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Tuesday, March 26, 2013


I am so stressed out about really important things over which I have no control, like income inequality and global warming and the Supreme Court's forthcoming decisions on Prop 8 and DOMA, that I have decided to deal with the stress by a time-tested technique -- denial.  Today I shall blog about something that has absolutely no connection to any of these important issues [save in the most etiolated and indirect fashion], but which has intrigued me for a long time, namely the extent to which even the simplest things we have or do are so deeply integrated into the history of the human species that it would be impossible fully to explicate even one of them without evoking an entire culture.

I shall choose as my example the humongous knife that John Rambo carries with him in First Blood, the original [and far and away the best] of the Rambo movies.  For the handful of you who are unfamiliar with it, Rambo's knife is a really scary looking object with a wide blade, a razor sharp edge, serrations on the opposite edge, and even a little receptacle in the handle with a screw top from which at one point he extracts a needle and thread to sew up a deep cut he has sustained [without anaesthesia, needless to say.]

I have often thought it would be fun, albeit very, very hard, to teach an entire college course devoted simply to tracing out every single bit of technical information and every single social relationship or cultural practice that is presupposed by the existence of that knife.  The more you think about it, the more you realize how deeply embedded that knife is in our material culture [as anthropologists call it] and in our social elations of production [in Marx's lingo.]

Let us start just with the stuff of which the knife is made.  The blade is steel, we may suppose.  Steel is made from iron combined with carbon and other elements.  A quick scan of the Wikipedia article on steel gives us some sense not only of the wide range of techniques used for making steel of different sorts but also of the history of the discovery of those techniques, going back as much as four thousand years.

So to begin with, we need iron ore, which must be smelted to extract the iron.  This in turn presupposes that we know everything that is required to find usable iron ore [how many of us, sent out into the world without directions, would have the foggiest idea where to look for iron ore, or even how to recognize it when we found it?]  Unless we plan to scrabble the ore out of the earth with our fingers and toes, we will need to know about shovels -- what they are, how to make them, how to get the wood and other materials from which they are made, how to make something in which to carry the iron ore, how to make fire, how hot a fire we need for smelting, what sort of container one uses to smelt iron ore, and so on and on.

Pretty soon, it will become obvious that no single person is going to be able to carry out every step required to produce steel, to produce the materials from which steel is made, to produce the tools and equipment used in turning iron ore into steel, to make the equipment that is required to make the equipment and tools used, and so forth.  In short, we are going to have to rely on some sort of social structure involving the division of labor and exchange of products.

And all of this, which could be extended almost indefinitely, is just what is required to produce John Rambo's knife.

The point of this exercise, of course, would be to establish definitively that no human being makes anything or does anything alone.  Even the simplest implements require for their production an elaborate network of functional differentiations, dependencies, and reciprocities that implicates an entire civilization.  No individualist fantasy -- not the John Galt nonsense of  Ayn Rand, not the quintessentially American myth of the Mountain Man, not the equally absurd Romantic myth of the lonely creative artist -- can stand against the manifest impossibility of explaining even the existence of something as simple as a knife without collaboration of all humanity.

It would be a lot of work to develop such a course, drawing as it would on so many different disciplines and bodies of specialized knowledge, but it would be a wonderful educational instrument.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I, Pencil would be somewhat more exciting if told in this fashion.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Probably so. My son, Patrick, gave me a fascinating book some while ago that tells the story, in a series of chapters, of the invention of a number of familiar things, starting with the paper clip. The pop-top soda can was a real problem -- making it easy to pop up without it being likely to just blow up. It always amuses me that the people who talk so dismissively of "makers" and "takers" in American society are the ones who in fact have never made anything.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Well, "I, Pencil" is a favorite of market-defenders; Milton Friedman liked to refer to it. It's true that there are Randians who sometime talk as if production is completely carried out by lone heroic individuals, but most supporters of market capitalism affirmatively celebrate the division of labor.

While it's a shallow economist's reading of Adam Smith that only makes it through the first three chapters of WN, they are pretty important...

Magpie said...


The post below makes a similar point, but in relation to science and technology:

Tesla and the lone inventor myth

The author speculates about the cause of this phenomenon.

In the field of science and technology, where ideas can be patented, the myth may have immediate financial implications.

The author mentions the Apple Inc. vs Samsung spat over the iPad design.

The article links, as well, to a YouTube video showing iPad-like devices in Stanley Kubrick's 1969 "2001. A Space Odyssey" and a similar device dating from 1994 by a firm called Knight Rider!

In the economic sphere, I've seen this referred to as the "Superman theory of investment"! Cool, uh?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Magpie, very nice. One of the many delights of the Internet is its repeated demonstration that virtually anything you have thought of has not already been thought of by others but probably has acquired a name. Whic reinforces the message of my little blog post.