Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Assembly Line

The process of farming is modular.  The ground is ploughed; the seeds are planted; weeds are pulled and the crop is maintained; the produce is harvested and stored, while care is taken to reserve seeds - if need be - for next year.

The process takes months, and because of that a single person working upon a single tract of soil approaches each step in a similar manner to a worker on an assembly line.  Each step, for as long as it lasts, is a repetitive, mind-numbing task.  When the task was accomplished by farmers in the medieval age, the expertise required was something that could easily be imparted to offspring, who understood it and could work competently as farmers by the age of 13.  Farming required a certain knowledge of the work - but it could hardly be considered highly technical work.  It did not become that until the farm itself became highly technical.

Still, despite the propaganda to the contrary, farming did not dehumanize farmers.  Yes, the writers of the 16th and 17th century out of London and Paris did tend to express distaste for the farmers they met, measuring them against the standard of the city - but throughout history it has also been acknowledged that among the farmers themselves, life could be decent and satisfying.  That there were those who fled the rural life for the cities should not be taken as proof that farming is a hideous, suffering existence.  Farming is not that today, and yet there remains the exodus to the city.  All too often our opinion of rural life is written by urbanites, who remain biased on the question.

Historically, each step of the farming process was approached from the standpoint of tradition and religion.  The earth was consecrated or the gods were appeased; sacrifices were made; celebrations held at set times of the year, to encourage growth and to welcome growth.  These celebrations, for anyone who has taken part in the rural life, are humanizing moments - the community comes together, they pray together and drink together, they eat together and they love together.  (they do not fuck off on their spouses in pandering fits of selfish angst - but that's not important now)

Although the labor is hard, and at times wasted due to weather and disease, on the whole the struggle is between ourselves and nature.  We succeed together and we fail together ... and the farm, for all its misery, keeps us alive.

If the gentle reader will forgive me a somewhat further trip around the barn, I want to speak more widely upon the framework of labor as it applies to manufacture.  A farm, after all, is nothing more than the manufacturing of food, drawn from the resource of the soil, the sun, water and the processes of animals other than ourselves.  The medieval farmer had the benefit of being part of every step in the process - as do most farmers today.  As such, it is possible to conceive of the seed transformed into the product, and having the sense of 'ownership' over that transformation.

This is no less true for a smith, a mason or a butcher.  Each, once upon a time, did not merely work from pre-manufactured materials.  The smith would generally start with the ore, separating it from the rock prior to pouring the pure metal into shape from which he could work.  The mason chose his own stone from the mountainside, quarried it, transported it and shaped it as needed for pillars or lintels.  A butcher began with the live cow, slaughtering it himself prior to chopping it down into pieces convenient for sale.

Thus the whole product was transformed by the maker into the made object.  And thus the process retained a humanizing quality - the butcher knew his expertise, and knew the rarity of it.  He, and the mason and the smith, recognized their worth in the world, and chose to weigh that worth against those who would oppress them.  The words "I am a smith" does more than state the man's occupation; it states the man's importance in the fabric of the world, which is the city in which the man lives.  His value is proven by those who come to him for his expertise; what is lost in the world when he passes on is the effect he has upon the lives of others who can no longer rely upon him.

He has pride, then.  He knows what he is, and he knows how the universe 'knows' him.  If the god of his culture were to greet him, that god would greet him as a smith, and the god would expect that man to behave as a smith, having a smith's outlook.

This is an enormously powerful philosophical state of mind to possess.  Taken to its highest extreme, it is theological in its fundamental strength.  Inflexible, yes; but indominatable, too.

The gentle reader will take note that I have been referring to this character as  "he" and "him" ... I do not commonly use masculine designations to refer to all, and I am not doing so here.  I do not refer to women in the above, because women in this same age were viewed as chattel, before the law and before the cosmos - as they are STILL viewed in many parts of the world.  The freedom of women in the west post-dates the Industrial Revolution; as such they are products of that revolution ... and therefore as a gender never did possess the state of mind I have been describing.  I would venture to say, after two and a half centuries of industry, there are very few left in the west who do possess it.

Because you see, reader, it has been taken out of our lives.  Long before the implementation of Taylorism, the process of labor had already been divided between the manufacture of raw materials (smelting, quarrying and stockyarding) and 'manufacturing.'  Stage by stage, the individual steps of the creation process were divided and subdivided, separating the worker from the completed product ... even to the stage where the worker did not ever see the completed project.  Traditionalism was removed.  Celebration and communal pleasure at the success of the product was removed.  Humans were dehumanized, reduced to practices in labor that made them less important to the overall process.

Where once your expertise defined your value, now the simplicity of the task defined your unimportance.  You could not claim any privilege from the community on account of your abilities - you had no abilities that were of any special worth to anyone.  As such, as human you ceased to have any special worth.  As the industrialization of our culture took hold, the destruction of the indominatable state of mind in the first half of this post was stripped away at a faster and faster pace.

This industrial 'Revolution' is different from any other in that it has been achieved against the masses.  We are used to thinking of revolution as something which an oppressed multitude achieves against an oppressing minority; the reverse has happened.  The oppressing minority reduced the capable multitude to the status of incapability.  Despite the luxury that has come from it; despite the medical wonders and the recreation of our living space into something more healthy and safe; the cost has been to remove our will.  This has been the overriding theme of artistry for more than a century ... and no solution has yet been proposed.

This ideal of self achievement through self-controlled creativity is what we have come to define as the 'heroic.'  Every hero in every tale is compelled by the story to seek their own solution to the problem; they cannot rely upon the hive to solve the problem.  This is why so many of our protagonists take the role of the 'lone wolf.'  We view self-reliance and capability as the highest virtue that a protagonist can possess.  Our heroes MUST be portrayed as going it alone ...  only the villains are allowed mooks.  When there are collections of heroes, such as in the recent Avengers movie, they must be such rugged individuals that in-fighting and anger is inherent in the plot.  We would not see them as 'heroic' otherwise.  We view cooperation - or more exactly the need to cooperate - as a weakness.  Any truly able hero does not need anyone.

The reason for this results from the cultural lag that remains following the Revolution.  It also results from the moments in our lives when we HAVE been self-reliant.  We receive far more reward from the gardens in our backyards than we do from our workplace; the hobbies we 'waste' our time on more clearly define us than the recent corporate project in which we've added our plugged-in contribution.  The reader will take note that those who do take pride in their paid-for occupations always do work that allows them to personally control their environment - the lighthouse keeper, the groundskeeper, the sheriff looking after his small county.  The more people doing a particular job, the less important each person becomes - until at last there are ten thousand workers cutting pineapple in a shop in the Philippines, knowing there are forty thousand outside the door ready to take their place.

Try, if you can, to comprehend that the armorer in the shop in your D&D world does not see himself (or herself, since we can extend fantasy, if not medieval reality, to both sexes) as a hero ... but he would act as a hero.  The armorer would view his place in the world heroically ... which is to say that he or she would take personal responsibility for whatever happened there.

I have gone on record as saying that D&D is not about being a hero - and it isn't.  The game simply wasn't constructed for heroes.  Success depends upon plunder, and plunder is not a creative activity.  The game does not reward, especially, creative activities.  It is impossible to truly reward a player who has transformed his heaps of gold into the creation of a cathedral or the management of a kingdom - because there is no way to impart the esoteric quality of these achievements.  Achievement in the game is accomplished by measurement of numbers, and the numbers that are increased are NOT creative measures.  Thus you are forced, eventually, if you wish to succeed at the game, to take actions which dehumanize others ... either by killing them or by the more interesting methods of exploiting them.  You may argue that the creatures you choose to kill happen to be evil and bad - but that is your perspective.  The master of the Industrial Revolution had those exact same thoughts about the workers they dehumanized.  In any case, the game rewards infamy, not heroism.

That said, it is possible to perform heroic acts.  You can be, at the expense of your success, heroic.  You can create, and take as much pleasure as possible from your creations.  You will fail at the game ... but you may enjoy for a little while your general success as a human being.  But I don't think D&D was invented with that in mind.  I don't think it CAN achieve the reward you may hope for.  Thankfully, you don't need D&D for that.

Being human ... having that sense of importance ... is the reason I assembled this blog, completing every stage along the 'line' myself.  It's the reason why anyone does anything that is creative.  This post originates with me and I have the pleasure of enjoying its completion.  It humanizes me ... and thus I have an idea of my importance in the world.

This is invaluable to happiness.


Oddbit said...

What do you think about the possible definitions of 'mercenary' or 'bandit' being those who dehumanize solely for the self and selfish pursuits, while those who are 'heroic' dehumanize to allow others to 'humanize'?

What of those who cut off the head of an invading army throwing the troops into disarray? Or returning captives from some cave? Or looting funds and tomes from bandits to enable a cathedral to be built?

Most games certainly bear a huge element of mercenary and bandit actions, but is it beyond possibility to be heroic by the nature of the game, the world, or the players?

Alexis said...

I think it's possible to redefine words in virtually anyway you wish; it only requires cognitive dissonance.

"The nature of the universe is such that the ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end."
- Aldous Huxley

Arduin said...

After what seemed like an eternity, you're back in full form, and I for one am glad.

I'd worried that the last week's tone meant you were winding down to quit, but I can see you're not through yet.

Keep up the amazing work. It's an inspiration.

Alexis said...

It goes to show, Arduin, how much of my creative juice I direct towards the online campaign when that is running. With it in hiatus until next week, I can direct the extra fluid I have here. I'll remind you that I wrote the 10,000 word post last December ... while the campaign was taking a rest.

I also need to point out I've been going hard on writing of late; so naturally other things have to suffer. This blog did in May and June ... but that is how it goes. I remain the same person with the same interests; I just needed to play with my other toys for a while.

Alexis said...


You left a comment here that I accidentally deleted because blogger has a fuckwit system that I can't get used to.

If you are able to post the previous comment again, I'd appreciate it; the GVCS 50 was interesting - I don't know what engineers would think of its practicality, but it was INTERESTING and I want it back!

Fucking blogger.

Giordanisti said...

Alexis, here is what I can remember of my comment. No worries!

The Global Village Construction Set is a project that seeks to return society to a more fulfilling, skill-based, and independent structure, while maintaining the technological advancement we currently enjoy. The team has identified what they see as the 50 machines that are necessary for civilization, and are working on creating cheap models that could all be owned by members of a single community, allowing for people to once again have the skill to see a product through from raw material to completion. The whole thing feels relevant to this discussion:

Alexis said...

Thanks Giordanisti. Tapped the wrong thing and *poof* gone.