Progressing Backwards

This piece was written for Thomas Thwaites to appear in a publication about his Toaster Project. It will stay posted here until the book comes out later this year

Where do the products which fill our lives come from? ‘China’ is, of course, the standard answer to this question. The ‘dragon economy’s’ mammoth factories are high in our consciousness; drawing the attention of environmentalists worried about the effects of breakneck industrialisation and Western politicians troubled about competition.

But ‘China’ is an inadequate answer. Where do our things really come from? What lies behind the smooth buttons on your mobile phone or the elegant trainers on your feet? What is involved in extracting and processing the materials which give themselves up from the earth so reluctantly? Where does the copper in your ‘Made in China’ kettle come from? Were the electronic components and integrated circuits in your TV remote control assembled by machine or by hand? And what exactly has been integrated in that circuit anyway?

We rarely ask these kinds of questions. Perhaps the nature of our consumer culture makes averse to them. Consumer goods play a clever game of ‘hide and show’ with us: they call our attention, promising to satisfy our wants. Yet, at the same time, they veil their origins. Appearing to have no history or past, they materialise on the shelves of our shops as if by magic. This is what Walter Benjamin described as the ‘phantasmagoria’ of commodity culture. Modern societies – it seems – not only forget the material and practical origins of the commodities they consume, but they seem to have elevated them to minor deities.

In the ‘Toaster Project’ Thomas Thwaites set himself the task of making one of the most commonplace consumer goods from scratch. This means not assembling this modest appliance from other existing components but extracting and processing the materials from which the parts of a toaster are made. This book records his major failures and minor triumphs.

Thwaites begins his mission by dismantling the cheapest toaster on sale in the high street. This is an exercise in reverse engineering, the dark art practiced by military engineers trying to learn enemy secrets and copyright lawyers attempting to track down patent infringements. Thwaites’ project rapidly becomes another kind reverse engineering. Acting alone and eschewing the armoury of techniques available to modern industry, he finds himself in the position of late-medieval man with a limited repertoire of skills and expertise. His most effective guide to the task of smelting iron from ore is, for instance, not the latest issue of International Journal of Material Sciences but De Re Metallica, a fifteenth century treatise.

Modern myths of omnipotence come to seem like hubris when Thwaites is defeated by the task of smelting metals, something first practiced 8000 years ago. We know more now, don’t we? We are more expert than our ancestors, aren’t we? Yet, at the same time, we are also reliant on the knowledge they produced. This is pointed out by philosopher Michel Serres when he asks us to consider a new car: ‘It is a disparate aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods. One can date it component by component: this part was invented at the turn of the century, another ten years ago, and Carnot’s cycle is almost two hundred years old. Not to mention that the wheel dates back to Neolithic times. The ensemble is only contemporary by assemblage, by its design, its finish, sometimes only by the slickness of the advertising surrounding it.’[1] Submerged in our toasters are layers of hard-won and deeply practical knowledge – if only we could tap it.

In the spirit of many recent endeavours to limit the techno euphoria of the twenty-first century modernity, Thwaites set some sharp restrictions on his project.  Famously Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg called for filmmakers to return to first principles in their  ‘Vow of Chastity’. The obligation to shoot on site with actors, using natural sound and hand-held cameras would, they argued, ensure a cinematic purity which has been lost in the age of CGI and low-brow cinema. Thwaites particular holy ‘vows’ seem simple – ‘I must make all the parts of my toaster from scratch’ and ‘I must make my toaster myself’ – but like most rules they require interpretation. Making a toaster ‘on his own’ means not employing other people, but in the world today can anyone ever really be entirely independent, foregoing the expertise and services of others? Surely that’s the lonely territory of anti-modern hermits like Theodore Kaczynski, author of another ‘vow of chastity’, ‘the Unabomber Manifesto’.[2] The Toaster Project – over time – becomes a social one: in the course of his quest, Thwaites makes willing conscripts of professors, press officers and even amiable drunks

In one regard, Thwaites’ Toaster Project seems close in spirit to von Trier’s ‘Five Obstructions’ (2003) than the ‘Vow of Chastity’. In this documentary the Danish filmmaker set his friend and mentor, Jørgen Leth, the task of filmmaking under five impossible conditions. Failure was guaranteed, but what made the project worthwhile was Leth’s resourcefulness and imagination (as well as his attempts to stretch the rules). Making a toaster from scratch is surely an impossible task but not a pointless one. Thwaites’ project reveals much about the organisation of the modern world, not least the extent to which Britain’s industrial capacity has been dismantled. The country’s mines, foundries and factories have become, it seems, another form of phantasmagoria.

[1] Michel Serres (in conversation with Bruno Latour) Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (University of Michigan Press, 1995) 45.

[2] The complete text of Kaczynski’s manifesto, ‘The Industrial Society and its Future’ can be found at


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