23 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (ivb)

If the acronym STEM once found merely prosaic use, it now by its mere existence and invocation encapsulates quite neatly the territory which the objective has pillaged from the non-objective. STEM encompasses the most lucrative professions and growthiest growth industries, and also demands the most rigorous academic and technical skills. It experiences shortages of qualified (home-grown) workers, and it is also too white and too male for its own good. For all of these reasons and more, STEM Matters. If "modern man" has, incidentally, also "patterned himself on the machine" with terrible consequences, if money cannot actually buy happiness (still), if the academic topics thought most rigorous are really just the most objective ones, if nature can be thought to trump nurture even where diversity is valued over homogeneity, that is none of STEM's business. STEM is too busy making money, improving lives, and generally being awesome. If you want in on that action, then STEM is what you do.

Artists as a group are liable to be more unified in their general sense of objection to this situation than they are in the substance of their specific critiques. I tend toward Mumford's outlook, seeing in the current condition of American art and artists several particular manifestations of a more widely observable human dynamic by which the objective, the quantifiable, and the provable runs amok. Against this there is the option to play ball, to commence laying out the various strictly objective cases for the value of art and artists: educational, therapeutic, economic, activist, and so on. To me this latter tack has always looked self-defeating. The harder we work at proving our own objective worth, the further we get from actually doing so, and the more ridiculous we look both to STEMers and to each other. Objective value is not what we do. I fear that we let the Technics terrorists win by trying to play their game.

In spite of this division among artists, or perhaps because of it, the A-for-Art eventually wedged its way into the acronym, forming STEAM. It takes an artist to notice a sort of symbolic conflation of chemical and physical transformation in this too-cute linguistic maneuver, and also to appreciate and reclaim the irony. STEM always carried a cultural charge and was bound to be reactive for this reason. How stable, then, is the new molecule? Where, really, are the affinities between STEM and The Arts? There are some good ones, to be sure, but do they supply the necessary energy for a change of state?

Mumford's Functionalist rejection of Industrial Design is a powerful rejoinder to orthodox STEAM rhetoric. In what he classifies as "machine arts," with printing as the paradigmatic example, "we give up a certain subjective freedom in order to better serve a common collective goal." (74) And so,
by very reason of its impersonality and standardization, a machine art, once it has achieved a high level of form, is not subject to endless variations: the main problem is to keep it at its original high level.

Whereas "repetition without variation and re-creation is fatal to the existence of the humane arts,"
This is not so with the arts of the machine. Here the type is the supreme achievement; for the sake of functional economy, for the sake of order and common use, the fewer new demands that are made, the better. The capital danger in the arts of the machine is misplaced creativity, in other words trying to make the machine take over the functions of the person. (73)

I read this as essentially a consequentialist argument. To me it is at least imaginable that pure design considerations could be applied to a more-or-less perfected technology without affecting its functionality. Mumford's unwillingness to abide, say, the painting of typewriters and coffee grinders even after they have been designed, manufactured and purchased (p. 80), seems calculated to project total rhetorical consistency rather than rhetorical grace. This is the intransigence which earned Functionalism its staunchest enemies: what kind of Puritan would want to live in a world where purely decorative touches were so deeply mistrusted as to be veritably quarantined even from the most quotidian of technical pursuits? Ironic, then, that such radical anti-functionalists as Jorn and Debord unequivocally shared Mumford's contempt for "the canons of conspicuous waste, dear to the businessman, and the newly rich" by which "someone is picking your pocket of money you might use for better purposes, under the pretext that he is furnishing you with art." (75)

In other words, where the Situs wanted to liberate desire, Mumford was deeply suspicious of it. Both saw consumerism channeling desire to nefarious ends, but where the Situs saw unmediated desire as the weapon that would topple entrenched power, Mumford saw desire as one side of an essential duality which demands balance, discipline and restraint rather than release.

From the standpoint of effective communication, the handwrought manuscript tended by its very elaboration to lose sight of its essential reason for existence. In this respect, its development was very similar to that we often find in other arts, a tendency on the part of human fantasy, once it is emancipated from the restraint of practical needs, to run riot, to seek to prolong the esthetic moment beyond any reasonable duration. ...Quite evidently this desire to prolong a pleasurable occupation, while it makes for a good life, has its own kind of shortcoming; and in the case of the book, the very esthetic excellence of the illuminators and illustrators served also to retard the process of copying and so limit the circulation of books. (69)

I suspect that printing is a well-cherrypicked example to which there not as many companions as Mumford would have us believe. That said, the current smartphone/tablet landscape seems as good an illustration as any of how collisions of agendas can disfigure a technology to the extent of interfering with a quite settled functional profile. Yet another CalArts memory comes to mind, that of Barry Schrader asserting that the digital computer is a settled type of machine which has not meaningfully changed in decades, thereby eliciting raucous protest from a gaggle of BFA-1 Music Techbros, who were palpably invested in the idea that they were entering a cutting-edge field. Mumford's Puritanical version of Functionalism (he reluctantly but unapologetically embraces both labels) is a bit hard to relate to personally, even for me; but read consequentialistically (and, as it were, pessimistically) it certainly is not lacking for anecdotal support. The balance between art and technics is an achievement, not a given, because the conflicting impulses at play here (the need for expression and the need for order) are so fundamental and powerful.

I think also of a passage from Cory Doctorow:
I’ve seen sausages made. I’ve seen laws made. Both pale in comparison to the process by which anti-copying technology agreements are made.

This technology, usually called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), proposes to make your computer worse at copying some of the files on its hard drive or on other media. Since all computer operations involve copying, this is a daunting task — as security expert Bruce Schneier has said, “Making bits harder to copy is like making water that’s less wet.” (27)

Apple in particular, with the i-Devices, not only has made an end run around this "daunting task" but also figured out how to have people literally lining up at midnight to pay steep prices for the privilege of being thus manipulated. STEAMers sure are correct to see the iPhone as a money-machine which fully integrates the initials. It seems to me that this is, however, exactly the kind of mongrel contraption which Mumford theorized, a weaponization of aesthetics in service of endless consumption, resulting in a sleek supercomputer that can't keep a webpage loaded unless you threaten to fight it. (Yes, I own one.)

Incidentally, musical instruments are excellent examples of machines which achieve their visual appeal rather by accident, and where there are, with a few exceptions, not very many things you can do to them to change their appearance that won't at least marginally affect their utility. Instrument building is also a near-perfect STEAM topic, sitting as it does squarely on the intersection of art and technics, of rugged necessity and personal expression, of the machine arts and the performing arts. Yet even among the most accomplished high school instrumentalists, how many play so well that the differences between silver and lacquer, pistons and rotors, funnels and bowls, are viscerally rather than intellectually or rationally known? And what about the vast majority who are less accomplished, or who know these things only as abstract information that they have learned secondhand, or who have never stopped to consider them at all without prompting?

Behind the appearance of printing from moveable types, apparently so sudden, and on superficial analysis just a great mechanical feat, we find a thousand years of self-discipline and esthetic training, which went along with the effort to respect the gifts of the spirit and to deepen the inner life. Some of that training still is important for those who would design typography. You might think that, once printing was achieved, it would be possible to cut loose entirely from these earlier sources; but in fact the continued interdependence of art and technics could not be better illustrated than in this wholly mechanical art. ... As soon as the art of the calligrapher fell into decay, the art of type design became more difficult, for in aiming at mechanical accuracy and finish, the designer often lost the precious touch of the hand itself. Once utilitarian and rational interests predominated over esthetic ones, as they did in the nineteenth century, there followed a series of lapses both in type itself and in the layout of the printed page... (71-72)

Again, there is a consequentialist flavor to this view, but Mumford is hardly the only one to advocate for the continued need for "self-discipline and esthetic training" even as machines continue to take over more and more tasks from humans. If STEM, the brand, is too rigidly one-sided, or perhaps appears that way on the surface to concerned parents, that is a question of overall purview; the extent to which different disciplines are compartmentalized or integrated in the curriculum is an entirely different question. Maximum integration of topics seems to me unnecessary if the goal is simply to develop the whole person, though I fear the actual goal is simply to look that way superficially. Comprehensive education seems like the obvious winner in any case. But of course comprehensive education is, again, essentially politically unviable anywhere fiscal conservativism reaches a certain critical mass, and so this invites some messy workarounds. STEAMers certainly can count on the artists to play along: we're generally happy to trade our street cred for any degree of mainstream acceptance vis-a-vis this vocal minority of true believers in Hire Education. There is liable to be a personal incentive for us to integrate our marginalized disciplines with more prestigious ones regardless of the potential therein. Call it a classic democratic compromise where nobody gets exactly what they want.


Stefan Kac said...

Richard Sennett
The Culture of the New Capitalism

"In poetic usage, a consuming passion can connote a passion that burns itself out by its own intensity; put in less lurid form, in using things we use them up. Our desire for a dress may be ardent, but a few days after we actually buy and wear it, the garment arouses us less. Here the imagination is strongest in anticipation, grows ever weaker through use. Today's economy strengthens this kind of self-consuming passion, both in shopping malls and in politics."
(p. 137-138)

"Balzac imagines this psychology to embody a social transition, a shift from old-fashioned peasants clinging to everything they have accumulated to more cosmopolitan characters who dwell in material desires which die when consummated. The sociologist might explain this social shift as a change in institutions..."
(p. 138)

"Only by the mid-nineteenth century was it possible for a family of modest means to contemplate throwing out old worn shoes rather than mending them, or to possess a battery of clothes adapted to the seasons. Mechanical production explains Georg Lukac's observation that Balzac was a prophet of capitalism's expansion of desire, but the cornucopia in itself does not explain the subsequent withering of pleasure in possession."
(p. 139)

Stefan Kac said...

(Sennett, CNC)

"...the modern consumer needs to think like a craftsman without being able to do what a craftsman does.

"Ideally, this should be true. And, in practice, one virtue of Wal-Mart...lies in the utilitarian character of its stores... Other ways of marketing, however, seek to prevent consumers from thinking like craftsmen about a product's utility. Instead, branding seeks to make a basic product sold globally seem distinctive, seeks to obscure homogeneity. The means of doing so today are more complicated than Packard's concept of the "motor of fashion."

"Today, manufacturing deploys on a global scale the "platform construction" of goods from automobiles to computers to clothes. The platform consists of a basic object on which minor, surface changes are imposed in order to convert the product into a particular brand. ...

"Manufacturers call these changes built on the modern platform gold-plating, and that image is exact. To sell a basically standardized thing, the seller will magnify the value of minor differences quickly and easily engineered, so that the surface is what counts. The brand must seem to the consumer more than the thing itself."

(pp. 143-144)

"Often, in this kind of production, the rough assembly work on the platform will occur in low-wage countries in the developing world; the gold-plating will occur in finishing plants closer to local markets."
(p. 144)

Stefan Kac said...

(Sennett, CNC)

"potency"..."A commonplace in the electronics industry is that ordinary consumers buy equipment whose capabilities they will never use...[ditto] owners of the infamous SUV machines meant for desert navigation used mostly to shepherd children to and from school."
(p. 151)

"memory theater [e.g. of medieval scholars] is not built into the random access procedures of an iPod. ... One [download] site, for instance, offers three thousand golden oldies... But again there is the difficulty of hearing nine thousand minutes in the mind. Not surprisingly, Michael Bull, who has written a study of how people use the Walkman, the iPod's primitive parent, has found that people listened to the same twenty or thirty songs over and over again—which is as much active musical memory as most people possess."
(p. 153)

"Put abstractly: desire becomes mobilized when potency is divorced from practice; put simply: you don't limit what you want to what you can do. In a way the Wal-Mart also epitomizes this divorce, a vast assembly under one roof of more than any one person could buy; the sheer mass of the objects duplicates desire."
(p. 154)

Stefan Kac said...

(Sennett, CNC)

against the notion that unleashed consumer desire can be constructive for the progressive-political imagination:
"The realm of consumption is theatrical because the seller, like a playwright, has to command the willing suspension of disbelief in order for the consumer to buy. Even the prosaic Wal-Mart is such a theater, in which the size and sheer mass of goods on offer change the spectator-consumer's understanding of the things in themselves. Today, the consuming passion has a dramatic power: possessive use is less arousing to the spectator-consumer than the desire for things he does not yet have; the dramatization of potential leads the spectator-consumer to desire things he cannot fully use.

"Politics is equally theatrical, and progressive politics in particular requires a certain kind of rhetoric. It deploys a willing suspension of disbelief of citizens in their own accumulated experience. I've tried to accent the positive side of this. But, like the marketing of consumer goods, the marketing of politics can take a much more negative turn. What's missing in the hope for progressive change is an understanding of the profoundly
enervating role that illusion plays in modern society. I mean here to propound a paradox, that people can actively enter into their own passivity."
(pp. 161-162)

"The VW platform is a common chassis from which small material differences are inflated in value to become brands. Modern politics has a similar form, which we commonly call consensus politics."
(p. 162)

at that point,
"the rhetoric of competing political parties necessarily has to stress differences. Indeed, by concentrating on the platform alone as reality, we would miss the lived experience of political life, which is that differences are what really arouse voters and the media. Gold-plating explains how this arousal occurs. The simplest form of gold-plating is symbol inflation. In Britain, the parties have differed passionately on whether or not hunting foxes with dogs ought to be allowed."
(p. 164-165)

"There's nothing new in symbolic inflation of trivia—what is new is the consanance between the advertising of products and political behavior. The marketing of political personalities comes increasingly to resemble the marketing of soap..."
(p. 165)

"Platform and brand combine in politics to produce something other than a progressive desire for change—rather, a political climate akin to what Freud first called the "narcissism of small differences." As in advertising, so in politics branding can lead to loss of realistic, Skoda-minded judgment [a reference to his previous discussion of platform construction in automobiles, with Skoda and Audi being the low- and high-end versions of the same chassis] and opens a particularly modern door to prejudice."
(pp. 167-168)

Stefan Kac said...

(Re: Sennett on politics as "gold-plating" and consumption of "potency")

This is an engaging analysis of the "theater" underlying contemporary politics, but it is rather unsatisfying as a political Theory Of Everything. That's because the "consensus" of "consensus politics" is not and has never been the consensus of the governed (though that in and of itself may not be such a bad thing). Increasingly it is the consensus of "elites," of both the democratically-appointed and the self-appointed variety, based first on their own self-interest and secondarily if at all on that of their constituencies. And so, yes, as good marketers do, they then appeal to "symbol inflation" and "wedge issues" in order to grease the skids. But the other pitfall lurking here, I hasten to insist, is to blanket-equate "wedge issues" with "trivia." The ultimate perniciousness/insidiousness of "gold-plating" here is that, say, the hunting of foxes with dogs or the questions surrounding stem cell research, are NOT "trivial" in any reasonable sense; rather, they become "trivial" in the strictly relative sense which emerges from a gridlocked, polarized, sclerotic legislative scene where even the basics have become contentious and draining. Frankly, come to think of it, I do find fox hunting repulsive; just because it's not worth hundreds of hours of parliamentary time right now does not mean it is an altogether "trivial" issue. If this view makes me ungovernable, then maybe I'll go live in the woods. Do YOU think these are "trivial" issues?

We can lament our collective ungovernability both on abstract principle and from a pragmatic perspective, but I think there is more happening here than manipulation via marketing. Some bifurcating dynamic along the lines of Jacobs' two "moral syndromes" seems to exist between the left and right Platform polities, with formal compromise between them leading predictably to "monstrous moral hybrids." The harder we try to govern ourselves, the more morally depraved we become. And as the dialogue gets more superficial and toxic, it gets easier and not harder to figure out which of two sides you are on! That is the perniciousness of the wedge! But the wedge is not so easy to break.

(We have now strayed quite far from Industrial Design and Functionalism! But I do think these excerpts from Sennett are best presented together.)

Stefan Kac said...

N.N. Taleb

"with so many technologically driven and modernistic items—skis, cars, computers, computer programs—it seems that we notice differences between versions rather than commonalities. We even rapidly tire of what we have, continuously searching for versions 2.0 and similar iterations. ... These impulses to buy new things that will eventually lose their novelty, particularly when compared to newer things, are called treadmill effects. ...they arise from the same generator of biases as the one about the salience of variations mentioned in the section before: we notice differences and become dissatisfied with some items and some classes of goods. This treadmill effect has been investigated by Danny Kahneman and his peers when they studied the psychology of what they call hedonic states. People acquire a new item, feel more satisfied after an initial boost, then rapidly revert to their baseline of well-being. ...

"But it looks as though we don't incur the same treadmilling techno-dissatisfaction with classical art, older furniture—whatever we do not put in the category of the technological. You may have an oil painting and a flat-screen television set inhabiting the same room of your house. ... I am quite certain that you are not eager to upgrade the oil painting but that soon your flat-screen TV set will be donated to the local chapter of some kidney foundation.

(pp. 322-323)

Stefan Kac said...

(Taleb, Antifragile)

"...Whenever I sit on an airplane next to some businessman reading the usual trash businessmen read on an e-reader, said businessperson will not resist disparaging my use of the book by comparing the two items. Supposedly, an e-reader is more "efficient." It delivers the essence of the book, which said businessman assumes is information, but in a more convenient way, as he can carry a library on his device and "optimize" his time between golf outings. I have never heard anyone address the large differences between e-readers and physical books, like smell, texture, dimension (books are in three dimensions), color, ability to change pages, physicality of an object compared to a computer screen, and hidden properties causing unexplained differences in enjoyment. The focus of the discussion will be commonalities (how close to a book this wonderful device is). Yet when he compares his version of an e-reader to another e-reader, he will invariably focus on minute differences. Just as when Lebanese run into Syrians, they focus on the tiny variations in their respective Levantine dialects, but when Lebanese run into Italians, they focus on similarities.

"There may be a heuristic that helps put such items in categories. First, the electronic on-off switch. ... For these items, I focus on variations, with attendant neomania. But consider the difference between the artisanal—the other category—and the industrial. What is artisanal has the love of the maker infused in it, and tends to satisfy—we don't have this nagging impression of incompleteness we encounter with electronics.

"It also so happens that whatever is technological happens to be fragile. Articles made by an artisan cause fewer treadmill effects. And they tend to have some antifragility—recall how my artisanal shoes take months before becoming comfortable. Items with an on-off switch tend to have no such redeeming antifragility."

(pp. 323-324)