My second collaborator was Sondra Bacharach, a Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy Programme at Victoria University whose research is in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Sondra’s speed and ability to make connections between my tangential ideas was a thing of beauty. Our conversations were reciprocally fertile in growing new leads and our mutual admiration for the others’ skill – her’s in building links between ideas and then directing me to research and methods for developing ideas further and mine for turning the ideas we developed, into objects.
One article that influenced and informed my thinking was Donovan Hohn’s, A romance of rust – Nostalgia, progress, and the meaning of tools (2005). (Harper’s Magazine, January, 45-51,54-63.) A more concise version of basically the same article exists at this site: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/lines-work/lost-tools (down loadable from the web). This article includes many of the concepts that gave voice to the research behind my work and I’ve included some excerpts;
“Nowadays things are almost obsolete before they leave the drawing board,” Eric Sloane, the seminal romancer of antique tools, observed almost fifty years ago. “How lucky we are that so many of the old tools and the things that were made with them were dated and touched with the craftsman’s art.” Sloane believed that the value of a thing should be a measure of its quality, much as reputation was once the measure of one’s soul. My generation, more narcissistic but also more jaded than his, treasures most the consumerist dross we remember from childhood, irrespective of its inherent worth. In our collecting we are autobiographers, not connoisseurs. I find myself wondering how long it will take before that ink-jet printer escapes the dog pond and ascends to the ranks of the collectible.
Today we refer to anything useful, from computer programs to ideas, as tools. This was not always the case. In antebellum America the word “tool” denoted an implement that could make one thing at a time. Reconstruction-era industrialization broadened the meaning of the word to include any implement involved in the manufacture of a product, necessitating the coinage of the term “hand tool” to distinguish traditional implements from what came to be known as machines. The difference between these two mechanical species, it seems to me, may be more a matter of culture than of engineering. Machines are both the rival and the antithesis of humanity. In their complexity they resemble us. In their simplicity (all those moving parts, and yet no Oedipus complex, no withdrawal symptoms, no fear of death, no ecstasy), they are monstrous—or as William Blake put it, “satanic.” Machines are largely autonomous and threaten us with obsolescence, whereas a tool is nothing without us.
“Like the nails on a beast’s paws,” Eric Sloane writes, “the old tools were so much an extension of a man’s hand or an added appendage to his arm, that the resulting workmanship seemed to flow directly from the body of the maker and to carry something of himself into the work.” Although Sloane was an antiunionist libertarian, on the meaning of tools he and the author of the Communist Manifesto agree. “In his work,” writes Karl Marx, “[the laborer] does not affirm himself but denies himself.” For the most serious tool aficionados, or “galoots,” as they sometimes call themselves, the hegemony of mind and machine over hand and matter entails an estrangement more profound even than the one Marx imagined, an estrangement not only from self but from time. For them, old tools are relics of a mythic past, but they are also antidotes to automation, standardization, acceleration, infantilization, and to the docile brand of utopianism that holds all change to be progress.
Once upon a time, we referred to all forms of manufacturing (a Latinate word for “making by hand”) as “the arts,” and once upon a time all artists, manual as well as fine, could find meaning in their work. “There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human being: the need to make,” the poet Frank Bidart observed in a sequence of poems devoted to the topic of making. “The culture in which we live honors specific kinds of making (shaping or misshaping a business, a family) but does not understand how central making itself is as manifestation and mirror of the self, fundamental as eating or sleeping.” The worship of old tools arises, I have begun to suspect, from the epidemic frustration of this need.
That’s one explanation. There is also, I think, something deeply and peculiarly American about the worship of old tools. History tends to memorialize great change, which, technologically speaking, means great inventions. Tools are inherently conservative and humble artifacts. Their history is largely tangential, written in the margins—of warfare, architecture, economics, religion. Inventions are the generals, the geniuses, the monarchs of history; tools are the commoners, the craftsmen, the serfs. Here, then, is another reason old tools have become Americana. At once democratic and utilitarian, individualistic and traditional, they resemble us. They are technological leaves of grass. Wrenches and planes are to American civilization what amphoras and urns were to the ancient Greeks, common artifacts the ubiquity and durability of which attest to their cultural importance and ensure that they will last. Like the Grecian urn in John Keats’ ode, they are the foster children of silence and slow time. Long after the mills crumble into the millponds and the cornfields sprout subdivisions, long after the sweatshops are condemned and the machines sold off as scrap, tools remain.
Excellent if you’ve hung in this far; then Hohn finishes with ideas around Henry David Thoreau’s words, when men become “the tools of their tools”. An idea I would like to continue exploring in my work.
I was also intrigued by American historian Henry Mercer’s, tool classification system below. Mercer funded construction of the important Pennsylvanian pre-industrial tool museum – The Mercer Museum (amazing images – https://www.mercermuseum.org) through his successful tile manufacturing business also in the early 1900s.