Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brook Farm and the repeating of history

Some people may have heard of Brook Farm, an intentional community that sprouted during the 1830s, a time of much social critique and attempts at reconstruction of social institutions and paradigms, with such movements as abolitionism, feminism, perfectionism, communism, and transcendentalism. Of the many people who were associated with BF, the ones who are still widely known are Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, but few have heard of the hero of this story, George Ripley.

Ripley was a unitarian minister who could not continue in his ministry because he felt hypocritical, seeing a higher calling than appeasing the guilt of his mostly wealthy congregation, when faced with sights of homelessness, meaningless employment and poverty on the same streets of Boston where he worked, signs of capitalism and industrialization that continue to this day. At the same time, he was aware of a disconnect between nature and culture, between thinking and doing, that was but a rivulet in his time, but has grown to a raging destructive river in our time. Thus the main goal of Brook Farm was to unite farmer and scholar in the same person. Thoreau and Emerson, though sympathetic to this goal, saw it best achieved on a solitary homestead instead of a collective.

Whether they achieved the goal is debateable. My take on it is that Thoreau was more successful than Emerson, but both were supported by many others including slaves, factory workers and farmers who did not have much time or money to engage in scholarly activities. Hawthorne tried to live and work at Brook Farm, but came to the conclusion that the desired union was impossible (expressed poignantly in his fictional piece "The Blithedale Romance").

A similar goal of uniting thinking and doing, or theory and experiment was proposed with the advent of science during the renaissance. It saw pure philosophy as impotent to find out how nature works and had many heroes such as Galileo, Newton, Hooke and other members of the Royal Philosophical Society, who were theorists and experimentalists united in the same person. Modern Physics is seeing a specialization into theorists and experimentalists and to my mind this is indicative of the degeneration of the field, whereas biology still has experimentalists who can formulate theories and hypotheses, and the field is still vibrant.

The rise and fall of physics parallels the rise and fall of civilizations and intentional communities. When theory is limited to simple hypotheses that can be tested and simple theoretical consequences are worked out and subjected to further experiments, science, intentional community and civilization thrives. When theory becomes complex and the theorists no longer try to test their theories, science, intentional community and civilization degenerates.

Social theorists like Scott Nearing have some success. Others, like Chomsky, Zinn and a myriad of bloggers and pundits, might inspire some people to test their theories, but unless those experimenters are flexible enough to formulate new hypotheses and theories as they go and posess inhuman amounts of energy, the experimenters peter out, as the experiments are either inconclusive, disprove the original theories and are extremely taxing of the experimenters' limited energies.

It is with this phenomenon in mind that I call upon all critiquers of civilization to start doing experiments testing the alternatives that they propose. I have done one myself, am engaged in another one, and am about to start a third. I say to you, as I say to the dead Emerson--we need you not just for your theories, but for the active participation in their testing. We need you for your land, for your money, for your stature and fame--please pick up a shovel and put down the keyboard for a while. Start sharing your land, your money and your time, not just your ideas. Sit around the consensus table, not just on your armchair. Get out of your isolated ivory tower or your pulpit and into the lab, the garden, the kitchen, the workshop, the trench. If you persist, you might end up like Emerson--railing against breaking out of prisons, only to find yourself in the prison of the scholar who cannot cooperate with others on matters of substance or do things in the material world.

Back to Ripley--in the end he was defeated and somewhat broken hearted. Those like Emerson and Greeley (a wealthy leftist newspaper editor) who said they would help, did not. A fire destroyed the new industry building. Fourierism turned out to be misguided. An epidemic (I think flu but don't recall now if it was more serious) reduced energy and morale. Inability to pay back loans due to distance from Boston Markets, the fire and (in my opinion) too much dependence on external markets culminated in Hawthorne suing for his loan getting repaid. Many other reasons may have been at play and I wonder if, dear George, you knew that your example will be an inspiration to future generations and your vision still alive long after you died.

No comments:

Post a Comment