She [the Minerva] floats only because boys mind her pumps all the time, she remains upright and intact only because highly intelligent men never stop watching the sky and the seas around her.  Every line and sail decays with visible speed, like snow in daylight, and men must work ceaselessly worming, parceling, serving, tarring, and splicing her infinite network of hempen lines in order to prevent her from falling apart in mid-ocean with what Daniel imagines would be explosive suddenness.  (Stephenson 2002, 217)

That’s a marvelous passage and needed applause.  Only one adverb to detract from its beauty.  Few adjectives.  Plenty of descriptive verbs.  It also acknowledges the infinite struggle against nature for technological stasis.  More importantly, it does not chalk up the struggle to labor, but highlights the labor intensiveness of the struggle.

I am reminded recently of a talk by Alan Weisman, author of The world without us, where he remarked about the popularity of his book among conservative talk shows.  He had anticipated being lumped into the tree-hugging environmentalist camps, but was instead surprised that the conservatives glommed onto his praise of the common laborers.  The book does, after all, read like the show Dirty Jobs would.  Not that Stephenson has never been suspected of not being a friend to labor.  But why is labor friendly to the conservatives?  A question I have yet to find a satisfactory answer for.  False ideology, sure.  But how does it work?

What is also interesting about Quicksilver is that much of the beginning is set aboard the Minerva.  At the same time I started this tome I also started and finished another book which involves the Minerva. Only a few chapters of Linebaugh and Rediker’s The many-headed hydra were assigned, but I had to read the whole thing.  It is about the role of sailors, slaves and commoners in the revolutionary Atlantic.  Tracing labor through the major struggles, it was a fascinating read.  Its dovetails with Quicksilver were too odd.  Nearly sublime.

While I am speaking of sublimity, I am really excited about the latest book I just started reading to-day: Massumi’s Parables for the virtual. All four of these writers are extremely gifted and I have no doubt that had their interests changed any, had their body-sites been repositioned slightly on the grids of identity, then they all could have been best of friends.  Or competitors.

This clearly was not labelled as a post about reading and yet I can do nothing but think about what a strange confluence these three books have created for me.  Especially in such a short period of time.  I know I will be speaking more about the Massumi book as I already have some ideas to knock around before I take them to the faculty.

And…notice the comment Stephenson makes about the snow melting in the sunlight?  I have never really seen it at work until to-day.  The past few days were spent in delirious moments of waking between naps as I slept off illness.  Watching the icicles dissolve was fascinating.  But seeing the snow on the ground recede to the shade line was doubly amazing to-day as I trounced around the city celebrating the new warmth. It was a good day to be alive and in Minneapolis.

Linebaugh, Peter & Marcus Rediker.  (2000).  The many-headed hydra: Sailor, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press.

Massumi, Brian.  (2002).  Parables of the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Stephenson, Neal.  (2003).  Quicksilver. NY: Harper Perennial.

“I don’t think it’s out of the question that I would commit physical violence in order to defend my rightful ownership of that console,” Aunt Nina says, suddenly reverting to a kind of dead-voiced frigid calm.
“But that’s not necessary, Nina, because we have created this whole setup here just so that you can give your feelings the full expression they deserve!” Stephenson, Neal. (1999). Cryptonomicon. NY: Harper Perennial. 626)

This passage conjures a few thoughts, none of which are about the suspect nature of an inheritance (the console in question is a piece of furniture Nina’s recently deceased mother owned) as owned property. Instead this passage makes me think of violence and its nature. Nina clearly thinks violence is justified in some, particularly this, instances. Nina’s brother may also share that belief, which is why he created a system to divide the deceased’s possessions as a way to settle disputes without violence. The problem with Nina’s justifications, akin to so many treatises of violence, is their ethics exist in a vacuum. It is easy to say X deserves a violent response but that justification fails to account for other methods of conflict resolution and many times the presence or availability makes the very justification fall short.

This alternative, however, seems to be a double-edged sword. Many times people feel secure and safe because there is a system, even though the system may be seen as bankrupt or ineffective by the soon-to-be-violent. I am not talking here about a revolution, when the alternative is already and clearly indicted by the violent. I am speaking instead about other inter-personal day to day encounters. For example, a friend of a friend, I will call him Pedro, was riding his bicycle home over the bridge by the UMN law school. There were some drunk guys in front of him and these drunkards saw Pedro coming. The bike path on this bridge is narrow, with a concrete wall between it and the car lanes so Pedro had no ability to avoid the drunkards, short of postponing the trip home. One of the drunk men kept moving in front of Pedro chanting “what you gonna do?”

This drunk man clearly thought the system was protecting him, allowing him to be an asshole without consequence – after all, who will respond violently when it is clearly illegal and not worth the assault charge. Pedro asked numerous times for him to move and the man only replied with a slurred, “What you gonna do?” So Pedro punched him; he moved. Pedro rode home.

Was this justified? I contend it was. The alternative (legal system) was absent, in fact it was the potential presence of the alternative which allowed the drunk man to feel secure enough to be an asshole. Pedro was not initially violent, allowing the man opportunities to escape it. All of these circumstances leave me little hesitation in pronouncing his innocence. Would the law find him innocent? Probably not.