“I, Pencil” 2.0

Pat, my good colleague from Big Fag Press has been helping me with the scanning and pre-press for the very first prints which are on their way to the MCA.

The first diagram shows all the “ins and outs” that I could summon to my mind, of the process of making, funding, organising, delivering, exhibiting, and maintaining an artwork in the museum. It’s a schematic chart (rather than being specific to any particular artwork or museum).

An early draft of the diagram is here – the new version has been enhanced, it’s heaps bigger, allowing me to squeeze in many more ins and outs, and it’s printed in blue and red. I’ll post up a photo of it soon, I’m pretty excited about it!

While we worked away, scanning and photoshopping, Pat observed that this process of trying to come to terms with the resources consumed in the making of a particular activity (and the products generated as a result) reminded him of an essay he read some time ago. The essay is called “I, Pencil”, by Leonard E. Read. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a great read.

The essay is narrated from the point of view of a Pencil (hence “I, Pencil”). Here’s an extract:

My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!

On one hand, Pencil just wants to be better understood. It’s a humble, simple Pencil, right? No moving parts, no fancy upgrades year by year. Over time, the pencil remains the same. And yet, an incredibly complex confluence of skills, chemistry, forestry, and industry make it what it is. In this sense, Read’s essay (perhaps like my recent search for the origins and manufacturing methods of the paper I’m using for my prints) calls for deeper intimacy with the very materiality of the world around us.

On the other hand, “I Pencil” takes quite an interesting turn towards its end. Pencil argues that because of all the radically distributed contributors to its manufacture, no individual can ever understand how to make a pencil. By extension, nor can any government body can ever oversee every aspect of the process. It is only through the exchange of goods and services on the free market that something as miraculous as a pencil can come to be.

The moral of “I, Pencil” is thus that industry and commerce should be free to exercise their “creative freedom” unfettered by regulation and top-down control:

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Pencil’s manifesto is a capitalist-utopian lesson, linking human ingenuity with the natural forces of creativity . But, written in 1958, the blind spot in this analysis is the finitude of the natural resources upon which all these creative forces depend: clean air, water, minerals, forests…

An updated version of “I, Pencil” (“I, Pencil 2.0” ?) would have to take these things into account. But what would encourage Pencil’s beloved unfettered market economy to actually do this?

6 thoughts on ““I, Pencil” 2.0

  1. Yeah… and fucking magnets, how do they work.

    “I Pencil” is one of those typical products of the American extreme right that use a sort of folksy word play to lead you to a moronic but superficially plausible conclusion. Go far enough down this path and you end up with the tea partiers and juggalos. I was reminded of this except the muppets have more credibility than libertarian nutters.

    Seriously though, isn’t the issue simply that almost everything, especially reform, and especially the type of reform that needs widespread social involvement, always turns out to be more complicated than you could ever have imagined at the start? And once you know enough to get over the Dunning-Kruger effect the process usually seems overwhelming.

    Rather than start with “I Pencil” I’d start with a different branch of the American right, the “American know how and can do” branch that pursues a sort of personal autonomy through competence, skill, knowledge and a rational understanding of social and political forces. At its worst it turns into survivalists but not always. Probably the most interesting recent writing from that school of thought is “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” by Mathew Crawford. Crawford extols the value of manual competence and the ability to make and fix things as an antidote to feelings of powerlessness in the face of corporate social manipulation.

    All of this does raise real issues about what artists can do. The usual approach is to make broad brush and basically symbolic public gestures, “the politics of the warm inner glow” as it used to be called, which arguably are pointless and simply a waste of resources although a minute waste in the grand scheme of things. Alternatively you can try to engage more practically with the issues at the risk of being completely overwhelmed by their enormity and disappearing into the innards of the beast. I think that’s the existential problem that you are now facing Lucas and that is one more issue that must be raised in any audit, the psychological cost of both action and inaction for all the players versus the real costs of both action and inaction. It’s not a trivial issue, it’s exactly the point that both major political parties are playing on to stymie any real climate change action.

  2. I forgot to say in my little rave above, your ins and outs diagram (draft admittedly) confirms all my worst fears. Nowhere in outcomes is there a mention of social change, generating support for climate change action, etc, the only outcomes that I would think actually justify the the social/environmental costs of putting on the exhibition. Although I fear your diagram is correct I wonder whether you really believe that?

  3. ah Ian, you’re ahead of me. My uploads have been failing here in the MCA, so I’ve not had a chance to post the updated version. Here’s the relevant section, which I think addresses your concerns:

    social change

    It’s too big an issue for me to deal with right here, a few hours before the exhibition opens… The question of whether art has the capacity to instigate, or indeed to be, a form of social change which could have any significant effect on climate change.

    Let’s talk about it tonight, in the presence of some actual case studies in the show eh?

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