Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Manufactured Paradise

Our experience of sovereignty suggests that it becomes dangerous when it defines itself exclusively in terms of what is inferior to it, neglecting or ignoring what is superior to it. That is to say that sovereignty is a safe concept only when its place is symmetrically defined. Thus, once, the place of humans was thought to be above the animals and below the angels- between the natural and the divine. Then, by understanding and accepting that human place in the order of things, people could see that their privileges were limited and safe-guarded by certain responsibilities. They could see, moreover, that only evil could be the result of hte transgression of these limits: one could not escape the human condition except sinfully, by pride or by degradation.
The growth of what is called the Modern World has been, by turns, both the cause and the effect of the destruction of that old sense of universal order. The most characteristically modern behavior, or misbehavior, was made possible by a redefinition of humanity which allowed it to claim, not the sovereignty of its place, neither godly nor beastly, in the order of things, but rather an absolute sovereignty, placing the human will in charge of itself and of the universe.
And having thus usurped the whole Chain of Being, conceiving itself, in effect, both creature and creator, humanity set itself a goal that in those circumstances was fairly predictable: it would make an Earthly Paradise. This projected Paradise was no longer that of legend: the lost garden that might be rediscovered by some explorer or navigator. This new Paradise was to be invented and built by human intelligence and industry. And by machines. For the agent of our escape from our place in the order of Creation, and of our godlike ambition to make a Paradise, was the machine- not only as instrument, but even more powerfully as metaphor. Once, the governing human metaphor was pastoral or agricultural, and it clarified, and so preserved in human care, the natural cycles of birth, growth, death, and decay. But modern humanity's governing metaphor is that of the machine. Having placed ourselves in charge of Creation, we began to mechanize both the Creation itself and our conception of it. We began to see the whole Creation merely as raw material, to be transformed by machines into a manufactured Paradise.
And so that machine did away with mystery on the one hand and multiplicity on the other. The Modern World would respect the Creation only insofar as it could be used by humans. Henceforth, by definition, by principle, we would be unable to leave anything as it was. The usable would be used; the useless would be sacrificed in the use of something else. By means of the machine metaphor we have eliminated any fear or awe or reverence or humility or delight or joy that might have restrained us in our use of the world. We have indeed learned to act as if our sovereignty were unlimited and as if our intelligence were equal to the universe. Our "success" is a catastrophic demonstration of our failure. The industrial Paradise is a fantasy in the minds of the privileged and the powerful; the reality is a shambles.
-Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 55-56.

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