Back to the pin factory!

With bows to some earlier posts...

“A savage admires a nail and he is right to do so. It is in Paris that the observant man sees how much art has required combination, experiment and caretaking. Thirty hands and thirty tools are necessary for the formation of a pin, and you can have a thousand for a dozen sous.”

Sebastian Mercier is writing a decade after Adam Smith made the pin factory emblematic of the efficiencies produced by the division of labor. Smith, in turn, probably took his example from the Encyclopedia. Mercier, however, adds the gawking savage, to seal the deal: the new European economy will have, as an audience (and victim), the bystanding non-European. Who admires the very craft that is being turned against him.

I have referenced the pin before, being one of those fascinated by its riddles, its magic power.  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 – let me quote from the classic interpretation by 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.[6]
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."[7]
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.[8]
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.

Wolves were things of the past in Scotland when Smith made his (non) outing to the pin factory. How far past is another affair wrapped up in some controversy. According to some accounts, the last wolf in Scotland was shot by a hunter named McQueen, who tracked the beast to his lair in Findhorn after the beast had attacked and eaten a woman and a child crossing a nearby moor. Shapeshifting, as would be expected by those who know something of the path of pins, has infected every part of this story. Did the wolf really attack the pair and eat them? The last wolf? What was the sex of it? The size? Or was the last wolf slain by Sir Ewen Cameron in 1680? Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in 1904, devoted an article to the last wolf in Scotland. According to the writer, many Scottish districts lay claim to the be scene of the shooting of the last wolf. However, Blackwood’s goes with the shooting in the “wild valley of Findhorn” in 1743, since there are detailed accounts. The area was the home of the last wild pack. Here’s the Blackwood’s story:

“The most active carnach in their destruction was MacQueen of Pall a’ chrocain, an immense duine uasail who stood 6 feet 7 inches in his brogues. To this worthy, one winter day in 1743, came word from MacIntosh that a great black beast had come down to the low country and carried off a couple of children near Cawdor, and that a tainchel or hunting-drive was to meet a Figiuthas, where MacQeen was summoned to attend according to an act of Parliament.

Next morning in the cold dawn the hunters were assembled: but where was MacQueen? He was not wont to be ‘langsome’ on such an occasion, and his hounds, nto to mention himself, were almost indispensable to the chase. MacIntosh watied impatiently as the day wore on, and when at last MacQueen was seen coming liesurely along, the chief spoke sharply to him, rebuking him for wasting the best hours for hunting.

“Ciod e a’ chabhag?” (What’s the hurry?”) was the cool reply, which sent an indignant murmur through the shivering sportsmen. MacIntosh uttered an angry threat.

“Sin e dhiabh! (“There you are then!”) said MacQueen, and throwing back his plaid, flung the grey head of the wolf upon the heather. The company had lost thier sport, but they forgave Pall-a’-chrocain, whose renown stood higher than ever as a hunter, and Macintosh “gave him the land called Sean-achan for meat to his dogs.”

Surely I am showing my bent for irrelevance and the scaring of all rational like beasties, going so langsome into the thickets of Smith’s prose with a cock n bull hunting tale about a fairy wolf, for Jesus’ sake! Man, where’s your models, your references to the fine theorists, and all that train! But as the disappearance of the wolf seems, to us, magically connected with the appearance of the pin factory, we thought it might be a fine thing, worthy of a carnach from Cawdor (you remember the Thane of Cawdor?), to clear the area so that we could travel across it all safe and sound and snug. And in our search for pin factories, we might just find that, in spite of Smith’s celebration of the division of labor – upon which rock is built so much – that in fact, the celebrated pin factory in L’aigle, Normandy, from which – although it is murky – the encyclopedists might have drawn their information about the pin industry, was still governed by a mass of laws concerning master pinners, and who was allowed to work on pins, and problems with the weight of pins in each envelop of pins, so that the social function of pinmaker, and the needs of the state, and regulation from the state, might have had as much to do with the division of labor as the fabulous productivity of the pin factory, which can only be exampled by ... well, by Rapunzel of course, spinning straw into gold.

MacQueen told more of the story of the hunt than was reprised in Blackwoods. Here’s how he told the tale:

As I came through the slochk (i.e., ravine) I foregathered wi' the beast. My long dog there turned him. I buckled wi' him, and dirkit him, and syne whuttled his craig (i.e., cut his throat), and brought awa' his countenance for fear he might come alive again, for they are very precarious creatures.

Very precarious creatures indeed.

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.

The point of this shaggy dog’s tale is that the savage that stands outside of the factory in Mercier’s passage is not so different from the European savage, working within. As we enter the pin factory at the beginning of the Wealth of Nations, which inaugurates the science of economics, we are entering a fairy tale haunted place. The path of pins leads to Grandmother’s house.
About which, one more comment, or diversion.
Pins are also an integral part of the economy of spinning, as Jack Zipes, the Marxist hermeneut of all things Grimm, makes clear in “Rumpelstiltskin in Fairy Tale as Myth”. As he also makes clear, the patriarchal readings of Rumpelstiltskin – a tale classified under the motif of Helper’s Name in the Aarne-Thompson index – are, to say the least, misleading. Helper is the wrong name for Rumpelstiltskin – “he is obviously a blackmailer and an oppressor,” according to Zipes. Well, “obviously” is a strong word to use about any character in a fairy tale: he could be seen, as obviously, as the accursed share, rejected by the ennobled Miller’s Daughter who is seeking, above all else, to elevate her child above the status she was raised in, all the while keeping that status system intact to gain the benefits of it. Much like the American CEO, usually the product of student loans and state funded colleges, seeking to ensure the radical diminishment of public investment so that others are much more burdened down by student loans in less funded universities competing with the Ivies where the CEOs send their own children.

Still, Zipes is right to draw attention to the woman in the story. The Grimm Brother’s version of the tale is something of a disappointment in comparison to the version published by Madame L’heritier in the Cabinet des fees, Ricdin-Ricdon, since the character of the Miller’s daughter is not very developed in the former, while this character, Rosanie, the daughter of a peasant in L’heritier, is an acute psychological portrait of upward social ambition.

Zipes claims that the spinning motif in the Grimm Brother’s tales is, in a sense, a valedictory to the enormous injury done to women in the 18th and 19th century as their cottage industry of spinning and weaving was wrested from them and centralized in male managed factories.
The very first literary form of Rumpelstiltskin, Mademoiselle L’Heritier’s Ricdin-Ricdon, demonstrates that spinning was cherished by the aristocracy at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. The queen is most eager to employ Rosanie as a spinner and cherishes all the articles that Rosanie magically produces. We know that numerous French courts had constructed spinning rooms for women to produce much needed cloth, and there was a great demand for gifted spinners at the time that Mademoiselle L’heritier wrote her tale. Interestingly, her model spinner, Rosanie, takes possession of the devil’s magic wand (i.e., phallus) to create an image that satisfies if not exceeds society’s expectations. She does not spin straw into gold but rather flax into yarn and thread. ...

I think Zipes is correct to front the spinning in this tale as at least equivalent to the story of the name of the “helper” – but to make this a tale of spinning as an affectionately perceived craft is a bit of a distortion. He writes: “Throughout the entire tale, spinning and female creativity remain the central concern and are upheld as societal values that need support, especially male support.” This is a reading that fails to capture the irony in Rosanie’s story – to say the least. In L’Héritier’s tale, Rosanie has one abiding characteristic: a total abhorrence of spinning. When she is first spotted by Prince Prud’homme (and surely these bourgeois names for the royals – Prud’homme and Queen Laborieuse – are meant to ironically), she is being dragged around the back yard by her evil hag of a mother, who demands that her daughter spin more. In a crafty move that reproduces the comic gesture from Moliere’s Medecin malgre lui, when the hag is interrupted by Prince Prud’homme – who is taken by Rosanie’s looks and wants to know why she is being mistreated by the hag –she tells him a lie, a neat inversion of the truth – that she is punishing her daughter for spinning too much. Thus, under false pretences, Prince P. takes Rosanie back to the court, where his mother is delighted to receive a top flight spinner. Rosanie, horrified by what her mother has done but unable to face being expelled from the court if she confesses the truth, is going through the park to cast herself off a pavilion set on a cliff and end her life – so much does she hate spinning - when she meets the strange man – a big man, in the tale, with a dark face, but oddly amused face – to whom she tells her tale.

We are still telling that tale, over and over, pretending that the fairy tale and the economic model exist in two different worlds. This is a narrative wound that continues to produce such sores and disturbances in the social body that we might all die, fairy tale like, from its mistelling.