Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Building with a Borrowed Axe

“The trouble with the academic imitator is not that he depends upon traditions, but that the latter have not entered into his mind; into the structures of his own ways of seeing and making.”
               -- John Dewey, Art as Experience, 277.
Overwhelmed by the clamor of the newly industrialized American life, Henry David Thoreau retreated to simple quill and quiet in a cabin on the banks of Walden Pond with nothing but a borrowed axe on Independence Day, July 4, 1845 (Walden, 70). Thoreau, like many other 19th century Americans, fought to find his feet on the unfamiliar industrial ground. He lamented the passing of real work, and with it real satisfaction, seeing hidden in the eyes of Americans a quiet desperation. “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under what are called the games and amusements of mankind,” says Thoreau. “There is no play in them, for this comes after work” (18). Thoreau and many others at the time, felt a deep sense that something real was being lost or covered over by culture and technology.

This desperation drove Thoreau into the woods to find consolation in the “bravery of minks and muskrats” (18). Learning to depend only on the work of his own hands and the company of his own thoughts was, for Thoreau, a process of self-discovery, self-mastery, and self-reliance. For two and a half years, Thoreau lived in a cabin built with his own two hands and an axe his neighbour lent him. The ambitious solitude of Thoreau’s project is admirable and puts to shame many of our sustainability efforts and our meager attempts to make things from scratch and “off the grid.”

A reproduction of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond
in Concord, Massachussetts.

And yet Henry David Thoreau built with a borrowed axe. “It is difficult to begin without borrowing,” he admits (40).

I think Thoreau represents an essential dynamic in culture, one that seems always present and necessary at some level. In every generation, there are always those in Western society who feel that something important is being lost or covered over. Whether we label them “hippy” or “emo” or “hipster” or whatever else, each of these movements represents people who are dissatisfied with the pressure to conform to the cultural status quo that dictates what individuality ought to look like. These movements, just like the American transcendentalists, can illuminate oppressive structures hidden in culture, and we would do well to pay attention to them rather than dismiss them outright.

However, we should also acknowledge that it is all too easy to forget that our individuality does not emerge out of nothing. No matter how self-reliant we think we are, we can’t get around the fact that we begin by borrowing. Each of us was each born into a culture, a language, and a tradition, and we cannot select our identities prior to our immersion in these. We can resist the pressures of the culture we find ourselves in. But even so, we can’t get around the fact that we are acting in response to something that already exists. Our identities are always anchored in one way or another, for better or worse, to the communities we find ourselves already in. In these communities, we are inescapably bound to one another, creating and changing each other through how we interact.

The point here is a Heideggerian one. We owe the core of who we are to the world into which we were born. We were thrown into a way of life from the moment we opened our eyes, a way that orients us in the world and gives us a certain fluency in our being-in-the-world. We learn a language that allows us to express our innovative ideas, and it’s impossible to have any individuality and freedom of self-expression unless we are already indebted to the culture into which we are born and raised. Unless we have borrowed an axe, so to speak, we cannot begin building our individuality.

The deep desire for self-reliance that was made explicit in the American transcendentalists like Thoreau is still with us today, I think, in the way authenticity is so highly valued. It represents a legitimate concern that we be keenly aware and critical of the sorts of pressures that society exerts on us and the ambient noise that subtly shapes the way we think. At the same time, though, this desire for self-reliance grows out of a certain way of thinking about individuality that locates our individual uniqueness and our core selves somewhere deep inside ourselves, closed off from the world and from others. Coming to terms with our belonging to one another and to the culture into which we were born allows us to cultivate who we want to be in an authentic way that moves from simple self-reliance to other-reliance, to an ontology of dependence.

So it seems to me that the search for authenticity, or its fetishization according to some, is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it contributes to a self-aware critique of the culture that shapes us, built on an ontology of dependence rather than the blind pursuit of self-reliant novelty. Authentic individuality, built with a borrowed axe, makes way for a new kind of self-reliance that is not just about our inner selves and is inseparable from our dependence upon one another.

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, discourse, and issues surrounding individual and group identity.

Photo used from


  1. I have to wonder if the newly-extreme popular focus on public image as identity isn't in fact a response to the understanding that individuality is dependently originated. Some would argue that public image as identitty isn't all that new, but I would counter that public individuals who are purely characters is relatively new. Alice Cooper, the name of a band, became the name of the band's singer, who in real life was nothing like his stage self, not merely an edited-for-distribution version of his usual self. People copied the image, not the person. Fast forward to this decade, what explains the Kardashian phenomenon -- commanding interest because they are famous rather than being famous because they command interest? Alice Cooper at least commanded interest because of artistic skill and originality, which isn't entirely removed from authenticity, but once relieved of even seeking an authenticity rooted somewhere inside rather than outside, isn't the risk that we get pure inauthenticity -- culture eating its own tail -- Kardashian Kulture?


  2. Kardashian Kulture! That's a scary thought. I think the Kardashians are an interesting case because on one hand they illustrate clearly some of the pressure built into our culture -- get rich, be famous -- but at the same time, most of us are extremely critical of their lifestyle (I hope). Now that they are publicly built into culture, we as members of the same culture have the ability (and responsibility) to think critically about them. How much do we want to imitate their lifestyle, and how much do we want to reject it? This is the kind of authentic individuality that I suggest (in agreement with Heidegger, I think) we should shoot for. If we let go of our critical stance and succumb to the pressures built into culture (like the Kardashians), I think there could be a risk of becoming a Kardashian culture.

    I would be interested in hearing some more of the connection between Alice Cooper and the Kardashians that you are making. Can you unpack that a little bit more? How is public image/recognition connected to the kind of authenticity we're talking about here?

  3. I'm not critical of their lifestyle but perhaps only because I don't know anything about it.

    What I am trying to get at it is that if we understand what/who-we-are as a "borrowed axe" then what we express can be considered authentic by simply being a mirror of the culture, and I think that can stifle critique of the culture as easily as it can make any critique more self-aware. I'm not arguing with what you have to say but only trying to point to what I see as a potential fork in the road, if we stop willingly embracing our fictions about self-contained individuality. Down one fork we become aware of how our aculturation affects our thinking about culture itself, and this improves our thinking, but down the other fork, relieved of the need to try to find authenticity within, we look for it without.

    I think I reacted a bit to your use of "dependency", perhaps too much. The phrasing "an ontology of dependence" lit my fuse and probably coloured my reading. I want to put "inter" in front of your "dependence" in the worst way. :)

    To unpack a bit more, the Kardashian and Alice Cooper phenomena illustrate how easily folks can simply take the second fork in the road. Alice Cooper's success was rooted in its novelty and demonstrated that titillation alone could be sufficient for success. It titillated in contrast to the culture, and at least Alice Cooper was original and had artistic merit, and expressed a mood of its time. Kardashian titillation, it seems to me, is based in repetition and reflection of the existing culture, confirming it with no pretense of authentic contribution or attempt at critique needed, because we no longer acknowledge any other place to try to find authenticity.