Notes on Ruskin: The Absurd Rule

Much of Ruskin’s On the Nature of Gothic involves a pre-Marxist critique of industrialization. I’m not sure if it qualifies as being From the Right, as I’m not certain of Ruskin’s politics, but it reads very Romantic, which is at least half a Reactionary movement. The old-school Romantics and Goths gazed back at pre-modern “natural” conceptions and the light footprint man had on Nature with longing. Rationalism and Enlightenment were, in their eyes, as tyrannical as they were liberating.

But so too are the critiques. There is much to sympathize with in Ruskin’s dislike of the Grand Standardization that industrialization entails, but he arrives at conclusions that boggle the mind. For example, he advocates regulation of industry in order to preserve human invention, human art. He creates three broad rules for this:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 20

Let’s not spend any time arguing about how such a schema would be practically enforced, as that’s the least of the difficulties with it. We could get lost in haggling about such terms as “necessary”, “noble”, or “imitation”, and even if we agree on what exactly Ruskin meant, we might not agree to be bound by them. This is the problem many 19th century texts leave us with.

But in his examples, he constructs a thing I have noticed many times among those who establish a strong rule, and implement it strongly: a rule yielding absurd results. And by “absurd” I mean widely divergent results among things of minor variation. You see it often in the self-flattering exceptions our Modern Puritans make for their particular prejudices and bigotries. I will refer to it as The Absurd Rule:

So again, the cutting of precious stones, in all ordinary cases, requires little exertion of any mental faculty, some tact and judgment in avoiding flaws, and so on, but nothing to bring out the whole mind. Every person who wears cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is, therefore, a slave-driver.

But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewelry and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence. Therefore, money spent in the purchase of well-designed plate, of precious engraved vases, cameos, or enamels, does good to humanity; and in work of this kind, jewels may be employed to heighten its splendour; and their cutting is then a price paid for the attainment of a noble end, and is thus perfectly allowable.

Ruskin, pg. 21

We have thus created a rule under which jewels may be used to adorn objects, but not people. This has nothing to do with the nature of jewels, objects, or people, and even less to do with the goals and results, but the way cut jewels are created. It’s a highly specific distinction being made, and the results is quite strange. And in any case, jewels are going to be cut.

And let me stipulate that I understand his distinction: between creative and monotonous work. I even agree with the criticism that monotonous work is degrading to the human spirit. But the center of our value should therefore be on the humans who do the work, not the objects. The market for jewels and the market for plate, vases, and other goods are the same market, that of having beautiful things. If there’s no reason why someone can’t both cut jewels and make fine plate – and evidently to Ruskin, there isn’t – then we can simply create a rule allowing workers time to work on stimulating projects, and not spend all their time on dull repetitive work. That pus the humans at the center, rather than the objects, and does not anathemetize something (wearing jewels) that carries almost no moral value.

One finds the correct solution by focusing on the primary value.

Chadwick Boseman’s Death is a Reminder of All That We Do Not Know

I’ve never seen Black Panther. I think the last MCU movie I saw was the first Avengers. This is due to indifference. I’m not big into Marvel, and only slightly more into DC (the last DC movie I saw was Dark Knight Rises, which doesn’t count). That whole journey went right by me. Don’t take it personally.

So I don’t have anything to say about Chadwick Boseman as an actor. I’m sure he was good, or at least good enough to play the lead in the only comic book movie to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (what an antiquated term. No one calls them “moving pictures” anymore. Why don’t they call it Best Film?). I’m not here as a critic.

But that Twist. The fact that he’s been fighting Stage3/4 colon cancer since 2016. That he gave those performances, fought his way through Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame while undergoing chemo, catches the heart somehow. And sure, acting in a film is not storming the beaches of Normandy. But it’s not manning a checkout line at Safeway either. They pay you to do it because it’s work.

Above and beyond Bosments’s suddenly-apparent nigh-superhuman toughness, however, sits the fact that such a secret stayed hidden. Granted, Hollywood is good at hiding things. But health ain’t always exactly a secret. If Betty White had the sniffles, the internet would shut down for a day in pre-emptive mourning. But Black Panther had butt cancer and not even the 4channers knew.

That’s the lesson. Whoever you know, whoever you don’t know, whoever you hate, whoever you love, they’re carrying things that no one but God and their general practictioner know about. Things that are not spoken of outside of the four walls of their homes. What you see of a person – any person – is no more than what they show you.

That’s why The Man said Don’t Judge. Not because we’re incapable of judging, but because the full content of a human soul is hidden from us. We need most desperately to remember that in these supremely judgey times. For we are fragile, and our time is short.

Requiscat in Pace Æternam.

Books Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad

Recently I went on a quick camping trip and happened to take along my copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It included some selections from Conrad’s “Congo Diary”, a record he kept of his 1890 journey into the Belgian Congo, events of which clearly informed the subsequent story. This made for an immersive diversion as I watched a soft rain fall on my tiny cabin.

A book as intense as Heart of Darkness, written about so vivid a topic as Colonialism, as it was happening, is bound to provoke an active critical response. So to pad out my paperback volume’s slim 100 pages, we are treated to a series of critical takes on the book, ranging from H.L. Mencken to Virginia Wolff. But the most significant is that of Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which in many ways provides a mirror and counterpoint to the earlier work.

Achebe’s critique stipulates the book’s virtues and then cuts right to heart, as it were, of darkness: the book exists as a horror story for the European mind, an encounter with Dark Africa, who in her primordial sublimity, shreds the European man’s faith in Progress, and in Himself, like the lamb in the lion’s mouth.

It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is not talking so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The Black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, “the thought of their humanity–like yours… Ugly.”

The point of my observation should be quite clear by now, namely that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected.

From “An Image of Africa”, Massachusetts Review, 1977

I have no intention whatever of refuting Achebe’s point. To expect a European, observing Africa in its colonized state, in 1890, to come away without the revulsion that is Heart of Darkness‘ central theme, is to expect a thing that never happened. 1890 was the era in which common tribalism had been ballooned by “Science” into the Biological Racism that reached its thunderhead in the Second World War. The Races, as such, were in closer contact than ever before, and had very little understanding of each other. The fact that Conrad savages the European characters in the story for their pirate morality is beside the point. He does not want to see Africans as humans, even as he cannot help it. He reduces them all to cannibals on the riverside.

But as it happens, I have also read Things Fall Apart. Moreover, like many books I was assigned in High School, it made an impression on me. I enjoyed the story’s arc. I enjoyed the anti-heroic protagonist. I savored his rise and his hubristic peripetaia. And then the end happened, and I put the book down feeling rather suckered. I found it anti-climactic and frustrating. In retrospect, I was perhaps unable at that age to appreciate that kind of an ending. But underneath that, is the way the historical/racial aspect of the story interrupted the narrative arc I was expecting in the first part.

This is of course, the point of the story. The reader is introduced to a vibrant and complex clan culture, that of the Igbo, that’s survived for untold years. We see a protagonist struggle within the context of that culture, but also as an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s fascinating as a human tale.

And then, the book tells us, the White People Show Up, and every part of this is destroyed and/or adulterated. It is a cultural collapse both deliberate – the missionaries fully intended to change the Africans’ culture – and unintended, as not understanding the culture, they could not foresee how the Igbo would react. That some of the whites – such as Mr. Brown – have benevolent intentions is irrelevant. They are the destroyers of the world we’re now invested in. Others, such as the District Commissioner, do not even have names, and function less as characters than as events, irruptions of Whiteness.

One doesn’t have to excoriate Achebe to draw the obvious parallels. Europeans in Things Fall Apart are reductions of their race in the same way that Africans in Heart of Darkness are. It is a mirror, reflecting the same encounter from the other side (albiet in British Nigeria rather than Belgian Congo). And just as I do not expect Conrad to see Africans as anything but Other, I cannot but expect Achebe to see Europeans the same way. The reality of the encounter demands it, even as it frustrates our grander moral principles. Humans have tribal instincts that are tied to our social dynamic. Conformity within that social dynamic creates cohesion and expectation. So any violation of that conformity in one sense feels wrong. As the Africans on the riverside don’t fit Marlowe’s conception of what a man should be, neither do the Europeans to Okonkwo.

It’s important to recognize this, because if we refuse to do so, we allow our sense of Other to permit actions that our moral sense would otherwise have found repulsive. 19th-Century Europeans regarded Africans as sufficiently human to expend time and treasure to shut down the African slave trade. But despite that moral discovery, other economic exploitations, and concomitant cruelties, were allowed to go on. Africans were still Other enough that their lands, their religions, their traditions, etc. were regarded with contempt.

But that was 1890. The modern age pretends to have transcended this dynamic, but they’ve simply reversed the polarity on it. European civilization has gone from being The Best and Most Natural Standard of Good, to the Foulest and Most Horrid Excrescence of Wickedness. That the second fails under examination as clearly as the first did does not deter those who speak it. Anger and revulsion at the darkness in the human heart wheresoever it be found will usually find a scapegoat. Others gonna Other.

For that reason, I favor reading both these books, as both examples and examinations of the problem we have communicating across groups. Human nature might never permit us to transcend the problem, but forearmed, we might pull back some from the Horror.

Notes on Ruskin: The Geography of Gothic

I don’t know what caused Penguin to introduce a Great Ideas series, or by what criteria they determine what ideas are great. I do know that I read Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life, and I enjoyed the packaging as much as the philosophy (Stoicism is a useful ethos, but hard to expand upon. It’s pretty much “life sucks, enjoy the ride” with a lot of contra-cultural argumentation). Of course, I couldn’t stop there, so when I was trying to decide between Montaigne’s On Solitude and Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise, I settled upon John Ruskin’s Art and Life. Because, duh.

I’ve not heard of him before I purchased it, so this was entirely a Blind Buy. But such things can be the most instructive, because you go in with no pre-concieved notions. I was expecting a Victorian-era aesthete exploring Victorian-era understanding What Art Is and how it intersects with Life. And it is that a bit, but it’s many things more.

It’s divided into two sections: a portion from his manuscript The Nature of Gothic, and a lecture given in 1858 entitled The Work of Iron, in Nature, in Art, and Policy. I’ve taken notes as I’ve read, and I’m going to share them with you in pieces, as they are precisely what this blog is about.

Being English, Ruskin can be expected in the first piece to speak up in defense of Gothic architecture (which was rather enjoying a stylistic rebirth in the early 19th century, if perhaps only a nostalgic one). He does not disappoint. On pages 7-9, he treats us to an impressive narratio on the geologic, and therfore biologic, distinctions between Northern & Southern Europe, so as to center the Gothic as a Northern style (as against the Romanesque or NeoClassical styles):

And, having once traversed in thought this gradation of the zoned iris of the earth in all its material vastness, let us go down nearer to it, and watch the parallel change in the belt of animal life; the multitudes of swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea, or tread the sands of the southern zone; striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple or scarlet. Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of colour, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse and the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey; and then submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice in the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 9

Form doesn’t merely follow Function, it seems, but follows Place, and Observation of the Diversity therein. The Gothic style rises as a Northern response to Southern cultural imports, especially as an adaptation of the Christianity that was the means by which the Germanic tribes were brought into the Graeco-Roman civilization. I had always observed Gothic as a High Medieval style, a flowering of the Germanic Kingdoms in their purest expression of themselves. I had not observed them as a Northern style against a Mediterranean one, a Savage against a Refined one. But with that frame before my eyes, it becomes very clear what Ruskin was talking of. One perceives a geometric simplicity even as it elegantly reaches to Heaven.

Amiens Cathedral, 13th Century.

Brutalism’s Anti-Aesthetic.

In Ruskin’s On Art and Life, discussion of the features of Gothic archtecture lead to a passage nicely prophetic:

From these facts, we may gather generally that monotony is, and ought to be, in itself painful to us, just as darkness is; that an architecture which is altogether monotonous is a dead architecture; and of those who love it, it may truly be said, “they love darkness rather than light”

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 35

My immediate thought, jotted down in my Bullet Journal (where I have a couple “Notes On Ruskin” pages), was “the perfect condemnation of the Brutalist style”. Brutalism is certainly given to monotony, to an almost deliberate exclusion of the kind of varied detail that Gothic or even Deco goes in for. It’s perhaps the most 20th-Century style, appearing in the immediate postwar era. One associates it with Mid-Century scenes, apartment blocks, government offices, and the like. It’s been left behind in favor of loopy Deconstructionist styles and has very few defenders. Bashing it is a favorite activity of aesthetes and faux-aesthetes, especially on the cultural Right.

But let’s consider that any style is trying to create an effect, as I said the other day. What effect does Brutalism create?

I perceive a few:

  1. The experience of sublime power, in the manner of the Pyramids or other monumental construction,
  2. The eradication of any concept of unnecessary adornment. The beauty of the building would be in its grandeur and in its function, nothing else. This is Bauhaus logic taken to extreme.

These are my takes, of course, but I think them readily evident in the style. Now, note how the first of these is actually trying to say something, to express something real, and the second, isn’t. So the first rises to the level of an aesthetic, by our previous definitions, and the second seems more of an anti-aesthetic, a negation.

These are not new observations. What I find interesting is that Brutalism’s positive aesthetic seems to provoke the more intense dislike. Detractors of the style associate it with totalitarianism, noting the enthusiasm for it in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. One can hardly dispute this intimidating effect. And the anti-aesthetic means that we have nothing else to soften or diminish that effect. It’s a massive stone block, and nothing else.

With nothing to catch the eye, nothing to engage, it quickly becomes a void on the imagination, a bore. It doesn’t even seem to reach skyward so much as take up space. That is why people dislike it so intensely. They strike our eyes like the black monolith in 2001.

Yet, this isn’t an alien power cube. This was a building, designed by humans, for humans to work and live in. We must retain that fact as we examine the whys and wherefores of it. The desire for simplicity and power are not alien to humans. Brutalism evokes both. We may criticize it for its Modernist excesses, for its unintended dwarfing of human spirits. But the error is never all there is.

Criterion Collection Lust and Other Class Settings

I haven’t watched a single thing on my art-house bucket list, but I’ve subscribed to the Criterion Collection subreddit, because displays of aesthetic approval from an institutional source matter more in the Matrix than actually developing aesthetic sense.

Which is fine, as most people have no idea what aesthetic sense even is. I include philosophers in that number. Among other things, I’m moseying through Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and he makes flash statements about unmusical people liking opera, but he never says what he means by “unmusical”. If Nietzsche had an ounce of Aristotle in him, he wouldn’t be so beholden to Hegel and Schopenhauer as pre-reading.

As it happens, reading German philosophy and watching New Wave Cinéma is mentally demanding, and as you can’t disprove the notion that any of them aren’t just jacking off, it rarely feels like a good time investment. But in small doses, it can be of use, if only as variety and challenge. Which was part of the point, if I recall correctly.

The Beautiful and the Sublime

Here’s a YouTuber’s take:

The argument is that beautiful and sublime are central to art. They could almost be called the yin and yang of aesthetics, but they’re not entirely opposite to each other. Delight and Awe are not mutually exclusive.

One could make an argument, however, that Low Art seeks delight (beautiful), while High Art, awe (sublime), but that could be a case of stretching the heuristic.

On Aesthetics

I was inspired by my earlier post to think about aesthetics – the philosophy of art, beauty, etc.  And I did a brief perusal of the related article on the topic on Infogalactic and discovered something:

  • In ancient and medieval world, specific things were called out as being beautiful: order, form, harmony, unity, etc. This was a means of defining beauty.
  • Starting in the Early Modern period (17th-19th centuries), the conversation changed to be about “aesthetic experiences”, wedding aesthetics to rationality and science.
  • Then in the 20th century, two things happen:
    • First, we throw away the artist/author because of the “intentional fallacy”, and center our understanding of a work solely on our individuated responses to it.
    • Second, the Po-Mo’s throw away the idea of beauty itself, and everything becomes about discourses and narratives to be endlessly invoked and endlessly deconstructed

So we move from a set of idea that are clear, evocative, and can be used by a mason to build a temple, to a set of ideas that are esoteric, tendentious, and can only be used by academics to write essays. The nerds have taken over.

71ArtInutile-s
“Art is Useless. Go home.”

Post-Modernism and Critical Theory is all Based on The Worst Argument in the World

Via, Rotten Chestnuts, a summation of scholar David Stove’s essay “Idealism, A Victorian Horror Story”. Apparently, everything the Left has believed for the last century and a half comes from the perception/things-in-themselves fallacy, which allows all the other word games to follow.

 Since you’re starting from a tautology, thanks to the miracle of Dialectics you can say whatever you want.  There’s no cognitive dissonance, because there’s no cognition at all.  It all arrives at the same point — whatever degraded version of Idealism your victim group is pushing.  As Stove says, all you need for a Gem is tautology in the premise, Idealism in the conclusion, and pomposity throughout.  Berkeley to Hegel to Marx to Derrida, the Left’s entire intellectual genealogy in four steps.

Read the Whole Thing.

Post-Modernism Isn’t.

I have long been of the opinion that what passes for post-modern “philosophy” is not a philosophy so much as rhetorical exercise, or in my phrase, “word games”. Consider the act of “deconstructing” something: of tacking a thing to the culture that produced it, to the assumptions of that culture, to the history of those assumptions, etc.

What you haven’t done in any of that is make any kind of statement towards the Truth or value of the thing deconstructed. And if you haven’t done that, then what does the deconstruction of it matter?

The act of skepticism assumes the existence of truth, because skepticism is the suspicion of falsehood, and falsehood cannot exist without truth. Philosophy is the rational pursuit of truth, and one cannot pursue what does not exist. To say “This is not truth,” is to say “That is truth.”

But, as this article at Quillette by Galen Watts explains, the po-mos refuse to admit this.

 The scholar begins by deconstructing existing discourses, as if from a position of mere skepticism. However, he is simultaneously making the case that these are corrupt or oppressive in some sense, thereby endorsing some (implicit) normative standard. But you can’t have it both ways. Either you endorse a position and critique others from there, or you commit fully to your epistemic skepticism.

This is why the only philosophy available to those who take post-modernism seriously is nihilism, the rejection of all values. But nihilism is not a philosophy, it is the denial of a philosophy. Thus, I state that there is no such thing as post-modern philosophy, only the post-modern critique of philosophy. And it’s not a particularly useful critique. To tell me that I absorb values from the culture around me, and the traditions of that culture, sounds like a damning verdict, but it isn’t. Because what has not been established is why I should not absorb those values, or why I should not absorb them that way. To do that requires the discussion of alternatives.

A person who attacks your values without stating his own is dishonest. If he has alternative values, he should state them, as they undergird his arguments against yours. If he has no values, then he has no basis for attacking any values at all.

Therefore much of what we see being advanced under the banner of “postmodernism” is simply hypocrisy in disguise.

We see this in my discussion of Ivan Karamazov, as referenced by Camus:

Suffering will continue regardless of how sullenly you refuse to countenance it. What child does Ivan save from suffering? If none, then we must conclude the the intellectual solidarity with the suffering is a sham, or at any rate, a means to an end. And the end is power, moral power as a precursor to political power, the power over life and death.

The Quillette article is worth reading in full.