John Ruskin: Fit the Second

So what interests me about Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera? Several things:

  • a lively interchange of ideas about political economy with ideas about art and aesthetics;
  • a conviction that our tools, our technologies, interact ceaselessly and complexly with art, politics, and economics;
  • an understanding of writing as one way to contribute to the knitting up of a frayed social fabric;
  • a willingness to take up certain traits of one’s age (in Ruskin’s case, the manic energy of a society determined to transform and rule most of the known world) in order to critique them;
  • a persistence in seeking constructive means to engage in conversation when so many of the usual channels are anything but constructive;
  • an embrace of open-endedness, with a resulting willingness to tolerate intellectual and professional risk.

All of those elements are exciting and worthy of emulation, and I can’t help thinking that it would be really exciting if I could, here on this little blog, follow in Ruskin’s footsteps. But there is something missing from Fors Clavigera that I’d like to add to my reflections here.

Ruskin was raised as an evangelical Christian, and his early writings on art and architecture are saturated in biblical language and characterized by deep theological reflection. Indeed, I think that in those early works, especially The Seven Lamps of Architecture, there are profound resources for a theological aesthetics that to this day have not been fully tapped.

But in 1858, when visiting Turin, and having been depressed by a boring and stupid sermon, Ruskin saw Veronese’s painting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and was overwhelmed by the sensual immediacy of the work — which seemed to him far more obviously true than the spectral doctrines of Christianity. He experienced what he called his “deconversion,” and this lasted for nearly twenty years. He returned to some kind of faith only in 1876, when in the midst of writing Fors, but this was accompanied by a deterioration in his mental condition which eventually led to bouts of complete insanity, so his thinking of the time, while deeply embedded in biblical texts and images, is not fruitful for anyone else’s reflection. It wasn’t fruitful for his, either.

(All of these aesthetic and religious experiences were for Ruskin fantastically intertwined with his tormented and disastrous erotic life, first his unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray and later his unconsummated passion for Rose la Touche. But we’ll ignore all that mess.)

What intrigues me is the question of what Fors would have looked like if Ruskin’s reflections on social, political, economic, and aesthetic issues had been informed by religious commitment and theological reflection. To be sure, the letters of Fors are studded throughout biblical imagery and reference: Ruskin had known the Bible intimately from early childhood, and had a terrifyingly powerful memory. (I say “terrifyingly” in part because one of his psychological problems, as he himself sometimes commented, was that he remembered everything he had ever read or seen and therefore found it all too easy to draw correspondences between texts and images and ideas that really had nothing to do with one another. His prodigious memory made his mind too fertile.) But the absence of a theological dimension to Ruskin’s thought in this period makes the social analysis of Fors more agitated, more purely angry and often despairing, than it needed to be.

So — in case it’s not obvious — what I am trying to imagine is a Ruskinian approach to our own moment that uses digital technology against technopoly, that sees art and economics and politics as mutually animating (for good or for ill), and that can situate all these reflections within a serious theological framework. In the days and weeks to come I’m going to try to work through these possibilities, and that will involve reading, in a thoroughly non-systematic way, many of Ruskin’s works. So stay tuned for that, if you’d like. And if you make provocative comments I will try to engage with them in future posts!

In the meantime, check out the posts about Ruskin on my personal blog — there are many wonderful images there. Ruskin drew beautifully.

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.

two apologies and a bleg

Apology One: I wrote a post a while back about hating time-travel stories, and almost immediately after I did so I started thinking of exceptions to that rule. I mean, I’ve been praising Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself to the skies and it’s a time-travel story, though it’s also many other things. I thought of another example, and then another, and soon enough it became obvious to me that I don’t hate time-travel stories at all. I was just annoyed by one that I thought went wrong, largely because it reminded me of several others that I thought went wrong in very similar ways. So that was a classic case of rash blogging. I am truly sorry to writers and readers of time-travel stories, and I humbly repent and pledge amendment of life.

Apology Two: In a similarly fractious mood, I once wrote a screed against podcasts. But I have not given up on my search for podcasts — in part because I think the medium has so much promise — and since I wrote that post have listened to a whole bunch of them, and have developed affection for a few. So let me again repent of the extremity of my language and the coarseness of my reactions.

In another post, I’ll do some capsule reviews of the podcasts I’ve been listening to in the past year, but for now I have, as we academics say, a comment and a question.

The comment is that the one kind of podcast I absolutely cannot abide is the most common kind: two dudes talking. Or three dudes, or three women, or any combination of genders — it’s the chatting-in-front-of-a-microphone that drives me nuts. The other day I tried listening to Control-Walt-Delete, but when Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel spent the first five minutes discussing what the sports teams of the schools they had attended were called, I said Finis, done, I’m outta here. No, I like podcasts that are professionally edited, scripted, festooned with appropriate music, crafted into some kind of coherent presentation. Podcasts like that seem respectful to the listener, wanting to engage my attention and reward it.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that the podcasts I know that do that best are relentlessly liberal in their political and social orientation. Which is not surprising, given that most of our media are likewise liberal. And I don’t even mean that as a criticism: there is a significant liberal element to my own political makeup, and if you want to know why that is, just listen to this episode of the Criminal podcast. Criminal in general is a good example of the kind of podcast I like, from its sound design and apt use of music to its strong storytelling. Even the website is artfully designed.

Which leads me to my Bleg: Does anyone know of similarly well-crafted, artful podcasts made by conservatives or Christians? I have not yet found a single one. Podcasts by conservatives and Christians tend to be either bare-bones — two dudes talking, or one dude talking with maybe a brief musical intro and outro — or schmaltzily over-produced. (Just Christians in that second category.) Anyone know of any exceptions to this judgment? I suspect that there’s an unbridgeable gulf of style here, but I’d like to be proved wrong.

UPDATE: Despite the quite clear statements I make above to the effect that (a) I really, really dislike dudes-talking podcasts and (b) I am not asking about dude-talking podcasts but about professionally produced podcasts, people keep writing on Twitter and email to say “Hey, here’s a dudes-talking podcast that you might like.” Sigh.

a public amateur’s story

There is so much that’s wonderful about Sara Hendren’s talk here that I can’t summarize it — and wouldn’t if I could. Please just watch it, and watch to the end, because in the last few minutes of the talk things come together in ways that will be unexpected to those who don’t know Sara. Also be sure to check out Abler.

One of Sara’s models is the artist Claire Pentecost, who sees herself as a public amateur:

One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.

Public amateurs can have exceptional social value, not least because they dare to question experts who want to remain unquestioned simply by virtue of accredited expertise; public amateurs don’t take “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” as an adequate self-justification. But perhaps the greatest contribution public amateurs make to society arises from their insistence — it’s a kind of compulsion for them — on putting together ideas and experiences that the atomizing, specializing forces of our culture try to keep in neatly demarcated compartments. This is how an artist and art historian ends up teaching at an engineering school.

There are two traits that, if you wish to be a public amateur, you simply cannot afford to possess. You can’t insist on having a plan and sticking with it, and you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re the sort of person whose ducks must always be in a neat, clean row, the life of the public amateur is not for you. But as the personal story Sara tells near the end of her talk indicates, sometimes life has a way of scrambling all your ducks. When that happens, you can rage vainly against it; or you can do what Sara did.

more on social structures and imaginative work

A couple of follow-ups on yesterday’s oddball rantish thing on the social and economic structures that enable or disable genuine imagination:

First, a really thoughtful response from my friend Bryan McGraw, who can provide a political philosopher’s take on these issues. Please read it all, but here’s an excerpt:

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer. See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty! Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held). And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way. That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

In a well-known passage, C. S. Lewis writes, “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.” I think (I hope) that later ages will see almost all of today’s political thought as wrapped up in the unquestioned and even unconfronted assumption that people are simply “calculating preference machines.”

More directly to the point of my article, while Eisenhower may have wanted us to distrust the “military-industrial complex” because of its power to involve private industry in policy-making, and while that is a very important warning indeed, when government, mega-industry, and the university system all become entangled beyond the possibility of disentanglement, the flow of influence runs in all directions, but especially from the richer to the less-rich — from the patrons to the patronized. And that puts universities in the position of being shaped far more than they shape; and that, in turn, puts the artists and writers who work for the university in an even more dependent position. This worries me.

I think I’ll have more to say about Bryan’s smart response, but for now just one note: I do think the anti-capitalist left is likely to find something to cheer in my post; they and I have a good deal in common. My politics are probably too incoherent to describe, but one might say that they are sorta kinda paleo-conservative green-communitarian, emphasizing the need to renew and strengthen the institutions (especially family and local community, and schools insofar as they grow out of family and local community) that mediate between the individual and the nation-state, for the better care of people and the created order. And since the nation-state that is growing and growing and growing in power is an international-capitalist one, I end up agreeing with the left that that nation-state’s dominance is probably our largest single political problem. When I think about politics, I have infinitely more sympathy for a left-anarchist like David Graeber than I do for any National Greatness conservatism. (Bryan, set me straight if I’m leaving the true path here.)

Second: One of the reasons I want to make an argument for regenerating genuine imagination, genuine creativity, is that “imagination” and “creativity” and today almost totally co-opted by scenes like this — the happy-clappy “super excited” artificially-generated enthusiasm of the TED world that Benjamin Bratton has called, in one of the most apt phrases of the twenty-first century, “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. If that’s what imagination and creativity are all about, may God save us all from them.

the broken-glass mystery

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke

What you see above is the portrait of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted in 1545 by Gerlach Flicke. It’s now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

My friend Betsy Childs was recently looking at this picture and noticed something curious: tiny pieces of broken glass, or perhaps chipped glass-coating, in the windows behind Cranmer. Here’s a close-up: 


(You can see a high resolution version of the painting here.) Now, this painting is a very detailed one. For instance, Cranmer is holding a copy of the letters of St. Paul and one of the books on the table is Augustine’s On Faith and Works, which together illustrate Cranmer’s commitment to the core Reformation principle of justification by faith. Other elements of the painting have obviously been executed with great care but yield no clear meaning. For instance, what are we to make of the carving on the left — right next to the little strip of paper giving the date of the painting and Cranmer’s age — featuring a naked woman whose private parts are obscured by the face of some strange beast? (The Whore of Babylon, perhaps, against whom Cranmer contended? But why in a carving, and why there?) 

But what might the broken or chipped glass mean? Betsy wondered if I knew, and I don’t have even a guess. I checked Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography of Cranmer, and while he discusses this painting at some length (pages 338-42), he doesn’t say anything about the glass. 

So Betsy wrote to the National Portrait Gallery. One of the curators there responded that the problematic glass was only discovered when the painting underwent restoration in the 1990s, and that it is definitely part of the original composition — but they don’t know what it means either. “Artists and patrons at this time had a very refined symbolic vocabulary, much of which has been lost to modern scholars. The painting is laden with Cranmer’s personal iconography and this device could relate to that. Alternatively, there might be an as-yet undiscovered theological interpretation, or a reference to Cranmer’s own works.” 

So: a mystery! Anyone have any guesses? 

Dear Mr. Watterson

The one great impression I have from this much-lauded film — which I just got around to watching — is how imperceptive, and even incurious, it is about what makes Calvin and Hobbes the best of its genre. There are a good many vague mumbles about its being well-drawn and well-told, and imaginative, and “intimate” (whatever that means), and so on and so forth.

The film doesn’t seem to know what it’s about: the history of cartooning? The death of newspapers? Chagrin Falls, Ohio? The promise and peril of marketing?

So let’s try to get a grip on the question of the strip’s greatness. Calvin and Hobbes is about finding freedom within structures of constraint, and being able to do so through the strength that comes from knowing that you are unconditionally loved and perfectly understood, even, or perhaps especially, when the one who understands you perfectly sees your flaws and foibles as well as your charms and virtues.

The strip is therefore concerned with the interaction of complex forces that are always in tension with one another, which requires a standard visual style that is highly energetic and the creation of multiple secondary visual styles in order to illuminate particular points at which those forces intersect.

That’s enough to get us started, I think.

smileys, emoticons, typewriter art

I hate to be a party pooper — no, really: I hate it — but I just don’t think Levi Stahl has found an emoticon in a seventeenth-century poem — nor, for that matter, that Jennifer 8. Lee found one from 1862.

About Stahl and Robert Herrick. If we were really serious about finding out whether Robert Herrick had used an emoticon, we’d look for his manuscripts — since we could never be sure that his printers had carried out his wishes accurately, especially in those days of highly variable printing practices. But those manuscripts, I think, are not available.

The next step would be to look online for a facsimile of the first, or at least a very early, edition, and while Google Books has just such a thing, it is not searchable. So, being the lazy guy that I am, I looked for nineteenth-century editions, and in the one I came across, there are no parentheses and hence no emoticon:

So it’s possible, I’d say likely, that the parenthesis in the poem was inserted by a modern editor. Not that parentheses weren’t used in verse in Herrick’s time — they were — but not as widely as we use them today and not in the same situations. Punctuation in general was unsettled in the seventeenth century — as unsettled as spelling: Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways — and there were no generally accepted rules. Herrick was unlikely to have had consistent punctuational practices himself, and even if he did he couldn’t expect either his printers or his readers to share them.

So more generally, I think Stahl’s guess is ahistorical. The first emoticons seem to have been invented about thirty years ago, and are clearly the artifact of the computer age, or, more specifically, a purely digital or screen-based typewriting-only environment — because if you were printing something out before sending it, you could just grab a pen and draw a perfectly legible, friendly, not-rotated-90-degrees smiley, or frowney, or whatever, as people still do. Emoticons arose to address a problem that did not and does not exist in a paper-centric world.

And one final note: in the age between the invention of the typewriter and the transition to digital text, people certainly realized that type could make images — but they were rather more ambitious about it.