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.

back to the blog with MarsEdit

As I’ve noted several times over the years, I do almost all my writing in a text editor, BBEdit. But when I write a blog post in BBEdit, the process of getting it onto the blog is not as straightforward as it might be. I write a post in Markdown, convert it to HTML, and copy it to my clipboard. Then I open a browser tab for the relevant blog/blogging platform — WordPress for my personal blogs, Blogger for this one — paste in the text, add some tags, and hit Publish. 
I can do all this very quickly, and save a step or two with Keyboard Maestro, but even so it’s not ideal. The estimable Dr. Drang has written some scripts to post directly from BBEdit to WordPress, but I lack the skills to make those work for me, and I can’t even imagine having the skills to write an equivalent script for Blogger. So… 
I’ve owned Daniel Jalkut’s blogging app MarsEdit for a long time, but just recently have dedicated myself to using it every day — and it’s great, a marvelous piece of software. You can write in rich text, HTML, or Markdown (the last slightly awkwardly, but it works) — it even lets me edit a post in BBEdit if I want. MarsEdit offers very convenient options for pasting in links, and also serves, if you wish to download your previous posts, as a backup for your blog. 
For me, one of the most useful features of MarsEdit is the ability to draft a post in any of my blogs and then with a dropdown menu change it to a different blog (this feature aids in cross-posting also). 
When I’m done drafting and adding tags, I click “Send to Blog” and it uploads flawlessly, every time. 
MarsEdit has been around a long time, and I hope will be around for a long time to come. Frustration with most of the dominant social media platforms has led to a mini-revival of blogging, which I hope will become a full-scale revival. Austin Kleon has been blogging daily for several months now; Dan Cohen has gone “back to the blog”; Gordon White recently wrote, “Last night, sitting by the outdoor fire, drinking and ranting into a wordpress window as in the days of yore was joyous.” The great Warren Ellis has noticed: “My RSS reader is starting to get nicely repopulated, and the more people who notice this, the better the world gets.” 
Let’s do this thing. Let’s bring back the blog. And if you have a Mac and want to make blogging as simple and seamless as possible, use MarsEdit

some friendly advice about online writing and reading

Dennis Cooper, a writer and artist, is a pretty unsavory character, so in an ideal world I wouldn’t choose him as a poster boy for the point I want to make, but … recently Google deleted his account, and along with it, 14 years of blog posts. And they are quite within their rights to do so.

People, if you blog, no matter on what platform, do not write in the online CMS that your platform provides. Instead, write in a text editor or, if you absolutely must, a word processing app, save it to your very own hard drive, and then copy and paste into the CMS. Yes, it’s an extra step. It’s also absolutely worth it, because it means you always have a plain-text backup of your blog posts.

You should of course then back up your hard drive in at least two different ways (I have an external drive and Dropbox).

Why write in a text editor instead of a word processing app? Because when you copy from the latter, especially MS Word, you tend to pick up a lot of unnecessary formatting cruft that can make your blog post look different than you want it to. I write in BBEdit using Markdown, and converting from Markdown to HTML yields exceptionally clean copy. If you’d like to try it without installing scripts, you can write a little Markdown and convert it to HTML by using this web dingus — there are several others like it.

While I’m giving advice about writing on the web, why not some about reading as well? Too many people rely on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get their news, which means that what they get is unpredictably variable, depending on what other people link to and how Facebook happens to be tweaking its algorithms on any given day. Apple News is similarly uncertain. And I fundamentally dislike the idea of reading what other people, especially other people who work for mega-corporations, want me to see.

Try using an RSS reader instead. RSS remains the foundation of the open web, and the overwhelming majority of useful websites have RSS feeds. There are several web-based RSS readers out there — I think the best are Feedly and Newsblur — and when you build up a roster of sites you profit from reading, you can export that roster as an OPML file and use it with a different service. And if you don’t like those web interfaces you can get a feed-reading app that works with those (and other) services: I’m a big fan of Reeder, though my introduction to RSS was NewNewsWire, which I started using when it was little more than a gleam in Brent Simmons’s eye.

So, the upshot: in online writing and reading alike, look for independence and sustainability. Your life will be better for it.

Noah Millman is very smart about blogging

Here:

I started blogging in 2002, hanging out my own shingle on blogspot. I
did it primarily as a belated response to the trauma of 9-11: I had
been emailing news items to a variety of friends and family with an
obsessiveness that nearly deserved a DSM number, and one of them finally
told me I should stop emailing him and start a blog if I felt compelled
to tell everyone what I thought. So, against my wife’s explicit
instructions, I did.

And I loved it, right from the get-go. The thrill of instant response
to what I said was a perfect fit for my latent writerly ambitions for
recognition and my Wall Streeter’s inherent attention deficits. I would
write, I would press “publish,” and someone out there would respond.

But that response wasn’t merely gratifying or instructive; it shaped
what I wrote, shaped the persona (a better word than “self”) that I was
developing on-line. My style, my subject matter, my politics, my sense
of who I was and was meant to be evolved in part based on what got
positive reinforcement and what didn’t, even though I wasn’t being paid
anything at all. A gift economy is still an economy, and there’s nothing
particularly pure about non-commercial social discourse. “No man but a
blockhead ever wrote except for money” – so said Sam Johnson, but in
fact the truer statement is that no man but a blockhead ever tried to
earn money by writing. When it comes to money, Willy Sutton had a much
better understanding. So all of us writers, whatever our medium, write
out of some other compulsion than to earn a living. And to the extent
that that compulsion has something to do with having readers, we have to
watch the progress of our addiction, how it is changing us.

“A gift economy is still an economy,” and the blogosphere may not even be that. The networks of exchange are complex and still imperfectly understood.  

curators and imitators

You know what annoys me? Well, actually, that would be a long list. You know one thing that annoys me? The way some people on the internet use the word “curator.” People find cool stuff online and put links to that cool stuff on their website, and they say that they’re “curating” the internet. When Jorn Barger invented that kind of thing he was content to call it a weblog — a record or “log” of interesting stuff he found online.

Now, one might argue that the weblog or blog has changed its character since Barger invented it: instead of logging cool things found online, it primarily logs a writer’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences (often about stuff found online). So maybe a new name is needed for the “logging” kind of site?

Maybe. But can we try for something a little less pretentious than “curator”? In the usual modern senses of the word, a curator (who often works for a museum) has a complex set of responsibilities that can only be carried out well by someone with a good deal of training, taste, experience, and intelligence. A curator plays a role in deciding what a museum will acquire, and once acquisitions have been made, will consider which objects are to be displayed, for how long they will be displayed, and in relation to what other objects they will be displayed. Curators organize objects in space and present them for public scrutiny. They also educate the public in the understanding of those objects, and of the principles of organization employed. Curators also help to care for those objects, to make sure they don’t get damaged or lost. (In ecclesiastical language, the priest who cares for the people of a parish while the rector is away is called a curate.)

Almost none of this is at work when people link to interesting things they have found on the internet. If a person whose website links to other websites is a curator, then a person who walks into the Louvre with a friend and points out the Mona Lisa is also a curator. It seems to me that if we go with that usage we’re losing a worthwhile distinction.

When I first made a comment about this on Twitter recently, I got pushback from my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and since he’s a very smart guy I have thought about this some more. His concern is that my point is unnecessarily elitist, and I don’t mean for it to be that — and I don’t think it is. It’s just a matter (I hope) of distinguishing among different sorts of online activity.

So I’d suggest this as the beginnings of a taxonomy:

1) The Linker: That’s what most of us are. We just link to things we’re interested in, without any particular agenda or system at work. That’s what my Pinboard page is, just a page of links.

2) The Coolhunter: People who strive to find the unusual, the striking, the amazing — the very, very cool, often within certain topical boundaries, but widely and loosely defined ones. I think Jason Kottke and Maria Popova are exemplary online coolhunters.

3) The Curator: There are some. Not many, but some. The true online curator tends to have a clear and strict focus: he or she doesn’t post just anything that seems cool, but instead is striving to illuminate some particular area of interest. The true curator also finds things that other people can’t find, or can’t easily find, which means either (a) having access to stuff that is not fully public or (b) actually putting stuff online for the first time or (c) having a unique take on public material so that images and ideas get put together that the rest of us would never think to put together. I think Bibliodyssey is a genuinely curated site; also, just because of its highly distinctive sensibility, Things magazine.

Again, I’m not saying that one of these categories is superior to the others. They’re just all different, and the difference is worth noting.

about Tumblr

“This Is Why Your Tumblr’s Down” — because, if I read the piece rightly, David Karp doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more engineers to keep the backend functioning smoothly.

Well, whatever. I started my tumblelog more than four years ago, and for a long time it was a great place for me to store and present quotations and images that caught my attention. At one point I decided to shut it down, but only because I was trying to simplify my online life; I missed posting things to it, and a number of people said they missed my posts, so I resumed.

But then last year the site started to go down more and more frequently. Days would go by without my being able to get to it. In frustration I moved everything over to Posterous, but that required me to spend too much time fiddling with formatting, and the site, while always up, was really slow. Back to Tumblr.

Which meant, back to not knowing whether the site would be up at any given time. Eventually I got tired of the uncertainty and just stopped trying to post to the site. I stopped trying to visit the Dashboard to see what others were posting. I didn’t make a conscious decision to do this; I just stopped bothering. For nearly four years I posted stuff to my tumblelog because I didn’t doubt what would happen if I did so; but when I went through an extended period when I couldn’t guess whether the site would be up or not, it just got to be too much trouble. Instead of posting things to Tumblr or Posterous for everyone to see, I just posted things to Pinboard for me to see. I am reading as much as ever and recording my reading, but I’ve just drifted out of the habit of using Tumblr.

This is what unreliability does: it changes your habits, even if you don’t make a conscious decision to abandon a service.

Bogost on blogs

Here’s a wonderfully thoughtful post by Ian Bogost about the limitations of the blog as an intellectual tool, especially in academic contexts. This is an old theme of mine, so it’s nice to have someone pick up on it. Bogost writes,

Tim Morton is right to call out old forms like books and academic essays, rejoining [“exhorting,” maybe?] them to “figure out what they are about in this new environment.” But the same is true for blogs and other forms of digital writing as well. We’re no more stuck with the awkward tools that are blogs than we are stuck with awkward tools that are journals. . . .

I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs. This is a question that might apply to subjects far beyond philosophy, of course, but perhaps the philosopher’s native tools would have special properties, features of particular use and native purpose. What if we asked how we want to read and write rather than just making the best of the media we randomly inherit, whether from the nineteenth century or the twenty-first?

I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered, rather than figuring out how to pay homage to the latest received web app or to build new tools to do the same old work.

This is great stuff. Blogs are very poor tools for fostering genuine intellectual exchange, which is one reason why, increasingly, those exchanges happen for many on Twitter — despite the 140-character-at-a-time limit. We might ask why that is: Why do some many people prefer to exchange ideas on Twitter rather than on blogs? I don’t think it’s just laziness. And then we might ask another question: What might a tool look like that combines the best features of blogging and tweeting, while minimizing the flaws of both instruments?

class blogs

On Twitter this morning I asked for thoughts on how best to run a class blog, and replies are coming in. People are reminding me of Mark Sample’s excellent post on “blog audits,” and are tossing around other ideas too.

When I set up blogs for class I tell students that there are five kinds of participation they can engage in:
    • Offering an interpretation of something we’ve read;
    • Asking a question about something we’ve read;
    • Linking to, quoting from, and responding to online articles or essays about what we’re reading;
    • Providing contextual information — biographical, historical, whatever — about the authors we’re reading and their cultural and intellectual worlds;
    • Commenting on the posts of their fellow students.
    One question I have is whether I should value some of these kinds of post more highly than others, and reward them accordingly. Any thoughts about that? Any other suggestions?