Friday, April 27, 2012

The Sword in the Stone: In Defense of Instruments

"Anything can be a weapon, if you are holding it right"
Save Our City, Ludo

The Baby and the Bath Water

That quote reflects my feeling at times regarding many of the systems, technologies, and methodologies which we critique as scholars. This is not to say that I am not opposed to the mass manufacturing of guns, or any tool designed primarily for violent ends, but we often times pin ethical judgement and responsibility on the weapon instead of the wielder (or the wielding).  This may just as much be true of the instrumentality of people or the forces that run in, through, and around us that direct our actions, but choices (however contingent our powers are to make them) are nonetheless made.

I invoke this less to call judgement down upon persons, for lashing out against the broken thing that we call our bodies is perhaps yet another misused tool, but in frustration for how often we unleash our vengeance upon our non-human proxies? How many times have I seen otherwise innocuous objects banned from my school because someone used it towards destructive ends? How many times have I seen important projects fail because one of its proponents act out?

Objects, networks, bodies demand choices; or if you are uncomfortable with ethics, perhaps you could say they nonetheless make us responsible for more. Capitalism has made my going to the store to buy food have ramifications on workers in South America. The internet has made comments that I punch out from my cell-phone have impacts on readers in Russia.

And yes, there are better and worse networks and objects (like guns) whose effects are overwhelmingly hurtful. One of our decisions may be to beat our weapons into plows. We need to let go of some forms, some possibilities, in order to allow for others to take shape. But just like I can rarely get excited at the idea of an execution, I often feel repulsed when conversations turn to throwing the bathwater away with the baby. It may be that some of us still need to wash our hands clean or fill ourselves on the only available drink, however tainted it may be.


The Sword in the Stone

I have often been drawn to the image drawn from different Medieval texts, such as the sword in the stone or the instruments of war hanging as decorations on the wall, but also active today perhaps in the image of the locked weapon case. True, this might as well be the gallery commemorating or forecasting someone else's Hell. Personally, part of the draw for me is the sense of horror. I wonder what horror would make this the lesser.

Why would we ever need these instruments of death? Could the sword ever be drawn from the stone without signalling the beginning of a tyrant? Could the spears come down from the wall without meaning the genocide of the marginalized? Could a gun case remain closed until an actual intruder threatens to lives of our children and no other option is really available to us? Monarchies, war, and death are instruments which may open up many goods and lives.

Someone much wiser or else more foolish than I would likely be the one to unlock these instruments of our destruction, I hope. But just as I do chose to compromise, justify, or ignore the consequences of many of my choices (who I vote for, what products I buy, systems I perpetuate) I know there may be times in which I am given a reason, a weapon, and pointed in a direction to use tools in ways which I would otherwise criticize, even condemn.

In that case, perhaps foolishly, I would hope to remember mercy and hope for it when justice may rightly wish my own destruction. In the same way, I look upon the gun hanging on the wall at the opening of the play and wonder if by the end of the first act, there might be an unimaginable, but good reason for it to go off.

Until that reason presents itself, however, I hope the gun stays where it is hanging on the wall. May the sword remain in the stone until the good King comes; if ever.


"A few people laughed; A few people cried; Most people were silent"
Robert Oppenheimer on reactions after the Trinity nuclear test

Perhaps it is the Medievalist in me, or something else, but I often like old, seemingly broken, or discarded things. Getting old things fired up again to see how they work and may open up new opportunities or alternatives to the new factory standardized tools which proliferate around me is a real joy. Someone, at some point, got some good use out of this, or thought it might do some good, and maybe it can again (or for the very first time). Maybe it was waiting until now to find a purpose. (Of course this reduces objects to my instrumental use of them, but this post is about ethics of use, so I am going to be a bit human-centric for the moment.)

Most of what I work in now is discourses, ways of thinking, stories, and theories which by today's standards are ridiculous, unscientific, out-dated, even a little ugly. On first glance I actually get a lot of positive responses on being a medievalist from my friends and family. It is the second glance that can be the killer; when I tell them I am doing a paper on humoral theory or alchemy, etc. That's when they want to know why I'd spend time becoming an expert in something which is so pointless. Of course, this becomes great motivation to demonstrate (often time by mixing it with post-modern theories or technologies, and a little of my own innovation, or those of my colleagues) how useful these old discourses can be.

But, and now I turn to the title/quote of this section, what about discourses that people would rather not continue. Looking to Catholic writing for ideas after various events, such as the Inquisition or the Crusades, or looking to Nazi writing for ideas after WW2 (which has often been done in medicine, for instance) often shut down conversations. Some people laugh, some people cry, but a lot of people remain silent. Discourses have had horrible consequences, which often remain as active violence or open wounds today. As a result, we, in academics, for instance, often time do not want to utilize them. They are tainted. "They have caused to much suffering" as Deleuze and Guattari say of trees, in their rallying cry for the rhizome.

That is not to say that every discourse need continue or everyone need share in it. Sadly, and I may get flack for this, but everyone should probably not be a medievalist. Let the modernist be a modernist, so I can be more emphatically non-modern. May the scientist be a scientist and care less about philosophy or theory, so I can look over her shoulder and philosophize and theorize about what she is doing. It is however frustrating, and this comes with starting many different kinds of conversations, in and out of academics, in and out of medieval studies, when you want to talk to people about something, and there is a general shaking of the head and a quick change of topic. "That is so last year" or "Was that ever a good idea?" or "We aren't having that conversation now" or "Too soon, too soon."

Academics with their discourses, like many historians and their artifacts, are often left alone with their things, even among each other. Of course, that is part of the nature of the profession. If you keep on working on your weird, discarded projects, some day people may take interest or find a need for it, and then suddenly, you are the supplier or else the founder of discourse. Of course, if you are a medievalist, you may know that you are not necessarily the one who started it, you just held on to it, while everyone else threw theirs away and got the new model.


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