The Nervous Origins of the American Western

Notes, Thesis Research

Barbara Will, “The Nervous Origins of the American Western,” American Literature 20, no. 2 (1998): 293-316.

Will looks at the role that neurasthenia played in the development of the idea of the American West, specifically in its literary iteration.

Neurasthenia, as defined by George Beard and Silas Mitchell, was a disease brought on (specifically in men) by the strains of capitalism, political freedom, and technological superiority. These are good things. Modern men needed to maintain a balance, though, and engage in the kind of “struggle” that characterized his ancestors’ experiences on occasion — and they should write about it, according to Mitchell (it’s these writings that the author spends a lot of time analyzing in the second half of the article).

The disease needn’t be cured by a rejection of modernity, capitalism, etc., but rather “through a temporary and repeated entry of the urban into the rural, into a space in which the ‘sturdy contest of nature’ could be waged and these ‘stores of capital vitality’ could be replenished through the simulation of the life of ‘country men.'” (300)

Engineers of Happyland

Summaries & Reviews

Engineers of Happyland, Rudolf Mrázek

         Rudolf Mrázek’s work, clothed in the language of a history of technology, was in fact not a history of technology at all. Instead, Mrázek artfully uses technology to discuss his real interest — nationalism and modernity in the colonial setting. Through the lenses of the ways that people make and do things, and the engineers who help make those decisions, the author is able to capture conceptions and expositions of nationalism, both Dutch and Indonesian. Mrázek’s definition of “technology” is quite broad in this book, including not only the more obvious examples — trains, telephones, and radios — but also cultural technologies like clothing and language. This wide definition is more conducive to an intimate study of the rapidly changing of national identities the people of the Indies underwent in the tumultuous time period Engineers of Happylimaand covers.

This wider definition of technology lends itself to a similarly broad definition of “engineer.” Mrázek’s engineers are engineers in the sense that they are well versed in the technical, and they use this knowledge and the technologies it concerns to create new ways of making and doing. They are not designers of traditional technologies like televisions and computers, however, but focus their energies on engineering society and culture. They are cultural and political leaders, speaking to and promoting what they perceived would lead the Indies in the direction of their particular modern imaginary. Mrs. J. M. T. Catenius was one such engineer, as a writer of a manners and fashion guide; she gave advice on what was culturally and socially acceptable in clothing and manners, thus engineering an aspect of society. Mrázek’s other engineers included novelists, politicians, and other leaders whose ideas about progress and modernity were followed by constituents of the Indies. They often lead others with an eye to modernity, or what they conceived of as a better way to live; shedding light on what was dark, trading ambiguity for certainty and curves for straight lines, humans for machines. These people played important roles in determining how technologies would be used and what sorts of worlds they would create.

A theme of particular importance was that of space between the Dutch and the natives. Whatever technologies the Dutch introduced in an attempt to create a New Holland abroad, a glass house as Mrázek would say, the natives continued to incorporate their own visions of modernity into them, distorting and closing the space between Dutch and native modernity. This harks back to last week and Barak’s work, which also dealt with how colonized populations used the very technology deployed to control or alter them to instead birth a new vision for themselves. Regardless of how the colonizers would have it, the Indies was not the Netherlands, and the natives were not Dutch. What to do with the space in between?

Social and cultural technologies, because they often by definition reside in the communal, proved particular points of contention for the colonizer and the colonized, and thus the space in between them. Roads and railways both required native and colonial bodies to share the same physical space, and both parties brought with them into that space the cultural practices and experiences that defined their origins. Dutch citizens would complain when native grobak carts slowed their progress on the roads; “if you can only teach him… to decently keep to the left side of the road as I am passing by on my motorcycle,” one wrote. (23) The carts’ wheels were bad for the roads, others pointed out.

Equally important in this space, and of particular interest to me, was the perceived space between the bodies of the natives and the Dutch. The native body was viewed as more tolerant of heat in the discussion of air conditioning, and on more than one occasion, was associated with dirt, disease, and feces. An object of much concern with Dutch social engineers was that of the dirtying of the roads by native bodies; their feet brought dirt, and they were prone to defecating in the road. Their ill constructed carts, situated on off-centered axles, “rode over ‘the feces of men, horses, and buffaloes, and made them into dust,’” which was then blown into the homes and businesses that lined the road. The roads, like modern man, needed to be “healed,” H. F. Tillema, a pharmacist and social commentator wrote. In a later work published by the same man, images of natives using their dirty latrines were juxtaposed with images of the clean, Dutch alternative. Natives were dirty and the Dutch were clean.

The native body, and the perceived unregulated Indies more generally, were also heavily associated with disease and contrasted with the “hygienic” practices of the Dutch. The dusty roads mentioned above were blamed for the high infant mortality of the Indies, along with “throat, nose, and lung disorders,” “Typhus,” “Pneumonia,” and other “pathogenic organisms.” The ideal modern road, by contrast, was to be “hard and antiseptic.” (25) Kampongs, low-class native living quarters, were often targeted as the source of epidemics and were contrasted with Dutch bungalows, situated above the city in healthful altitude, termed both “clean and healthy.” (69) The healthfulness of technologies for the European body were also a major selling point in debates about whether they should be implemented; in discussing the importance of air conditioning, the effect of heat on the “mental stamina” of white colonists was considered, and the exclusion of natives in the discussion implied that their bodies were fundamentally different than their native contemporaries’. In creating space between the Dutch and the natives, these commentators stressed the physiological, bodily differences inherent in the two populations. A harder, more concrete distinction can hardly be imagined.

This biological space was supplemented by other distance-inducing recommendations deployed by commentators. One such example is that found in the architecture of the period. In an attempt to maintain their glass houses in the Indies, the Dutch constructed houses higher and higher off of the ground. Even though these structures were ill-suited for the climate — heat rises — they helped to further delineate the Dutch from the native population. These attempts at creating space between colonizer and colonized gave the Dutch and their technologies a sense of “floating,” something that would increasingly contribute to growing dissonance in the eyes of the colonized, who did not use technologies to separate themselves from their colonizers. Instead, “they did not seem intent to build or dismantle any bridges, as they did not seem to be disturbed by any space in between.” (130) Their sense of modernity was not “dirtied” by Dutch interference.

The final three chapters focus on the way that the rising Indonesian nationalist movement deployed these same technologies — social, cultural, and technical — to create their own brand of modernity. Donning European-style clothes, Indonesian dandies encroached on Dutch space by adopting the regalia appropriate to their social standing, which was increasingly closer to that of the colonizer, as a new “substrata” of natives attained college degrees and were employed in office, telegraph, and railway station settings. Mrázek presents the question that most of the Dutch at the time were probably asking; “If a native became clothed as he or she wanted to, would he or she no longer be a native? Wherein, then, would the native belong?” As the colony became more fluid, less easy to categorize and define, these questions became more pressing.

My complaints about Engineers of Happyland are quite similar to the ones I voiced concerning On Barak’s On Time. The timeline is obscured, making some of Mrázek’s arguments harder to follow. His metaphorical language sometimes relied on an understanding of the timeline of Indonesian colonization and independence that I do not have. That being said, it is a fact that, along the lines of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, his strategy for understanding the complexity of the time period he covers is to “loosen time.”

He is also discussing a time of changing political boundaries, and he does very little in the vein of explaining what he means by “the Indies” and “Indonesia.” I realize, however, that the book’s intended audience is probably comprised of scholars already versed in this time period. That being said, if academics focusing on terrain normally excluded from scholarly narratives want their work to hold more importance in the discipline, would it not be advantageous to make such works more accessible to those unfamiliar with the territory?


“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger”

Summaries & Reviews


“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger,” Technology and Culture

            The format of this issue is different in that it starts out with the presentation of a simplistic framework proposed by Peter Norton, and the articles that follow employ that framework and the questions it urges, showing how it does and does not fit into much more nuanced and localized studies of traffic safety. The intellectual outlook is different than what we havefo looked at so far because it analyzes the culture and infrastructure a technology requires; cars would be far less useful and abundant if roads were not built for automotive traffic and laws were not created to regulate its uses and abuses. For the car to be fully accepted into a society, that society must make manifest their approval of it by constructing more than just a culture to surround it — rules, regulations, and infrastructure are all required. By delving into this complicated process, the contributors to this issue have tried to tease apart how and why these cultural and infrastructural pillars were built, and how popular and institutional understandings of the safety or danger of the technology in question have factored into these decisions.

One of the most interesting aspects I found highlighted in a few of the articles was the role that class played in the regulation of roads, cars, and drivers, and thus the socio-cultural acceptance of a technology. Particularly at the beginning of the automobile’s career (Norton’s phase 1 and 2), it was very much a part of male, elite culture — a culture that had and used institutional privilege to hasten the car’s takeover of roads, a public space. While the automobile’s reputation as an inherently dangerous machine prompted hesitancy early on (in the form of lower speed limits and licensure), as Donald Weber’s case in Belgium shows, powerful members of automobile clubs were able to paint a new image of the danger of cars by framing statistical analyses of the issue in a way that would, “shift attention away from motorized traffic and have other means of transportation share the blame.” (402) Lobbyists also used their political clout to push forward punitive safety regulations at the expense of preventative ones. By delegating blame to the driver or the pedestrian — and not the car itself — these men secured its dominion over public roads, even though only 2.5% of Belgians owned a car by 1930. Obviously, the acceptance of the car was not as simple as it being viewed a utilitarian machine capable of improving everyone’s lives. The decisions regarding its cultural and infrastructural inroads into societies, if the case of Belgium is an indicator of more ubiquitous trends, was largely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. I don’t want to get political here, but arguments against gun control in modern-day America contain eerily similar rhetoric and logical fallacy.

The latter half of the issue is largely concerned with how traffic safety policy changed after auto supremacy had been established. Through the framework of Norton’s paradigms, Stève Bernardin and Jameson Wetmore explore the United States’s second and third phases; the second was largely backed by “grassroots” movements instigated and maintained by “motordom” members and safety experts, while the third was a product of government intervention. I was particularly interested in XXX’s piece on automobility in Africa; its discussion of what the Peugeot 404 meant to Africans reminded me of Rieger’s arguments in The People’s Car. Just as Germans had seen an industrial, successful Germany in the Volkswagon Beetle, so Africans saw in the 404 “the speed of Africanization that could remake the colonized subject in the new imaginary of the sovereign African state.” (471) Fancy new (to the user, anyway) artifacts, it seems, often take on whatever “modernity” means to their users. I wonder what the almost ubiquitous link between technology and modernity says about people, and what instances in which this isn’t the case (like the movie Ex Machina, where a rogue technology ends up being a serious problem) say as well.

The primary question I think this issue gets at is: how do we deal with the adverse effects of a pervasive technology? And, more specifically, how can we answer that question when humans have to be factored in as the operators of that technology? In the case of traffic safety, that question has been answered by playing what Claes Tingvall termed the “blame game” in his contribution. When an accident occurs, who is at fault? The machine, the operator, the victim, or the infrastructure? Depending on to whom, where, and when this question was asked, different answers were proposed. How these answers were constructed, argued, and made into concrete changes (be they technical, cultural, or infrastructural) can tell us a lot about latent divisions in a society and about their beliefs about technology, its risks, and its role in their world. I think technologies with infrastructural dimensions like the car give historians a unique opportunity to look at something that has its tendrils in many different areas of life, belief, and culture; this issue proved that through the varied conclusions its contributors were able to draw by employing Norton’s framework and answering the questions he posed.