Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Formal Blog #2 Lyotard & Hank Morgan

“There were no stoves yet, and so there could be nothing serious about stove-polish. All that the agent needed to do was to deftly and by degrees prepare the public for the great change, and have them established in predilections towards neatness against the time when the stove should appear upon the stage.” (Twain 175).

“This obviously has nothing to do with tabula rasa, with what Descartes (vainly) wanted to be a starting from scratch on the part of knowing – a starting that paradoxically can only be a starting all over again. In what we call thinking the mind isn’t ‘directed’ but suspended. You don’t give it rules. You teach it to receive.” (Lyotard 19).

In A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Twain’s main character, Hank Morgan, immediately begins to apply his 19th century values and knowledge to his new home, 6th century England. Almost as quickly, he realizes that he possesses a great power and opportunity, for he not only knows what the future holds – he can use his knowledge to bring the technology of the 19th century to “Olde England” and re-shape the entire culture in America’s image – effectively changing history. At least that is Morgan’s plan.

Morgan begins to educate small, select portions of King Arthur’s kingdom in the arts of contemporary (19th century) warfare, communications and social theory (i.e. the glories of revolution). He creates a secret primary school, as well as a military school, and begins to lay wires for a comprehensive communication system that will connect all of the larger communities within the kingdom. He uses his superior scientific knowledge to perform “great miracles” in predicting eclipses, repairing wells and generally blowing things up to ensure his role as a leader and advisor within Arthur’s court. Morgan sends out knightly emissaries to spread messages regarding tooth care, house-cleaning, soap and stove-polish to the great unwashed masses in the kingdom (even though, as the excerpt above notes, there are no stoves as of yet for the population to be cleaning.) He does all of these things to execute his plan to create “first, a modified monarchy, till Arthur’s days were done, then the destruction of the throne, nobility abolished, every member of it bound out to some useful trade, universal suffrage instituted, and the whole government placed in the hands of the men and women of the nation, there to remain” (Twain 280).

What Morgan takes for granted, and a problem that in another context Lyotard’s essay cautions against, is the belief that Morgan’s new “blank canvas” (Olde England) with the application of 19th century technologies, will develop into a new, glorious version of 19th century America with himself in a leadership (if not the leadership) position or, at the very least, those he believes worthy of leadership roles. Hank looks at himself as the guiding force, to bring these unwashed, ignorant “children” into the light and liberty of 19th century America. If Hank is unable to travel forward in time to return home – then he will bring England into the future with rapid deployment of his troops, emissaries and technologies. But how can he be sure that this path will be the one taken? How can he be certain that the stove polish will actually have a purpose?

After all, Hank has a sense of how he thinks society should evolve but these people are not 19th century Americans who have debated and been indoctrinated in the idea of human freedom, democracy and liberty for over 100 years. These are people who have been beaten down, indoctrinated by the Church, and who suffer under a king and a aristocracy that determines every portion of their lives.

Lyotard’s article emphasizes the wide variety of factors that go into making a body capable of thought. He explores issues surrounding pain, suffering, gendered experiences, intuition and how all of these elements influence thought. If one were to apply this to Hank’s master plan, it is easy to see what Hank is missing from the picture. This country, at this particular time, has experiences, circumstances, and elements that are unique to it – just as 19th century America had elements that were unique to its development, economically, technically and socially. Applying American technological advances to 6th century England does not guarantee that Hank will be able to create a utopia. The 6th century populations may decide not to follow the “rules” he lays out.

Lyotard writes that, “Words, phrases in the act of writing, the latent nuances and timbres at the horizon of a painting or a musical composition as it’s being created all lend themselves to us for the occasion and yet slip through our fingers” (Lyotard 18). It seems likely that despite Hank Morgan’s best intentions this dream to create a new utopian society will also likely slip through his fingers. The people that live in the 6th century are not “blank slates” (Descartes’ tabula rasa) instead they are products of their times who will react to Morgan’s technologies in a way that is appropriate to their experiences and in a way (which one would suspect) that Morgan will be unable to predict.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Outstanding post - I wish I'd been sentient enough to respond to it last week. Ah, well.

One small thing I wanted to add was this observation: the funny thing is that Hank _understands_ that these people aren't just blank slates. He repeatedly asserts that education & training literally make the man - there is nothing else there. He's in this curious position where he recognizes that training is everything, yet believes that any training other than his training is simultaneously nothing...

You do clever things with Lyotard here - it's a tough text, and you make it work for you well.