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Blog

These Are the Implements of Our Lives

Howard Schaap

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyPhsD1vHGk[/embed] You know the sound if you’ve heard it once. In spring, in my small-town housing development, the tree-trimmers come around to tidy up the neighborhood, to make sure it keeps that suburban feel, and the tree-chipper gets tuned to its high pitch, then grinds instantaneously down to a lower key as tree branches turn poof to mulch. It is by definition Leo Marx’s “machine in the garden”: that technological dynamo which disrupts the pastoral of our lives and forces us to a deeper complexity. But does it? Wood chipper, chain saw, lawn mower — these are what the suburban landscapes of our lives are built on. Where’s the rub?

When you hear the wood chipper in Fargo, you know it, and you know it’s not good, even though you laugh.

* * *

The community up the road from where I live — where my wife works and one of the most diverse communities per capita in the state of Minnesota — is built to a great degree on the meat-industry. I live in the heart of the conventional agriculture country, where the daily deaths of thousands of cattle and hogs are the backbone of our communities. We’re not exactly naïve about the death that gives us life in these communities, yet the meat-packing industry happens behind closed doors.

It took Javier Bardem toting a cattle gun through the Texas countryside in No Country for Old Men for me to consider the efficiency of mass-slaughter.

* * *

One might argue that the microphone is the most significant cultural icon of the twentieth-century. Late century musicians and entertainers from U2 to David Letterman fell in love with the old-timey mikes when they came across them. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it’s the old-timey mike that saves Everett, Pete and Delmar, as their golden notes get transformed into their popular salvation.

Likewise Inside Llewyn Davis opens with a romantic shot of an old-timey mike, as Llewyn steps up to croon into it. Llewyn’s odyssey, however, leads him near the film’s end to sing for a famous producer — without a mike. When the producer gives Davis the thumbs down, it’s clear that the Soggy Bottom Boys are the exception that proves the rule. The cultural gatekeepers weed out many more Llewyns than they let through. The only instrument of mass production that will preserve the song for us is the Coens’ movie camera.

* * *

We live in a world with weapons of mass destruction; we live in a world with drones, and they’re coming to better our lives. We live in a world with so many ingenious devices, and these devices insulate us, keep blood off our hands, flatten and filter our experience. What helps us to see them anew but art? What else reminds us of our humanity, of the place we inhabit between beauty and utility and complexity? What have you seen or read recently that’s given you new eyes for the implements of our lives?