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Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Return of Mr Controversy

I'm really not a true Luddite. I like the dishwasher. I like air conditioning. I like TV and CDs and DVDs. However, I think that it's a mistake to just accept technology wholesale, as we have done.

Most things that come with memory chips assume that you are an idiot. And while this might be true, I've found that in most cases it's not. I mean think about it. How many items do we deal with every day that attack our memory? There's speed dial, there's the thing in Windows that remembers all your IDs and Passwords. There's the favorites menu. (I've reached a point in which I can barely remember what most of the things on my "Favorites" are!) There are reminders and ticklers and alarms. There are PDAs. And memory, unfortunately, must be used, like a muscle, or it begins to atrophy. We remember less and so become more dependent on the machine.

My wife and I were having a discussion this morning about the influence of spreadsheets. Ask anybody. What's the best thing about them? They do the math for you. Again, math is good for the brain, and yet most people (myself included) will rely on a calculator or Excel if we want to add up a simple column of numbers. We calculate less and so become more dependent on the machine.

Quite often, high technology is a drug, and we have become a nation of addicts. Again, I'm no Luddite who wishes to wipe away all traces of technology. However, I think it would behoove us to be less accepting of all technology and to try being a bit more choosy in terms of what we rely on and what we don't.

I think another way to look at things is that having low tech alternatives is good for the national defense. I can tell you from personal experience that a manual typewriter keeps working even when the grid goes down. And don't even get me started on the pencil!


Robert G. Margolis said...

Let's not forget, the Luddites had some good inventions of their own, such as sabotage, and Clog In The Machine, long before Ghost in the Machine, long before Bobby D's "ghost of electricity howling…." The Luddites could've told us: cheapen and adulterate the content in the production of cotton sheets and it was only a matter of free market expansion before we'd have spread sheets. Myself, I prefer silk sheets, like the kind Captain Industry used to recline on as host of "Luddite After Dark". If the Japanese hadn't figured out how to micro-miniaturize unregistered immigrant labor and put it in our pockets, we'd still be doing the math the old Luddite way. I favor the middle way of Eric Gill. Still, my fingers get the itch to toss a clog and make the gears grind to a halt. As the song Delilah says: "If I had my way, I'd tear the building down."

--Abbie Cuss & Anne Archy

Len said...

You favor Eric Gill, eh? Sounds fishy to me. Actually, I have a lot of respect for Eric Gill. Brendan Gill is the one who gets on my wick. I don't have any opinion about Gil Scott Heron, although I have this vague feeling that I ought to.

And there are machines that I like. The lever, for example. I guess it all comes down to the quote that Marshall McCluhan used: "First man makes the machine and then the machine makes man." And I just wonder what the current crop of machines are making us into.

Gil O. Teen

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len, I wonder about that too. I've got a nasty, nagging feeling that one of those machines is the one that makes the crop circles which scare the bejeezus out of Ben Stein's idyllic Idahoans.

I haven't done a good stand-up routine while on the telephone, in a long time, so, tonight, when a pollster called and asked me to take a survey about PSE & G, I lurched like a drunken Luddite at the opportunity. When she asked me the year I was born, I answered: "1865, which is why I so appreciate the modern convenience of hot and cold running electricity." All my other answers were equally subtly Luddite.

By the way, apropos of my previous post, the last clog I threw landed in my drain. So, we know how that goes.

"There's more money in giving a white guy an erection than curing a black guy of AIDS." This sentence was just spoken by the TV in my house. I don't think Luddites ever had any one-liners like that!

Len said...

I'm pretty much a pacifist in the whole Luddite movement, although there is a little voice inside that asks if "we can't just take on a couple of toasters." It's such a strange world with all the blinking and the beeping. To quote Homer J. Simpson, I feel like "I'm living inside a cuckoo clock." Bill Gates and his cohorts took over the world in such a short amount of time! Now people my age hardly remember the lowly typewriter when that's what they all banged out their college papers on. I can remember visiting somebody back in 1985 who had a PC at home. How strange it seemed. Why do you need that to keep your recipes on? What's wrong with a pencil and an index card? And now it's all this. The Infotainment Superspeedway. Which I invented, by the way. Al Gore had nothing to do with it. He was in a whole other part of the house at the time.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len, you singin' "World Gone Wrong"? Then, sing away, friend, it's a great song to be sung! Your own version could be, maybe, "World Gone To Hell In An Old-Fashioned Recipe Box".

I, unabashed, unrepentant Luddite sympathizer, am 101% down with the great analyses of our often soul-killing, humanity usurping technological predicament, such as Rene Guenon's "The Reign of Quantity" and Jacques Ellul's writings. The massive, often fatal, disproportion between technos and Logos, between invention and wisdom, between the blindness of 'reason' and vision.

Chuang Tzu's "Inner Chapters" already has a lot to say about a certain kind of human "knowledge" and its technology and inventions--and that's from the ancient, elegant pre-pencil days of pushcarts and brush and ink! Still, the watchword, however unfolds the Great Dream, and however late and dark in the day it really is, is 'in the world but not of it'. For better explanation and elaboration see the "Inner Chapters", the David Hinton translation and/or the translation by Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton.

Len said...

Now, when you're talking about Master Chuang, you are talking about my man! I became acquainted with him through the Modern Library version of the Tao Teh Ching translated by Lin Yutang in which he used selections from Chuang as commentaries on Lao Tse's work. The version of the Chuang Tse I currently have is one translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly. I got it at a discount bookstore, the kind that sells remaindered books. I'm not thrilled with it; it lacks the infectious good humor that Chuang's writing's have. Therefore, I will pick up one or both of your suggestions soon. (There's a bookstore trip in the offing. We've had to go without one for a couple of weeks and my wife's getting the shakes.) Thanks.

Robert G. Margolis said...


The early morning fog here hasn't sunburned off yet, and the sight and feel reminds me of one early morning, after sun up, driving into Georgia from South Carolina, in swirling fog and mist, into a swamp landscape that seemed to emerge out of and disappear into the land born clouds of an earlier time. Which reminded me of you down there in Dixie.

This weekend I'll give a first read to Bob Dylan's just released "Chronicles, vol. 1" which, from a quick page through, looks to be a delightful fusion of memory and felicitious language to express it. I just noticed this passage, from the opening pages of the book (about Bob's earliest days in New York City, and specifically at the Folkore Center, run by Izzy Young) which, I think, can comfortably take their place in this conversation thread:

"The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn't seduced by it. What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line. All this was current, played out and in the open. This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on."

Yes, bound for glory, may we be , one and all!

Len said...

I'm also interested in reading Dylan's book, although my book funds for this week are already committed to obtaining a volume by a certain ancient Chinese sage who will remain anonymous. Dylan, of course, is a great enigma, which is part of the fun and part of the point. I have a feeling that his tome is revealing in ways that the gossip crowd are incapable of grasping. Besides, I understand he wrote it using a manual typewriter, so I'm honor bound to support another member of the fellowship.

My favorite Dylan quote come from an interview he did in which he was asked about the "Self Portrait" album. After Dylan explained that he purposely made a bad record because he felt that he was getting too popular, the interviewer asked him why he had released it as a double album. And Dylan replied, "If you're going to do crap, you might as well really load it up." As always, levels of thinking and wisdom that just resonate endlessly.

Robert G. Margolis said...


I asked our old friend Hermann Melville, fresh from the success of the "critical" and "popular" flop of his Moby Dick, about Bob the "enigma", great or small, and he replied, with a chuckle: "you mean like any and every other mystery born and bearing soul, whose life eludes and confounds the 'certainties' of our habitual perceptions?' Ah, dear Melville, I love the way he talks when you get him going!

Then he said: "It's his negative capability."

"His what?", I asked.

Melville laughed more. "Negative capability. It's the poet John Keat's term." Melville searched among his books until he found a volume of Keat's published letters. He paged through the book, found the letter he was looking for, and then read:

"...and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

...But's that not what I first intended to say here, which is about Bobby D.'s "Chronicles, volume one". What I really meant to say...will be in my next post.

Robert G. Margolis said...

So, as I started to say, before Melville made his unexpected Sunday morning visit, Bob Dylan's "Chronicles, volume one" is full of hearing and listening, a cornucopia abundance of it, profound and subtle, plain and simple, open and never ending, ancient and contemporary, "time out of mind", precisely, listening to music of folk (in many styles and cultures, whether officially called "folk" or not, and certainly more unofficial than not, certainly all that they still are before any "folk" label was applied to them), listening to voices, to their authenticity, their sound, resonant with lives, experiences, worlds that best live on in old and anonymous songs, the vocabulary and imagination, the ear to the ground of the joy, suffering, mystery of the world that are the source, "the prayer book and lexicon" of Bob's singing, performing, and songs. Bob doesn't define what folk music or a folk song is to him, but he shades and highlights around an un-drawn line, so that much more than a definition clearly appears. Here, I can't resist a quotation or three or four:

"Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say. I knew the inner substance of the thing. I could easily connect the pieces. It meant nothing for me to rattle off things like "Columbus Stockade," "Pastures of Plenty," "Brother in Korea," and "If I Lose, Let Me Lose, all back-to-back just like it was one long song."

"…and songs, to me, were important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic."

"The folksingers could sing songs like an entire book, but only in a few verse. It's hard to describe what makes a character or an event folk song worthy. It probably has something to do with a character being fair and honest and open."

"Folk songs are evasive--the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that's exactly the way we want it to be. We wouldn't be comfortable with it any other way. A folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who's playing and who's listening."

Bob's lifelong, still on-going education by and apprenticeship in this music or these musics, is, in turn, an education and an apprenticeship for us, if we care to look at the moon his finger points to. Which reminds me to observe, Len, that Bob perfectly gets Chuang Tzu, who said: "Instead of using a finger to demonstrate how a finger is no-finger, use no-finger to demonstrate how a finger is no-finger. Instead of using a horse to show how a horse is no-horse, use no-horse to show how a horse is no-horse. All heaven and earth is one finger, and the ten thousand things are all one horse." (David Hinton translation of "The Inner Chapters") I think, though I presume to say so myself, Bob would welcome what Chuang Tzu says as perfectly alluding to all that folk music and folk songs are, have always been, for him.

Bob's voice, his singing and songs long have been a constant education for me, a guide to the many musics in his music, of which his voice his performances, his songs are a confluence. Living roots cannot be exposed; they need to be hidden in their own element, to continue to go deeper, draw sustenance, so what's most clear, the origins, must remain in the dark, beneath the surface, yet though they produce a superabundance of light that grows, branches, flowers above the surface. And so we may follow a path, each of our own, in the path of the names of the performers mentioned with particular appreciation and reverence, the names of specific songs, of specific album recordings.

There's so much so lovely said in this book, so well crafted with the spontaneity of decades of having lived it, and living it still, there's so much, simple, plain, direct and honest prose at the threshold (or slightly over it) of poetry, I could quote the entire book here, but then all the white space of the page and what's between the lines, who can quote or paraphrase that?

This book, entirely analogous to Harry Smith's "Anthology of Folk Music", is a treasure of hearing and listening which, if opened and heard, can in turn open limitless possibilities of hearing and listening anew. Bob of more than a thousand faces is really playing here. It depends on our listening.

Len said...

Well, Borders didn't have any Chuang Tzu, so yesterday I bought the B. Dylan book instead. Robert, after your analysis of it, I feel like my reaction to it is to say in a flat Appalachian accent, "I like books. They's purty."

It's a fascinating book, so far. (I've got another 240 or so pages to go.) Impressionistic and evocative, it is truly a memoir, snatches of memory of places and times and an individual experience of them. To some extent, he seems an enigma because (as is demonstrated in an early scene in the book in which a record company PR guy interviews him) he disdains show business. He just wants to write songs and sing songs. Why should anybody care about anything else.

Back in the '50s sometime, a young Japanese man sent a fan letter to the Swiss/German author Hermann Hesse. In the letter the young man told Hesse that his work was a mirror to the young man's life. Hesse responded by saying that artists are not mirrors, but windows that allow us to see through to ourselves. (I'm not sure if I got all that exactly right; I'm working from memory. But the jist is correct.) This is part of Dylan's dilemma. He's constantly being told that he's a mirror and he always having to try to get people to understand his works as a series of windows.

If I were to try to form some sort of artistic mission statement for myself, it would be similar to what I'm taking away from Dylan in this memoir. The artistic struggle is not something that occurs on a grand scale, but is intensely individual. The artist cannot lead a generation. He or she can only hope that that they open a little light in the soul of an individual, just as other artists have opened a little light in theirs.

I know that Dylan has done this for me.

Robert G. Margolis said...


Yes, you have it exactly. I like mirror and window both, as, with a moment of insight, awakening, knowledge, understanding, one can be the other or both.

"Open" is precisely the verb. In Arabic there is the word futuh/futuhat, opening/openings, used to refer to any insight, illumination, realization, as manifestations of mercy and guidance, and therefore always a gift. Maybe one that can be shared, maybe one that cannot be shared, maybe one that a person has an obligation and vocation to share, and maybe not. If one can and does share it, it is simply an extension, a further expression of the generosity that gifted the insight to begin with. To have received something like this doesn't make one anything, and certainly not a 'leader' of others.

Can an artist even 'lead' himself or herself, for that matter? I think Bob from a very early age in his life had this mature intuition about our shared tendency to use others, or our invention of others, to avoid or as a substitute for accepting and striving to fulfill the unique responsibility we, each person of us, are given, blessed and terrifying at once. And that's not to say anything of what happens when that tendancy is exploited and manipulated to "sell" an "image" or "persona" of an artist, and "sell" it to others who are called to what's authentic and true in that person's art. There's no window or mirror there, of course, and what compounding deceptions await anyone, artist or not, who looks there to see or for an accurate reflection.

The counterfeit and the real are inextricably mixed up, tangled, in this world. The folk songs, which awakened him to his life's vocation, would have taught him that. Bob, I feel, had, from early on, the awareness to guard against the dangerous, even fatally, deceptive pretense that what one is given as an "artist" makes one anything to anyone, including, especially, oneself. Of course, there've been failures, spectacular ones, in that awareness, or its exercise, how could there not have been? It might take 40, 50 years to mature into, to realize, what one was given, when very young, in a moment of "opening", and though that "opening" had brought the further gift of a song, a song that became very popular and has been sung for decades.

'Leaders' and those who want to be 'lead', they go together, though who's leading who and where they might be going is anybody's guess. An artist's work is elsewhere and otherwise. He or she has enough to do sorting out his/her own fictions of 'self' and trying not fool him/herself and others.

In this respect Bob's memoir is an act of 'charity', in the broadest sense, and of generosity. The failures are as instructive as the "successes". "There's no success like failure, and failure is no success at all," as Bob sings in "Love Minus Zero (No Limit").

Len said...

There's a scene in "John Lennon: Imagine" in which some guy is found living in John's garden and has been brought up to the main house. The guy says that the lyric in one of the Beatles's songs told him to come to see John. John starts out by telling him that Paul wrote the song in question, and then goes on to explain that he is merely writing about what his day is like, that he's not trying to communicate with anyone in the way that you would with a telephone. He's just trying to say, "Well, here's what it's like for me, being here, trapped in space and time. Does this jibe with what your experience is?"

The Beatles, of course, faced the same sort of things that Dylan did, however, what he challenged with derision, they avoided with cheekiness. I read a quote from George Harrison last week in which he said that he was not Beatle George and that Beatle George seemed to him like a costume he had worn a long time before.

Fame is such a strange thing, not to be sought for its own sake. I agree with you, though, I think Dylan had a pretty clear-eyed view of things from a very early age, and that he understood fame as being an inevitable byproduct of his successful pursuit of his art.

By the way, on "CBS Sunday Morning" yesterday, they did a piece on Dylan as potential Nobel laureate. One of the experts descibed him as "after Robert Frost, America's poet." Not bad for a kid from Hibbing , MN.