I was flattered but also surprised when Eugene Volokh kindly invited me to guest post for a week, since my new book The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World is not about the law. It examines the central role that textiles have played in the history of innovation from prehistory to the near future. Fortunately, Eugene and his co-conspirators are guided by both intellectual curiosity and legal considerations, and a mix, he assured me, would make the blog “fun and eclectic.”
In this post, taken from the book’s introduction, I’ll start with an insight from the influential computer scientist Mark Weiser in 1991. “The deepest technologies are the ones that go away,” he wrote. “They weave into the fabric of everyday life until they can no longer be distinguished from it.”
Do you see what he did there?
We hairless monkeys evolved along with our fabric. From the moment we are wrapped in a blanket at birth, we are surrounded by textiles. They cover our bodies, adorn our beds, and put carpets on our floors. Textiles give us seat belts and sofa cushions, tents and bath towels, bandages and tape. They are everywhere.
To reverse Arthur C. Clarke’s famous saying about magic, any well-known technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive and obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted. We no longer imagine a world without cloth as a world without sunlight or rain.
We pull out heirloom metaphors – “on hooks”, “dragged-headed”, “amazed” – without suspecting that it is a matter of fabric and fibers. We repeat worn-out clichés: “whole cloth”, “hanging on a thread”, “dyed in wool”. We catch airline shuttles, meander through traffic and follow comment threads. We speak of lifetimes and spin-offs and never wonder why the pulling out of fibers and the swirling of these fibers into thread looms is so great in our language. Surrounded by textiles, we are largely aware of their existence and of the knowledge and effort that goes into every piece of fabric.
The production of fabrics is a creative act, analogous to other creative acts. It is a mark of mastery and refinement. “Can we expect a government to be well modeled by a people who do not know how to make a spinning wheel or use a loom to advantage?” wrote the philosopher David Hume in 1742. Knowledge is anything but universal. People who do not spin or weave are rare, and so is society that does not trade in textiles.
The global history of textiles illuminates the very nature of civilization itself. I do not use this term to imply moral superiority or the ultimate state of inevitable progress, but in a more neutral sense, as Mordecai Kaplan’s definition suggests: “The accumulation of knowledge, skills , Tools, arts, literatures, laws, religions and philosophies that exist between man and external nature, and that serve as a bulwark against the hostility of the forces that would otherwise destroy him. “This description captures two critical dimensions that together make civilization differ from related concepts such as culture.
First, civilization is cumulative. It exists in time, with today’s version building on earlier versions. A civilization ceases to exist when that continuity is broken. The Minoan civilization disappeared. Conversely, a civilization can evolve over a long period of time while the cultures that make it up pass or change irreversibly. Western Europe of 1980 was radically different from Christianity of 1480 in its social mores, religious practices, material cultures, political organizations, technological resources, and scientific understanding, but we recognize both of them as Western civilization.
The history of textiles shows this cumulative quality. It lets us follow the progress and interactions between practical techniques and scientific theory: the cultivation of plants and the breeding of animals, the diffusion of mechanical innovations and measurement standards, the recording and replication of patterns, the manipulation of chemicals. We can watch knowledge spread from one place to another, sometimes in written form but more often through human contact or the exchange of goods, and see how civilizations are intertwined.
Second, civilization is a survival technology. It encompasses the many artifacts – designed or engineered, tangible or intangible – that stand between vulnerable people and natural threats that give meaning to the world. Textiles that offer protection and jewelry are themselves such artifacts. This also applies to the innovations that inspire them, from better seeds to weaving patterns to new ways of recording information.
Together with the dangers and ailments of indifferent nature, civilization protects us from the dangers posed by other people. Ideally, we can live in harmony. 18th century thinkers used the term to refer to the intellectual and artistic refinement, conviviality, and peaceful interaction of the trading city. But rare is the civilization that exists without organized violence. At best, civilization encourages cooperation and curbs the violent urges of humanity. in the worst case, it unleashes them to conquer, plunder and enslave. The history of textiles shows both aspects.
Every piece of cloth is the solution to a myriad of difficult problems. Many are technical or scientific: how do you breed sheep with thick, white fleeces? How do you maintain enough tension to spin fibers together without breaking them? How do you prevent dye fading? How do you build a loom that can weave complex patterns?
Some of the most difficult, however, are social issues: How do you finance a silkworm or cotton harvest, a new spinning mill, or a long-haul truck? How do you record weave patterns so someone else can duplicate them? How do you pay for textile shipments without physically sending money? What do you do if the law forbids the cloth you want to make or use?
In the following posts I will focus on some of the institutions and practices – “social technologies” – that have raised these types of issues.