Friday, December 28, 2018

The Romantic Craftsman

Rebellious Slave, Michelangelo
To start off with, allow me to disabuse some of you of the notion that what follows is a discussion of craftsmen who work in a particular style, within a certain historical era. What concerns us here is the disposition of the majority of craftsmen throughout history towards the world, one characterised by intuition and familiarity, drawn towards life and nature, uniquely expressive of the sublime, melancholic and sentimental. Out of practical necessity we are obliged to consider the Romantic in contrast with what has greatly diminished and largely supplanted it throughout global civilisation: the Enlightenment, a predominantly philosophical world view that first took root some two millennia in ancient Greece before it gradually came to fully dominate the cultural outlook and organisation of society in 18th century Western Europe.

Separation vs Detachment

A craftsman benefits from a bit of separation from his craft. This separation can be thought of in a couple ways. There is the physical, bodily separation from his medium be it stone, plaster, timber, etc. At times we're chastised for anthropomorphising, attributing human qualities to material. However, I'd contend this is a reverberative process, we likewise begin to attribute material qualities to ourselves such as warmth, flexibility, endurance: an iron will, the steadfastness of an oak, a mind set in stone to name but a few examples. In the process of mastery, the craftsman is increasing drawn towards his medium, something akin to falling in love or perhaps even being seduced. There develops true affection and tender care as between lovers, prolonged separation from one's craft results in a sense of loss and longing.

In addition to the corporeal sense of loss the craftsman will often experience a nostalgia, literally the "pain of return" after a separation long in time and far in place. Such separation creates the possibility of empathy, to "feel inside" and sympathy, to "suffer together with" the other. The human feeling that naturally arises when in the presence of the caring, loving hands of our fellowman that time and the elements have slowly retaken. There was life there perhaps greatness even; the loss is not felt to be trivial. Nevertheless, there is potential healing for the pain of separation and possibility of reunion, if only in part. In one aspect this is what it means to be a traditional craftsman, to portray, to dramatise, to live the experience of culture. His relation to the past is not as an idea, memory or representation but much deeper and less abstract. Craft is the very embodiment of the past, acting it out in the present. A disposition to the world willing to take the past, present and future into account simultaneously.

The aforementioned sense of separation can be contrasted with detachment. Detachment seeks to establish a context of no context. It's surface, formal, picturesque rejecting the depth and complexity of time, place or embodiment. Such reductive simplicity serves instrumental utility. There is a certain  self-satisfaction that the detached view is a pure one, that it alone can capture the thing in itself, that it "knows", just the facts devoid of any motive force. In place of empathy there is analysis, a process of objectification that reduces experience to concept, concept to words, words to object. And an object is something quite detached from you, something to be grasped, dominated, exploited. In place of the generational, accretion of embodied wisdom typical of traditional craft, the detached Enlightenment view (a term itself dripping in smugness) became the philosophical grounds for the Industrial Revolution. Initially the formal, surface elements of traditional architecture were retained by industry; however, within a couple of generations that too was discarded as Modern architecture came to align fully with the Modern philosophy. Marked by disjunction and resulting cultural alienation, we now largely inhabit a craft-less built environment of no time, of no place, machined forms devoid of any evidence of the human touch.

Verification vs Truth

Verification, quite literally the "making of truth", a process of becoming. One of the earliest of the Greek philosophers was Heraclitus, who was in my view far more insightful and profound than subsequent philosophers on this and many other principles. He illustrated the "truth" of the river as being the process of flux and continual becoming just as what makes you as a living, thinking human being is not constancy rather the very process of metabolism and perpetual change. Steady states, "TRUTHS" are dead things, objects if you will. The process of verification has far more to do with pattern recognition and negotiation than any universality. This process appears to occur right down to the subatomic level as far as contemporary science can reveal. We may classify patterns such as Hydrogen as objects for simplification, instrumental tool-like use; however, there are unlikely to be e.g. two atoms of Hydrogen in the universe that are "exactly" the same. In fact, the individual atom of Hydrogen is a process of flux, it itself doesn't remain exactly the same rather being typified by constant change. Science has been able to progress because it has bit by bit left this Enlightenment materialism behind in favour of seeing reality as an interconnected web of pattern and process. The universe is not...rather it is becoming. How Romantic of them!

Traditional craft exists within such a living context. It is marked by adaptability: to the human body, to the local terrain, to the local climate, to the culture in which it is embedded. Craft is not founded upon an axiomatic definition of what is true, rather there is a shifting orientation towards provisional truth generated from a receptive, vigilant attention to what is, in favour of a Utopian certainty of what we might wish to be. Thus craft is a way of being in the world, a journey of discovery voluntarily moulded by reality's constraints. The craftsman's revealed truth becomes as an emergent property of his own uniqueness in body, place and time as it integrates with the particularities of nature, material and culture.

By contrast, the Enlightenment temperament seeks to impose the freedom, equality and certainty of its systematised ideological constructs upon the very processes of life characterised by constraint, particularity and dynamic change. Ironically it acts far more "picturesque" than the so-called Romantics it derides, attempting to frame a view of an ideal, decontextualised moment outside of time and space. Plainly stated, Modernism is far more otherworldly, ephemeral and fantastical than the Romantics ever were, characterised by this conceptual orientation towards fixity (and death) rather than viscerally engaging with the world as it becomes.

Authentic vs Automatic

Now might be a good time to bring up the origin of the word "Romantic". Obviously, it hearkens back to Ancient Rome; however, somewhat surprisingly not to Classical or Imperial Rome. Romantic was an adjective referring to Vulgar Latin and the Roman vernacular more generally. Far removed from the nobility and palace intrigues, Romantic is a plebeian term, local folks who mostly did for themselves, quite literally the meaning of authentic, "doing oneself". Traditional craftsmen certainly embody such a spirit of authenticity as well as anyone. And by embody I mean the expertise they exhibit is contained in the physical body. It's "know how" that can be displayed rather than "know what" to be written down or programmed. Likewise craft knowledge is familiar in the sense of how one might know a friend, family member or lover as opposed to being familiar or overly familiar in the other sense, that which is known for purpose, rote and usual (for use).

3D print of Rebellious Slave
However, authoritarian types don't care for it one bit when the folk aren't entirely passive and dependent on them. And they tend to get very irritated when they encounter things they don't know, can't grasp or control. One reactionary tactic is to verbally abuse those outside control. So it is that the work of craftsmen is often derided as being provincial, pastiche, anachronistic, picturesque and almost comically...elitist and inauthentic by the self appointed arbiters of taste in academia and the media.

Nevertheless there are far more reliable methods of excising conformity, principal among them: Automation, that is to say "self making". Automation might first call to mind the industrial robots of high technological factory production and certainly that would qualify. However, more broadly speaking we can think of automation as the imposition of enclosed systems be they mechanical, digital, state or corporate bureaucracies, municipal codes, etc. A moment's reflection will reveal that from cradle to grave almost every function of individual human life is subject to automation: food, clothes, shelter, medicine, education, governance, transportation to name a few.

There is a legacy awaiting this Enlightenment world view: all of its systems will fail. Not because Romantic craftsmen like myself are hoping for that, rebelling against them or otherwise fomenting trouble (heaven knows we're just trying to carve out a little slice of another way of being in the world, not having the stomach to swallow the fantasy.) No, it's because static systems always fail. They only know what they know...what they know is to exploit. It's a self-contained knowledge based on willful ignorance of the dynamic reality of nature. Yet excessive order unleashes the forces of chaos. Instinctively we all know this, we've just been indoctrinated to hold something like an objective view...

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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