Sunday, 12 December 2010

Pin Your Colours To A Mast

William Morris advised: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." How much better had he said: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful." After all, it is the separation of use from beauty, being raised to a principle of existence around his time and, by ours, so embedded as to be the central regulator of our experience and of our capacity to imagine outside of it, that Morris dedicated his time and his talents to protest against; for him, the idea that orientation towards an end reduces an object, a labour, a person to a mere means was alienating in the extreme, and the idea that beauty is, if not anathema to utility, then at least utterly indifferent to it, was artificial in the extreme. Alienation and artificiality: the pincer movement of modern life; how nice it would have been had Morris given us a slogan to rally round in our efforts to raill against it. For the want of a word, the slogan was lost; for the want of a slogan the battle was lost...and all for the want of a word...

But slogans are very passe these days; we've so outgrown them, what with their seeming to reduce complex programmes to a single dimension and their expectation that the blood in men's veins, and not just the brains in their heads, are conscripted to fight for the cause. No, we've grown too civilised for such things, too open-minded, too tolerant, too liberal. Not for us the bitesize mouthful of the catch-phrase; we're far too busy listening to alternative perspectives, gathering and collating various points of view, negotiating with others and accommodating those who disagree, far too engaged in sorting through the fusion of flavours on our plate, too involved in anticipating each one on its own, and in company with combinations of the others, to ever be reduced to actually taking a bite. As Lord Byron used to do when women were eating their meals, at the thought of a slogan to get behind we take our urbane sensibilities and leave the room in disgust: that women should be so beastly, that free and educated people should be so committed.

For it is the mark of a truly liberal democracy, that it is so permissive of different views, so non-committal, that it becomes difficult actually to hold a view, actually to commit: first, because there seems nothing against which to define one's view or commitment and, second - which is really the first reason, another way around - because to hold a view or to have a commitment in any manner that stands out, that would define itself, is to show an unacceptable intolerance of everybody else, is to be unreasonably aggressive. Not only this: in fact, to be anything becomes an increasing impossiblity, as the option to become changed as a person by what one does - to become, to really become, a baker, or a housewife, or a doctor, in a manner that strikes to the core of one's identity and is not simply a means to another of those ends we are everywhere told are so worthwhile to pursue - begins to stand out as itself also an act of agression. To be a teacher is now defined by the fulfilment of certain standards (and there are so many of them), imposed externally to define what it is to be a teacher; that one would actually be a teacher, live as one, think as one, act as one, that one would be what one is, is now unnecessary, excessive, belligerantly unnecessary and excessive. Today, we are all transferable skills and no true learning, all open education and no real knowledge, all the better to be formed as adaptable, multifunctional, instruments of the system with no resources to question our condition.

Set against this trend the practice of what Aristotle named as "the stochastic arts," defined by the relative independence of excellence in them from what might be thought of as "success" at them. Such an art is the art of medicine, or of teaching, or of childrearing, where wisdom gained from practice is not necessarily undermined by the death of a patient, the failure of a student, or the immorality of a child. In these arts - and, if we are sensitive to the contingencies of context and the indeterminacy of human existence more generally, they might profitably begin to be seen as exemplary of many more practices: cooking for company, plumbing old houses, the law, tax consultancy for small and medium sized businesses, trading in second-hand goods, etc. - inheres a direct challenge to the increasing alienation and artificiality of existence against which Morris sought to protest, for their end is not only difficult to define as an object apart from their processual realisation, but is, if defined for the sake of argument, not actually determining of excellence or otherwise in the field. In these arts, in short, is exemplified a kind of knowing that is also a kind of "feeling for," a kind of usefulness in which the aesthetic considerations of appropriateness, fittingness, measuredness, moderation, of balance, symmetry, timeliness, of beauty, are central: not merely ornamental or decorative, not of secondary consideration and dispensable, not submissive to ends, nor excessive, but actually constitutive of truth, of knowledge, of right. And by these arts is exhibited a kind of "feeling for" the rightness, the appropriateness, the fittingness, of an object, a method, a procedure, a way of doing, that has utility as integral, a kind of beauty that has use at its core.

At stake in the challenge posed by stochasticism to the transferable skills of a society given over to the realisation of certain ends, is not only the nature of work, then, but also the nature of play, that is, the manner in which those activities that are not regarded by us as ends oriented, nevertheless do, in our society, function within the means-end paradigm of modern living. Foucault's brief genealogies of literature, dotted sporadically around his much more fulsome genealogies of other modern institutions, would trace its provenance to the Rennaissance practice of making linkages between words and things that do not presuppose that "reality" is tied only to the latter, of ranging between language and world in a manner that does not distinguish between them by allowing all the force of truth to one and only the effect of representing truth to the other. In our world of means and ends, Foucault always implies, literature stands firm as that realm in which words continue to have virtues and vices of their own, in which combinations of words, in which phrases and their rhythms, retain the power they had in former times and are effective in themselves, and not just insofar as they point us to something else.

But Foucault misses the point that Morris was so persistent, but so far ineffective, in making: the literary use of language, of the materials of art more generally, the literary life even, which Foucault looks to as a stay upon the separation of means from ends that is the premiss of modern living, is not quite the refuge he thinks it, for it is in fact the symptom of a trauma which Foucault then looks to it to cure. Rennaissance times, as Foucault himself describes them, did not have literature. Why? Because life was "literary" and "literature" was life; the poverty of this description merely reflects the extent to which, by now, our language will not describe the fusion of the functional and the aesthetic, the purposeful and the beautiful, from the dissassociation of which it has emerged. The world was an aesthetic resonance chamber in which handkerchiefs were embroidered with lace and medical treatments bore similarities to the parts of the body they were used to cure. To look now to art, to literature, as in some sense a return to these times and a defiance of instrumentalisation is to look to that whose condition of possibility is this very instrumentalisation. Art, literature, has emerged precisely as the other side of functionality's coin; it is far from demonstrating the fusion of means and ends because it is defined as that which has no end. Art is for nothing; we may retreat to it for some ease from a constant pressure to fulfill given purposes, we may feel for it all the enthusiasm of one at last on a long-awaited and much-needed holiday, but we cannot, then, by definition, have it inform the conditions of our everyday existence. It may ease our pain, relax our bones, and provide us with a temporary escape, but it cannot change our lives.

And all of what we call avant-garde activity, all of art's radical critique, has operated only to exacerbate this situation. For art has directed its critical skills, not to the questioning of its condition as useless, but to questioning the conditions of uselessness: the constitution of art was achieved, by the eighteenth century, as the identification of the conditions necessary for purposelessness; the avant garde has operated to question the supposed necessity of one after another of these conditions - traditional perspectivism is not necessary, line is not necessary, colour is not necessary, the canvas is not necessary, an object is not necessary, an artist is not necessary, and so on and so on - but it has never operated to question its condition as purposeless. Because in purposelessness, in uselessness, lies the condition of its very existence, and it is interested in perpetuating that, at the very least. And so avant-garde activity operates as a useful device for letting off steam, for channelling the frustrations of an over-functionalised existence into a mode of critique that is, by definition, without function; it is a good playground for those who need time off from lives that can never be realised because they must always be ready to be for something else.

The revolution, then, will not look like we expect it to: it will not arise from the occupation of fine arts buildings on university campuses, or from lengthy meetings to resolve the various interests of the various interest groups, or from a melee of posters on which everyone's message is given a right to be seen and be heard. This is far too liberal, far too open, far too purposeless a mode of activity to issue any kind of serious threat to the simultaneous underdetermination and overdetermination of modern life. Far better to knit a jumper and then wear it, or knead some bread and then eat it, or learn to teach and then try your best to be it, or invent a slogan and get behind it. Pin your colours to a mast and do it so tightly that to take them off again becomes all but unimaginable. There's risk in this, no doubt. The colours might be the wrong ones or the mast not, after all, that strong. But these things may be worked on along the way, and, at any rate, it is for the most part better to be wrong than forever transferable.

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