Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | May 4, 2009

The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not

In researching ‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ I’ve become fascinated by the way so much of alternative culture’s roots can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century. In the course of this I’ve come across the work of splendidly named Alexis Madrigal (surely made up?) See his website: Inventing Green: The Lost History of American Clean Tech.

This is an excerpt from an older blog of his:

There seems to be something peculiar to American culture about the way that we live in cities. That is to say: we don’t know how.

I’ve thought about this for months, but as I was walking through the park, I happened to be reading The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx, and I think he provides some clues to our strange behavior. He quotes José Ortega y Gasset from back in 1930, noting the rise of, “a new kind of man, ‘a Naturmensch rising up in the midst of a civilised world’:

The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilisation, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the principles which make them possible.

Marx contines, “If his industrial Naturmensch bears a striking resumblance to many Americans we should not be entirely surprised. After all, what modern nation has had a history as encouraging to the illusion that its material well-being is, in Ortega’s phrase, “the spontaneous fruit of the Edenic tree.’”

In some ways, I think this is right on. Particularly about not seeing the civilization around us. We locate our infrastructure far from our people and forget about it.

But Ortega y Gasset misses a key poin about the Naturmensch: if she doesn’t understand the principles, the underlying structures of our civilization, she can’t make changes to them. She can use the products as naturally as fruit, but only in the way their makers intended. Without deeper knowledge about the technics of the world, she can only use its products, not make new products or change the ones that she receives.

That’s the challenge for Inventing Green — to be an instrument for seeing the energy-intensive civilization that surrounds us. When I say this, I don’t mean simply showing you a carbon footprint or something. I mean narrating how the automobile industry solidifed around the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine. And how the high speeds it allowed changed the nature of The Road, allowing rural folks and city dwellers unprecedented long-distance mobility, but foreclosing other possibilties for using paved ground.

Because one day, having had The City built for them, the children wake up to find that they can’t live in it. They are unaware of how to inhabit it. Give the maladapted city-dweller a cement-paved park and he sees a road.

But they don’t know how to live anywhere else, either. The City is their home. So they go to the “natural” and private preserves purpose-designed and with instructions included. And that’s where they live, leaving the real city to the cars and the old Chinese people doing tai chi.

Read more here


Responses

  1. 30 years ago a neighbor in a small city commented that the problem with most people could be explained by their habit of never walking on the ground. They walked on the pavement. Their feet never touched the soil. Steve went out of his way to walk on the grass, stand in the median of divided highways and appreciate the Earth. He experienced time and space with his senses.

    His remarks stayed with me. When I went to the park on a hot day, I sat on the grass and read books. When I went to the beach I walked on the grass and left the path behind. I think now of my visit to the Stones in Avesbury where the path is unpaved. There were school children there measuring path erosin. People like me strayed off it. Does that hurt the land? Or does Gaia long for our footfalls?

  2. This is great. I really like the Ortega y Gasset quote and Alexis Madrigals expansion of it seems spot on to me. We are not really encouraged to deconstruct the world we live in; to be able to see the culture we have created as being one of many possibilities. It serves those with the greatest vested interest in the status quo for the vast majority to perceive the way we live and function as ‘spontaneous fruit fom the Edenic tree’. When you look at the world’s current financial problems, there has been a reluctance by all political parties to speak about this as an ideological issue, and yet free market economics is as ideologically loaded as communism or facism. To speak of it on those terms places it in its proper context as only one of many potential ways of functioning as a group, rather than this unquestioned assumption that our current way of living is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and not subject to improvement. Madrigal’s right; my own family do it all the time, a favourite phrase being ‘that’s the way it is’ (guaranteed to produce steam from my nostrils and ears!) as if the way we live exists in some vacuum or is the pinnacle of human cultural progression. If we don’t understand what is ideologically driving the culture we live in, how can we possibly change it? And I think that Madrigal’s right, that this extends out to a culture’s technologies; everything that our culture produces and the manner in which it is produced is rooted in that free market understanding that all resources are there to be exploited for economic growth without regulation. Green technologies by their very nature are at odds with this ideology. This is the lie we are being sold at the moment – Green technologies are hugely important but how effective will they be in a culture that still holds values at odds with those technologies? Something has got to give. To envision new ways to be, we have to make a shift in our understanding of how culture comes into being; to be active, aware participants in its creation, not passive recipients.

    Thanks for the link to the website – it’s really interesting (great Bertrand Russell quote).

  3. Dear Philip,

    How kind of you to praise our son, Alexis Madrigal, and his work. His father, Salvador Madrigal, and I are very proud of him. His new book, The History of Our Future, is a history of green tech and should be available in bookstores by this time next year. The blog gives a feel for what will be in it.

    Alexis is also a Science and Technology journalist and writes for wired.com generally under the Wired Science Blog. I will also assure you that Alexis Madrigal is his real name. (We think it’s a cool name too.)

    Sincerely,
    Elizabeth Madrigal
    Alexis’ mother

  4. Hello Elizabeth,
    Great to hear from you.Yes it is a splendid name and I’m so glad I ‘bumped into’ Alexis’ work. I’ll look out for his book.
    Yours,
    Philip


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