5. On Medieval America
humans and things
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Essay 5. On Medieval America
earth seems more dramatic than geological
transformations: appearance of atmosphere, origin
of minerals, waves of changing climate, Ice Age, rise
and drop of large areas of land, like in Grand Canyon,
and the continental drift. The next in scale is
biological evolution: rise and extinction of species.
Evolution continues into history where participants are
not atoms, rocks, and animals, but every person who ever
perceive their own history through the glasses tinted
with human emotions.
eyes, very slow processes have an advantage of being
predictable. We expect the geography of continents to be
practically the same for the next thousand years. Only
long after that, North America will divorce South
America and join Asia.
change still comes as a surprise within a generation.
People who lived in feudal Middle Ages did not know
anything about feudalism. We don't know whether the
twentieth century would be labeled as Dark or Golden
Age. Today we don't see anything gold in the past, just
misery, violence and death that overshadow heroism,
magnanimity, and devotion.
have a bad fame: dirt, diseases, wars, illiteracy,
ignorance, violence, poverty, and enslavement. They were
called Middle by the humanists of Renaissance (which
means rebirth) because they separated the classic
Greco-Roman culture from its assumed rebirth. For a long
time Ancient Greece seemed to be the Golden Age and the
only way to culture was through studying Classical Greek
and Latin. Of course, the Roman Empire and Renaissance
Europe had little in common. But the parallel seemed
flattering and empire remained an ideal, with trade as
possible substitute for military power.
In a sense,
everything is Middle Ages between two resonant cultures
and everything is a Renaissance of something long gone.
World has lost its glitter after the century of the two
hot and one cold world wars, but before that, war had
been regarded a noble occupation.
collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe lost the
source of order. It was similar to the power outage in
an inner city during the night. People lost the
sense of security and feared their neighbors. History
seemed to get a restart from its Darwinian prehistory.
Anarchy and looting took advantage of the darkness
of the Dark Ages.
a new order started to take shape because its
alternative was, most probably, extinction. The only
force that could protect and pursue expansion was
was based on a contract between the lord and his vassal,
both being legally equal but economically different. The
lord granted the vassal land and its protection, while
the vassal offered military service to the lord.
does not mean serfdom and slavery. Those were features
of seignorialism, the system of enforced
relationship between the free and the dependent persons,
the boss and the laborer on the bosses' land. The two
systems perfectly complemented each other because the
sides in the feudal contract always wanted to combine it
with the advantages of being the seigneur, and thus
human emotions and ambitions were bringing the social
medium to constant simmer and circulation
looks like something familiar. The owner or CEO of a
company grants the employee more stable and regular
means of subsistence than a piece of land can provide.
The employee offers professional services to the lord,
sorry, owner, whether individual or collective. Both
sides are theoretically free and legally equal.
boss and the employee are both ruled by the current law,
the only way Medieval Europe could have something
similar to the unifying laws of the Roman Empire was to
have a common boss, named the King. And so Europe became
an arena for imperial competition, with more and less
lucky contenders none of whom left anything lasting from
the current point of view except cathedrals.
like the combination of feudalism and seignorialism has
been resurrected (an unexpected Renaissance!) in modern
capitalism. To follow all the lines of similarity would
take a lot of time, but this is not necessary. I am not
going to convince anybody or to prove a point. Anyway,
Middle Ages here are just a metaphor. What it signifies
is the very natural situation with many bosses wanting
to be even bigger bosses and the free employees being
not so free in hard economic times. Real freedom is the
freedom of being unemployed, and this is something a
significant part of the US population cannot afford. It
is, probably, different in the most developed European
“Be nice to
your boss.” I had heard this advice on TV among
talks of recession in January 2001, and it became the
initial impetus to this Essay.
else comes to mind: “A horse, half kingdom for a horse!”
invasions of barbarians and nomads that created the need
for the new feudal order made Europeans feel like
backward barbarians: the nomads had horses. The horse
was the automobile and tank of Middle Ages. In one
aspect it was even more advanced than a modern airliner
or supercomputer: it naturally reproduced itself with
little mental effort on the part of humans, quite like
the humans themselves used to do.
machine, the horse could do a lot of work, but only
because it consumed a lot of food. It needed land to
graze and multiply. Land, therefore, was like mineral
oil today. Automobile is the renaissance horse and
gasoline is, actually, a piece of land that immediately
becomes useless after a ride. If you wish, it is a
three-dimensional land which is consumed slice after
Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
and the earlier La Peau de Chagrin by
Honoré de Balzac read today as metaphors of the limited
nature of land, mineral, and other resources, including
time. A piece of shagreen leather in the Balzac's novel
had magic powers, but with every fulfilled wish of its
owner it shrunk like the value of an oil field . On the
contrary, the living nature is, in principle, renewable
for as long as the sun lasts, and this is why we have
history. Humans are a form of biological life and they
can mostly take care of themselves, feeding on natural
resources. They can not only own a horse but also be
somebody's horse—a commendable versatility.
turbulent times of invasions and chaos, however, one
needed more than food, clothing, and shelter to survive.
system took care of the needs of the time by
establishing a multitude of contractual relations
instead of the unifying rule of Rome. If you want
another paradox, democracy is a renaissance of
feudalism. Coming after the collapse of monarchy,
oligarchy, and dictatorship, it is based on contractual
relationships between legally equal individuals.
expected an actual service from the vassal in exchange
for the actual land. As soon as money became capable of
buying everything, including horse, land, service, and
even the position of a boss, the feudalism gradually
turned into capitalism. With the pop, sports, and movie
stars, we are right in the renaissance of cultural
monarchy: we have our royal court and royal jesters.
difference between the developed feudalism and modern
times is that neither the position of lord boss nor the
position of vassal employee is legally inheritable, and
if it is, then only as exception and coincidence.
between modern capitalism and early feudalism extends
also over the phenomenon of fragmentation: the number of
companies is, probably, not dramatically larger that the
number of European principalities or manors after the
beginning of the feudalism: they were counted by
thousands. Today a powerful force drives the process of
consolidation of business principalities into industrial
and financial empires, as it was in times of Charlemagne
and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Bill Gates and George
Soros have demonstrated power largely exceeding the
power of an average size state. True, another force
Here I am
interested only in one question. Suppose, there is a
parallel between feudalism and modern capitalism. We
know that feudalism evolved into capitalism. What can
come out of the modern quasi-feudalism? What could
future historians write about our times? Can we know
today what is going on with us in terms of the future
question is as irresistibly attractive as all the
useless questions that have been driven the human
imagination—mostly, childish—for ages. To ask such
questions means to be forever immature—a substitute for
discourse implies that our times will be
interpreted differently, depending on the
contemporary environment of the historian, but facts
could better resist the winds of time than
Here is what
I would write in 2300 about the year 2000.
period of 1000-2000 shows a consistent trend. In 1000,
the main problem of a human was to stay alive and take
care of the progeny. By 2000, the main problem of
society was to keep Things in the process of
self-reproduction and evolution. In exchange, Things
took care of human health, reproduction,
well-being, transportation, entertainment, and
means of subsistence—not everywhere, of course.
From 1800 to
2000, the Things underwent an explosion in diversity
greatly exceeding that of the Cambrian Explosion, about
500 million years ago, when complex organisms with hard
structures such as shell and calcium carbonate skeleton
appeared. It was the first great revolution since
the birth of Things in the hands of Homo Habilis.
As with all
our fundamental concepts, we have here a circular
definition: Homo Habilis is a Thing-making
primate, our evolutionary ancestor. The Things (i.e.,
man-made objects) did not exist before humans.
They are objects made by humans, starting
with Homo Habilis, tool-making human
ancestor. This kind of logical circle happens all the
time when both concepts are just two sides of a coin.
Things have accompanied Thing-making humans since their
twin birth about 2 million years ago. The first known
Things were tools, i.e., Things for making other Things,
such as stones given a particular shape by striking
against other stones. For 2 million years, the tools and
all the Things were made either by bare human hands or
with other natural or man-made object held in human
hands. The humans controlled every step of the process.
The making of a Thing was limited by the abilities of a
human, so that tools were nothing but extensions of
have an important counterpart in the very foundation of
life. They work as enzymes, which is more than just a
metaphor. The function of an enzyme is to assist in
assembling or disassembling parts of a biologically
important molecule. An enzyme briefly sticks to
different spots on the same molecule or to two different
molecules and either separates or joins them, using the
same reversible mechanism for both opposite actions .
has neither brain no muscle. It works because it
increases the probability of an event that can occur
without enzyme's intervention only with low or
reaction is somewhat like sex. As was codified by Kama
Sutra, the couple has to take a certain type of position
to perform it, with most other possible positions
leading nowhere. Same with molecules, especially the big
ones. Molecules, however, are madly dashing all around
so that an accidental collision of two of them in
exactly the necessary position for reaction is highly
improbable. Enzymes fix them in such a position, very
similar in nature to human hands holding a nail and a
hammer on the right spot, and as soon as the
position is taken, only a short time is needed to
complete the act.
the social enzymes of humans. Conversely, enzymes are
molecular hands of life.
preceded what, enzymes or other proteins and nucleic
acids? This is the same question as what came first, the
chicken or the egg, Homo Habilis or his tools.
Industrial Revolution that happened around 1800
consisted in the appearance of Things making Things with
productivity greatly exceeding that of humans. With a
power loom, fabric could be woven without human touch
for extended periods of time. Tableware could be stamped
out by millions. Clothing was sewn with machines fed by
human hands. Rail was rolled out with only an occasional
human touch. An entire big class of new machines was no
good for immediate human use: their only function was to
make other Things.
the Industrial Revolution, Things made the crucial first
step toward their own biology. Moreover, the very term
biology became split: life of Things and life of
species, as well as life of societies, found a joint
umbrella in meta-life—the way of existence of complex
objects through evolution, coding, mutation, and
selection, for which the reader should consult a future
course of meta-biology.
making Things are like molecules making molecules and,
with the current progress of molecular biology, like
humans making creatures other than themselves. We can
only guess what kind of natural hands had made the first
enzymes and their substrates, but those hands stepped
back into shadow since. Some scientists, for
example, believed the primeval hands to be particles of
Industrial Revolution had at least three dramatic
elevated the social value of educated and qualified
humans capable of handling and directing machines. Such
individuals became themselves being stamped out by
public and private education in millions of copies. The
social status of former slaves, peasants, crude
enzyme-like laborers, and cannon fodder changed into the
status of attendants of machines and their
blueprints—the DNA of Things. The blueprints
became digital by 2000, which was yet another
radical step of Industrial Revolution.
generated a mass production of Things in numbers
exceeding the demand for them. Things multiplied like
bacteria and rats. Things, therefore, became involved in
the same Darwinian evolution that produced the entire
variety of life on earth. They had to struggle for
existence of their species. They were coded in
descriptions of their technology like cookies in kitchen
democratized the society because everybody became a
consumer, a respected member of society capable of
buying Things, and, therefore, supporting the existence
of the Thing-making human neighbors. Humans had to be
produced and pampered (and not just killed by war,
hunger, and epidemics) in order to make Things. Things
needed huge resources of energy and ingenuity to compete
for the attention of humans. They acquired bright
petals, fragrance, as well as barbs, fangs, and claws.
that had some secondary consequences.
The value of
human life now included all the Things he or she
possessed, all the education, and all the health care
needed to keep a consumer (and enzyme) in good shape. No
wonder, it skyrocketed because swarms of short-living
Things now had to serve a single human and die
afterwards or be bought for a penny at a yard sale.
Everybody became a king, but some were more royal than
culture became standardized and globalized because all
Things knew man as the only god and all spoke the same
language of electronic files. They knew no borders and
no other bad blood between themselves that could be
remembered after the daily closure of the stock market.
became a currency of energy, bringing the wheels of
meta-life into motion at all levels, turned into a truly
ecumenical religion uniting humans and Things.
Things for less money! Sell less Things for more money!
Buy more Things for less money! Those were simple
commandments of meta-life.
of the new contract between humans and Things, embodied
in the laws of the land, was that Things, through
corporations, granted the humans (who by that time lost
the ability to feed and clothe themselves from the
fruits of the land) protection from hunger and premature
death in exchange for the physical and intellectual
service offered by humans to Things.
only on the surface that capitalism was driven by money:
it was driven by Things. People could hardly see it
because Things were represented by the same governments
as humans, elephants, and whales, while money in private
pockets was not represented by anybody but its owners.
It was a
renaissance of feudalism, and the same laws of
nature that brought to existence national states
by 1500 had now to drive history toward a new economic
geography having little to do with the shape of
continents and distance between them.
there a new Industrial Revolution?
Yes, it was:
the Intelligent Revolution of 2100, when Things got
their brains and surpassed humans in autonomy and
In 2300, the
equality of Things and humans was legally recognized and
the new hyper-racial status of Things was
reflected in the capital T of their name. The racial
relations are not typically harmonious. They are
harmonious when there are no races. Each time I was
asked to indicate my race in an official form, I was
reminded about that.
Here I must
stop because I cannot predict a distant future from the
position in an even more distant future. This
would mean the loss of connection with the present. It
is a forbidden trick. I have to keep at least one foot
on the firmer ground of the present.
point on, the future historian would continue
differently, depending on whether the year of 2000 was
regarded as golden or dark age, whether human-enzymes
(called derogatively huzymes by Things) stepped
back into the shadows of history by that time,
whether humans (or Things) cursed or blessed their new
place in the kingdom of meta-life, whether Things
treated humans as serfs, whether the historian itself
was a Thing, and whether humans (or Things) finally
restored democracy (for themselves).
By no means
am I a pessimist. Watching the process of humans taking
care of and representing animals, forests, and pristine
land, I believe that sooner or later Things would take
care of humans, whatever happens to the latter. Anyway,
we all have only one meta-life to live.
of our history, from the point of view of the most basic
laws of nature, ultimately depends on the sources of
energy. When the peau de chagrin, the Balzac's
leather of mineral resources, shrinks to a microscopic
size, Things will have an enormous evolutionary
advantage over humans. Things, from solar calculator to
computer, can consume very little energy, they don't
need a narrow interval of body temperature to exist, and
they do not need to gallop all around the world. They
can even reduce themselves to molecular level and start
evolution anew. The only alternative for humans would be
either becoming more like plants and animals and live on
renewable sources in ecological balance, or becoming
more like Things, which is not that bad, taking to
account that Things have the infamous brevity of life
only because they have to cater to humans. Of course,
humans could revert to the virtues of the Golden Age,
whatever would be meant by that at the moment.
any signs of the future today?
industrial society, Things and children compete within
the household. The more Things, the less children, as an
Industrial Revolution was preceded by the explosion of
people driven off the land and migrating into cities as
paupers and workforce. People and sheep competed
for the land because sheep provided a valuable Thing:
wool. The sheep won, for a while. Modern family presents
a landscape where children and Things are in a tug of
war. Things are extensions of human hands no more. They
enter their own capitalism where humans are bulky,
cumbersome, expensive, voracious, moody machines that
stubbornly refuse to evolve by the day, not by
millennium, stupid horses they are.
And this is
why some humans, more equine than others, begin to
revolt and gallop all around the world, raising Cain.
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