John Ruskin: Fit the First

Thirteen years ago, when my friend Jamie Smith launched his blog, he named it Fors Clavigera in honor of a strange and powerful project by the great Victorian sage John Ruskin. Jamie rightly notes in that first post that the original Fors Clavigera, though published as a series of monthly pamphlets, could be seen as a kind of “proto-blog.” How so?

Let’s start with some background. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (a) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (b) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (c) that, therefore, a critique of political economy had to be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be fixed so that the conditions of labor could be fixed so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavor was a series of 1857 lectures called The Political Economy of Art.

Several of Ruskin’s books started as lectures. Nineteenth-century England was devoted to public lectures and readings – audiences were often huge – and Ruskin found it helpful to work to an inflexible deadline and then, later, flesh out certain points at greater length for print. But Fors was a new and different thing for him. By the time he began it, in 1872, he had come to believe that the condition of England, with so much and ever-increasing wealth standing side-by-side with the most appalling poverty, could not be addressed by him through the occasional lectures or books, but by an ongoing project: a continuous prophetic engagement accompanied by practical efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor. “For my own part,” he wrote at the outset of the project,

I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one; I have no particular pleasure in doing good; neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, and the very light of the morning sky, when there is any – which is seldom, now-a-days, near London – has become hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see signs of, where I know it not, which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.

So what to do?

I must clear myself from all sense of responsibility for the material distress around me, by explaining to you, once for all, in the shortest English I can, what I know of its causes; by pointing out to you some of the methods by which it might be relieved; and by setting aside regularly some small percentage of my income, to assist, as one of yourselves, in what one and all we shall have to do; each of us laying by something, according to our means, for the common service; and having amongst us, at last, be it ever so small, a national Store instead of a National Debt. Store which, once securely founded, will fast increase, provided only you take the pains to understand, and have perseverance to maintain, the elementary principles of Human Economy, which have, of late, not only been lost sight of, but wilfully and formally entombed under pyramids of falsehood.

In order to have a secure place for his financial contribution, Ruskin started a charitable organization called St. George’s Company, later (and still) the Guild of St. George; and for the teaching and explaining part of his program, he began publishing these letters.

In the end he published them monthly, mostly, for over a decade – there are 96 of them in all. And as he went along the style became more and more loose, casual, associative, even chaotic. He called this the third of his “ways of writing,” a style in which he simply wrote whatever came into his head and then later on gave it some measure of grammatical coherence. It is a style especially suited to his topic, because what he wanted to show, throughout the letters, was the complex set of ways in which the natural world, human perception, the human desire to make beautiful and useful things, and our social and political systems all interact with one another. Here is a passage that I have chosen utterly at random from the first volume of the collected letters:

In old times, under the pure baronial power, things used, as I told you, to be differently managed by us. We were, all of us, in some sense barons; and paid ourselves for fighting. We had no pocket pistols, nor Woolwich Infants – nothing but bows and spears, good horses, (I hear after two-thirds of our existing barons have ruined their youth in horse-racing, and a good many of them their fortunes also, we are now in irremediable want of horses for our cavalry), and bright armour. Its brightness, observe, was an essential matter with us. Last autumn I saw, even in modern England, something bright; low sunshine at six o’clock of an October morning, glancing down a long bank of fern covered with hoar frost, in Yewdale, at the head of Coniston Water. I noted it as more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, to my remembrance, in gladness and infinitude of light. Now, Scott uses this very image to describe the look of the chain-mail of a soldier in one of these free companies; – Le Balafre, Quentin Durward’s uncle: – “The archer’s gorget, arm-pieces, and gauntlets were of the finest steel, curiously inlaid with silver, and his hauberk, or shirt of mail, was as clear and bright as the frost-work of a winter morning upon fern or briar.” And Sir John Hawkwood’s men, of whose proceedings in Italy I have now to give you some account, were named throughout Italy, as I told you in my first letter, the White Company of English, ‘Societas alba Anglicorum,’ or generally, the Great White Company, merely from the splendour of their arms. They crossed the Alps in 1361, and immediately caused a curious change in the Italian language.

(The Woolwich Infant was a mighty cannon of which the celebrants of British power were perhaps inordinately proud.) Notice how Ruskin swerves from history to the observation of nature to his memories of his literary reading and then back to history. This kind of free association of ideas is very characteristic of Fors – as it is of many blogs. So that’s the first way in which Fors may be said to be a proto-blog.

But another way is more important: Ruskin received many letters in response to each issue of Fors, and, because of his stature in English society, received a good deal of commentary in newspapers and other periodicals as well. Ruskin simply incorporated these responses, and his reflections on them, into later issues of Fors. So gradually the series became less of a monologue and more of a rich, complex, polyphonic conversation.

Fors was a marvel in its own time, as important a literary/cultural/political project as any produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is little known today. To some degree that is because of its intrinsic topicality, its sensitive responsiveness to the issues of its own day; but I think a more important reason for its neglect is is its combination of massiveness (hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words) and unexcerptability – you just can’t get the feel of it without reading each letter in full. Here are two early ones to give you a taste, though they are not as dialogical as the later ones would become: Letter 7 and Letter 10.

But why am I so interested in this project of Ruskin’s? I’ll explain that in my next post.

a little more on micro.blog

Some things I like: 

  • Markdown formatting in posts 
  • plain old RSS feeds for the blogs 
  • it’s really hard to find out how many people follow you 
  • no public faves/likes — I can see what I’ve faved, but if I want you to know that I liked your post I have to reply to you and tell you that I liked your post 
  • no retweets 
  • no quote-tweets 
  • no bots 
  • no ads 
  • chronological feeds 

You can see that much of what I like about micro.blog involves the absence of “features.” You can post thoughts and images and links, and you can converse with people. That’s it. 
I’ve already heard from several people telling me that micro.blog will fail just the way earlier Twitter alternatives failed. I think it’s got a better chance of surviving than any of the previous contenders — and I don’t think it’s best described as a “Twitter alternative” anyway — but let’s say these folks are right and micro.blog shuts its doors. In that case I’ll export my posts to my WordPress blog and keep on keeping on. 

social media their way — or my way

It’s fairly common for the local businesses I follow on Instagram to post there news of sales, or unusual opening hours, or special events. Thanks to Instagram’s refusal to enable a simple chronological feed, its insistence on inscrutable algorithmic presentations, I almost never see these until it’s too late. Sometimes I have shown up at a local food truck only to find it closed — something I would have known about in advance if my Instagram feed were chronological.

Similarly, when I was in London last week, I discovered that some dear friends of mine were also there — but only the day before we were returning to the States, when it was impossible to find time to meet. If their photos had showed up in my feed when they were posted, I would’ve known in plenty of time for us to get together.

I only follow about 150 Instagram accounts, so the algorithm has to work pretty hard to hide such news from me. But it manages. It’s rather astonishing – as is the determination on the part of Instagram (or, I suppose, its parent company Facebook) to make their service as unfriendly to its users as possible. Why in the world would I devote time and energy to a service that doesn’t allow me to see the posts I have explicitly signed up to see? (Yes, you can navigate to each person you follow, one by one, to see if they’ve posted anything lately, but come on.)

Twitter is similarly brain-dead in its preferred user experience, but it has had the advantage of a vibrant network of third-party clients who bring the appearance of Twitter closer to what it ought to be. That’s about to end. Thanks, Twitter!

So I am considering two alternatives. One is to post everything directly to my own turf, which has advantages that I have outlined here on several occasions. However, my blog runs on WordPress, and WordPress is not really designed for the kind of quick, frictionless posting that Instagram and Twitter are both designed for – and while I am a committed believer in blogging as an engine of thinking, I also believe that there’s a real place for the quicker stuff, the daily-diary stuff. So I also have acquired a micro.blog site. Manton Reece has done a fantastic job with micro.blog, whose origins he describes here – it’s very much part of the open-web movement that I have also celebrated here.

So far I have enjoyed micro.blog very much: it has some features Twitter lacks (it supports Markdown, for instance) and anything I post there I can also seamlessly cross-post to Twitter or to my own site – most of my recent tweets have originated as micro.blog posts, though you can’t tell that on Twitter. I am also quite interested in the new support for micro-podcasts.

So while I like the simplicity of keeping everything on my own turf, micro.blog offers other kinds of simplicity that are also very attractive. So I think that’s the way I’ll go. Micro.blog isn’t free – Manton won’t run ads, and hosting costs money. But my posts and photos belong to me, and I can export them to WordPress any time I want; and people are unlikely to pay for the privilege of trolling, especially when they can do that for free on Twitter. So I would encourage you thoughtful people to consider signing up for a micro.blog account.

what rituals are and do

I want to isolate what I believe to be the key passage in this piece by Sigal Samuel on Ritual Design Lab. Here it is:

Finally, an endeavor like Ritual Design Lab has a paradox at its heart. If I contact the Ritual Design Hotline and the team solves my problem by creating a ritual for me, I am implicitly buying into the notion that I’m not capable of creating one myself. By outsourcing ritual design, I am, to use Steinlauf’s idiom, objectifying rather than subjectifying it; I’m reinscribing the old notion that we have to look to outside experts for such things. Only now, instead of turning to a rabbi or a priest or a guru, I’m turning to a designer.

Ozenc does not necessarily see this as a problem. In the Stanford classes he co-taught with Hagan, he ran two sessions. In the first, each student designed a ritual for herself. In the second, students paired up: One, the designer, was tasked with crafting a ritual for the other, the client. “The second version is more effective because you might not be seeing the opportunities in your life — maybe someone else can see better,” Ozenc told me. “There’s value in it if someone you trust comes in, and you give that other person permission to design a ritual for you.”

That, of course, is what religious people have been doing for millennia; it’s just that the “other person” might have lived in the year 218, not 2018.

Even though at this point in the piece Samuel has already quoted a rabbi who questions the legitimacy of separating ritual from religion, she returns here to a framing of the whole endeavor that is simply a mismatch with the character of ritual. (It is of course the same framing that drives Ritual Design Lab.) The assumptions of this framing are:

  • rituals are designed;
  • I can either design my own rituals or let “experts” do it for me;
  • rituals are “solutions” to “problems”;
  • rituals implicitly endorse what a founder of Ritual Design Lab says explicitly: “the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this — that at the center of any religion should be the person.”

But all of those notions may be questioned. One might argue, rather, that:

  • rituals are not designed but rather emerge from the life of a community;
  • there can be, therefore, no “experts” in ritual-making;
  • rituals do not solve problems but are rather a mode of communal expression;
  • the central focus of any genuine ritual is not the human being or even the community but rather the personage, god, or power that the ritual seeks to propitiate, plead with, or worship.

more on disenchantment

A follow-up to this post
In the Introduction to The Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Josephson-Storm writes: 

For three years, starting in 1905, some of France’s most famous scientists had assembled in apartments and laboratories in Paris to study this particular Italian spirit medium — Eusapia Palladino. In addition to the Curies, others often in attendance were the celebrated physiologist Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval, the eminent psychiatrist Gilbert Ballet, the aristocratic doctor Count Arnaud de Gramont, and three future Nobel Prize winners — the physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin, the physiologist Charles Richet, and the philosopher Henri Bergson. The French were not the only ones interested in Eusapia; from 1872 until her death in 1918, her powers were tested by teams of researchers in England, Italy, Poland, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The paranormal researchers who investigated Eusapia were not marginal eccentrics, but the cutting edge of the period’s academic establishment. Yet these researchers were exploring areas that were often marked out by their contemporaries as occult, if not downright magical. They did so not as a legacy of medieval “superstitions,” nor generally as a way to overturn science, but rather as a means to extend its borders….
In one of the last letters before his death (addressed to Louis Georges Gouy, April 14, 1906), Pierre Curie remarked, “We have had several more séances with the medium Eusapia Palladino (we already had sessions with her last summer). The result is that these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me doubt them. It is incredible but it is so; and it is impossible to deny it after the sessions, which we performed under perfectly controlled conditions.” He added: “In my opinion, there is here a whole domain of completely new facts and physical states of space about which we have had no conception.” 

JJS, commenting on this exemplary scene, continues, 

I challenge one conventional notion of modernity and suggest that we should be less surprised than we usually are to find scientists of all stripes keeping company with magicians; that reason does not eliminate “superstition” but piggybacks upon it; that mechanism often produces vitalism; and that often, in a single room, we can find both séance and science. The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong.

Now, JJS knows far more about all this than I do, so you should my quibbles with several large grains of salt, but the story of the Curies looks different to me than it does to JJS. It seems to me that the Curies — and many like them — seek to bring the manifestations of spiritualism within the disenchanted order, under the disciplinary control of what Bruno Latour calls the “modern constitution.” Thus Pierre Curie’s emphasis on observing Eusapia under “perfectly controlled conditions”: all supposedly paranormal phenomena must justify themselves at the bar of the scientific method, and if they do, then they are no longer paranormal — they’re just normal. And in that way we do see what JJS calls “extending the borders” of science, but not in a way that restores enchantment. Rather, the modern constitution, the methodological guarantee of disenchantment, remains in place. 
PSA: I’ll be traveling for the next week, so there probably won’t be any posts. 

quote tweets are the worst

Claire McNear, How Quote Tweets Helped Ruin Twitter:

When did things get so bad on Twitter? It’s hard to say, even as nostalgia for the network’s simpler, friendlier days permeates the site. Was it the runup to the 2016 election? The inevitable growth beyond the insidery club of Twitter’s earliest days? The mainstreaming of meme and troll culture? In reality, the shift in discourse from freewheeling internet lab to Room Where Everyone Screams At Everyone owes itself to many things: from the things above to the worldwide SAD plague and rickets hastened by a planet of laptop dens. But quote tweets—a nice, little feature on a nice, little site meant for us to do nice, little things—have had an outsize role in the nastiness…. 
The result is that the ugliest things on Twitter are frequently amplified. Unlike instances of ratio-ing, quote tweets beam the ugliness straight into followers’ feeds. The problem is especially insidious with Twitter’s true merchants of hate, who capitalize on just such a reaction: What more could an aspiring alt-right toad with 1,000 followers hope for than to be huffily fired into thousands upon thousands of additional feeds? 

One of the ways I’ve tried to make Twitter more manageable and less frustrating is by disabling most people’s retweets. But there’s no way, on Twitter.com or on any client I know of, to disable quote-tweets. So when people want not just to spread the bad word but comment on it, to explain why it’s bad or to mock the person who originally tweeted it — and this is far more common that simply retweeting objectionable material — there’s no way for me to avoid that

linking and the open web

Scripting News: The Internet is going the wrong way:

Click a link in a web browser, it should open a web page, not try to open an app which you may not have installed. This is what Apple does with podcasts and now news.# Facebook is taking the place of blogs, but doesn’t permit linking, styles. Posts can’t have titles or include podcasts. As a result these essential features are falling into disuse. We’re returning to AOL. Linking, especially is essential. 
Google is forcing websites to change to support HTTPS. Sounds innocuous until you realize how many millions of historic domains won’t make the switch. It’s as if a library decided to burn all books written before 2000, say. The web has been used as an archival medium, it isn’t up to a company to decide to change that, after the fact.
Medium, a blogging site, is gradually closing itself off to the world. People used it for years as the place-of-record. I objected when I saw them do this, because it was easy to foresee Medium pivoting, and they will pivot again. The final pivot will be when they go off the air entirely, as commercial blogging systems eventually do. 

Every major tech company — or at least every major tech company that deals in the online world — seems to think it needs to marginalize and deprecate the open web. 

Infinity Bore

I’ve been mulling over The Avengers: Infinity War for the past few days, and I am ready to offer some evaluative comments.

On the plus side, Thanos is maybe the best villain the MCU has produced so far. And there was some witty banter.

On the minus side: everything else. This is the only Marvel movie I’ve seen that made me wish I could get my money back.

There are certain elementary rules of storytelling that no honest worker in the narrative arts would ever knowingly violate. Characters who are intelligent and thoughtful at one moment do not become moronic in the next. Characters who have certain abilities – to play the piano, say, or to emit powerful force fields from their hands – do not exhibit dramatic but unexplained alternations in those abilities from scene to scene. Characters with certain essential traits, traits which they pride themselves on – mercilessness, for instance – don’t occasionally and (again) for no reason exhibit the opposite traits. Characters who die by precisely the same (magical) means do not experience that death in dramatically different ways according to whether the writers want to squeeze out some extra pathos or not. Above all, no honest worker in the narrative arts would try to extract emotional impact from the deaths of characters whose inevitable resurrection in the next film is repeatedly gestured at with big broad winks.

This sheer incoherence of the movie almost put me to sleep. By the time I left the theater I had already forgotten most of what happened, because there was no meaningful sense in which it, you know, “happened.” Every movie has inconsistencies and plot holes, and this is especially true of superhero movies, we all know that; but at this point Marvel has simply stopped trying to tell stories that make sense. You’re just expected to move along from scene to scene, making the prescribed responses in the moment in complete disregard of whatever happened three minutes ago and what might happen two minutes later. But the MCU doesn’t care; why should we?

Bleg: on account creation

MyScript has an iPad handwriting app called Nebo – I’ve been trying it out with the Apple Pencil, and it’s quite interesting. I especially like the way it allows you to create simple charts by hand and have them converted into neat images.

But if you want to backup/sync your notes to Dropbox or iCloud, you have to create a MyScript account. Now, I have many other iOS apps that connect to Dropbox and iCloud, and none of them require account creation in order to do so. So I wrote to MyScript to ask them why they require this, and they won’t answer. I got a reply, but it didn’t answer my question: someone just pasted in the policy that I am asking about.

So why do you think MyScript demands account creation for backup/sync? Is it simple that they want my email address so they can spam me with ads? Or could there be some additional reason?

(Also: remember blegs? Good times, good times.)

UPDATE: Just got another reply from MyScript: “This is a choice made to promote new features to registered users and because future updates will require registration, but I cannot communicate more on this subject at the moment.” Which confirms the spam-me-with-ads assumption but also suggests that there will be pricing tiers for the app in the future. But that can be done without making people create an account. So spam it is?

on the myth of disenchantment

I just wrapped up my course on The History of Disenchantment and one of the interesting elements of the class – well, interesting to me, anyway, but I think also to most of my students – involved the ways that Jason Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment challenges the big narrative of Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taylor’s argument, radically condensed, is that the early modern era in the West inaugurated the construction of the Modern Moral Order: an order in which (a) spirits do not populate the world and therefore cannot be directed and need not be propitiated; (b) magic is impossible; (c) God exists but is not directly involved with the world He made, which runs along on its own power; and (d) God expects everyone to meet His moral standards. In such an environment, which is not created all at once but over a period of centuries, human beings are no longer “porous” but rather “buffered” selves who dwell within a “disciplinary society” that produces good citizens of a disenchanted order.

From this account – which is of course, in its large outlines, not unique to Taylor, though he adds some unique elements – Josephson-Storm (hereafter JJS) dissents.

The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong. Attempts to suppress magic have historically failed more often than they’ve succeeded. It is unclear to me that science necessarily deanimates nature. In fact, I will argue à la Bruno Latour that we have never been disenchanted.

JJS believes, rather, that secularization, far from extinguishing enchantment, promotes and encourages and in a sense creates it. Even when the Christian God is excluded from socially acceptable belief, spirits come to take His place. Thus, “In the face of things like [Marie] Curie’s scientific séances, spiritualist revivals, and the modern resurgence of magical orders like the Golden Dawn, how did we get the idea that modernity meant disenchantment in the first place?” The Myth of Disenchantment is a fascinating and illuminating book, but I’m not sure that it successfully makes its case; I think Taylor’s argument largely survives JJS’s critique.

The first point I want to note in this context is that JJS makes a subtle and unacknowledged but important shift in the terms of his argument. Early in the book he cites a series of studies that show the persistence of beliefs in spirits, ghosts, and a wide range of paranormal phenomena. This lays the groundwork for his claim that “we have never been disenchanted.” But then the rest of the book focuses exclusively on intellectuals: philosophers, physicists, historians, social scientists, plus the odd quasi-intellectual like Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley.

One consequence of this shift of attention is that it allows JJS to ignore enchantments or re-enchantments that had no popularity among intellectuals: thus the Order of the Golden Dawn gets discussed but not Pentecostalism, which is by any sociological measure infinitely more important and influential than the Golden Dawn. More generally, the whole vast history of Christian (and for that matter Jewish) renewal movements over the past four hundred years plays no role here. It seems to me that JJS ought at least to tip his hat to them.

That said, such movements need play no major role in his story, because that story is not about Everyone, but rather primarily about those figures — from Bacon and Descartes to Madame Curie and Theodor Adorno — who are thought to be representatives of a disenchanted cosmos, or who thought themselves to be, or both. That is, the story JJS tells is of enchantment and re-enchantment appearing where they are least expected. And he tells it well.

But even so, not wholly convincingly. I do not have time or leisure to develop this argument at the length it deserves, but it seems to me that what we see in episodes like Madame Curie’s interest in séances, or Max Müller’s endorsement of mysticism, or James Frazer’s speculations about some realm of knowledge that lies beyond science as we now know it, is not the persistence of an enchanted cosmos or the renewal of one. Rather, I think what we see is a group of people dwelling day-by-day and hour-by-hour fully within Taylor’s MMO who occasionally peer over the fence at goings-on among the naive, credulous, and superstitious.

The spirit, I think, is at its strongest the “wishing it might be so” of Hardy’s “The Oxen,”, and more often appears as a kind of brief mental vacation from a disenchanted world of buffered selves, from Weber’s “iron cage of rationality” — the sort of impulse that made Darwin so delighted by sentimental novels:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

One might also cite the great affection of so many hard-core materialists for fantasy and superhero stories. In contrast to JJS, I would contend that this kind of thing does not mean that “we have never been disenchanted,” but that we have, and sometimes we hate it.

(There is so much more to be said about this fascinating book, to which I have scarcely done justice here — maybe I can return to it later.)