John Ruskin: Fit the Third and Last

Years ago I had an argument with a biblically-minded friend who claimed that there could have been no tools of any kind, no technology whatsoever, in the Garden of Eden. So did Adam and Eve do all their “tending of the garden” (Gen. 2:15) with their hands? Pruning branches by breaking them off, sowing seeds only by kneeling and pawing the ground? No, he replied, there would have been none of that — there could be no labor in Eden, so the garden would have taken care of itself and all the man and woman had to do was eat what it produced. I pointed out that what distinguishes a garden from a wilderness is that labor is put into the shaping of it and the caring for it, and that the Hebrew words used to describe what Adam did there clearly denote work, but he was immovable. Labor and technology are post-lapsarian phenomena, period. End of story.
Well, my friend was wrong, and the question we theologically-minded critics of technology need to ask goes something like this: Given that the use of tools is co-extensive with humanity itself, how might we distinguish between technology that is consistent with obedience to God and technology that manifestly isn’t? Something like this question is common to almost every serious thinker about technology, even when God isn’t involved. Perhaps the guiding concepts involve purely human flourishing. 
Take Heidegger, for instance. Here’s a summary from George Steiner’s excellent overview of Heidegger’s thought:

Once, says Heidegger, nature was phusis, the archaic designation of natural reality which he reads as containing within itself the Greek sense for “coming into radiant being” (as it is still faintly discernible in our word “phenomenon”). Phusis proclaimed the same process of creation that generates a work of art. It was, in the best sense, poiesis – a making, a bringing forth. The blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being (en eautō) is, at once, the realization of phusis and of poiesis, of organic drive – Dylan Thomas’s “green fuse” – and of the formal creative-conservative dynamism which we experience in art. Originally, technē had its pivotal place in this complex of meanings and perceptions. It also sprang from an understanding of the primacy of natural forms and from the cardinal Greek insight that all “shaping,” all construction of artifacts, is a focused knowing. A “technique” is a mode of knowledge which generates this or that object, it is a re-cognition towards truthful ends. (Something of the Heideggerian reticulation can be made out in the cognate range, in English, of “craft” and of “cunning,” with their respective derivation from Germanic roots for “knowing” and “forming.”) No less than art, technē signified a bringing into true being, a making palpable and luminous, of that which is already inherent in phusis. Heidegger’s word for authentic technology is entbergen.

Steiner goes on to point out that zu entbergen can mean either “to reveal” or “to guard in hiddenness.” So healthy technology both reveals something true and guards something valuable.
Consider all this a prequel to a post I wrote last year, which quotes Ruskin on this point. Ruskin’s distinction between the rough but richly human imperfections of Gothic stonework and the rigid regularity of modern industrial stonework is immensely relevant here. Ruskin is articulating in very specific and practical terms what Heidegger is articulating theoretically.
Note that in that post I also cite Ivan Illich’s notion of “tools for conviviality,” which is another way of pursuing the same general ideas. I could also cite Ursula Franklin’s distinction between holistic and prescriptive technologies. Franklin on the former category: 

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft. Artisans, be they potters, weavers, metal-smiths, or cooks, control the process of their own work from beginning to end. Their hands and minds make situational decisions as the work proceeds, be it on the thickness of the pot, or the shape of the knife edge, or the doneness of the roast. These are decisions that only they can make while they are working. And they draw on their own experience, each time applying it to a unique situation….Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

And the latter: 

Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing it.

So we see the same essential point being made over and over again, since the middle of the nineteenth century at least. Ruskin, Illich, and and Franklin all see that there are technologies that liberate human creativity, that enable human power, and, by contrast, technologies that enslave us, that force our very being into conformity with their codes and structures. 
Some version or another of this essential distinction has been central to this blog over the decade or so that I’ve been writing it, and I have come to believe that I have unpacked the relevant questions as thoroughly as I know how. At this point I am merely repeating myself, or playing tiny scraps of variations on the Great Theme. I still want to think about the matters that this blog has been concerned with — and to think more about John Ruskin! — but I need to find new ways to do it. So this will be the last Text Patterns post. Look for me later on in the pages of The New Atlantis, and at my own site, but I’m wrapping this blog up. 
Gentle readers: Thanks for coming along for the ride. It’s been real. 

living in the past

In later posts I’ll strive for a substantive engagement with Ruskin, but I want to make a general preliminary comment here. Ruskin was one of those figures who lived through a massive social transition and who never forgot what the world was like before its change. “It has been my fate,” he wrote in a late work, “to live and work in direct antagonism to the instincts, and yet more to the interests, of the age; since I wrote that chapter [in the first volume of Modern Painters] on the pure traceries of the vault of morning, the fury of useless traffic has shut the sight, whether of morning or evening, from more than the third part of England; and the foulness of sensual fantasy has infected the bright beneficence of the life-giving sky with the dull horrors of disease, and the feeble falsehoods of insanity.”
That sounds like the ranting of an angry old man, and yet … Ruskin not only watched the sky and noted the weather every day but also kept a detailed record of what he saw — for decades. And in a pair of lectures called “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” he described in great detail the alterations in the sky and the weather, not just of England but of Europe as a whole, that he had observed. It turns out that everything he said in this seemingly most crazily extreme of his writings was precisely correct: the emissions of factories, and other side-effects of the Industrial Revolution, really were changing European weather. As Wolfgang Kemp records in his excellent biography of Ruskin,

The 1870s and 1880s form a unique period in the history of environmental and weather study. The skies darkened, the air became thicker and unhealthier, the climate damper and colder. One result was a progressive increase in the numbers of people dying from respiratory ailments. Trees and animals died too, not only in foggy England but also on the Continent. For example, starting in the 1880s, there were widespread reports of damage to forests in Germany. Rosenberg tells us that “From 1869 through 1889 the temperature in London was below average for eighteen of the twenty-one years … reliable figures for sunshine are available only after 1879, but sixteen of the twenty autumns and winters from 1880 through 1889 were below average, and the total sunshine was below average for more than sixty per cent of the decade.”

So old men may complain about the condition of their times simply because they’re old men and (therefore?) grumpy; but they may also complain because things really have changed and they’ve seen it. And the people who live on both sides of a cultural or political (or even meteorological) divide may be very useful observers of their scene.
Jacques Ellul is another such figure, who lived through a massive transformation in French society; and I might also cite Lesslie Newbigin, who left England as a young man to serve as a pastor in South India and returned forty years later to find a very different culture, which he sought to address theologically and pastorally in a brilliant book called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. People who have experienced massive social changes and do not merely react against them, but rather strive to comprehend them analytically, tend to be very valuable thinkers indeed. And their habits of critique can be enormously helpful to those of us who are living through our own period of change. That is why when I try to understand our current technopolic moment I find that the thinkers who help me the most are not the ones fully immersed in our own time, but those who remember an earlier time, or those from the past who underwent similar social transformations. It is very hard from within this technologically oversaturated moment of ours to discern its outlines clearly. I’m therefore drawn to thinkers whose vocabularies are tilted or skewed in relation what I see and hear every day. This is one of the many uses of reading old books.
More details about Ruskin soonish.

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.

Seeing and Believing

John Ruskin, in Modern Painters (1843), defined the “pathetic fallacy” this way: “false appearances … entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.” He was largely but not entirely critical of this fallacy for its tendency to produce bad poetry. But as reflecting certain kinds of human characters, the story was more complex:The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is … that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly, the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.I was reminded of the pathetic fallacy by this music video:

NO “Stay With Me” from Ryan Reichenfeld on Vimeo.However charming in its own way, this video is certainly an instance of “false appearances.” But it is less clear just what emotion the filmmakers are “over-dazzled” by, or whether they are to be credited with an emotion sufficiently powerful to overwhelm a strong intellect, or rather with a weak intellect easily mislead by emotion. I’m inclined to think Ruskin would find it bad poetry: What is the point of ascribing human emotional characteristics to crash-test dummies? One might as well feel bad for the car being crashed. Does it add anything to the longing of the song’s lyrics to have them reflected in an impossible scenario, or is it rather some post-modern ironic distancing from longing, an unwillingness to commit to it even while expressing it?Perhaps a recent interview with Sherry Turkle, the erstwhile techno-optimist, helps to clarify this particular pathetic fallacy. Turkle has written a book called Alone Together, which she calls “a book of repentance in the sense that I did not see this coming, this moment of temptation that we will have machines that will care for us, listen to us, tend to us.” She explains:People are so vulnerable and so willing to accept substitutes for human companionship in very intimate ways. I hadn’t seen that coming, and it really concerns me that we’re willing to give up something that I think defines our humanness: our ability to empathize and be with each other and talk to each other and understand each other. And I report to you with great sadness that the more I continued to interview people about this, the more I realized the extent to which people are willing to put machines in this role. People feel that they are not being heard, that no one is listening. They have a fantasy that finally, in a machine, they will have a nonjudgmental companion.The video takes this idea one step further — a companion that will save us from the mere humans who are not hearing us. I suspect that here is the pathetic fallacy at the heart of social robotics. It is a vicious circle. The more we put our hopes in machine companions, the less we expect from each other, and the less we expect from each other, the more we will accept the substitute of machine companions. Thus does “only connect” become “just plug it in.”