Saturday, October 14, 2023

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 12

 



Summary of Chapter 12: The Modern Corporation

The first of the forces transforming modern capitalism which Braverman will discuss is the modern monopolist corporation, and how it has been formed by the concentration and centralization of capital in fewer hands. Before the invention of the modern corporation form, capitalist enterprises were limited by the scale of the “personal fortunes and personal capabilities” of individual capitalists (179).

It is only in the monopoly period that these limits are overcome, or at least immensely broadened and detached from the personal wealth and capacities of individuals.

This makes vast amounts of wealth available (from stockholders, etc.), and largely replaces the individual owner with a “specialized management staff.” “Owner” and “manager” are two aspects of the ruling capitalist class; “as a rule, top managers are not capital-less individuals, nor are owners of capital necessarily inactive in management. But in each enterprise the direct and personal unity between the two is ruptured.” The limiting personal form of the past has been replaced with an institutional form. The existence of a managerial element within the ruling class gives an opening for those from lower classes to rise by virtue of ability, through “a process of selection... having to do with such qualities as aggressiveness and ruthlessness, organizational proficiency and drive, technical insight, and especially marketing talent” (180), which abilities are co-opted by the capitalist organization; nevertheless, managers are usually drawn from within the ranks of the ruling class.

B discusses the large number of jobs which go by “manager” in the census, most of these are much lower positions than the ones he is talking about. The expansion of upper management corresponds with a great expansion in scale and also diversity of departments in modern capitalist enterprise vs earlier family-run firms.

However, this emergence of management as a part of the corporation is perhaps outstripped in importance by the role of marketing. B traces the development of transportation networks which allowed corporate products to reshape city life: “cities were released from their dependence on local supplies and made part of an international market” (182). The food industry (e.g. Gustavus Swift’s refrigerator railroad cars) played an important trailblazing role: “the industrialization of the food industry provided the indispensable basis of the type of urban life that was being created;” this industry was also important for developing the “marketing structure” of modern corporations. Specialty and electrical equipment need not only distribution but maintenance and service available in urban markets, this affects corporate structure and marketing network; example, auto industry.

Finance is discussed as another important division; subdivisions are formed within these divisions, because each division may require its own accounting division, personnel, etc. “Thus each corporate division takes on the characteristics of a separate enterprise, with its own management staff” (183). This is made yet more complex by vertical and horizontal integration. This “pyramiding” in turn creates a need for decentralization, resulting in the “modern decentralized corporate structure” of the 1920s through Braverman’s day. Each division is relatively self-governing and contributes to the corporation as a whole.

From this brief sketch of the development of the modem corporation, three important aspects may be singled out as having great consequences for the occupational structure. The first has to do with marketing, the second with the structure of management, and the third with the function of social coordination now exercised by the corporation. (184)

1. Marketing

Marketing becomes of great importance as a means of reducing uncertainty in business, by inducing demand. Braverman quotes Thorstein Veblen extensively on the “fabrication of customers” (185). Marketing also reshapes manufacturing, with styling, design, and packaging, as well as planned obsolescence and the idea of a “product cycle: the attempt to gear consumer needs to the needs of production instead of the other way around.”

2. Change in overall structure of management

The proliferation of divisions represent the “dismemberment of the functions of the enterprise head;” each takes over “in greatly expanded form a single duty which he exercised with very little assistance in the past. Corresponding to each of these duties there is not just a single manager, but an entire operating department which imitates in its organization and its function­ing the factory out of which it grew. … Thus the relations of purchase and sale of labor power, and hence of alienated labor, has become part of the management apparatus itself.” (185-6)

This means we can now look at labor relations, and exploitation, within this realm of “management:”

Management has become administration, which is a labor process conducted for the purpose of control within the corporation, and conducted moreover as a labor process exactly analogous to the process of production, although it produces no product other than the operation and coordination of the corporation. From this point on, to examine management means also to examine this labor process, which contains the same antagonistic relations as are contained in the process of production. (186)

3. The corporate function of social coordination.

The complex division of labor which has emerged with modern capitalism comes with an increased need for “social coordination” or planning. Because our society resists the rational emergence of this, it is left to corporations to play much of the role of social planning in our society. This is irrational, because corporate planning is limited to seeking returns on capital, at the expense of all other motivations. [This is the same argument made today by the “planned degrowth” school.] As long as the corporations play such a huge role in investment, and control of resources, personnel, etc., government in fact plays a secondary role in social planning, filling “the interstices left by these prime decisions” 187).





Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Revolution of Everyday Life, Prefaces and Introduction


Raoul Vaneigem, (1967[2001]) The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Rebel Press, London


[I first read portions of this excerpted in AJODA, then took out a library copy in 1989. I read the line "we have nothing in common except the illusion of being together" to my roommate Ducky Heins (RIP), and he laughed and called it "pseudo-intellectual." That is a bit unfair, however.]


Translator's Preface

Nicholson-Smith thanks earlier translators he has relied upon, and notes that the title is not the best, “I would have preferred The Rudiments of Savoir-Vivre: A Guide for Young Persons Recently Established in the World, or more simply The Facts of Life for Younger Readers” (5). Nevertheless he sticks with the old name under which the work has become familiar in English. He embarks on a defense of his relation to the SI, since he was expelled in 1967, though he feels this “parting of the ways” was mutual. 

 

French preface from 1991/2:

In the 1990s preface, Vaneigem gives his take on the failure of 69:

In the end the economy picks up whatever it has put in at the outset, plus appreciation. This is the whole meaning  of the notion of ‘recuperation.’ Revolutions have never done anything but turn on themselves at the velocity of their own rotation. The revolution of 1968 was no exception to this rule. The commodity system, finding generalized consumption more profitable than production, itself speeds up the shift from authoritarianism to the seductions of the market, from saving to spending, from puritanism to hedonism, from an exploitation that sterilises the earth and mankind to a lucrative reconstruction of the environment, from capital as more precious than the individual to the individual as the most precious capital. (10)

“Even the critique of the spectacle has now been travestied as ‘critical’ spectacle.” Nevertheless he insists that the 1968 revolution, unlike all previous, more violent revolutions, did not fail because it did not ever really end; the system responded with “the official world’s recognition of pleasure – so long, of course, as the pleasure in question was a profitable one, tagged with an exchange value and wrested from the gratuitousness of real life to serve a new commodity order” (12). Besides pushing capitalist recuperation into a new, presumably less stable position, the 1968 revolution also gave birth to a new, anti-hierarchical form of mass movement, which poses new problem for authority/power: “a coming together of individuals in no way reducible to a crowd manipulable at will” (13).

He describes his work and writings as “the persistent attempt to create myself and reconstruct society at the same time” (13). He notes with optimism the conditions for revolution in the 1990s: the falling rate of profit continues, the various dissatisfactions of the present day.

Something is taking place today which no imagination has ever dared speculate upon: the process of individual alchemy is on the point of transmuting an inhuman history into nothing less than humanity’s self-realisation. (14)


Introduction

The introduction sets up a list of related binaries, listed here with the preferred term first:

  • subjectivity, objectivity
  • living, survival
  • positive, negative
  • transcendence, power
  • freedom, oppression

Vaneigem claims “a humility that should not be hard to see” and notes various limitations in his work, and his attempt to intervene with it in this world (17). Perhaps this book can contribute to the ideas in it becoming someday better and more clearly formulated, and thus more effective. His point is not about creating novelty, but since everything has already been said, he means to put this to use, to “escape the commonplace by manipulating it, controlling it, thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of our subjectivity.”

He notes that while his argument is largely subjectivist, it will have impact beyond this: “Everything starts from subjectivity, but nothing stays there” (18).

The struggle between subjectivity and everything that corrupts it is about to widen the terrain of the old class struggles. It will revitalise it and make it more bitter. The desire to live is a political decision. Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?

He seems to see the modern subject of his day reduced to a “man of survival,” “ground up in the machinery of hierarchical power....” However, this subject of survival is also one of self-unity, of “absolute refusal;” there is a constantly-experienced contradiction, for this modern subject, of oppression and freedom, as the capitalist system attempts to deliver on promises it simply cannot fulfill. The rest of the book will have two parts, “Power’s Perspective,” and “Reversal of Perspective,” but this order is purely for convenience; V wants the reader to see them as synchronic, and wishes that “a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own.”

This work is part of a subversive current of which the last has not yet been heard. It constitutes one contribution among others to the reconstruc­tion of the international revolutionary movement. Its significance should escape no one; in any case, as time will show, no one is going to escape its implications.




Monday, October 9, 2023

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Introduction


Gilbert Simondon (2017 [1958]), On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


Summary of Introduction (and other prefatory matter)

Simondon lays out his agenda, which is “introducing a knowledge into culture that is adequate to technical objects” (xv). S sees culture largely in terms of a regulatory function:

a culture establishes regulatory communication among those who share that culture; arising from the life of the group, culture animates the gestures of those who ensure the command functions, by providing norms and schemas. (19)

The problem is that our cultural vision of technical objects is outdated, and needs to be brought up to date. However, certain illusions or prejudices prevent this from happening. “Culture is unbalanced” because while some objects (viz. aesthetic objects) are privileged, others, in particular technical objects, are seen as only having a “utility function.” A false opposition is set up between “man and machine” (15), which results in two somewhat diametrically opposed misconceptions. The first is misoneism, or fear of the new; S asserts this is really a rejection of the foreignness which the machine is mistaken as; in reality, the machine is “the stranger in which something human is locked up, misunderstood, materialized, enslaved, and yet which nevertheless remains human all the same” (16).

The opposite error is technofetishism, which, failing to find a proper way to understand the technical object, comes to treat it as a sacred object. S has some choice words for this “idolatry of the machine,” and its associated “technocratic aspiration to unconditioned power”:

The man who wants to dominate his peers calls the android machine into being. He thus abdicates before it and delegates his humanity to it. He seeks to construct a thinking machine, dreams of being able to build a volition machine, a living machine, in order to retreat behind it without anxiety, freed of all danger, exempt from all feelings of weakness, and triumphant through the mediation of what he invented.

However, this machine-as-substitute for the human, which Simondon terms the robot, is a myth, a mere illusion: “the robot does not exist.” Both those who celebrate it and keep trying to bring it to life, and those who fear it and its presumed “hostile intentions toward man” (17) are mistaken based on their respective misunderstandings of the mode of existence of technical objects.

S bases this argument in part on a distinction between automatism and the margin of indeterminacy. Automatism he sees as a closed system, in which a machine completes a predesignated task without any further input. Such a closed system “must sacrifice a number of possibilities of operation as well as numerous possible usages.” In contrast, the margin of indeterminacy is the openness of the machine to outside information. Part of his point is thus that automation limits, rather than fully enabling, the productive and progressive capacities of machines. There is presumably a continuum between relative automatism and relative openness; otherwise S’s terminology would have a hard time accounting for modern machine learning, etc. In any event the openness or margin of indeterminacy of machines are what makes machines amenable to interconnection or communication between machines, which S calls an ensemble; he imagines humans as necessarily involved in the management and operation of these by humans, as the “permanent organizer” (17) and “interpreter” (18). Simondon appears to take for granted that there will necessarily always be a ["human in the loop."]

S goes through several subject positions, arguing why each is incapable of coming up with a new and more accurate “awareness of technical reality,” to disseminate into the culture: workers who work with machines, managers who oversee them, and technically-oriented scientists are all dismissed. What is needed is a social scientist, someone who will be like “a sociologist or psychologist of machines” (19). Simondon thus proposes the new science of mechanology, the goals of which will be to remove the man-machine divide as a source of alienation, and restore the regulatory function of culture in regard to machines. This will be done through an exploration of the three “levels” of technical objects: element, individual, and ensemble (20). An understanding of these three levels corresponds to stages in the historical development of modern technology:

1. The level of element does not cause anxiety; it corresponds to the “climate of eighteenth century optimism, and the idea of constant progress or technical improvement.” Tools apparently fall under this category; “man had centralized technical individuality within himself at a time when only tools existed” (21).

2. The individual level, however, “becomes for a certain time the adversary of man, his competitor” (21). Unlike the tool, the machine replaces the human worker. This goes along with a [dominant ideology] with a ‘dramatic and impassioned notion of progress, which turns into the rape of nature, the conquest of the world, and the exploitation of energies.” With this last, White’s Law or the Kardashev scale spring to mind, though S goes on to locate this ideology in “the technophile and technocratic excesses of the thermodynamic era,” and it is not clear from his usage here if that refers to the 19th century industrial revolution only, or refers to that as a sort of foundational era on which the present is premised. [Because surely this “rape of nature” is still ongoing!].

3. Ensembles come into existence in the 20th century, and the supplanting of the “thermodynamic energeticism” of the previous level is replaced by information theory [and cybernetics]; it seems that the proper mode of understanding of this level is yet to come, through the success of mechanology, and the spread of its insights through the education system.

So to provisionally summarize, we as a culture understand the first level, but are stuck there; we misunderstand the second level, resulting in all kinds of alienation, anxiety, and environmental destruction; finally, we have not yet (as of S’s writing, in 1958) grasped or adequately imagined the final level of the ensemble. The point of mechanology is to get us there:

The machine, as an element of the technical ensemble, becomes that which increases the quantity of information, increases negentropy, and opposes the degradation of energy; the machine, being a work of organization and information, is like life itself and together with life, that which is opposed to disorder, to the leveling of all things tending to deprive the universe of the power of change. The machine is that through which man fights against the death of the universe; it slows down the degradation of energy, as life does, and becomes a stabilizer of the world.

Reputedly this book is in part a rejoinder to Wiener’s writings, and we can see here the same theme of life as order, opposed to death as disorder. There is also the same anxiety regarding this whole “death of the universe;" ironically, given that S’s critique of technofetishism evoked a certain anxiety of the alienated technophile to create a robot to hide behind. The difference appears to be not that the anxiety has been resolved, but that it has become collective (“man” and “universe” as opposed to selfish individual subjects), and that it is based on an accurate understanding of the three levels. So far, many of the concerns and issues which S promises to address are strikingly relevant to the current day, and now and then it is easy to forget that this book was written in the 1950s.







Friday, October 6, 2023

Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic

John Ruskin (image from Wikimedia Commons)


John Ruskin (1900). The Nature of Gothic: A Chapter from the Stones of Venice. George Allen, London.

Summary:

Seeing as Cohen did not provide any definition of “Gothic,” in her discussion of Gothic Marxism, beyond a general suggestion of the noir, I thought I would turn to its most famous commentator, the fascinating and deeply problematic John Ruskin (Cohen does not cite Ruskin, and most likely did not have him in mind). It is of course somewhat anachronistic to try and modernize the political alignments of a person from another era, but Ruskin’s thoughts on the value of independence in labor can be read alongside, and contrasted to, such later arguments as the anarchist “abolition of work” argued for by Bob Black and others. Ruskin certainly had an influence on the anarchist and socialist tradition, as witnessed by the introduction to this volume, by William Morris; nevertheless he himself was, at least in this text, firmly conservative in the old sense of the term, pining for an idealized feudal order in which there is mutual respect up and down the rungs of a naturalized class hierarchy. Parts of his argument can also be read, somewhat against the grain though not completely, as an argument for a DIY punk aesthetic, along the lines of my (ahem) old band Yellow #5's aptly named 1987 debut album, Everybody Doing Their Own Shit At The Same Fucking Time.

Part of Ruskin’s charm, and his ability to write so many very long, multi-volumed books, is apparently his ability to go off on long tangents that would make Edward Gibbon envious. This chapter, from volume II of Ruskin’s three-volume survey of the architecture of Venice, starts off addressing the question of the form Gothic architecture took in Venice, leading to the question of how to define and evaluate Gothic in general; this leads on into discussions of the qualities of good art and architecture in general, on how and why architecture reflects the social order which produced it, and thus on the form of the ideal social order. That last topic is the one which has made this “chapter” (of 150 pages in the original text) so famous, and I read a version published as a separate book (though it was unfortunately lacking the plates, so I had to find and refer to a full copy of the Stones of Venice, anyway).

So: the question of Gothic architecture in Venice, leads to the question of how to define the Gothic in general; this is not just a question of various “Gothic” elements which may or may not be present, but of a unity they form; we all already have some idea of what we understand by “Gothic.” His plan is “tracing out this grey, shadowy, many-pinnacled image of the Gothic spirit within us” (3). If the reader has a different idea than Ruskin, “I do not ask him to accept, but only to examine and understand, my interpretation.”

Ruskin takes an approach akin in some ways to the “principles and elements” in discussing art: he focuses first on internal aspects (“certain mental tendencies of the builders”), before moving on the the mere external forms (arches, etc.)

Thus, the mental characteristics of Gothic, in order of importance: 

1. Savageness

2. Changefulness

3. Naturalism.

4. Grotesqueness.

5. Rigidity.

6. Redundance. (4)

Those are characters of the buildings themselves; to them correspond the following characters of the builders:

1. Savageness or Rudeness

2. Love of Change

3. Love of Nature

4. Disturbed Imagination

5. Obstinacy

6. Generosity

 In any given building, a few of these can be missing, but take away too many, it ceases to be “Gothic.”

I. Savageness

The name “Gothic” originated as a reproach for buildings with “a degree of sternness and rudeness” looked down on by commentators in the south (5). Should the name be replaced with something more fitting and respectable? No need, says R.

It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it, or despise. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence.

He gives a highly poetical climate-based argument for cultural and artistic differences between northern and southern Europe; there is a “look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp” (8). But savegeness is even better if it reflects religion, not just climate – this is part of his deeply Christian analysis: what is key to the Gothic is that it reflects the Christian belief in the sanctity and equality of every soul.

This leads him into his most interesting argument. He distinguishes between servile, constitutional, and revolutionary traditions of architectural ornament. Servile ornament characterizes the schools of ancient Greece, Nineveh, and Egypt, who subordinated enslaved workmen to rigid rules, and confined creativity and artistry to the overseers [shades of Braverman]. Revolutionary or Renaissance ornament involves some kind of overskilling – every worker is equally schooled and skilled, but the result is that “his own original power is overwhelmed, and the whole building becomes a wearisome exhibition of well-educated imbecility” (9).

Constitutional ornament is the Gothic one, and it reflects a double aspect of Christian thought: first, that every soul is equally of value and not to be subordinated; second, that imperfection is inevitable. “That admission of lost power and fallen nature, which the Greek or Ninevite felt to be intensely painful, and, as far as might be, altogether refused, the Christian makes daily and hourly, contemplating the fact of it without fear, as tending, in the end, to God’s greater glory.” The Christian exhortation is thus, “Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, not your confession silenced for fear of shame.” Gothic schools of architecture thus “receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole” (10). [It is not clear to me whether Ruskin would have been aware of the corollary concept of wabi-sabi in Japanese art.]

A desire for perfection should not lead us to “prefer the perfectness of the lower nature to the imperfection of the higher;” we are “not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, what we may more surely enjoy the complacency of success.”

In every manual laborer there are “some powers for better things,” some level of higher thought, which is not allowed to develop under the current system, in which they are made to act like machines.

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. (11)

[There is a lot to unpack in that; the assumption the worker is somehow asleep like an automaton, that has to awake into manhood [definitely this is more about “manhood” than “humanity?”] “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” [Granted this is in the language of one upper-class person talking to another about the plebs below, but it still beats Taylorism.]

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 arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.

“On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool.” Once he starts to imagine on his own, he loses his precision and becomes unreliable; “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.” [So what exactly is this “majesty?” For Ruskin it seems to be the sovereignty of the free, Protestant, [male] individual.]

Ruskin argues that factory work is even more degrading and dehumanizing than slavery or feudal serfdom, on the familiar existentialist argument that even in slavery you can remain “in one sense, and the best sense, free” (12). His argument seems to be that even manual labor, done by hand, requires some intelligence, and thus allows the worker to develop their own intelligence, and thus be “free” in their minds, despite being enslaved. Factory work, in contrast, will “smother their souls with them,” and make their skin “into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with.” By being tied to, and thus dependent on, machinery, workers lose even their intelligence; the perfection of modern English products is a measure of this enslavement. In contrast, the imperfections of old Gothic architecture are “signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.” (13)

[It seems R feels that subordination to machinery is more degrading than social subordination, even in such a condition as slavery. This can clearly be contrasted with Marx’s position in the Grundrisse; Marx agrees that automatic machinery reduces workers to “conscious linkages;” nevertheless what is most important is not the worker’s relation to technology, but the class relation that organizes production. R’s position in this light seems to be more in the line of “compassionate conservatism.”]

Ruskin is not against hierarchy, and feels that to “obey another man, to labour for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery. It is often the best kind of liberty – liberty from care.” (13) The man who has to oversee others is the one with more “care” and worry. The current struggles of the 19th Century seem, to R, to be misdirected when they are simply against the wealthy upper class – instead of being against the division of labor per se, we should seek a more just division of labor, in which there is no such degrading labor as exists in factories. Back in feudal times, “the separation between the noble and the poor was merely a wall built by law; now it is a veritable difference in level of standing, a precipice between upper and lower grounds in the field of humanity...”

He goes through a sort of master-and-servant dialectic, which ends somewhat differently than Hegel’s, on the relation between the worker who “reverences” his master, and the master who shoulders all the burden of responsibility:

Which had, in reality, most of the serf nature in him – the Irish peasant who was lying in wait yesterday for his landlord, with his musket muzzle thrust through the ragged hedge; or that old mountain servant, who 200 years ago, at Inverkeithing, gave up his own life and the lives of his seven sons for his chief? – as each fell, calling forth his brother to the death, “Another for Hector!” (14) 

[The reference is to the history of Clan Maclean of Scotland. Perhaps it is not specifically English, but the nature of imperialism, to romanticize the peoples whom you have already colonized and beaten down, more than the ones who are still putting up resistance? The correct answer is that no, the Irish rebel has broken with any “serf mentality” the moment he took up his rifle, and is continuing the same battle against Cromwell, and all he stands for, that the seven Maclean brothers gave their lives in, back in 1651.]

So anyway, Ruskin feels that the current working class feels unthanked, their sacrifice in the factory is not honored like the reverent sacrifices of the past generations on battlefields, etc. In turn, the upper class folks who want to help should not teach or preach (presumably the standard attempts of the time; and still common today), since these are basically insulting the intelligence of workers; instead what is needed is a “right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labor are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” (15), and centering the economy on this, giving up the forms of beauty, convenience, etc., which can only be gained by squeezing the life and soul out of workers. R suggests three “broad and simple rules:”

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. (15)

1. By “invention” he more specifically means inventiveness or creativity, on the part of the worker creating the product. His examples is the manufacture of glass beads, which are “utterly unnecessary” (16), and which involve mindless, repetitive labor. “And every young lady, therefore, who buys glass beads, is engaged in the slave-trade, and in a much more cruel one than that which we have so long been endeavoring to put down.” [the last bit there seems an unnecessary exaggeration. IIRC someone has made an argument somewhere that this frequent assertion in the 19th century that factory labor is “worse than slavery” ultimately justified or normalized the existing slavery system.] However, glass cups or vessels can be “the subjects of exquisite invention,” and when we  buy and appreciate these, “we are doing good to humanity.” Similarly, wearing cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is wrong, but wearing fine gold jewelry which has been crafted by a skilled artisan is good.

[Ruskin can interestingly be linked to the current arguments for degrowth, on the shared point that we could do away with the production of a lot of useless and wasteful things (though his example is glass beads, not SUVs, etc.). This is also related to a problem with his argument for a return to an artisanal economy, namely that the exquisite glassware, etc. which we can keep can only be afforded by the wealthy, while the cheaper, “useless” decoration he wants us to give up, is that which the working class can afford.]

2. Ruskin is not against elegance and finish per se, just against it being prioritized over the freedom and thought of the creator. “If you are to have the thought of a rough and untaught man, you must have it ina  rough and untaught way .... Only get the thought and do not silence the peasant because he cannot speak good grammar, or until you have taught him his grammar.” (17) “So the rule is simple: always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more.”

He discusses the difference between English and old Venetian glass: the former is always precise, the latter cruder but also more inventive at its best: “Choose whether you will pay for the lovely form or the perfect finish, and choose at the same moment whether you will make the worker a man or a grindstone” (18).

He imagines an objection, that the talented craftsman should be promoted to overseer or designer, and have less talented workers under him, and so we can get “both design and finish.” R replies:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labor is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect. 

He defines large-scale architecture on this model as “the expression of the mind of manhood by the hands of childhood” [very much the Kantian “What is Enlightenment” here]. Starting to sound a bit more radical, he argues that the societal distinction between the gentleman thinker, and the working “operative” is a problem:

We are always in these days endeavoring to separate the two [thinking and working]; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. (19)

Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

No master [or boss?] should be too proud to do the meanest or hardest work in their profession. So anyway, the rudeness indicated by the term “Gothic” should be seen as a good quality, not a reproachful one: “no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect” (20). [R’s theory of work and art are very appropriate to his own writing, because there is some beauty, depth, and insight there, that shines through a lot of crudeness and error.]

Ruskin now admits that his use of the terms “perfect” and “imperfect” so far has been inaccurate to his ends:

But, accurately speaking, no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This is for two reasons:

1) “...no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure;” that is, the truly great artist is always pushing beyond what they can currently do, experimenting instead of staying inside what they can comfortably do, which itself would lead to relative mediocrity. If they strain to actually achieve perfection, they end like Leonardo, spending ten years on a painting, then leaving it unfinished to go on to new projects which will end the same way. The results will necessarily be beautiful but imperfect.

2) Imperfection is in fact essential to life, and is a sign of progress and change in all nature. He provides examples from the natural world: “to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality” (21).

II. Changefulness

From Savageness, he turns to the second quality of the Gothic, Changefulness, or Variety. This is a natural benefit of allowing  workers more freedom over their own work. He contrasts the regularity of a properly built neo-classical home, using the correct styles for Greek columns, etc, with buildings that can be read like poetry, because in addition to regularity, they have something else, variety.

The idea of reading a building as we would read Milton or Dante, and getting the same kind of delight out of the stones as out of the stanzas, never enters our mind for a moment” (23).  Architecture and every other art should say new things, not just repeat itself. 

Nothing is a great work of art, for the production of which either rules or models can be given. Exactly so far as architecture works on known rules, and from given models, it is not an art, but a manufacture... (24)

He turns to the superiority of a pointed over a round arch, as the former has infinite variability; ditto for grouped shafts and tracing in windows. There are, nevertheless, both healthy and “diseased” loves of change. He makes his appeal to nature (and music) for the distinction:  monotony and change are best experienced in alternation. The “diseased” love of change is when there is too much change, so it has become monotonous, and we seek “extreme and fantastic degrees of it” (27). Healthy love of change, acc R, led to the rise of Gothic, and diseased love of change led to its fall.

Monotony unbroken, like darkness, is painful (and even at its best it serves as a painful preparation or something for the relief of change): “...an architecture which is altogether monotonous is a dark or dead architecture; and of those who love it, it may be truly said, ‘they love darkness rather than light.’” Yet “transparent monotony” is a good use of monotony; “endurance” of monotony/darkness is a good quality of mind.

R starts off a great discussion of the superiority of the Gothic by observing that it is “not only the best, but the only rational architecture, as being that which can fit itself most easily to all services, vulgar or noble” (28). Because it is not dominated by a rigorous symmetry like Romanesque, etc., it can grow or shrink in width or breadth or function. Gothic builders never let ideas of “outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did.” [in contrast, the miserably boring uniform fa├žades of many European squares comes to mind, particularly those celebrated by A.E.J. Morris.]

If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to symmetry than injure it. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry. Every successive architect, employed upon a great work, built the pieces he added in his own way, utterly regardless of the style adopted by his predecessors; and if two towers were raised in nominal correspondence at the sides of a cathedral front, one was nearly sure to be different from the other, and in each the style at the top to be different from the style at the bottom. (28-9)

He gives religious import to the “confession of Imperfection” and the “confession of Desire of Change:” “If we pretend to have reached either perfection or satisfaction, we have degraded ourselves and our work.” [i.e., it would be hubris]

It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied. (30)

III. Naturalism

He defines naturalism as “the love of natural objects for their own sake, and the effort to represent them frankly, unconstrained by artistical laws” (31) [this seems a problematic formulation]. “Naturalism” was sometimes used as a reproach in his day [in contrast to “Purism”], and he explains why, by distinguishing between composition (of colors, lines, etc.) and representation per se. “Now the noblest art is an exact unison of the abstract value, with the imitative power, of forms and colours. ... But the human mind cannot in general unite the two perfections; it either pursues the fact to the neglect of the composition, or pursues the composition to the neglect of the fact.” (32) Nevertheless, both of these serve their purposes, for communication, and for decoration. 

R says men are artistically divided into three “classes:” men of design, men of facts, and men of both. Each class has both healthy and unhealthy functions. The unhealthy forms are caused by despite or envy; errors on the side of design only cause inferior art, while errors on the side of facts produce idealogues who ruin everything.

Three more classes: good and evil are mixed in everything, yet one class seeks the good, one the evil, and the third perceives both. He calls these purists, sensualists, and naturalists, respectively.

He excoriates the sensualists at length, but more interesting is his criticism of the purists: “... this vulgar Purism, which rejects truth, not because it is vicious, but because it is humble, and consists not in choosing what is good, but in disguising what is rough, extends itself into every species of art. ... There is nothing, I believe, so vulgar, so hopeless, so indicative of an irretrievably base mind, as this species of Purism.” (44)

... the very becoming a Purist is commonly indicative of some slight degree of weakness, readiness to be offended, or narrowness of understanding of the ends of things: the greatest men being, in all times of art, Naturalists, without any exception... (45)

He recognizes in passing the ranty and digressive character of this 100+ page “chapter:”

the reader may already be somewhat wearied with a statement which has led us apparently so far from our immediate subject... (45) 

So anyway, the Gothic workman confesses his own imperfection (rudeness) and that of his subject (naturalism). On page 48, R comes out strongly against historicism in a footnote: “All good art representing past events, is therefore full of the most frank anachronism, and always ought to be. No painter has any business to be an antiquarian. We do not want his impressions or suppositions respecting things that are past. We want his clear assertions respecting things present.” (48)

[Well, Benjamin would have a response, that we can have both, that the image from the past can resonate with the present.]

He discusses Gothic vegetation, and how it is far more interested in the actual forms of real vegetation, than many older sculptural styles, which were content with very stylized vegetation as ornament. R links this to the rebirth of scientific inquiry at the close of the Middle Ages. He notes a theory that the Gothic developed out of imitation of nature; he points out this is historically inaccurate, the Gothic only developed to be closer to nature in its most mature form, but this itself reveals how central naturalism is to the “temper” of Gothic builders:

It was no chance suggestion of the form of an arch from the bending of a bough, but a gradual and continual discovery of beauty in natural forms which could be more and more perfectly transferred into those of stone, that influenced at once the heart of the people, and the form of the edifice. (50-1)

IV: The Grotesque.

R unfortunately declines to discuss this until the third volume, other than describing it as “the tendency to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images.” (52).

V. Rigidity.

He immediately admits that the word “rigidity” is not really sufficient; “active rigidity” might be closer: “the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance.” [“Energetic” would perhaps be the best term]; he refers to the quality of Gothic architecture that uses tension to achieve lightness, instead of having stones just sitting on each other like southern architecture; and also how Gothic ornamentation does not simply sit on the walls but leaps forth, independently. R ties this to the need for people in northern climates to find joy in the cold season, as much as in the warm.

[This is of course belied by Moorish architecture, indeed, it has been argued, more recently, that Islamic and specifically Moorish architecture influenced Gothic.]

He emphasizes the importance of moderation: “The best Gothic building is not that which is most Gothic...” (55).

VI. Redundance

Last and least, Redundance, “the uncalculating bestowal of the wealth of its labour” (56). Instead of relying on elegance or economy, “a certain portion of their effect depends upon accumulation of ornament.”

For the very first requirement of Gothic architecture being, as we saw above, that  it shall both admit the aid, and appeal to the admiration, of the rudest as well as the most refined minds, the richness of the work is, paradoxical as the statement may appear, a part of its humility. No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or the attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight.

[Obviously, he would have some harsh words for modernist architecture.]

The inferior rank of the workman is often shown as much in the richness, as the roughness, of his work; and if the co-operation of every hand, and the sympathy of every heart, are to be received, we must be content to allow the redundance which disguises the failure of the feeble, and wins the regard of the inattentive.

[There is something in here, despite the classism carried over, regarding the way art could look in an anarchist society based on universal cooperation and sympathy; “failure” in the above just means not meeting certain elite standards or aesthetic expectations. What R is describing is how a more democratic, egalitarian work-process, reflecting a society of the same values, creates art with more “redundance,” or better put, variety of aesthetic judgments and innovations. This stands as a plausible response to Le Guin’s characterization of the anarchist society in The Dispossessed as being drab and uninterested in, or suspicious of, adornment; more likely, there would be greater diversity and “redundance” of artistic style, because there would no longer be any hierarchy of taste.] R then lists several interests in the Gothic “heart” which are quite relevant to this: “a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it never could do enough to reach the fulness of its ideal; an unselfishness of sacrifice, which would rather cast fruitless labour before the altar than stand idle in the market; and finally, a profound sympathy with the fulness and wealth of the material universe...” (56-7). He goes on about the influence of nature on Gothic artists, that being influenced by nature they necessarily had no fear or revulsion of complexity or richness.

Having covered the six aspects of the inner spirit of Gothic, he turns to outward form. He reiterates that we can’t say that a building is or isn’t Gothic, only that it is more Gothic or less Gothic, depending on the extent to which it possesses those six aspects of inner spirit, and the elements of outward form which he will now enumerate.

He starts, naturally, with pointed arches, then turns to roof construction. Gabled roofs are even more important than pointed arches, being linked to the northern climate, and forming the basis of turret and spire, etc.

“It is not the compelled, but the willful transgression of law which corrupts the character. Sin is not in the act, but in the choice.” (59) This is his way of introducing the point that architects can stray from the rules of Gothic by necessity (shortage of room, etc.) and still be Gothic, it is when they do it willfully that they “sin.”

All of Gothic is developed from the relationship between the pointed arch for the bearing line below, and the gable for the protecting line above (62); he gives an illustration of this shape, basically the star trek insignia, but not off-center.

There are three ways of bridging space, with straight lintel, round arch, and angled gable; the Gothic “pointed arch” is properly speaking a rounded gable. All architectures of the world can be grouped by which means they use to bridge space. Examples: Greek, Romanesque, Gothic.

Per my above comment about Islamic architecture, R does mention a style he calls “Arabian Gothic” (as opposed to “pure Gothic”), of which he states that it “is called Gothic, only because it has many Gothic forms, pointed arches, vaults, etc., but its spirit remains Byzantine, more especially in the form of the roof-mask” (65) (i.e., with domes instead of gables).

Foliation is the inspiration for the trefoil arch, and for tracery: Gothic artists don’t necessarily try to imitate plants per se, but to reproduce their structural or geometrical beauty and the pleasure received from perceiving them.

He provides a final definition of Gothic based on physical characteristics: “Foliated architecture, which uses the pointed arch for the roof proper, and the gable for the roof-mask” (72).

There is now only one point more which he wishes to make, regarding foliation and sculpture, and the highest or purest form of Gothic, versus its final degraded forms. Early Gothic was “noble, inventive, and progressive,” whereas late Gothic was “ignoble, uninventive, and declining” (73) due to how they use foliation and figure sculpture.

He distinguishes between two styles he calls linear and surface Gothic; R gives two examples, one a gable from Abbeville, France, illustrating linear gothic; and the other from Verona, Italy, illustrating surface Gothic. R notes that the Italian example he has provided appears to have been executed less skillfully or expertly, yet this is not important: “The Veronese Gothic is strong in its masonry, simple in its masses, but perpetual in its variety. The late French Gothic is weak in masonry, broken in mass, and repeats the same idea continually. It is very beautiful, but the Italian Gothic is the nobler style” (76). 

Ruskin states a principle of economy in art: “a composition from which anything can be removed without doing mischief, is always so far forth inferior.” [Is it churlish to point out that “so far forth” could be removed from that definition, without any undue mischief?]

He provides some rules for recognizing “whether a given building be good Gothic or not, and, if not Gothic, whether its architecture is of a kind which will probably reward the pains of careful examination” (78): 

1. steep gable, high above the walls

2. windows and doors with pointed arches and gables over them.

3. presence of foliation

4. the arches in general "are carried on true shafts with bases and capitals." Exceptions noted for non-religious use.

Those identify Gothic; but is it good architecture? Some more rules of thumb:

1. “See if it looks as if it had been built by strong men,” if it has roughness, “nonchalance” mixed with gentleness, as “of men who can see past the work they are doing, and betray here and there something like disdain for it” (79). Mere precision is less likely to clearly indicate that it is of the “noblest” schools.

2. Irregularity, with “different parts fitting themselves to different purposes, no one caring what becomes of them, so that they do their work. If one part always answers accurately to another part, it is sure to be a bad building...”

3. It has “perpetually varied design” in ornamentation. (180)

4. “Read the sculpture.” The sculpture on a building should be legible from a distance. “Thenceforward the criticism of the building is to be conducted precisely on the same principles as that of a book” in terms of the knowledge and feeling communicated.

Ruskin would no doubt be depressed and disappointed upon trying to “read” the architecture of today with its almost total lack of sculpture or artisanal ornamentation whatsoever. More importantly, he would note that its ugliness, its drabness and arrogance, directly reflect the dissociation of designers from builders: the problem with modern architecture is that it reflects the hierarchical, exploitative relations through which it was built, and of the deeply unequal society which built it.