided to the Tao for insight into questions about work and technology by Alan Jacobs’ essay in the New Atlantis last year, “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living,” which I strongly recommend.

So. This morning I was poring over verse 3, in which the Sage “shows people how to be simple and live without desires,” which is boilerplate religious wisdom, but also “to be content and not look for other ways,” which could be taken as a repetition of the prior line but struck me as subtly and significantly different.

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

What we talk about when we talk about hand tools

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

In the spring of 2021 I started writing, elsewhere, a series of think-pieces about technology in the woodshop, beginning with the question What is a hand tool, anyway?, continuing through the effects of tools and tool use on the worker and the world, and working towards, as I found, a sort of rubric for evaluating tools for wise and responsible use. As I mean to pick up this thread, I have moved the pieces here and am linking to them below, in the order written, and will link new pieces here as I write them. I am also tagging them with work and the worker, which opens a few more doors and will likely range a little further.

A couple of things to note. First, I mean this to be a practical discussion, not a purely philosophical one. Second, although my particular interest is woodworking, I believe the discussion and tentative conclusions are applicable far more widely. In fact, I think there’s real value, at this point in time, to come at the problem of technology use from a perspective other than that of the digital — i.e., other than that unique to this point in time. We’ll see if it bears fruit.

  1. What is a “hand tool,” anyway?
  2. Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”
  3. Tools and externalities
Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

The Sexton

Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

After William Merritt Chase, In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice (1878)

On Saturdays, at terce
I polish the brass. One by one
the candles from their unlit altar
in my calloused hands I carry
to a bench of pine my ancestors made.

Outside the sun bakes pilgrims in the square.
I sit in shadows, back against cool marble.

The candlesticks rest in my lap.
The polish stains my apron.
I peel away the hardened
husks of thrice-said prayers,
and with a cloth gentled by laundering
caress their graceful necks, their
swollen bellies, archéd feet.

I have no hurry. I have
polished this candlestick a thousand
years. I shall polish the next
a thousand more

until the light from high
windows the dark stones swallow
finds each arc, each surface,
makes it gleam.

I need no candle here.
I make the unseen visible.
My eyes will find
my work when it is finished.