Plate 1: Rube Goldberg’s “Idea for Dodging Bill Collectors.”

Brandon Avery Joyce
3 min readJul 17, 2023

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Above is a cartoon by Rube Goldberg entitled “Idea for Dodging Bill Collectors.” The caption runs: “Professor Butts mistakes a lot of broken glass for bath salts and when they pull him out of the tub, he mumbles an idea for dodging bill collectors… As Tailor (A) fits customer (B) and calls out measurements, college boy © mistakes them for football signals and makes a flying tackle at clothing dummy (D). Dummy bumps head against paddle (E) causing it to pull hook (F) and throw bottle (G) on end of folding hat rack (H) which spreads and pushes head of cabbage (I) into net (J). Weight of cabbage pulls cord (K) causing shears (L) to cut string (M). Bag of sand (N) drops on scale (O) and pushes the broom (P) against a pail of whitewash (Q) which upsets all over you, causing you to look like a marble statue and making it impossible to be recognized by bill collectors.” He adds: “Don’t worry about posing as any particular historical statue because bill collectors don’t know much about art.

Years ago I was sneaking into a museum through its gift shop and got mesmerized by a TV monitor looping Der Lauf der Dinge, “The Way Things Go” — a slow, oily, heavy-industrial, half-hour Rube Goldberg machine created and filmed by the Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss. As I was watching, I was trying to figure out why these things delight us so much, Rube Goldberg machines. It’s not just because they’re “unnecessary” or “over-elaborate,” though that they are. Rube Goldberg machines — in particular the ones created by Goldberg himself — are spoofs on a certain idea of causation, in particular the one we inherit from scientific modernity and its “ontology of mechanism,” which thinks of it as a sequence of necessary chainlike-linkages between commensurable causes and effects. Goldberg mimics the sequentialism of something like billiard balls or industrial process, as he mocks it with a “dazzling plurality of causes and possibilities.”

Machines depend on a general and reliable link between certain causes and effects, but each wonky step in a Goldberg machine flaunts the many possibilities of its failure or the high-unlikelihood of its repetition, such as a college boy © mistaking the tailor’s measurements for football signals or a thick coat of whitewash lending you the appearance of a marble statue. Goldberg also keeps us dizzy through the incommensurable plurality of his causes, from the weight of the cabbage to the sharpness of the shears, to the bill collector’s ignorance of art history. The weight, sharpness, and ignorance work together to help us dodge the bill collector, but even if they each require a certain magnitude — being heavy or sharp or ignorant enough to get the job done — these magnitudes can’t be expressed in commensurable terms, or in the case of ignorance, really be measured at all.

Goldberg machines are supposed to be ridiculous when, actually, they represent real-world causation more faithfully and dynamically than either the “chains” or “machines” of the ontology of mechanism, or even the “vector graphs” of theorists like Stephen Mumford. Mechanism is a very special case of causation, one defined, designed and manicured by human hands, that undeservedly became the dominant picture of all cause and effect sometime in early modernity. Even if they are spoofs or cartoons, Goldberg machines still come closer to fulfilling the criteria of what I was calling a “power-account,” in that they tell or show an irreducibly-thick account of (1) how and why something is produced or accomplished, (2) how and why it could fail or be thwarted (even implicitly, in the wonkiness or vertigo of its processes), and (3) how and why something could otherwise be produced or accomplished — which is easy enough for Goldberg machines since they’re the least mechanical of machines, operating at near-peak inefficiency, the longest distance between any two points, cause and effect.

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