No Center and No Past

Americans are obsessed with individualism.  We often see ourselves as entirely self-directed, autonomous beings.  All that we do is the result of our own choices and desires.  This is a superficial sense of individualism.  Moreover, it defies reality.

In America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings, historian David Nye analyzes a recurring set of narratives about western settlement and progress that Americans created as they moved westward in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In these narratives, rugged and virtuous individuals entered into a wilderness and then employed some single and indispensable technology to transform that wilderness into a productive landscape from which a prosperous and egalitarian community arose. In the earliest narratives, an individual entered a forest with an axe to clear the trees to make way for a small farm. Later, companies and engineers laid out railroads across vast plains, with settlers following along behind.

Americans built these narratives, Nye argues, on the foundation of several beliefs that emerged with the American Revolution. Of greatest importance was the projection of a grid onto the western lands. Thomas Jefferson, as an Enlightenment philosopher, developed a rational and systematic plan for the settlement of the West. The new US government would survey perfect square-mile squares onto the ground and then sell off the lots. Not only was this rational and systematic, but it promote Jefferson’s ideal of an Agrarian republic consisting of independent farmers scattered across a vast “Empire of Liberty”.

This grid projected the illusion of equality, with each square the same as every other. This, of course, ignored the presence of hills, streams, deserts, and everything else that made every inch of the landscape unique. The grid also individualized settlement, distributing people evenly across a landscape instead of clustering them around a community center with their fields surrounding the towns. The grid erased the past of the landscape, pretending that the land had never before been used and that no one had ever lived there. People obviously knew that Indians lived further west, but Americans generally assumed that they would somehow just disappear in the face of progress.

From this grid there was to emerge an egalitarian landscape with, as Nye describes it, “no center and no past”. It would provide Americans with a clean slate from which to invent themselves. All that was required was the application of some tool to perfect the landscape and make it productive. God had made the landscape, but he made it imperfect to encourage us to struggle. In doing so, we engaged in a “second creation” and brought about a second Eden.

Nye argues that these narratives and the assumptions underlying them continue to shape how Americans think about numerous issues. One of the things that his story draws out for me is that apparent lack of respect that Americans have for the force of history. Perhaps it’s easy to imagine how a people with such narratives and assumptions could believe that they could, by overthrowing Iraq’s government, create a clean slate for the country and then engage in a second creation to instantly produce a liberal democracy for a group of peoples who have never had one and who each have different histories and traditions. But history doesn’t matter on the grid.

While there are certainly many counter narratives to this, we Americans often see ourselves, as individuals, as clean slates as well. We are as abstract, equal, and ahistorical as the grid. We are all self-made. There is no need to recognize any forces operating on us to shape us into who we are. History doesn’t matter.

But I find this individualism to be hollow.  We are shaped by and not independent of our histories and relationships.  How can you understand the forces shaping you when you don’t recognize their existence. Traditional ideas of self, on the other hand, presupposed an individual with a history. Before the American revolution, the colonists in British North America knew that their rights, for example, came from their history. They didn’t have certain unalienable rights that were independent of history; their rights came from being free-born English who had inherited their rights through the accomplishments of their ancestors. History did matter.

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One Response to No Center and No Past

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