The Garden in the Machine


I’m writing from a shady patch of Fort Greene Park, where the city has entered those breezy, not-too-humid first weeks of summer. I have Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden in front of me and I’m watching the planes glide overhead toward LaGuardia. It’s a rare corner of green in New York: a funny spot to be reading about “technology and the pastoral ideal in America.”

I picked up the book because my brain is still on this kick with “internet prehistory.” If the metaphor of the network helps us make sense of today’s social world, I was curious how languages of landscape and industrial technology did the same in the early United States.

So far I’ve really enjoyed how Marx grounds his intellectual history in the physical environment. The garden in the title refers to what he calls the “pastoral ideal,” an image of rural harmony imported from European literary tradition that becomes the predominant symbol of American society. This scene had plenty of metaphorical expressions – linking the young Republic to the virtues of classical poetry, for example – but it was also a blueprint for the growth of the nation. “Beginning in Jefferson’s time,” he writes, “the cardinal image of American aspirations was a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size.”

George Inness, “The Lackawanna Valley”

Marx spends most of the book on the entry of the “machine” into this landscape. Instead of reacting with trauma, he shows how literary thinkers and politicians assimilated industrial technology into the pastoral scene by embracing narratives of progress. Romantics like Emerson and even Jefferson expressed unqualified excitement about industry’s potential to augment the exceptional gifts of the American setting. This is where the literal image of “the machine in the garden” looms large, in many cases showing the locomotive as a canonical element of an American Eden. The quasi-nostalgic set-up “brings the political and psychic dissonance associated with the onset of industrialism into a single pattern of meaning,” one which shifts the pastoral ideal toward a more symbolic role.

Does any of this sound familiar? I’m interested not only in how this encounter has repeated itself over time, but how the terms of the equation have changed as technology diffuses further into the environment. Instead of “the machine in the garden,” today we might talk about “the garden in the machine,” or even say that “the garden is the machine.”

Think about the Whole Earth Catalog, for example, and you can see some of these parts shifting around. In cybernetics and information theory we get a deep sense of identification between natural and artificial systems (one that builds on the Enlightenment model of the universe as a mechanism). From the countercultural milieu of Silicon Valley we get an update of the transcendental worldview for the Cold War era. Here the virtual landscape is emerging as a world unto itself, but we can still say of someone like Stewart Brand what Marx observes of Emerson: “What perplexes us here is [his] ability to join enthusiasm for technological progress with a ‘romantic’ love of nature and contempt for cities. The characteristic starting point of his thought is withdrawal from society in the direction of ‘nature’ - a pastoral impulse.”

This stuff feels trickier to pull apart in 2019, maybe because we occupy a virtual environment that’s pretty much co-extensive with the physical one. We still have a strong preoccupation with the urban-rural divide, but the pastoral ideal takes on new definitions as the metaphorical network becomes more pervasive.For some reason I’m totally fixated on the ways that social media creators wrestle with this question of autonomy in their lifestyle content. Starting around 2016, the online minimalism movement repackaged transcendentalism as a combination of limited consumption habits, a new concept of domestic space, and a priority on meaningful personal relationships and online content. Back-to-the-land culture is having also having an online revival among people like permaculture (a.k.a “permie”) youtubers and “modern homesteaders,” most of whom are more committed to actually farming than Jefferson ever was. Even a group as cosmopolitan as the “digital nomad” class fits into the pastoral ideal as Emerson described it, since its members aim to resolve independence and self-actualization with globalization. These “creators” resemble Emerson’s (highly elitist) vision of “the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole, — re-attaching even artificial things and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight.”

The phrase that I keep returning to is what Marx calls the “American moral geography.” He writes that “the contrast between ‘city’ and ‘country’” is best understood not as a spatial demarcation, but “as an analogue of psychic experience. It implies that we can remain human, which is to say, fully integrated beings, only when we follow some such course, back and forth, between our social and natural (animal) selves.” It’s in this sense, I think, that networked technology resembles the industrial order of the 19th century or the media ecology of the 20th. Not as an artifact from which we can distance ourselves, but as an environment in which we are thoroughly entangled with ideologies, with histories, and with living and non-living systems.

Here’s what else I’m consuming this week:

Thanks for reading!

In repose,