In Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton cites a passage of Thomas Hardy's Tess D'Urbervilles about the power used to work the fields of wheat, both technological and human (Morton 2016 : 3 - 4). The account is precise in its acknowledgement of the smaller wildlife retreating together and then stoned by the workers, and of the presence of the horses alongside the reaper, the big machine working the field. It is a remarkable passage where the complex relation between machinery and organic energy are differentiated according to how they may serve human hubris. In a delightfully enigmatic passage that seems to me to be a comparison of the machine with the 'lovemaking of the grasshopper', Hardy describes a ticking 'from within'. Here is the whole sentence, and the following one:
'Presently there arose from within a ticking like the lovemaking of the grasshopper. The machine had begun, and a moving concatenation of three horses and the aforesaid long rickety machine was visible over the gate.'
The assimilation of the buzzing noise of technology with an inward, that is, a physical function of the human body is telling. Machines and bodies might have more in common than we think, better yet, they may be a system together. This is precisely the aesthetic perspective on technology I am working on: technology is not only machines - and certainly not digital ones -, but machination, that is the whole system in which we live. Morton's book is a read for another project regarding the climate emergency however. But this passage - and its subsequent analysis by Morton - struck me for its incisive perspective on technology for the reason stated earlier but also for another, more surreptitious one.
This is it: in there, along with the 'rickety machine' (a comment on the always surprising makeshift appearance of early industrial machines, as opposed to our current era of sleek design derived from science-fiction cinematography), there is a curious comment on female labour. By then, the lines have been blurred between organic, sentient bodies and machinery. The sentient albeit non-human bodies that could not find their place in the field, were stoned. The ones that could, were assimilated to its theatrics of extraction. But then, Hardy describes women in the field, and then zooms in on 'one wearing a pale pink jacket':
'[The women] were the most interesting of this company of binders, by reason of the charm which is acquired by woman when she becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature... A field-man is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of the field; she had somehow lost her margin... and assimilated herself with it.
... There was one wearing a pale pink jacket...
Her binding proceeds with clock-like monotony. From the sheaf last finished she draws a handful of ears, patting their tips with her left palm to bring them even. Then, stooping low, she moves forward, gathering the corn with both hands against her knees, and pushing her left gloved hand under the bundle to meet the right on the other side, holding the corn in an embrace like that of a lover. She brings the ends of the bonds together, and kneels on the sheaf while she ties it, beating back her skirts now and then when lifted by the breeze. A bit of her naked arm is visible... and as the day wears on its feminine smoothness becomes scarified by the stubble and bleeds.'
I was astounded by this passage, which, in hindsight, had been foreshadowed by the arrival of the workers in 'two groups, one of men and lads, the other of women'. I was equally surprised to notice that Morton failed to take an eco-feminist perspective on this text, ignoring all the words and expressions (in bold in the quoted excerpt) revealing the obvious male gaze that, from an ecological perspective, assigns woman with a dubious role of being a 'portion' of nature. And, consequently, as men being outside of nature – and what is beyond nature? Culture. Therefore culture is male and inasmuch as it is made for and by heterosexual men, it is patriarchal. More confoundingly, women are seen as in-betweeners: they acquire a naturalness when they are 'part and parcel of outdoor nature', that is, they suddenly become one with the natural world as soon as they are immersed in it. One supposes that once women go back to their houses, they detach themselves from nature, except, perhaps, when they bleed every month. Bleeding is mentioned at the end of the excerpt, most likely as a part of nature women carry to civilisation. Of course, the male gaze is usually inherently (hetero)sexual, and disrobes the woman as much as possible, looking for the skin above the gloved hand, and noticing the legs a gentle breeze reveals by, at times, lifting up their skirt.
There is no inherent evil in desiring women, especially when one is a skilled writer and names one of their novels after a woman, while claiming George Eliot, a female author, to be one of his influences (if Wikipedia is right, I am not a Hardy specialist). It is the articulation of desire that can create injustices. My point here is firstly to hypothesise why Morton used this passage and included this sensuous paragraph in it, and secondly to explain how it is problematic to ignore a text where female labour is differentiated, not to say undermined, by the male gaze - doubly. This is complicated by the fact that Hardy's perceptive and poetic description of machination is so in tune with the current post-humanist and ecological re-working of human exploitation of nature and its very conception of it. Nevertheless, I argue that this 'complication' is what makes it important to mention this blindspot, and attempt to understand what it means for female labour in general, but mostly, in my current investigation, for female artistic production across the twentieth century up to today.
So, why did Morton keep this eroticisation of female labour in his quoted passage of Tess D'Urbervilles? Because he sees in this 'assimilation' of women and the field as the ultimate argument for his poignant and thought provoking thesis that what we call 'Nature' is a 'twelve-thousand-year structure, a structure that seems so real we call it Nature'. That is, Nature is a machine, or rather, it is machination. This strikes me as important not because it was said here for the first time (see Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola amongst others), but because it is articulated so clearly and so aesthetically through Thomas Hardy's intricate prose. So I took note of this boisterous claim. (Most thinkers only take the Nature construct as machine (and its controlling, and even more problematic counterpart Culture) down to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mostly the Enlightenment era.)
The first sentences Morton wrote after Hardy's text had the effect of lightning: a sudden strike of light that constellates an unforeseen path:
'It's the machine age, yet uncannily it isn't: its fields and wheat. Or are the fields already a kind of machine? People appear as machine-like components, legs, clothing, arms, and hand moving' ( (Morton 2016 : 3 - 5).
The woman Morton focuses on, however, is Tess herself, and not the nameless 'pale pink jacket' wearer that Hardy zoomed in on, probably because she was prettier than the others, a fact that is not stated - and that I perhaps cynically assume based on Lucy Irigaray's incredible text quoting Levy Strauss' accounts of the passing on of women from men to men in communities. 'Why exchange women?' she asks. Because, and she quotes the anthropologist, 'women are a rarefied commodity essential to the group life'. Rarefied? Irigaray asks. Yes, because despite the fact that women populations are in a proportionate number to that of their male counterparts, they are not equally desirable, explains Levy Strauss. The latter did not invent this patriarchal state of affairs, of course, but Irigaray picks it up to rhetorically ask: are all men desirable? It is not desirability in itself that is at stake here, but rather the unilateral commerce that is made of it by patriarchal systems, reducing women to desirable women, that is, a minority (Irigaray 1977 : 167).
This ties in with my second point which is that the male gaze is not evil per se, only when it is articulated with power instances that take away agency. Here, the writer that takes away the agency of the female worker, as a worker, to place her under his idealised role for her, as what we would call today an 'earth mother'. A few words about writing: in an essay titled 'Why I Write', Joan Didion has an acidic account of her labour:
'In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions —with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.'
The writer as bully is a sincere account of the task of writing. An 'I' is behind this text, as well as the pages and pages of all books, even the fictional ones - even, I would argue, and especially the fictional ones, because they are delivered as creations of an artefact standing for reality - looking dangerously like it. So, yes, the male gaze has its rights as long as it is not articulated with a position of power: as long is it is counteracted by the female gaze, by the trans gaze, by the lesbian gaze. I will not argue here about the dehumanising of unilateral constructions of women as objects of desire, firstly because I believe that desire always dehumanises in some ways and that the real issue is how to do it properly and constructively - becoming animal -, and secondly because this would be a whole other text if I did (there is a lot of rage, and a lot of great literature about the narrow construction of desire).
What I am interested in here is the stupefying, and numbing - as a woman reader - construct of female labour as inherently connected to Nature, and as erotic. The first issue is particularly demeaning because the notion of nature is problematic in itself – there is no Nature, Nature is a machine, nature is technology. The second is undermining, particularly in this excerpt. Hardy's view of women's labour, which is, in reality, essentially the same as men, or even if the tasks may be different, it is nevertheless part of the agricultural system and produces the same thing as men's, is assimilated with her gender to the point of it not being labour. She is nature itself, she is assimilated with it, therefore she is not working. She is doing women stuff.
I read Hardy's passage and Morton's interpretation of it in a whirlwind of feelings: awe, fascination, queasiness, awareness, self-awareness, excitement, disappointment, intellectual erotism, writing impulse, thinking in loops... For if we turn the argument around, and realise that whether we want it or not, females are assigned spaces of labour, and specific labours as being inherently female and natural - those spaces exist within the patriarchal system we live in. There is no use in denying them. However, if nature is technology, if nature is machination and always was, then women have a technological know-how. Sewing, pattern making, ornament, algorithms, watercolour, crochet, baking, gardening, are all female activities, whether we want them to be or not, and despite men increasingly doing them too. And so is drawing, whether male artists take it up or not. From Academia to the general public, drawing is a minor discipline, a technical skill to do something else. Ladies draw, male artists make art. It is therefore undeniably useful to understand nature as technology, as machination, in order to understand those female spaces, and, particularly female artists who use drawing as a technology.
More on that soon.