14 March 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xii)

"In the case of photography...there was for long a question as to whether it was or was not art. And the answer to that question is: Is there any leeway for choice and initiative on the part of the photographer? If there is such leeway, there is a possibility of art, that is of success or failure in terms that would have significance to the beholder. Perhaps the best effect of machine art is to make us conscious of the play of the human personality in the small area where it remains free, a differentiation so delicate, so subtle, that a coarse eye would hardly take it in and an insensitive spirit would not know what it meant." (82)

p. 93 -- "As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of the early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended upon the photographer's respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before his eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice--which sometimes occurred at the point when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints--the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit."

Here Mumford takes photography's seemingly most obvious bug, the confinement of "choice and initiative" to an exceedingly "small area," and posits it as a feature. That the Technics of the endeavor so strictly circumscribe desire without quite disabling it entirely is, for him, not a limitation at all but in fact "one of the truly esthetic qualities of machine art," of disciplines where the "the play of the human personality" is brought into higher relief precisely for being so narrowly channeled. Though he does not explicitly state the obverse thesis, it is fair to wonder if, by this logic, there is at the other extreme a degree of artistic freedom into which the personality is merely diffused rather than exalted. And though he does not invoke the concept of accessibility, it would not be reading too closely between the lines to theorize a further connection to this most loaded construct, i.e. to posit that strict channeling of the aesthetic impulse has a parallel effect on the reception side as is ascribed to it here on the generative side; that "truly esthetic" reception is borne of intelligibility, and that intelligibility is borne of the strict channeling of generative desire.

Wherever photography's status as art is in fact questioned, indeed wherever the compulsion to settle on a hard and fast definition of "art" is for any particular reason prioritized, Mumford's gloss could be quite compelling in favor of including photography under any definition in which expression and/or communication are the linchpins: whereas conceits to expression and communication through art quite frequently run aground on the non-specificity of abstraction, photorepresentation is supremely concrete in surface content while permitting expressive depth within a managably "small area." If art is to be about sending messages, then photorepresentation is a medium which strikes a rare and delicate balance in this department.

This is certainly an interesting angle from which to consider photography as a medium and as an art form. The question of conclusively defining art is, however, never quite as interesting as it seems like it should be; it is interesting enough to divert Mumford here, I think, for two not-terribly-good reasons. Explicitly, he wishes to gently head off the charge that his hard-functionalist theory of machine art more or less does away with the art part of the question, and as such he wishes not to offend photographers by appearing to deny them their rightful status as artists. Rather, photography is art because it does afford generative-aesthetic choice, and it is not non-art simply because this choice is narrowly channeled by a mechanical intermediary. This point seemingly arises as a procedural matter rather than an essential one. It is a heading-off of offense borne of misunderstanding, a little white nugget of interest-group mollification offered up simply to keep things moving, "lest any photographers in this audience should squirm in agonized silence." Though now living on only in written form, these missives are in fact conceived as "lectures," whereby the lecturer is potentially face-to-face with the aggrieved. In the solitary consumption of formal academic writing, meanwhile, there is nothing but "agonized silence" and, probably, a squirm or two to boot. This is simply part of the readerly deal, and it is easier to accept when the only available recourse is itself a written one1; less so otherwise.

That being as it is, these assertions are actually quite central to Mumford's larger thesis, to his view that the metaphysics of machine usage are settled fact to a degree that the artists in the room may well find, in a word, unartistic, and this no matter their metiers. His is just about as hard and fast a definition of art as is ever put forward either in person or in print, so much so that there can be only "a possibility of art," not a certainty of it, inhering in any given technical medium. Arthood is not (or not entirely) in the subjective eye of the beholder but rather (also) can be objectively deduced from the evidenced relationship between human creator and technical intermediary. If I were a photographer in the audience, the possibility of inclusion under such a strict rubric would not be all that comforting. Nor would the implication that photographs which are "soft and misty and impressionistic" are, as a rule, something less than fully artistic or aesthetic. The overriding need or desire for early photographers "to justify their productions as art" at a time when such status was not yet firmly established furnishes Mumford with a handy example, but it simultaneously evinces a massive confounding factor vis-a-vis the argument he uses it to support. Presumably having judged such works aesthetic failures, he points to the fact that they work against rather than with the designed purpose of the camera. This is solid correlation which is nonetheless still a long way from causation; to take one for the other is to betray the presence of an underlying primary judgment which is far less rational than a fully-rationalized functionalist regime permits.

Further yet, in staking this argument to the concept of narrow channeling, Mumford risks contradicting his earlier assertion that "material and process play this [limiting] part everywhere." If that is so, then what is the significance of degree therein? Can our perception of these degrees of limitation ever be objective and reliable, or is it itself perspective-bound and ephemeral? Is the artistic leeway permitted by machine art truly narrower than in the fine and performing arts, or is its narrowness simply harder to ignore once machines become involved?

As always, the possibility of a global, prescriptive definition of art is rhetorically useful only up to the point where it must be fleshed out; for pragmatic purposes it is at that point elided by instead settling for the inscription of sub-categories within it rather than boundaries around it. This is somewhat less-than-explicit in the text but seems to me nonetheless an unavoidable takeaway. "If there is such leeway [for choice and initiative on the part of the Technician], there is a possibility of art, that is of success or failure in terms that would have significance to the beholder." Ostensibly this question of "success or failure" and that of "significance" would mark the common ground between so-called machine art and all other kinds of art, simultaneously becoming a rather strict prescription for all against which all cannot possibly stack up equally. Crucially, then, material differences among arts determine the ease with which their artifacts may meet this standard, the methods which are available to do so, and the likelihood of successful reception by an audience. Complete automation and wholecloth creation stake out the opposite poles of this continuum, along which various art forms and traditions can be placed. The "possibility of art" is somewhat broader than the possibilities of expression or communication; but wherever expression and communication are the functional mandates of art, the boundaries begin to close in rather precipitously.

Mumford is thus favorably disposed toward machine arts only insofar as they conform to his prescriptions, those being narrow enough so as to create, ultimately, a taxonomy whereby machine arts play by entirely different rules than do the fine and performing arts. Rhetorically at least, the latter lie towards an opposite pole which could be represented by any of a few wholecloth, "handicraft" archetypes: the lump of clay, the blank canvas, the silence before a musical performance; in other words, by voids, real or perceived, material or intellectual, from which artworks are brought into being, and where the Technics of this process are elementary enough that the Art side of his cosmic duality cannot help but predominate for sheer lack of resistance. The maker of machines faces up to this same void, but not so the end user: this is a void of agency as well as material which, once it has been filled, is not so easy to selectively rearrange without simply emptying it entirely and starting over. This is because in machine art, beginnings determine middles and endings, and path dependency carries the day. A whole array of "choice, freedom, esthetic evaluation, [is] transferred from the process as a whole...to the initial stage of design" (82), that is, to the maker and away from the end user. The maker thus gives the end user just barely enough rope to hang themselves, "leeway" which can be consummated as the freedom to specialize in Art with minimum Technical toil, or as the abdication of Art in mere undirected, sub-Artistic Play. Hence a fork in the road of absolute morality: to have "the right amount of the right quality in the right time and the right place for the right purpose" (110), or to have too much of everything all at once, or to have nothing at all; to sit quietly during the Marshmallow Test, or to devour the morsel at first sight, or to refuse to eat it when ultimately offered.

The same disparity of agency between wholecloth and prefabricated creation of course applies to immaterial inheritances too: to culture-bound conventions and processes, to ideas and ideologies, and certainly, in my own bailiwick, to the established uses of musical machines which themselves define "the small area where the play of the human personality remains free" for even the most creative, expressive or communicative instrumentalists. Even the humble lump of clay has, as its proverb-ization indicates, quite a weight of precedent and convention attached to it, as well as material limitations which I must imagine only seem simple to those who have never had to wrestle with them. This is quite a lot for the artist-technician to take account of as they seek a mediation between the inner and outer world; or, if you prefer, for the naive artist to manage to remain ignorant of lest they see their individuality incinerated in the pyre of received convention. In either case, clearly the old lump presents in a phase where, by Mumford's logic, the available extent of "choice and evaluation" is as great as it can ever be in the mediums of pottery and sculpture. Machines can be used to realize such choices as are subsequently made, but machines cannot be held responsible for them; responsibility is, for better or worse, a human burden, as any frustrated tech support worker will tell you. Certainly there are unique limitations, conventions, perceptions, politics and meanings at play in truly hand-made materials and processes, meaningful differences from works which are more fully machine-aided, where the role of the machine so inheres in the fabric of the work that there is, literally, no use pretending it is not there. But are these differences truly determined by the width or narrowness of expressive boundaries? Or, are we merely better able to see, hear and feel boundaries imposed by machines than we are to perceive those limitations which live inside of us, which inhere in intellectual inheritances we have never sufficiently questioned, which we can scarcely perceive because they have always been there, which are ineluctable laws of "nature," or which are imposed on us unwittingly and without our consent in myriad aspects of "nurture?"

I'm skeptical that degrees of limitation can be meaningfully distinguished when the object of said limitations (the degree to which the human personality roams free) is itself so ephemeral as to be difficult to codify or quantify. But I do think it is informative that the subset of the arts defined by the central role of well-developed machines (represented here by photography and printing) would be thought to confine expressive potential more tightly than those which involve less complex, more transparent technical ingredients (say lumps of clay, plucked strings, or buckets of paint). This Perception may well be incorrect, and it may have become Reality nonetheless. For Mumford, under a machine-imposed regime, such expression as is possible results in, "a differentiation so delicate, so subtle, that a coarse eye would hardly take it in and an insensitive spirit would not know what it meant," this as a direct consequence of the narrowness of the leeway permitted by the machine. Hence a double bind: are both machine precision itself and the general automation of artisanal gruntwork not constructs which appeal specifically to the coarse and the insensitive? Indeed, if this were not the case, then what would be be the point of taking such lengths to counterpoint the narrative of unbroken progress through Technics? If the basis for individual ability and affinity in the "machine arts" was a quality which consummates these arts rather than one which debases them, then would the arc of progress not be more steady and less jagged than Mumford elsewhere suggests it has been? Is the superficial appeal of machine precision not in and of itself the reason why ideal functionalist machine use is the exception and not the rule?

1. The radical empiricists among us badly underrate this aspect of formal academic discourse and its potential, especially now, to elide much of the social friction which inheres in face-to-face interaction. With as much attention as the issue of implicit bias has recently attracted, it is remarkable to me that anyone could consider the failings of abstraction, disinterest, and secondary sourcing to be the greater evil. At the risk of trivializing the issue of implicit bias, I would say that it is a luxury to so much as be able to stop and consider it: we are ruled by explicit biases and by the lizard-brain to an extent that makes all face-to-face interaction risky, with worst-case scenarios in play which are far more severe than being passed over for a job interview.

The possibilities for resolving epistemic conflict face-to-face have always been extremely limited, which is why the academic ideal has evolved to so severely restrict not just the personality but the entire social brain. It is one thing to complain that this paradigm is no fun, quite another to take a hard line for empiricism as against rationalism. Similarly, even as the academic conceit to objectivity has been ruthlessly problematized from an epistemological angle, as a mere conceit it has at least delivered conventions which are quite useful as blinding tools. This is worth keeping in mind as ever-clumsier blinding tools are resorted to in other social arenas. The lizard brain doesn't like to see the productions of the higher cortices forcibly blinded; rather, it wants due credit for them on its own terms; and so at that point it falls to other regions of those higher cortices to intervene.

And so, a thought for campaign season: is the staged debate not first and foremost about the contestants and only distantly secondarily about the question(s) at hand? When the question is actually important, there is a lot to be said for eliminating affect from discourse; it wouldn't hurt to eliminate self-listening, interrupting, and performing too. It is certainly too bad that fewer people will read most academic journal articles than can fit into a booth at the local micropub, but nor does it make any sense to expect superhuman degrees of impartiality and colorblindness in any face-to-face social contact. Wherever the discourse turns fraught, proceeding in writing and out of view of each other has clear benefits: it forces us to take turns, to restrain our affect, and most of all, to think twice or thrice about what we are about to say. That potential is not to be taken lightly.


Stefan Kac said...

"The essential distinction between a machine and a tool lies in the degree of independence in the operation from the skill and motive power of the operator: the tool lends itself to manipulation, the machine to automatic action. The degree of complexity is unimportant: for, using the tool, the human hand and eye perform complicated actions which are the equivalent, in function, of a well-developed machine; while, on the other hand, there are highly effective machines, like the drop hammer, which do very simple tasks, with the aid of a relatively simple mechanism. The difference between tools and machines lies primarily in the degree of automatism they have reached: the skilled tool-user becomes more accurate and more automatic, in short, more mechanical, as his originally voluntary motions settle down into reflexes, and on the other hand, even in the most completely automatic machine, there must intervene somewhere, at the beginning and the end of the process, first in the original design, and finally in the ability to overcome defects and to make repairs, the conscious participation of a human agent."

Technics and Civilization, p. 10

It occurred to me while writing the original post that perhaps I was playing too fast and loose with semantics in referring to musical instruments as "machines." Perhaps the orchestral instruments are really more like tools in the eyes of naive outsiders, but they are more like machines to the people who play them. Musicians only seem to be the ones doing the "manipulating." In reality, even great technicians are also being manipulated (profoundly) by their axes.

Stefan Kac said...

Re: face-to-face communication, Mumford, polymath that he was, also wrote eloquently on this:

"With the invention of the telegraph a series of inventions began to bridge the gap in time between communication and response despite the handicaps of space... As a result, communication is now on the point of returning, with the aid of mechanical devices, to that instantaneous reaction of person to person with which it began...

"What will be the outcome? Obviously, a widened range of intercourse: more numerous contacts: more numerous demands on attention and time. But unfortunately, the possibility of this type of immediate intercourse on a worldwide basis does not necessarily mean a less trivial or a less parochial personality. For over against the convenience of instantaneous communication is the fact that the great economical abstractions of writing, reading, and drawing, the media of reflective thought and deliberative action, will be weakened. Men often tend to be more socialized at a distance, than they are in their immediate, limited, and local selves: their intercourse sometimes proceeds best, like barter among savage peoples, when neither group is visible to the other."

Technics and Civilization (1934) (!!)
Ch. V/7

What is scholarship, I ask, if not "barter among savage peoples?"