Editorial Introduction 5.2

The means of production: it would be difficult to find a more overdetermined phrase, or one that lies more squarely at the heart of craft studies. In this issue, we take an unapologetic hard left turn into theorization, and the means of production remain at the center of the debate. To a greater or lesser extent, our contributing authors operate in relation to the philosophical tradition of Marxism, which did so much to nurture the Romantic revival of craft in the nineteenth century, but which has been only an intermittent point of reference since. The texts included here, while admittedly dense in their formulations and varied in their approaches, together constitute an important reintegration of Marxist thought into craft discourse.

It is fitting that we should begin with John Roberts, whose 2007 book The Intangibilities of Form proposed a powerful new account of art production as labor, in the process restoring Marxism to a central position in current debates about craft. Roberts’s analysis of a triadic relation between traditional skill, conceptual deskilling (as in the Duchampian readymade), and innovative “reskilling” has been widely influential among craft historians. In his contribution here, Roberts takes a closer look at his third key term, placing reskilling in the contemporary context of digitization, service economy, and other forms of “immaterial” production. Taking issue with the optimistic comments of recent authors like Antonio Negri, who have seen in the fluid relations between productive and nonproductive labor (professional work and private life) a de facto process of liberation, Roberts insists that it would only be through a full “re-temporalization” of experience, not just a permeability of previously distinct categories, that de-alienation can occur. This argument has profound consequences for craft theory. Against those who would follow the Romantic/Arts and Crafts tradition, seeing the artisan as a savior for work as such, or even those who see post-disciplinary flux as a moral good in itself, Roberts reminds us of the intractable problem of “necessary labor,” which is difficult to aestheticize and impossible to escape.

Closely allied to Roberts’s perspective is that of the art historian Dominic Rahtz, who examines the sculptor and self-designated “artisan” Carl Andre. His principal concern is to examine Andre’s own comments on Marx’s Grundrisse, and then judge them against the artist’s work. Of particular interest is Andre’s sense of his own distance from the ideal of “living labor,” on account of his embeddedness in the prevailing conditions of postwar American industry. This discussion of Andre parallels that offered by another former Journal of Modern Craft contributor, Julia Bryan-Wilson, in her recent book Art Workers (2009). To her detailed investigation of the politics of artistic production in the Vietnam era—readers of that book will remember the revelatory moment when she describes flipping over one of the magnesium plates in an Andre floor work, and discovers the mark of the DuPont Corporation, a major military supplier—Rahtz adds a further layer of interpretation, showing for example how Andre’s use of materials established a fixed ground from which he could triangulate his relation to an idealized artisanal past, and the generalized, abstract labor of his own time.

Ulrich Lehmann’s text on techne and episteme seems initially to take us to a much more ancient body of thought. The article has a vertiginous quality, moving from the metaphorical use of textiles in the writings of Plato and Aristotle to examples drawn from recent fashion history. This itinerary would seem to take us well away from the Marxist framework explored by Roberts and Rahtz, but gradually it becomes clear that Lehmann is charting a spiraling motion (a cut perpetually on the bias, one might say) through established theories of dialectical materialism. The question posed by Lehmann is deceptively simple: on what grounds can craft—for example, weaving and tailoring—be legitimately considered an epistemological activity? The claim that making is thinking is routinely made in art schools these days, within the context of “practice-based research,” but it is usually adopted as a sort of slogan rather than being rigorously interrogated. Lehmann’s discussion will hopefully prove useful to those wanting to frame craft as a conceptual activity, as well as a reminder of how deep the roots of such thinking go.

Our final full-length article is also concerned with the question of the cut, but in this case the material is film rather than fabric. James Macgillivray’s study of Robert Beavers and Gregory Markopoulos shows that the physical manipulation of film by hand is not only a technical necessity for independent filmmakers, but also primary content in its own right. In addition to the obvious parallels with Lehmann’s article—the two would be read profitably in one sitting—Macgillivray’s discussion of the transformation of the raw material of celluloid into an experiential light projection recalls some of the issues that arise in Rahtz’s discussion of Andre. Equally, his vivid description of Beavers, hunched over his editing table painstakingly repairing the hundreds of hours’ worth of footage in Markopolous’s avant-garde epic Eniaios might be considered a personalized instance of Roberts’s fundamental opposition between necessary and artistic labor.

Elsewhere in this issue, we restage the opposition between handmade and readymade discussed above. Zoë Sheehan Saldaña’s deadpan Statement of Practice takes the form of a how-to guide for making a “strike anywhere” match. It is unlikely that many of our readers will be moved to follow the instructions, for they are forbiddingly demanding. This is the point, of course. What Sheehan is demonstrating is the byzantine complexity of the simplest objects around us, and hence the difficulty of retaking control of the means of production on an individual basis. That the phrase “strike anywhere” sounds like a sacred principle of organized labor is not a coincidence, but it would be incorrect to read Sheehan’s work as simply politics by other means. She is not so much interested in rekindling the flames of revolution as excavating the truth behind contemporary production through her own hard-won skills.

Finally, this issue features a Primary Text written by the artist and curator Joan Key only fifteen years ago. It is hard to believe, given the preoccupation of the relation between handmade and readymade among artists today (Sheehan being a good example), that Key’s text was virtually unprecedented when it was published as the accompaniment to a moderately sized exhibition (called simply “Craft”) in 1997. But in fact, the relation between the Duchampian tradition and the handmade would not be theorized as robustly until the aforementioned Intangibilities of Form, published a full decade later. In recovering this short critical essay, we hope to both expand the frame of reference for Roberts’s important work, and also to situate Key herself as a contributor to the historiography on the means of production, artistic and otherwise.

The Editors

The Journal of Modern Craft

William Morris versus Steampunk, Steampunk versus William Morris?


Steampunk is the intersection of technology and romance. www.steampunkworkshop.com

Daniel Kreibich 'William Morris' 2006 (combined technique on cardboard 100 x 70cm)

Daniel Kreibich 'William Morris' 2006 (combined technique on cardboard 100 x 70cm)

Top hats, corsets, chugging steam engines and adventurous gentlemen merrily exploring yet undiscovered secrets of the ever expanding Empire – all that William Morris hated with a passion. Yes, contemporary steampunks have built their dream world on glorifying the very same lifestyle and aesthetics that William Morris despised and spent his life revolting against. Does this mean, however, that there is no connection whatsoever between the two?

Could there be some bond between Morris’s interest in the Middle Ages and Steampunk enthusiasm for the Victorian era? Is it ironic perhaps, that with a time gap of almost one and a half century and all the disparities, there still seems to exist an enemy common for them both – ever-accelerating progress? Further connections might start springing to mind.

There is much in common between Morris’s nostalgia for genuine medieval workmanship and Steampunk longing for ‘the days before machines were build to build other machines’ (as Ele Carpenter comments in the current JMC issue, p 148). In both cases, their romanticization of a historic period is tied to a desire to opt out of the dreary reality.

Steampunk has been accused of glorifying the past. Fictional author Paul Jessup criticizes Steampunk as ‘escapism that tells us Empire is grand.  (Indeed one could say with Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) that ‘the one of the charms of the past is that it is the past.’ Escapism and its troubled relationship to utopianism would surely make a fascinating topic for a discussion. Let’s try to approach this from a different angle for the moment.

The portrait of William Morris by Czech artist Daniel Krejbich reproduced here hints that there is more to Morris than the black and white picture we’re often presented with tells. As Edward Palmer Thompson brilliantly noted, Morris was “absorbed in a world of “romance””, however, “the world of “romance” was not incompatible with the closest observation and study wherever his interests directed him…” (E. P. Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary Merlin Press, London 1977, p 17).

It has often been suggested that Morris was a Luddite. This is quite true after all. Morris, just as Luddites, was revolting against replacement of human power and creativity by machinery. Positively, though, this didn’t mean he wanted to ‘go back to some rose tinted vision of Middle Ages’ – to borrow words from Robin Wood’s comment to the previous post on Craft and Utopianism. Morris’s position is quite clear from his lecture Art and Its Producers:

I do not mean…that we should aim at abolishing all machinery: I would do some things by machinery which are now done by hand, and other things by hand which are now done by machinery: in short, we should be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of all of us.

In short, what he despised was not machines, but the human drive to move forward at all costs without any forethought for consequences. Similarly, today’s Steampunk does not object against technology. Let the Steampunk computers, Steampunk ipod cases or Steampunk electric guitars speak for themselves. However, their retro style gadgets have their own way of suggesting, that although time flies, it doesn’t necessarily need to fly as quickly as our obsession with all things new makes us believe.

Here then, unfolds the connection between Morris’s medieval and Steampunk Victorian nostalgia. Neither Morris nor steampunks want to stop the clock. Yet, if implicitly, they’re asking what it is that is driving us forward this fast? And, more importantly still, do we want to be driven there?

In his Social change with respect to culture and original nature (1922), William Fielding Ogborn coined the term “cultural lag” to describe the common phenomenon when the changes in material culture (technology especially) often outpace the changes in the non-material culture (ideas, beliefs, symbols etc). Adaptation to new technology thus becomes difficult, as one part of culture virtually lags behind another. Although the term “lag” may suggest so, this doesn’t mean there is no choice and we should simply adapt to and be constantly dragged by technological innovation. The possible misreading of Ogborn’s concept was thus addressed in Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future shock (Random House, New York 1970), where Toffler makes clear that rapid change is not inevitably beneficial and that it might be for our own good to slow down “the future” and adapt to innovation at our own pace. He writes: “… we need neither blind acceptance nor blind resistance, but an array of creative strategies for shaping, deflecting, accelerating, or decelerating change selectively” (p 331).

Perhaps Morris and steampunks are doing just this.

Craft and utopianism

“Many things would be easier if we could eat grass”, remarks Ernst Bloch rather unexpectedly in his monumental work The Principle of Hope. Indeed, this sounds very timely in the face of the hardships of current ‘economic slowdown’ and it doesn’t take too much to imagine that many would heartily agree. As poignant as Bloch’s momentary groan might sound though, it is as far from the central message of this magnum opus of utopian scholarship as it possibly can be.

The Principle of Hope is all but an account of the easy ways to get by. Quite on the contrary, it draws us into the labyrinth of imaginative curiosity, anticipation and the aspiration to cross over the limits of the up to now experience and explore what lies beyond. Utopia, in Bloch’s terms though, is not a country that no one has ever been to. Rather, it is the hopeful, if often intricate, journey from our deepest (day-) dreams toward their possible realization.

Is it possible then, that utopian thinking and craftwork might actually have a lot in common? Do craft and utopianism, perhaps, share the curiosity and also the courage to ‘begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing’ as Ruskin writes in Stones of Venice. Or could their willingness to take the risk of thinking and working at the limit of one’s own competencies be a connecting point too? The history of social and political debates in which craft played a catalyst role for re-imagining the status quo suggests that craft and utopian quest for a better future have often walked hand in hand.

Let’s think of the significance of craft in the history of intentional communities – Quakers, Shakers or Amish people – to name several obvious examples. Remember craft’s crucial role in utopian socialism and in the reform started by Ruskin, Morris and continued by the Arts and Crafts Movement later on. Moving on to the twentieth century, start with the emphasis put on craft in guild socialism, craft’s importance for the Indian Independence Movement and its role in the late twentieth century DIY culture. The most recent examples would surely include the craftivism movement, that has, quite fittingly in this context, been given a whole recent issue of Utopian Studies – the journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, and perhaps even steampunk phenomenon – the theme of the current JMC issue.

Surely, another analogy between craft and utopianism could be exemplified on the never ending tension between the ‘make do’ and ‘make better’ -the dilemma between the instantly practicable solutions versus the desire for the ideal, that has long been haunting not only social reformers and activists but generations of craft theorists and practitioners alike.

In short, neither utopian thinking nor craft necessarily offer the easy way scenarios. But, shall we agree that the common strength of both might lie in a determination that is well illustrated in the following extract of one of the stories from the 2008 anthology of steampunk literature (Brown, Molly: The Selene Gardening Society, in: Vandermeer, Jeff and Ann eds.: Steampunk, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2008, cited in: Steampunk Magazine n7, 2011, p. 3)?

“Calm down, Maston,” said Mr. Barbicane. “I merely said it was impossible. I never said we wouldn’t find a way to do it.”