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Heap of sawdust

Author: joe

Tuesday, 09 November, 2010 - 16:46

- on freedom and craft.

Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.
And observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their aims strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul's force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last - a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity. On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him. And, whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.
And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished. Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly. Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or helot Greek. Men may be beaten, chained, tormented, yoked like cattle, slaughtered like summer flies, and yet remain in one sense, and the best sense, free. But to smother their souls within them, to blight and hew into rotting pollards the suckling branches of their human intelligence, to make the flesh and skin which, after the worm's work on it, is to see God, into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with, - this it is to be slave-masters indeed; and there might be more freedom in England, though her feudal lords' lightest words were worth men's lives, and though the blood of the vexed husbandman dropped in the farrows of her fields, than there is while the animation of her multitudes is sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line.
The Nature of Gothic Architecture by John Ruskin

Here is the interplay between autonomy and automaticity, or as Ruskin goes on to describe it, monotony and change. It cuts both ways - here, freedom of thought versus the unthinking automaton; there, the paralysis of reflection versus the repeated muscular action of practice. It is the experience of mastery that comes with self-determination in work as against the slavery inherent in institutionalised programming; but equally it is the iron cage of systematic thought as against the solipsism of anarchic play.

I'm not sure, as Ruskin implies, you really can have one without the other. I am a man and a machine; I enslave and am enslaved, as I quick-step or slow-dance between thought and action, between absorption in craft and pausing for reflection. I need the space for free-thinking and the discipline of rigour; I require systems as well as playgrounds; I need to feel human and frail as well as to feel rational and effective.

There is some connection with these desires and my joining the protest against cuts tomorrow.

Categories: John Ruskin, man, machine, thought, craft, freedom, mastery,
Comments: 0

Capital and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 18 March, 2007 - 22:31

Is Adam Curtis secretly a Marxist of the purest form, who believes like Marx that the political economy determines the cultural values that circulate in society? His portrayal of the relationship between democracy and the free-market (what Marx might call the 'base') and their effect on society (what Marx might call the 'superstructure') is pure determinism. At times he seems to imply that the influence of a few back-room economists on the policy of Clinton inevitably lead to cultural changes which the rest of us cannot escape. Is he in danger of reproducing the classic Marxist mistake of assuming that people are stupid?

Is Curtis a neo-conservative marketeer who criticises the target-driven culture of the last 10 years because it has not worked, or a neo-socialist who believes in regulatory intervention? We will never know because he equates the intervention of target-setting with the no-holds-barred free market. Just because a target is set without law or regulation does not mean it is not a political intervention.

Is Curtis an anti-science luddite, who only partially read arguments for the selfish gene in order to criticise those models for being deterministic? Certainly, he appears to imply that Maynard-Smith and Dawkins merely think that organisms are machines for genes. Had he read Dawkins' book The Extended Phenotype, (published 5 years before the date of the clip of Dawkins used in the film) he would have been familiar with that biologist's well-argued retraction of the robot metaphor. Indeed he would have understood that the 'machines for genes' discourse leads to a new understanding of collaboration (between single-celled organisms, into eukaryotic cells, into larger, multi-celled organisms, and between organisms into a symbiosis or ecology) which is not only characterised by the reach of the gene.

However, the attentive viewer who is led down some of these cul-de-sacs will be relieved to learn that, on the contrary, Curtis may not believe any of these things.

The frustrating thing about this film was the ellipsis: while watching I find myself railing against the partiality and elliptical nature of the argument, only to discover the twist later in which balance is at least partly restored. At the end, Curtis dramatically announces that, actually, economists and geneticists alike might have revisited some of the deterministic theories they produced, and now think that the world may be more complex. Maybe Curtis will do the same?

Without trying to pre-empt the outcome of Curtis' argument in next week's third and final part, I nevertheless have an eery feeling that we will hear about emergent complexity, possibly related to evolutionary-stable-states, which will redeem aspects of game theory, and thereby rescue mankind from its current narrative status - the disequilibrium of being a determined gene machine; maybe we'll hear about, far from the market as a mechanism of a kind of social natural selection, actually there is an unequal competition between corporations with power and markets of consumers with none; we may even learn that democracy and the free market are not the same thing. Shock, horror. I can only hope that he will complicate his argument further by conceding that our social relationships and ideas of freedom are not merely inevitably determined by economic policy, and that superstructural mechanisms, made out of things like his own film, contribute to the 'emergent complexity' of cultural life.

It's rather disingenuous of Curtis to narrativise the debate in this way: it creates a story, yes, but it does a disservice to his argument, and the protagonists in it. For all that I sympathise with the points of view he seems to put forward - that free markets aren't the solution to the world's problems, that pharmaceutcals medicalise the world in order to profit, that people are not machines - there are better ways to make the case than to set up straw-men for later demolition.

Categories: adam-curtis, freedom, genetics, game-theory, political-economy, marxism, market, humanity,
Comments: 0

Symbolic Exchange and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 11 March, 2007 - 23:10

I was 17 when the Berlin wall was flooded over by hordes of retro 80s-permed East-Germans. I was at the house of my first girl-friend and it may not be unconnected that I believed that I lived in a world where things got better with time - that we're on some (as I only later learned cynically to call it) Hegelian journey to an ever better world.

I was 26 when I finally sat down and got my head around Paul Rabinow's presentation of Chomsky vs Foucault and (as he saw it) their opposing views of the examinability of human nature. By this time I was corroded enough to be swept along by Foucault's deconstruction of the institutional motives behind every instance of human discourse, but intellectually curious enough to wonder whether Chomsky wasn't onto something with his fundamentally structuralist proposition that human nature might be a knowable thing.

I'm not sure that being 34 and watching Adam Curtis's latest adventure into televisual propaganda that is 'The Trap' will be as seminal, but it is worth comment right now. I love his programmes, but in a somewhat problematic elitist manner, I have 'issues' with this one.

Before watching I heard at least two radio reviews of it in which it was praised for being intelligent for TV, but damned for its flaws in polemic. However, in watching it I was unprepared for my over-riding response - which was that it was surprising that Foucault would make such good telly.

Televisually it is journalism - not gonzo, but nevertheless featurish in its one-sidedness - but as close to polyphony as TV gets, with its intersection between (unattributed and frustratingly unverifiably quoted) images and deterministically argued voiceover.

As a media lecturer it is hard to escape the feeling that this is going to be a great clip to illustrate the Foucauldian relationship between discourse and power, especially in relation to the psychiatric industry's will to legitimacy. The downer in all this though, is the sick feeling at the back of my throat that, not unlike the discourses Curtis damns, this is an egregious example of manipulation and self-serving ellipsis of the worst kind - possibly inescapable due to the simulative medium for which it was made (can't let my distaste for TV pass by without comment), but partly too, of course, because Curtis can't afford a dissenting voice.

If anyone with half a grasp of political history were to be interviewed with full knowledge of Curtis's agenda, they would necessarily point out that his notion that John Nash is the cause of modern woes is ludicrous; his example of the prisoner dilemma is as far from the usual prisoner's dilemma as you could get; the idea that the psychiatric profession's attempt to gain legitimacy in the 80s was an attempt at a 'new kind of control' is a desperate form of amnesia; and his conflation of rationality and impersonality is deeply simplistic.

Curtis problematised Nash's version of game theory by presenting his schizophrenia, but his argument that his equations went on to become the basis for an era of cold war politics is unsubstantiated. The prisoner dilemma as most of us know it shows that collaboration is a better strategy than betrayal, even if for selfish motives - and in the so-called deterministic world of the gene, what is the difference between selfishness and selfish altruism? Neither selfishness nor altruism exist at the mathematical level that game theory addresses. The psychiatric industry was exposed in Foucault's genealogy of the doctrine as being the will to power from its inception in the Enlightenment - far from a new thing in the 80s. And finally, since rationality, as predicated on human logic, is merely a constructed, self-negating reflexive system, recognised now by most mathematical and scientific methodologies, to portray it as somehow 'inhuman' is stereotypical and simple.

However, to conclude in as elitist a fashion as I began, I recommend this programme to anyone who hasn't yet realised that the world is not getting better as we hurtle inevitably towards the implosion predicted by last weeks' obituary filler, your friend and mine, Jean Baudrillard. I await with interest to hear what exactly 'The Trap' is, if it is not that we tend to unquestioningly believe what the TV tells us, whether the voice is a manipulative politician, or a manipulative film-maker.

Categories: adam-curtis, jean-baudrillard, TV, propaganda, michel-foucault, freedom, manipulation, game-theory,
Comments: 2

Free and not so free

Author: joe

Sunday, 09 October, 2005 - 14:32

This morning I was deeply excited by a couple of news items I read from Slashdot and Boing Boing, only to run into a mixed experience of glee and disappointment.

Slashdot reported that the British Library has made available one of Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks on their website, alongside 13 others works from Jane Austin, Lewis Carroll and the Lindisfarne Gospels. This is exactly what libraries should be doing with the Internet...

However, when Boing Boing reported that some of Dylan Thomas's poetry was avilable online, namely a reading of "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and the entire collection of the Caedmon recordings as free mp3 downloads, I ran into huge disappointment.

The first link is a page which, to be fair, does allow you hear Thomas reading his most famous poem, though only in a swf file which you therefore can't download and listen to on whatever music player you choose, and therefore it's only available for as long as choose to maintain the page.

The second link to the Caedmon collection is at, which means that the mp3 downloads are free only insomuch as you're prepared to be a premium subscriber to Salon. This twists the definition of free to a new level.

Thomas died in 1953, so while all of his texts are therefore out of copyright, other media forms such as recordings can still be controlled by copyright owners. Thomas' reading of his own poetry is one of the greatest experiences lovers of poetry and language can enjoy. So the $6 it costs to join salon for a month is almost certainly worth paying for the collection, if not for salon's other content ;)

Categories: poetry, dylan thomas, literature, recording, free,
Comments: 0