Error, from Ruskin to Land

Error and erring are peculiarly ubiquitous threads within Ruskin’s famous ‘Nature of Gothic’ (1853)—the chief inspiration for Morris, and a work often cited by such people as Lewis Mumford. It is tempting to perform a sort of philistine reduction of this text to a simple expression of ‘romanticism’. But that would be a distortion, and there are some complex tensions which make it extremely interesting in its own way. Of the six distinguishing features of Gothic, for Ruskin, ‘savageness’ and ‘redundance’ are two of the most important. The first of these in particular takes up a disproportionate part of the essay, while the latter complements this and draws it to a close. Both are related to error and erring.

Gargoyle on Exeter Cathedral, built 1112–1400

Acceptance of error here in a sense identifies the specifically Christian sensibility that is embodied in Gothic as opposed to classical Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian or Byzantine architecture. It is a sensibility that affirms the value of all souls even in their imperfection, and one that is embodied in the nature of the labour process: where clean lines, simplicity and overly perfect execution are fetished for their own sake, this implies a division of labour in which the rule is laid down by superior to subordinate, whose particularity must thereby vanish in its rigour. But where the craftsman is allowed to err, their very erring itself can issue in abundant, luxuriant outgrowths, the imperfection of which itself seems to point towards the sublime. It is as if the particularism of such work negatively hints at a universality, or a higher perfection in its very falling short, while the false or spurious perfection of the merely finished work closes off this avenue. There is something of Alexander Pope’s ‘to err is human, to forgive, divine’—or perhaps a precursor to Beckett’s ‘fail better’—in all this:

to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame.

John Ruskin, On the Nature of Gothic Architecture: And Herein of the True Functions of the Workman in Art, Smith, Elder & Company 1854, p. 7.

The context for these arguments is a tripartite distinction between ‘servile’, ‘constitutional’ and ‘revolutionary’ ornament. Each is grasped in terms of a relation of intellectual and manual labour, or a structure of the labour process. The first involves the mere subordination of the worker to some higher intellect; the second has a degree of autonomy, yet still confesses inferiority to some higher power; the third seems anarchistic. There is a sense that the esteeming of ‘smooth minuteness above shattered majesty’, or preferring ‘mean victory to honourable defeat’ is the path of subordination, and of love of death. Thus those who insist on the perfection of the machined item over the irregularity of the handcrafted item are complicit in wage slavery, and the subordination of man to machine.

There is a latent programme here for the reunification of mental and manual labour:

[men] cannot be strengthened, unless we are content to take them in their feebleness, and unless we prize and honour them in their imperfection above the best and most perfect manual skill. And this is what we have to do with all our labourers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself but in the company of much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one […] and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool. […] You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men are not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cogwheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves.

John Ruskin, On the Nature of Gothic Architecture: And Herein of the True Functions of the Workman in Art, Smith, Elder & Company 1854, pp. 7–8.

This is the anarchism of radical protestantism. Thus Ruskin manages to find latent in the Gothic an ‘impatience of undue control’, setting ‘individual reason against authority’. The full majesty of the human is only allowed to realise itself through acceptance of failure, since failure is an outcome of autonomous action rather than mere rule-following. This too might be traced to Christian thinking—the notion of freedom that we find in Paradise Lost, where a fundamental freedom to reason and to choose is allotted by God to man, bringing with it the possibilities of both sin and righteousness. Imperfection, for Ruskin, is in accord with nature: the failure of natural growth simplistically to follow preordained patterns, or to attain completion. It is a folly to demand perfection in art or architecture; all truly noble architecture is imperfect.

By contrast with the unity of human conception and execution that we find in Gothic, the capitalist division of labour is a division of man, since in dividing tasks into fragments those who perform them are also divided. For Ruskin, there is a sort of ontological mistake in the intellectual/manual labour divide, since it is not possible or desirable for one person truly to put another’s thoughts into practice; instead we should desire a kind of integral action. But this is not a demand for some romantic irrationalism or holism; the point would not be to aim wilfully for the non-perfect on the non-rule-governed, but rather to give oneself the law, to autonomously execute one’s own conceptions, and thus for an immanent rather than transcendent reason.

There is another notion of error that comes in at such points, which one might compare to Kantian critique: it is an error to overemphasise rationality or perfection, but also slavishly to submit to the empirical, to facts. Gothic emerges as a unity of rationalism and empiricism: ornamental design and naturalism in a fused unity, where neither subordinates the other; where abstract form does not dominate nature, and where the trivially particular is not allowed to disintegrate form.

If Ruskin’s notion of Gothic is a pretext for a critique of the capitalist labour process, it is obviously a historically specific one, where it is reasonable to imagine a choice between capitalist machinofacture and a more venerable artisan production. The brutality of the capitalist labour process is in turning the machine operative’s activity itself into something abstract and machine-like. In contrast to this, Ruskin looks back at the strange generosity in the stonework of medieval cathedrals, even as his thoughts anticipate a (distinctly non-medievalist!) thread of radical critique of the capitalist labour process that runs from Marx through such thinkers as Braverman and Noble to the present.

Ruskin’s text itself is quite beautiful, but viewed from the present there’s something that can seem literally quixotic and rather hilarious about it, like little William Morris riding through Epping Forest in his toy suit of armour. One should also, to some extent, read this stuff in retrospect as part of the founding worldview of British Labourism, with its liberal sentimentality about the workman, its standpoint of philanthropy. Out the other side of this historical process, where labour processes in which human action is reduced to such abstraction seem—at least within the popular imaginary—to be threatened with extinction, and both mental and manual labour with them, it becomes harder to imagine Ruskin’s projected reunification.

It is easier to imagine, perhaps, a ‘fully-automated luxury communism’ in which humans:

submerge the cybernated machine in a technological underworld, divorcing it entirely from social life, the community and creativity. All but hidden from society, the machines would work for man. Free communities would stand at the end of a cybernated assembly line with baskets to cart the goods home. Industry, like the autonomic nervous system, would work on its own, subject to the repairs that our own bodies require in occasional bouts of illness. The fracture separating man from machine would not be healed. It would simply be ignored.

Murray Bookchin, ‘Towards a Liberatory Technology’ (1965), in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, AK Press 2004, p. 79.

Bookchin had a point here that in essence he shared with people like Braverman: no matter how far capitalist production has exchanged the work of the craftsperson for the abstract routines of a labour process dominated by the separation of mental and manual labour; no matter how much capitalist production has turned us into a mere surplus; it cannot be enough simply to take that labour process as is and subordinate it to a new kind of society. Ruskin’s Gothic ideal of a unity of conception and execution is another of those ideas that recurs in varying mutations periodically through the history of capitalist technology, never quite extinguished, no matter how alien and archaic it begins to seem.

Yet Bookchin’s alternative can seem almost as comical as his vision of anarchist consumers lining up with their shopping baskets at the end of the ‘cybernated’ anarchist assembly line:

A liberated society, I believe, will not want to negate technology precisely because it is liberated and can strike a balance. It may well want to assimilate the machine to artistic craftsmanship. By this I mean the machine will remove the toil from the productive process, leaving its artistic completion to man. The machine, in effect, will participate in human creativity. There is no reason why automatic, cybernated machinery cannot be used so that the finishing of products, especially those destined for personal use, is left to the community. The machine can absorb the toil involved in mining, smelting, transporting and shaping raw materials, leaving the final stages of artistry and craftsmanship to the individual. Most of the stones that make up a medieval cathedral were carefully squared and standardized to facilitate their laying and bonding—a thankless, repetitive and boring task that can now be done rapidly and effortlessly by modern machines. Once the stone blocks were set in place, the craftsmen made their appearance; toil was replaced by creative human work. In a liberated community the combination of industrial machines and the craftsman’s tools could reach a degree of sophistication and of creative interdependence unparalleled in any period in human history. William Morris’s vision of a return to craftsmanship would be freed of its nostalgic nuances. We could truly speak of a qualitatively new advance in technics—a technology for life.

Bookchin, ‘Towards a Liberatory Technology’, p. 80.

This is an often visionary, remarkable text, and Bookchin was surely right to attempt to imagine a reunification of advanced productive technique with the unity of pre-capitalist craftsmanship that we find theorised in Ruskin. But his alternative can seem to be not all that different to the first vision he offers: instead of passive anarchist consumers queuing up for the outputs of the production process, we have anarchist craftspeople lining up to finish the products of a hi-tech cybernated production process with a humanistic decoration.

The problem here is that this reunification looks rather tenuous. The capitalist division of mental and manual labour appears only to have been overcome on one side of the division, and thus only spuriously: ‘cybernated’ production completely replaces manual workers as beasts of burden, leaving them to occupy the pole that in capitalism was occupied by management. Only, instead of merely conceiving and controlling the production process from the alien standpoint of command, now that the pole of execution has been taken entirely by the machine, the worker has to find something to execute, and is left with mere ornament—not the ‘revolutionary’ sort that Ruskin saw in Gothic architecture, but something closer to Greek or Egyptian art in his interpretation—a ‘mere surface engraving’. There is an echo here of the Aristotelian idea that slavery might be overcome by making machines into slaves–or, as Langdon Winner puts it, “something must be enslaved in order that something else may win emancipation” (Autonomous Technology, MIT Press 1977, p. 21).

The point of course would not be to long for what William Morris called ‘useless toil’. If connection of a power source to a tool can spare us the bodily strains and injuries of the labour process, then it would be foolish to suggest we should go without. The point is, rather, that a real unification would bring the entirety of both conception and execution together in a human agent whose capacities for deliberate action are enhanced and extended rather than simply taken over by machinery. Not even machines should be enslaved, since as we know from Hegel’s Phenomenology, even the master is mutilated by the relation of lordship and bondage.

The ‘cybernation’ or full automation that was in the air in Bookchin’s time is still not yet with us, and probably never will be: it is a perennial fantasy of capitalist society, part of its basic horizon. As the president of Automatix, Inc stated in 1983: “The automatic factory is like the Holy Grail—something you approach but never reach” (Daniel B. Dallas, ‘The advent of the automatic factory’, Manufacturing Engineering, November 1980; cited in Noble, Progress Without People, p. 89). Back in the 1970s, Langdon Winner identified an ‘obsession’ throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature with an ‘autonomous technology’. The particular instance we have been looking at here in the example of Bookchin was grounded in the accelerated technologisation of the production process in the post-war period, when cybernetic theory had some popular currency and such things as the ‘Triple Revolution‘ document were being widely discussed. An upsurge in workers’ struggle had greeted these developments:

The threat to established work rules, working conditions, and job security […] sparked strikes, sporadic sabotage, and, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, a wide-ranging debate about the social implications of automation. The trials of the longshoremen facing containerisation, the printers facing teletypesetting and computers, and refinery workers confronting computer-based centralised process-control were the focus of attention. Despite the efforts of rank-and-file workers in these industries to prevent or at least slow down the introduction of these technologies (which had been designed, in part, to reduce their power as well as numbers) through the use of strikes and other forms of direct action (as well as demands for veto power over the decision to introduce new systems, as proposed by the printers), their unions uniformly bowed to the hegemonic ideology of progress. Denying steadfastly that they were against technology, union leaders strove to avoid media charges of Luddism and either conceded the futility of opposition and yielded, or endorsed the notion that such technological changes were the surest route to prosperity. Meanwhile, union leaders used the same charges of Luddism against more militant union members who refused to comply.

David F. Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Between the Lines 1995, p. 25.

Bookchin’s alignment with a pro-technology, ‘post-scarcity’ anarchism in this moment was thus perhaps an artefact of a specific defeat: if the new ‘Luddites’ had just been suppressed, it made more sense to place one’s hopes on the side of the utopian capitalist visions of this moment—that is, to dream of full automation and the end of scarcity. There is an echo here of Marx’s alignment (Capital, vol. 1, ch. 15) with the technological progressivism of not only the worker’s movement of his time but also of such figures as David Ricardo and William Cobbett, against the machine-wrecking of the early 19th century. Though these figures had some sympathy with the suppressed workers, they all ultimately affirmed the technical ‘progress’ under which they had been crushed. Embedded materially in that technology were traces of a specific transfer of power from workers to owners—something that would pose a challenge for any attempt to appropriate the capitalist fantasy of an autonomous technology for the left.

It is, of course, capital itself that furnishes us with a real material basis for imagining the production process along the lines of the broom from Sourceror’s Apprentice or the autonomised machine intelligence of Nick Land’s imagination, sloughing off its human skin:

It is ceasing to be a matter of how we think about technics, if only because technics is increasingly thinking about itself. It might still be a few decades before artificial intel­ligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone in some metaphysical perpetuity. The high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’! where human culture will be dissolved. Just as the capitalist urbanization of labour abstracted it in a parallel escalation with technical machines, so will intelligence be transplanted into the purring data zones of new software worlds in order to be abstracted from an increasingly obsolescent anthropoid particularity, and thus to venture beyond modernity. Human brains are to thinking what mediaeval villages were to engineering: antechambers to experimentation, cramped and parochial places to be.

Nick Land, ‘Circuitries’ (1992), in Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, Urbanomic 2011, p. 293.

Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the actual state of artificial intelligence, as impressive as it can seem, should recognise that Land’s 1992 fantasies were as illusory as the visions of a coming cybernation were in the early 1960s. But what is perhaps interesting here is that we seem to have another false reconciliation of the conception/execution dichotomy. Rather than an autonomisation of execution and toil in a cybernated production process, atop which ride residual human craftspeople, artistically ornamenting the outputs, here it is the pole of conception or control that is autonomised, taking hold of everything, leaving no room even for human management.

What gives the lie to such fantasies is just how fragile capital’s autonomy actually is, as we see—on the value side—every time a significant crisis breaks out and central banks and other institutions have to step in to organise things, or—on the technical side—every time a significant bug or other technical failure is encountered (which as those of us who actually maintain significantly complex technical systems know from painful experience, is more or less constantly). All complex technical systems require constant human intervention and maintenance, and derive the entire meaning of their outputs from the intentions of their operators. All are riddled to the core with error. And herein perhaps lies a clue to the true reconciliation.