Badass King Ludd

Posted: 21 March 2011 in Uncategorized
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Thomas Pynchon certainly understood the Luddites, as Toby Miller reminds us, and wrote about them in a remarkably prescient essay in 1984.

Now, given that kind of time span, it’s just not easy to think of Ned Lud as a technophobic crazy. No doubt what people admired and mythologized him for was the vigor and single-mindedness of his assault. But the words “fit of insane rage” are third-hand and at least 68 years after the event. And Ned Lud’s anger was not directed at the machines, not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.

There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass. He is usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men for two basic virtues: he Is Bad, and he is Big. Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale. What is important here is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.

The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening — it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs.

Pynchon proceeds to link the nineteenth-century use of the knitting machine to the new twentieth-century technologies, including the factory system of the “Manhattan Project, the German long-range rocket program and the death camps, such as Auschwitz,” nuclear power, and the computer—not to mention “the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.” Were he writing the same essay today, he might also have mentioned the new financial technologies that were going to take capitalism to ever-dizzying heights of prosperity.

Still, Pynchon’s warning retains its validity:

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

Where, we might ask, are the Badass Luddites of our time?

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