half a pound of treacle
that's the way the story goes
out comes the evil...
LI has been contemplating one of the great lines of English verse over the course of the last couple of days, to wit, Rochester’s “And with my prick I'll govern all the land....” from the play, Sodom. But I’ve contemplated myself temporarily blind, vis a vis my Dom Juan thesis, so I’ll do Rochester at another time. Instead, today’s lesson from the book of LI (written by the archangels in seraphic blood) is about pins. As in how many economists dance upon the head of a pin? You know the answer – all of them.
Ho ho. In the 1760s, there was a controversy in Britain about a supposed Scots epic, Ossian, which had been “found” by a poet and published. Ossian was a forgery. Meanwhile, the real Scots epic was a-forging – that is, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith provided the Homeric theology to this thing we be callin’ capitalism. So, unsurprisingly, small academic industries have grown up around his famous images. The invisible hand is the most famous of these; a small group has worked on the famous pin factory.
The Wealth of Nations begins like this:
“The greatest improvement*17 in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
The effects of the division of labour, in the general business of society, will be more easily understood, by considering in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures. It is commonly supposed to be carried furthest in some very trifling ones; not perhaps that it really is carried further in them than in others of more importance: but in those trifling manufactures which are destined to supply the small wants of but a small number of people, the whole number of workmen must necessarily be small; and those employed in every different branch of the work can often be collected into the same workhouse, and placed at once under the view of the spectator. In those great manufactures, on the contrary, which are destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people, every different branch of the work employs so great a number of workmen, that it is impossible to collect them all into the same workhouse. We can seldom see more, at one time, than those employed in one single branch. Though in such manufactures,*18 therefore, the work may really be divided into a much greater number of parts, than in those of a more trifling nature, the division is not near so obvious, and has accordingly been much less observed.
To take an example, therefore,*19 from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade),*20 nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.*21 I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.”
Few books give you the main course right away like this. Smith was rightly proud of the phrase, division of labor. In one stroke, it divided an old way of looking at labor as a particular social function from looking as labor as one abstract thing. It was the discovery of a universal, accompanying the universal-to-be of the capitalist system itself.
Such a vast discovery, such a trifling object. Smith taught rhetoric, and knew all the magic tricks. It is as if Columbus had set sail with the Owl and the Pussycat in a pea green boat. The pin! The very emblem of smallness, a sort of atom of social matter – associated, too, with frivolity. Jesus had already used the needle as a (miraculous) stick with which to beat the wealthy – and here the wealthy fire back with pins. Then of course there is Little Red Riding Hood – I’ve done a previous post on this, so let me quote here from Teasley and Chase:
“As the original tale opens, a dominant concern is the path to be chosen:
Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going. "To grandmother's house," she replied. "Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?" "The path of the needles." So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house.
Although Darnton usually investigated the meaning behind puzzling elements, he has dismissed the reference to the paths of the pins and the needles as nonsense. Yet, here is the first example of a symmetry that provides a clue to the tale's meaning.
Each character's selection of one of the paths reveals a destiny. Red Riding Hood's choice of the path of the needles is synonymous with her decision to become a prostitute. The meaning of the line is revealed in an obscure nineteenth-century history that explains that among "women of doubtful virtue . . . bargains were struck on the basis of a package of bodkins or lace-needles, or aiguillettes, which they normally carried as a distinctive badge upon the shoulder, a custom surviving to Rabelais' day."
The meaning of the wolf's choice of the path of the pins is found in the term bzou, which was used interchangeably with loup in the original French version. Although loup is the common French word for wolf, the definition of bzou is more obscure. Paul Delarue, the editor who has compiled thirty-five versions of the folktale, found that bzou was always used in the story for brou or garou, which in the Nivernais was loup-brou or loup-garou. All these are variations on the French word for werewolf, a supernatural being associated with witchcraft. Early modern Europeans held that Satan had the power to take the form of a wolf.
Sixteenth-century French society believed that the presence of a devil's mark on a witch's body proved her allegiance to Satan. Since the mark was a blemish on the skin that was insensitive, the discovery of the mark through the use of pin pricks became a standard feature of witch hunting. Just as Red Riding Hood revealed her true identity through her selection of the path of the needles, so the wolf revealed his identity as a witch by choosing the path of the pins.”
Indeed, the shapeshifting wolf was knocking at the door in 1776.
Economists, however, get the shivers when fairy tales are mentioned, being the wolf’s dumbest children for the most part. A true disappointment to the Loup-Garou, that’s for sure. While the wind howls outside and the stormclouds gather, they soothe themselves with more technical and standard questions. Which are addressed by Jean Louis Peaucelle in an article in the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought entitled, Adam Smith’s use of multiple references for his pin making example. I will post about that next.
Those interested in the Derrida/Marx controversies of late, hosted here and at the Colonel’s site, should check out the current post at Rough Theory.