maintaining the pastoral | the machine in the garden

In my previous description on the maintenance of the pastoral typology (the Arcadian, the Virgillian, the middle landscape), my thought may have come off a little too linear: I am not actually crediting the gulf stream with British imperialism and the American suburb via wool fashion (although it surely helped their navy). My intention is to expand maintenance beyond the tools at hand (in this case the sheep, or the domestication of the sheep for that matter), to the full range of components of that landscape as an object, and perhaps a hyper-object, considering it’s extended reign over western civilization. For analysis of the pastoral, we can turn to the dozens of serious and accomplished academics of whom I am grotesquely abbreviating. And with that I would like to turn to Leo Marx and his classic, “The Machine in the Garden: technology and the pastoral ideal in America,” which remains as relevant today as it when it was published 50 years ago–and the two centuries of history it covers before that.

The famous 1855 painting by George Inness of The Lackawanna Valley, representing the unification of the pastoral and mechanized landscapes

The famous 1855 painting by George Inness of The Lackawanna Valley, representing the unification of the pastoral and mechanized landscapes

In charting the intellectual, political and economic transition (or fusion) of Jeffersonian agrarianism to 19th century industrialism, Marx stakes out the dialectic of rural idyll and technological advancement that is in a process of perpetual rationalization in American culture. As our culture of progress continues to industrialize modernize this land that endows its citizens with those distinct American values, we attempt to “pastoralize the industrial” modern in our state of alienation. And as we enter a period of ecological modernization, attempting to tally every ecosystem service and offset every ton of carbon, the machine and the garden will remain present, hopelessly intertwined along with our alienation.

“The rhetoric of the technological sublime [brings] in a sense of cosmic harmony, suggesting an obscure kinship between… machine power and the progressive forces of history,” and these visions of the technological sublime are omnipresent in contemporary, speculative architecture – although now they are paired with the Virgillian fields of community gardens, algae and aqua-culture. Beyond any perceived cynicism is an identification of a middle-landscape ideal that transcends “the pastoral” yet serves the same function: the construction of a cultivated nature which balances the dissonance of a new technological order and unifies the exterior and interior human condition. The pastoral has served as compensatory for the mechanization of modern life, where it now lives as laptop wallpaper, fundamentally transformed through its own modernization.

Designing the [new] middle landscape remains a legitimate pursuit, but it now requires a detailed understanding of the logic of the technology that defines it rather than the nostalgia for a premodern vernacular utopia. The productive capacity of this landscape is essential to its identity in order to achieve a middle-ground between “progress” and “values” or else it becomes nothing more than a sterile image of escape. This tension is germane to the American cultural landscape, and what better place to experiment than the nation of the garden city?

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