Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake (2003)critiques modernity's commitment to homo faber--he who labors to use every instrument as a means to achieve a particular end in building a world, even when the fabrication of that world necessarily demands a repeated violation of its materiality, including its people. Atwood propels her novel through the memories of the main character, Snowman, a survivor of a deadly viral pathogen created and unleashed by his best friend, Crake. Too much a product of a profit-driven world who mirrors its economy of self-interest, Crake emerges as the quintessential homo faber, making it unlikely that any kind of positive social change will happen directly through him.
Instead, Atwood's character Snowman serves as a potential site for change. He faces the challenge of either taking deliberative and participatory action in the creation of a yet-to-be imagined inviolate world, or imitating homo faber. Atwood marks this tension from the outset of the novel, symbolizing it in Jimmy's name change to Snowman, which evokes The Abominable Snowman--"existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards [...] known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints" (8). These mythic and multi-directional footprints (they point backward as they move forward) represent Snowman's liminal position and potential power--to repeat a past cycle of aggression against nature in the name of personal profit, or to re-imagine a way for future living grounded in a genuine concern for others. Snowman's narrative about his past is concomitant of his ability to cross boundaries on several levels and to challenge existing structures all while working within them. At novel's end, when the possibility for again belonging to a community is revealed to him, he must choose: to retreat from, attack, or engage humanely the strangers with whom he is confronted. If he chooses the third option, it is possible that he will help to build a world unlike that which homo faber has produced. (1)
Under girding the development of homo faber is a basic, instrumental philosophy that has contributed to an elision of violence against material goods, including human instruments. This instrumentalism has naturalized the division of labor under capitalism and led to an increased decentralization in governing communities and alienation among individuals. Homo faber's instrumental worldview--grounded in separation and enclosure--acts as the cohesive agent that assures Jimmy a leading role in Crake's "Paradice" project. Of course, it is this same instrumental perspective that separates the two men as well. On one hand, Crake's scientific intelligence, evident through his work in Paradice where he creates the BlyssPluss pill and the genetically-spliced Crakers, positions him as a member of an elite class that values instrumental production only as it is linked with personal gain. On the other hand, Jimmy's humanistic tendencies socially marginalize him. Even as he is part of the privileged, scientific community because of his family background, he moves forever closer to membership in the "uncivilized" Pleebland culture that literally sits beyond the walls of his world.
Belonging and not belonging to his community is a marker that Snowman/Jimmy is Atwood's vehicle for showing that potential social change may be enacted. The supposed "good" life that homo faber has fabricated, and that has been reified in modernity, finds itself in question in this novel. Though it is plausible that readers, through Snowman, might concede the possibility for re-making a world in imitation of its predecessor, they might also be able to imagine a potential watershed moment in his decision--where future-life will be motivated less by personal gain and grounded more in a genuine care and respect for others. Since the novel concludes before that decision is made, however, choice and accountability are left in the minds of the readers, although Atwood does guide readers to contemplate seriously the ethical implications of particular choices.
THE MEANS TO PARADISE
In the Politics, Aristotle identifies antiquity's instrumental approach as integral to life. He claims that "no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries." Future-technology was envisioned as a way of easing the burden of life, and it was accepted that slavery would remain a tacit part of human existence until there would be some effective replacement for it, for until "the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them" (bk. 1, pt. 4), there would be a need for the enslavement of others to ease life's load. Since the means to "paradise"--or a better life exempt from difficult physical labor--was understood to emerge through active citizenry, more leisure time was desired so people could devote themselves to politics. Antiquity's goal in using slaves was to assist men in negotiating the realities of polis life and to fulfill the nature of man who is "a political animal" (bk. 1, pt. 2). The slave, according to Aristotle, was "the minister of action" (bk. 1, pt. 4). Property in the form of slaves who produced labor for household survival assured property owners that they could tend to civic duties.
Aristotle's description of the enslaved worker whose labor is a means for familial survival is identified some centuries later as animal laborens, the servant to nature who desires abundance from hard labor. The meaning for animal laborens emerges through the accepted idea that caring for nature through difficult labor will grant sustenance and survival. Joanne B. Ciulla points out, though, that since thinking and ideas were considered to be the most critical aspect of daily work in Greek life, intellectuals avoided humiliation by turning over hard physical labor to others. (2) Because the Greeks found the devaluation of the material world abhorrent, they understood homo faber--what they identified as the work of hands (3)--as philistine, although they understood the making of tools as instruments to help animal laborens as necessary.
In his Creative Evolution (1911), Henri Bergson defines homo faber in order to theorize intelligence, writing that "intelligence, considered in what seems to be its original feature, is the faculty of manufacturing artificial objects, especially tools to make tools, and of indefinitely varying the manufacture" (139). While this is a useful definition with which to begin, Hannah Arendt furthers the discussion of homo faber in The Human Condition. Arendt begins with a simple definition, "The Latin word faber, probably related to facere ('to make something' in the sense of production), [and] originally designated the fabricator and artist who works upon hard material, such as stone or wood" (136). She goes on to argue, however, that homo faber is contrary to animal laborens because he has always destroyed nature, not worked with it. (4) Arendt asserts that modern homo faber's domination depends upon one constant--that he understand himself as the measure of all things. While no doubt dependent upon natural resources to complete his work, he fails to note this fact and thus marks the resources as invisible in his fabrication. Arendt argues, in reiterating a popular Marxian claim that the process gets lost in the product, that with the fabrication and eventual reification of the product, homo faber himself loses sight of the several components critical to human creativity and ingenuity, changing the very essence of nature (150). For Arendt, the real tragedy of homo faber is his self-absorption in his own activity. He has naturalized reified production and has appropriated from animal laborens the desire for abundance--rewriting goals of communal sustenance derived from natural materials for basic needs to those of personal (often monetary) fulfillment through the use of natural resources to engender surplus.
In other words, in modernity productivity becomes more than the mere output of objects or tools derived from natural resources to ease the toil involved in life. The instrumentalism once integral to producing good …