26 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (x)

"In some sense, man must forgo his purely personal preference and submit to the machine before he can achieve good results in the limited province of choice that remains to him. This curtailment of freedom is not unknown even in the pure arts...material and process play this part everywhere." (81)

Indeed, not "unknown" but frequently denied or willfully ignored. The "fundamental vanity" of the infant and the "irrationality" of the savage are archetypes to which Mumford has already appealed, psychological barriers to conscious acceptance of any "curtailment of freedom" as may be threatened. These barriers are presented as pathologies or deviations, failures of normative development; as with so-called Uncommon Sense, the norm is also an achievement, not a given. If there is any sympathy due the vain and irrational, it might be grounded in the observation that many curtailments are simply imposed upon us, accepted on our behalf, or perfectly untransparent to us at pivotal moments. I will forever be envious of trombonists for the potential (not to say the certainty) of the trombone to be both in-tone and in-tune where players of valved brass face ineluctable conflicts between those two ideals. Then again, if as an adolescent this had been explained to me intellectually, I would most certainly have ignored it. Immaturity is at best half the reason why.

Mumford continues,
What is peculiar to the machine is that choice, freedom, esthetic evaluation, are transferred from the process as a whole...to the initial stage of design. Once choice is made here, any further human interference, any effort to leave the human imprint, can only give impurity to the form and defeat the final result. (82)
In other words, as you design a machine, you make important choices on behalf of all who might use it. Similarly, end users implicitly accept such choices by their use. Makers can never fully anticipate future use. Users who tinker are limited by that which the existing device makes imaginable. There really is no elision of will or agency available here other than by a strictly deterministic outlook, no possibility of denying responsibility either for design choices or for that approval which use implies. We make our beds, and then we lie in them.

I think that we find the least willingness to accept this responsibility where people have the most personal investment in the idea of particular materials and processes as progressive, liberating, important, signifying; that is, where particular materials and processes have, perhaps by no fault of anyone involved, become the stuff of core self-identity, likely via proceedings which were not (and alas cannot be) conducted rationally or with those concerned possessing all of the information they would like to have had. I think this is the precise social-psychological location of the regressions to vanity and mysticism which deliver such absurdities as "Bebop is the Music of the Future" and "Harmony is the New Avant-Garde," which drive uncle Steve to give his new CD as a Christmas gift, which motivate generals in the Style Wars to pursue scorched-earth tactics. This is what I think. And I went to CalArts. Go figure.

People are endlessly creative in their use and misuse of machines. We poke around the boundaries of our materials and processes and sometimes attempt to crawl through a hole in the fence. The temporary thrill of these junkets obscures the extent to which prior decisions have foreclosed such escape routes. If we want to take those foreclosed choices for ourselves, we must ourselves backtrack from end user to designer/inventor, change our materials, rethink our process, etc. Failing that, we either accept existing technical reality as binding or we adopt opposition to it as a generative strategy. I for one have never seen better than limited generative potential in explicitly working against materials and processes. I have also entertained the notion that this seemingly rational opinion is in fact an irrational psychological defense of my identity as an aesthetically-oriented, lines-and-dots musician who fears he is watching conceptual avant-gardists and commercial illiterates unwittingly form a coalition to rid the world of chairs and stands. In any case, Mumford here offers up a powerfully rational case for affirmative rather than oppositional machine use, one which certainly speaks to my sensibilities on the matter.

Undeniably, opposition to otherwise settled function always has at least some limited generative potential, and it would be tragic (and also a very bad indication for the state of the field in question) if for mere lack of interest this was not pursued at all. If I were ever to teach college tuba, I would at some point assign every orchestral performance major to disassemble their instrument and take inventory of potential new sound sources. The question is not "When am I ever going to use this?", but rather, "What might this teach me that I really ought/need to know?" If you're serious about playing, then knowing the instrument inside and out, forwards and backwards, etc. is not merely a metaphor. And certainly if I was presented with the far-less likely obverse case, a 17 year-old music school applicant from an arts high school whose entire practice consisted of tuba improvisation using extended techniques, we would have the materials/processes talk often, and we'd learn a Bordogni a week until we could have the materials/processes talk about Bordogni too. I'll probably never have the chance to attempt this type of constructive brain scrambling with students talented, bright and persistent enough to learn something from it, but I find it a most interesting thought exercise even so. I would expect that the next, best question, that of judgment, would follow for these hypothetical students more naturally regarding the foreign modus operandi imposed on them than it would regarding the practice to which they were affirmatively, instinctively drawn. The ultimate goal of course is not to elicit or reaffirm negative judgments of other practices but to prompt conscious intellectual consideration of the core practice, to expose hitherto unchallenged, unwitting assumptions and judgments to new scrutiny. A reaffirmation of these assumptions is a perfectly acceptable outcome, perhaps even the most promising one, for it would indicate that the student's gut, their animal instincts, and all of the environmental factors that they didn't necessarily choose, that all of these things over which we in reality have almost no control have, nonetheless, been managed and processed by the student in a way that has enabled him or her to find a calling and to be at peace, consciously now, with the particular privileges and responsibilities associated with that calling. If, on the other hand, significant fissures are revealed in the student's thinking about the thing they say they want to do with their life, this is a less happy outcome but an equally constructive one vis-a-vis the function of education in society, at least provided that student and faculty alike actually act on it. Under pressure of expedience, music schools have taken up far blunter instruments in the come-to-Jesus part of their mandate, devious things like, in the case of my alma mater, scheduling unpleasant classes early in the morning and front-loading them in degree plans1. I think it would be better to stick to the old-fashioned method of attacking the desired specialization from every angle and leaving students to decide if, after several years of this, they still find the subject interesting enough to do good work.

Such generative limitations as exist in working against rather than with a machine can easily remain invisible to artists working in relative isolation, but they become painfully obvious when a wider net is cast (e.g. when you move to a bigger city, or when the internet is invented). All processes limit as well as enable, which is part of why seemingly revolutionary stylistic changes eventually beget the same stale redundancy they once shattered. It is, unfortunately, far easier to shield ourselves from this reality than to proactively gather the evidence of its truth; and once we have so shielded ourselves, our sense of our own self-importance, of our place in the pecking order, of the wider potential of our work, all of these perceptions lose their grounding in reality quite easily. Not so when reality is sporadically permitted to recalibrate them.

I have, as an adult, always found it constructive to be reminded when I am least expecting it that something I'm thinking or doing is not all that original. I have always been much more upset to be paid the complement that something I'm thinking or doing is wholly original when I know this not to be case. The latter has indeed happened a few times, and I am never quite sure where to go from there; whereas the former case is a near-ideal prompt to improve a specific element of what I do and who I am, whether that entails a diversification or consolidation of influences. If self-improvement of any kind is something you're interested in, then you must not merely be accepting of vulnerability but in fact actively seek it out. There is certainly plenty of vanity in the arts, but in this respect I think it's pretty clear that humility plays far better out in the world. Only the narrowest of specialists can achieve something great without some seasoning and without exposing themselves to critique (explicit or otherwise) issuing from outside their specialty. This kind of hyper-specialist can actually be quite useful to have around; but the next time you meet one, try poking around for leading indicators of the vanity and mysticism which Mumford sees it as the role of Technics to resolve for us; for whether or not they see the humane value in "usefulness;" to what degree they are at peace with that which they cannot control; to what extent their specialism represents the affirmative giving over of the self to a higher calling and to what extent it is psychological armor (perhaps material too) against a Big Scary World to which they are far less important than they are to their specialty.


1. Uncharacteristically for me at that age, I spoke up against this front-loading in my first group advising session. I was told that, if I insisted, then yes, I could put off first-year Music History/Musicology until year two and second-year Music Theory until year three, in order to free up space for non-music classes which the degree plan listed as happening almost entirely in my fourth year. It was, however, non-negotiable and most crucial that I enroll in first-year Music Theory from the outset. I remember thinking at the time what a revealing/loaded assertion this was, and this feeling has only deepened with experience gained. What I only later realized was that I had unwittingly liberated myself from the threat of having 8am classes five days a week for an entire school year, the way things were meant to be for freshman. I wonder how different/better so many of my classmates' lives could have been, how many breakdowns and burnouts and health scares and suicides could have been nipped in the bud this way. And, given my classmates' general attitude towards their non-music classes, I wonder if enforcing seasoning rather than discipline would not have been an even more effective weeding-out procedure.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)

"Arnold Toynbee has devoted much of his A Study of History to analyzing the kinds of challenge faced by a variety of cultures during many centuries. Highly relevant to Western man is Toynbee's explanation of how the lame and the crippled respond to their handicaps in a society of active warriors. They become specialists like Vulcan, the smith and armorer. And how do whole communities act when conquered and enslaved? The same strategy serves them as it does the lame individual in a society of warriors. They specialize and become indispensable to their masters. It is probably the long human history of enslavement, and the collapse into specialism as a counter-irritant, that have put the stigma of servitude and pusillanimity on the figure of the specialist, even in modern times. The capitulation of Western man to his technology, with its crescendo of specialized demands, has always appeared to many observers of our world as a kind of enslavement. But the resulting fragmentation has been voluntary and enthusiastic, unlike the conscious strategy of specialism on the part of the captives of military conquest.

"It is plain that fragmentation or specialism as a technique of achieving security under tyranny and oppression of any kind has an attendant danger. Perfect adaptation to any environment is achieved by a total channeling of energies and vital force that amounts to a kind of static terminus for a creature. Even slight changes in the environment of the very well adjusted find them without any resource to meet new challenge. Such is the plight of the representatives of "conventional wisdom" in any society. Their entire stake of security and status is in a single form of acquired knowledge, so that innovation is for them not novelty but annihilation."

(pp. 68-69)