America (not the Church) as the New Creation
by Ken Myers
Cultural historian David E. Nye has written a number of books exploring the ways in which the Cartesian ideal of becoming “like masters and possessors of nature” took shape in American social and political history. One of those volumes is America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (MIT Press, 2003). The narratives he explores are national narratives, stories of the meaning of America and its origins “with America conceived as a second creation built in harmony with God’s first creation.”
“Americans constructed technological foundation stories primarily to explain their place in the New World, not to understand the technologies. A new machine acquired social meaning when placed in a context and used for some purpose. A small number of technical experts may have understood a particular steam engine is the practical expression of experiments and equations; however, the passenger on a steamboat or a train comprehended it first as a novel experience of noise, power, and movement, and later as a dynamic part of a larger narrative about American expansion and progress, but probably never in terms of thermodynamics. . . .
“Most nineteenth-century Americans believed in a deceptively simple story in which the natural world was incomplete and awaited fulfillment through human intervention. Being incomplete, the land needed technological improvements that would express the pattern latent in it. The transformations Americans envisioned were thought of less as violations of nature than as useful improvements.” Nye cites a passage from an essay by John Greenleaf Whittier in which the New England poet claims that “nature . . . seems to have had an eye to the useful rather than the picturesque.”
Whittier’s confidence in the propriety of limitless manipulation of nature for the satisfaction of human desires was not a uniquely American preoccupation but is characteristic of the modern spirit of aspiring toward a of total control of nature (nature assumed to be meaningless until mastered by Man), an aspiration most ominously examined by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man.
Nye continues: “The persistent desire to assimilate nature to a second technological creation was the central feature of technological foundation stories. In each case, popular narratives explained how Americans were using new tools and machines to assimilate nature. These stories describe the creation of new social worlds, ranging from frontier settlements to communities based on irrigation. In each case, a new form of society based on successful exploitation of a new technology became possible. The stories were central to the new nation’s perception of history and geography, which is to say its perception of time and place.
“Technological foundation stories also provided a framework for the individual’s ‘pursuit of happiness.’ They were narratives of abundance that emerged during the period of Enlightenment and were actualized during industrialization. To put it another way: These stories emerged when new machines, notably railways and textile mills, exceeded the power of humans, draft animals, or simple grist mills. A surplus of mechanical force was taken to be axiomatic, making possible new landscapes, boomtowns, sudden profits, personal success, and national progress. For most Americans, the foundational belief in naturally abundant power described (and was inseparable from) a laissez-faire ideology in which the self-reliant individual had only to exert himself in order to rise in the world. This story flourished in the nineteenth century in many forms. It continues to resonate powerfully with the American public despite the increasing awareness of and environmental limits to growth.”
An excerpt from another book by David E. Nye — Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (MIT Press, 2006) — is available here.