I’ve been obsessed with questions about home as a concept for years. I drift in and out of them, but it always seems to come back around to that. The final section of Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful Home in the World sent me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, to Carl and Karin Larsson. My wife of, of course, had been there long before me in appreciating Lilla Hyttnäs.

Carl and Karin LarssonI located a book, and positively devoured it. I find it fascinating that Carl Larsson’s first job was as a photo retoucher, and that his home began as a sort of country compound not unlike the sort of place I was raised.

Lilla Hyttnäs was a hodge-podge of things cobbled together, both modern and traditional— which evolved into a sort of Swedish National style— a distant though unquestionably genetic relative to the now pervasive Ikea. Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been digesting Chris Schwarz’s latest, The Anarchist’s Design Book.

Ikea has long been the nemesis of Schwarz, who commendably has called for a new furniture movement— the build it yourself movement. Curiously, that’s pretty much what Carl and Karin Larsson did. Schwarz knows that the idea of everyone building it themselves is more than a little utopian, and like all utopian notions is pretty much predestined for failure.

Though Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style is more than a little over the top in its praise, it strikes at the core of why dreams like this eternally return. The foreword of this exhibition catalog from the Victoria and Albert Museum, written by Anders Clason, “Cultural Counsellor” of the Embassy of Sweden, is a perfect crystallization of the character of the book:

Carl and Karin Larsson were children of the nineteenth century, the century of utopias. It was Britain that lead the way in recognizing the great change wrought by industry, and in struggling against the monster of technology. The town had become a living thing, tearing Western man away from the soil that had been the basis of life. The Larssons, in their own utopia, created a permanent dream picture of Sweden and Swedishness, a country idyll bathed in Nordic light.

Certain artists have the ability to spread gold dust on the wintery path of life. The Larssons were such artists. Their vision of Swedishness is more firmly embedded in the national psyche even than the Swedish sense of community. To have a lilac embowered cottage in the country in your family’s place of origin, that is the Swedish dream. To have it light and white, clean and airy, like a summer meadow sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, is the very essence of that dream. (vi)

Though this might be laying it on a bit thick, the concept of home found in Carl Larsson’s paintings is more detailed and useful than Norman Rockwell, at least to me. It’s closer to a sort of space I find attractive. In fact, that’s the thing that always annoyed me about Schwarz’s anti-Ikea tirades; many people really aspire to that sort of middle ground populist design, largely because it looks, well, happy. Regardless whether the construction quality is something to admire or not, it brings good design within the reach of millions.

Scan 1

Carl Larsson in his workshop at Lilla Hyttnäs

Though it isn’t the best quality, this photograph shows a familiar sort of workshop, filled with trees brought in for the winter and assorted projects in process. Larsson painted workshop scenes as well, no doubt with his own children and local artisans as models.

Larsson Workshop

More and more, I’m drawn into the Arts and Crafts movement as a global phenomenon. It was a reaction against technology of a sort, but it was also an embrace of technology too. Not all technology is considered bad, as evidenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere: Morris, in a memorable passage suggested in his utopian future that genuinely useful technologies were embraced, while tech with little to offer was simply left behind to rust. The question of what is a good tech, versus bad tech, was left unaddressed in the novel though he really did attempt to lay out some guidelines elsewhere.

One of the key essays in the exhibition catalog by Gillian Naylor, “Domesticity and Design Reform: The European Context” really gives me some new avenues to traverse. Her essay points at the deeper roots of Arts and Crafts to the social upheavals of the mid nineteenth century. She talks about the contributions of the German author Hermann Muthesius, whose The English House has been on my list to write about for a while, citing a passage from Stilarchitektur und Baukunst (1902) suggesting that buildings might transcend “academic and socially divisive preoccupations with style. The English approach to the building arts, he wrote, was:

nothing other than a rejection of architectural formalism in favor of a simple and natural, reasonable way of building. One brought nothing new to such a movement: everything had existed for centuries in vernacular architecture of the small town and rural landscape . . . Here, amid the architectural extravagance that the architects promoted, one found all that one desired and for which one thirsted: adaptation to needs and local conditions, unpretentiousness and honesty of feeling: utmost cosiness and comfort in the layout of rooms, colour, an uncommonly attractive and painterly (but also reasonable) design, an economy of building construction. The new English building-art that developed on this basis had now produced valuable results. But it has done more: it has spread the interest and understanding for domestic architecture to the entire people. It has created the only sure foundation for a new artistic culture: the artistic house. (78)

The focus, Naylor argues, shifted away from easel painting and fine arts, into design reform bent on reinforcing national identities and bringing fine art to the masses. The passage from Muthesius is really interesting to me on multiple levels, not the least of which being that if you substitute “furniture” for architecture, you’ve just summarized the core thesis of Chris Schwarz’s latest book—at least the aesthetics of it.

Usefully, Naylor brings a more critical eye on the phenomenon:

This was, of course, a middle-class vision: it reflected the prestige and elitism associated with ‘high art’, and at the same time romanticized the role of the working class. By aiming to transform factory hands into creative and contented artisans, and by concentrating on vernacular ideals of workmanship, this generation of design reformers also challenged the policies of their predecessors rejecting any form of training programme based on attempts to control or rationalize the design process. (79-80)

The rejection of a rationalized design process by the Arts and Crafts practitioners includes both Taylorism and factory-efficiency analyses and moves to impose any sort of design grammar (such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament from 1856). I note that Lost Art Press has also been publishing admirable work on pre-industrial design by George Walker and Jim Tolpin  that implies that a grammar of design is at least possible. It stops short from creating a full program, although it does include a new workbook with design exercises.

Such programmes were rejected by the Arts and Crafts generation because they denied the role of individuality and creativity; they were devised to impose rather than generate order, and they isolated the object from the context of making and use. (80)

To be fair, recent work by Jim Tolpin and George Walker does base its design practice completely on the context of making and use. Opposed to a controlled and rationalized design process, Naylor aligns the Arts and Crafts generation with the resurrection of a modified medieval guild system (through Ruskin and Morris) and  “the restoration of the ideal and reality of the home” as “a political as well as social necessity” (80). The political nature of this has unique repercussions in Germany:

Policies to improve standards of worker’s housing had been instigated in Germany from the 1840s, and the association of Wohnugsreform (the reform of the dwelling) with Lebensreform (the reform of life) acknowledged the English celebration of home. In Germany, however, the home came to be associated with the homeland, Heimat, that powerful and politically uncompromised symbol of national unity and continuity. Heimat was (and is) a value-laden concept and therefore difficult to translate; it signified home, locality, and country, as well as a sense of belonging and the inheritance of a shared past. Unlike Morris’s gentle Utopia, however, Heimat was somewhere; its roots were in the German soil and the German homestead, and in the bitter struggles for survival of the German race. (80-81)

Home and homeland are complex topics. Reform through design seems to have spread like wildfire virtually every nation at the dawn of the twentieth century. And not just design in general, but design in the lived environment. It’s wonderful to hope that the same thing might be happening at the dawn of the twenty-first.

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The Most Beautiful House in the World (4)

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI can finally put this one down, with one last blurt.  I find that I may want to re-read Rybczynski’s prior book, Home. I wasn’t sure, at the time I read it, what I was looking for in it. It seemed oddly disconnected to me.

This one, on the other hand, is positively filled with connections. I’m not sure if it’s me, or any difference between the books. That’s one of the things I really loved about working on my lit degree; the opportunity to revisit books from multiple angles. I think I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about seven times before I graduated.

What I find myself fixated with in The Most Beautiful House in the World are minor allusions and asides: for example, there’s a brief comparison between gastronomy and architecture.

I wasn’t familiar with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and so this necessitated a detour through The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendental gastronomy: illustrated by anecdotes of distinguished artists and statesmen of both continents. I highly recommend it. The curious thing about Rybczynski’s comparison between food and buildings is that in times of stress, these are my two go-to areas to affirm life. That, and just making stuff. If you can cook, eat, enjoy your surroundings and make things that weren’t there before, this means you’re truly alive.

The late historian Peter Collins once blithely proposed that building design could be better understood by means of what he called the Gastronomic Analogy. With tongue only partly in cheek, he went on to make a convincing case. Both gastronomy and architecture found their beginning in the fulfillment of a necessary human need—eating and shelter, respectively. Both were characterized by an unusual combination of science and artistry; they merged actual materials with intellectual conceits and depended on logical rules as well as imagination. Both dealt with questions of good taste instead of fashion, and both depended on— and served— patrons. Like gastronomy, architecture was intended to give pleasure, and since it was a social art, it relied on the active participation of the public. The art of building emerges from the art of living, just as the art of cookery can be said to be the product of the art of eating. (50)

Rybczynski points out that gastronomy emerged right around 1800; this obliquely reminded me of Bill Bryson’s book At Home. Bryson makes the case that “comfort” as a concept, something that we aspire to, was pretty much absent from any concept of domestic architecture until around 1800. The connections here, between food and living, or better, between good food and living well, also provide central topics for my my favorite creative non-fiction writer, Michael Pollan.

It’s appropriate, then, that when Rybczynski makes the shift between building a boat-shed to building a home, that the the first challenge is the design of the kitchen. It is the room in a house that has changed the most in the last two hundred years, for a variety of reasons:

This is only partly for technological reasons, although the presence of dishwashing machines, microwave ovens, and an assortment of appliances must be taken into account. But we also use the kitchen differently. We spend both less and more time in it—that is, we want things to be convenient, but we also want the kitchen to be part of the house, not an isolated workplace. Hence the blending of dining room and kitchen. This is not so much “eating in the kitchen” as it is “cooking in the dining room.” (145)

The modifications that are necessary when someone takes possession of a new home are frequently centered on the kitchen. In my case, I modified my house for the presence of serious electronics– a new floor outlet in the living room with a separate circuit for a large stereo amplifier plus several new circuits for television and surround sound in the den. My kitchen needs modifying, but I haven’t done that yet really. All this new technology required increasing the power drop into the house significantly, from a 60 amp panel to a new 200 amp panel plus subpanel. My next door neighbor’s wife demanded a new electric kitchen and had to increase the size of his power drop as well. But the changes from technology are small, compared to the social changes.

For example, virtually every room in my house had a door that could be closed or slid, even those missing by design (the living room, for example, was not framed for doors but weird little pocket doors had been cobbled in). I immediately removed all of them. There were signs of forced entry in the bedrooms upstairs as well, as if there had been many fierce arguments. The children’s bedrooms had doors that locked from the outside. All bedroom door locks have been removed, but there’s a weird vibe to living in a place that implies much drama. It’s a much more open habitat these days. But I digress, of course. Back to the kitchen!

When Rybczynski began discussing the kitchen with his client (wife), he became very aware of how the received architectural “wisdom” regarding kitchen counter sizes and storage arrangements was flawed, leading to a short discussion and end-note reference to a design analysis of Julia Child’s kitchen in Design Quarterly from 1977 (another digressive point of departure). The key take away from Child’s kitchen is that the kitchen was a place where technologies of living are deployed to meet social needs. It’s perhaps one of the most “considered” spaces in any house. Architectural wisdom spits out floor plans and designs based on a peculiar historical heritage.

That’s really been the centerpiece of my recent reading jags. Just how did we get to this? Where Rybczynski ultimately ends up, is in the transformation of buildings into symbols. This note felt really familiar, so I dug out a book I read around a decade ago, Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. In his introductory chapter on Gropius, Wolfe describes it this way:

Early in the game, in 1919, Gropius had been in favor of bringing simple craftsmen into the Bauhaus, yeomen, honest toilers, people with knit brows and broad fingernails who would make things by hand for architectural interiors, simple wooden furniture, simple pots and glassware, simple this and simple that. This seemed very working class, very nonbourgeois. . . .

Theo van Doesburg, fiercest of the Dutch Manifesto writers, took one look at Gropius’ Honest Toilers and expressionist curves and sneered and said: How very bourgeois. Only the rich could afford handmade objects, as the experience of the Arts and Crafts movement in England had demonstrated. To be nonbourgeois, art must be machine made. . . .

Overnight, Gropius dreamed up a new motto, a new heraldic device for the Bauhaus compound: “Art and Technology—a New Unity!” complete with exclamation point! There; that ought to hold van Doesburg and the whole Dutch Klatsch. Honest toilers, broad fingernails, and curves disappeared from the Bauhaus forever.

But that was only the start. The definitions and claims and accusations and counteraccusations and counterclaims and counterdefinitons of what was and was not bourgeois became so rarified, so arcane, so scholastic . . . that finally building design itself was directed at only one thing: illustrating this month’s Theory of the Century concerning what was ultimately, infinitely, and absolutely nonbourgeois. The buildings became theories constructed in the form of concrete, steel, wood, glass, and stucco. (Honest materials, nonbourgeois, theory of.) Inside out they were white or beige with the occasional contrasting detail in black or gray. (21-23)

Personally, I gravitate toward the white or beige thing (as do many people I suppose, see Pintrest). The original Bauhaus manifesto of 1919 sounds reasonable enough, but in the end if the craftsmen are pushed out in favor of superior technology (as Wolfe argues) and the expensive buildings are a form of self-loathing asceticism, then somehow we’ve jumped the shark. The concept of buildings as theories is an extension of Wolfe’s earlier book, The Painted Word, where he made pretty much the same claim about modern art. I don’t totally disagree, but Rybczynski takes a more muted approach: rather than arguing that buildings developed a signifying function, he argues that features of buildings signal their function through signs.

We usually think of signs as being written—FIRE EXIT or TRADESMEN’S ENTRANCE—but the visual clues present in architectural forms are also signs. Unlike written signs, however, architectural objects usually convey several messages at once. A brass object located in the center of the door at roughly eye level signals “door knocker.”If it is shaped like a hunting dog, it also suggests “country house” or simply “old fashioned.” The vertical metal plate that protects the door’s surface from excessive wear and tear signals that this is a swinging door, and if the plate is made of a precious material such as plated silver or ivory, it also conveys a sense of wealth or prestige; it would be natural to presume that such a door leads to somewhere—or someone—important. In that sense, Louis Sulivan’s famous dictum “Form follows function” could be recast as “form follows function, but it also designates function.” (162)

Rybczynski invokes structuralist theory from Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes to suggest that buildings both denote and connote in their signs. The capstone of his description of his final design for his house highlights his wife’s difficulty in recognizing the building he constructed as a home until he grafted a screened porch on the front.

The Most Beautiful House in the World was ultimately a short and pleasant read that lead me on a merry chase through memories of other books I’ve read, and some new ones I haven’t. It’s time to finally turn it loose and move on.

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The Most Beautiful House in the World (3)

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the first two chapters in Rybczynski’s book. The rest of it (so far) has been less interesting to me.

To recap, the first chapter dealt with the general plan to build a boat building shed and site location with a consideration of feng-shui. The second chapter was about his education as an architect, and education in general. The third chapter deals with architectural manuals and guidebooks, with some space devoted to a book that I requested from the library a few weeks back and returned unread: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

Michael Langford mentioned it in passing a while ago, and mentioned that it dealt with the patterns of everyday life. When I dipped my toe in it, it seemed almost completely conjectural and of no real use to me.

Rybczynski refers to Alexander’s work as a whole as a sort of manifesto, noting that he’s built very little: “It is Alexander’s controversial thesis that all great traditional buildings, despite their evident cultural and technological differences, have shared certain objective attributes, which have been combined and recombined throughout history” (61). He compares it to sentence-combining, noting that though other architectural theorists had compared architecture to language, “no one has ever followed the linguistic analogy to this extreme conclusion” (61). The arbitrary relationships noted by Alexander as “universal” dealt, at least in my short look at the book, as much or more with community design than shelter design. That’s why I reshelved it.

The third chapter, “Making Space,’ gives some context on architectural writing across the ages observing in the end that the art of building is an art of compromise that unites “the beautiful with the practical, the ideal with the possible, the ephemeral with the concrete” (66). Most importantly,

Unlike sculpture and painting which produce objects in space, buildings contain space. Moreover, it is space that is intended not only to be experienced and admired but also to be inhabited. Making space is a social art; and although architecture consists of individual works, these are always parts of a larger context—of a landscape, of other buildings, of a street, and, finally of our everyday lives. (66-67)

Social and cultural spaces, for me at least, are not reducible to language. The arbitrary modules proposed by Alexander seemed very culturally specific; a bit like trying to divine through numerology, arbitrary coincidences, something universal about relationships. The real context for these space containers, I think, is better understood by their “fit”—The piece of the architectural puzzle considered in Chapter 4, “Fitting In.”

By this time in the “historical present,’ Rybczynski has been offered help by a friend in pouring the foundation for his boat-building shed, although he has not really finalized the design. He recalls a commission to build a home on Formentera island, which he extensively researched with an eye for fitting into the general atmosphere of the island.

Years later, I have sometimes shown the drawings of the little Formentera house to my first year class, as an example of stone construction. Once, after a lecture, a student came up to me and asked about the house, something to do with the materials or the building technique. After I answered, he said, “I didn’t realize that this was one of your designs—when you showed it to us I thought it was just an ordinary farmhouse.” The house differed from the local examples in several important details, but the general impression was as he had described it: the house was unquestionably plain. There was a beauty in its plainness, at least in my eyes, but it was not a striking beauty that dazzled; it would take time to understand its unassuming charms. It was ordinary, or, rather, it was not extraordinary (which is not the same thing). In this plain and homely place, it fitted in. (85-86)

Rybczynski’s point in this chapter, ultimately, is that in order to create meaningful buildings one must pay attention to the particular local circumstances that they will be situated in. A Porsche is a Porsche no matter where you park it, but a building removed from its context is ugly and meaningless.

The chapter that follows, “Just a Barn” is dedicated to a survey of barn architecture in general, and specifically the area around Montreal where his boat-building structure was going to be located. Eventually, he settles on a design and begins constructing it in the following chapter, “Chrysalis.” That’s where things get interesting again.

Wood frame architecture, like building a house of cards, is unique in its flexibility for rethinking design. After spending a lot of time building the structure, swinging a hammer, Rybczynski decides that he really doesn’t like construction that much; it’s a chore. Therefore, his fantasy of building a boat is best likely left a fantasy.

Looking back on it, I can see now more clearly what had originally impelled me on this nautical enterprise. The weeks of sawing, fitting, and hammering had been an enjoyable diversion from the intellectual work that normally occupied me. I had needed that change. After years of designing on the drawing table—both as a student and, later, in my practice—I had wanted to build something, anything, with my own hands and with proper tools and real materials; with hammer and nails instead of with an Exacto knife and cardboard, and not in miniature, but full size. This I had done. Unfortunately, as far as the boatbuilding was concerned, what had originally attracted me to maritime construction had found fulfillment in landlocked carpentry. (134)

So, then, what to do with his boat barn he just framed in? He had thoughts early on about building a house to adjoin it; at this point he decides to convert what he’s already constructed into a home. With his wife as a client, the project changes shape.


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The Most Beautiful House in the World (2)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Children’s Games (1560)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Children’s Games (1560)

The second chapter of The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski is “The Building Game.” It was a bit of a surprise on several levels, because, like the Sennett book I just finished it focuses on play and the historical changes to the nature of play, as well as its implications to our conception of self. Not in the more serious, almost academic way that Sennett does, but in a useful way as well.

Rybczynski notes that construction toys are a relatively late development in our modes of play, and we also segregate children’s toys and adult toys in a way that hasn’t always been the case either. Adults played children’s games from the middle ages through the 18th century. Entertainments such as puppet shows (e.g. Punch and Judy) were not just for children, they were of interest to adults as well. And play was largely done outdoors, rather than inside buildings. This gave it a public, social dimension that has somehow been lost across the ages:

Outdoor public play had been convivial; to play meant to play with others. So it was that most early games—hopscotch, hide-and-seek, leapfrog— were group games. But already in seventeenth-century Holland, where domesticity was developed first, we see children playing home, alone. When play moved indoors, it not only became more private, it changed its disposition. It became, so to speak, domesticated. Outdoor games were boisterous, noisy, and usually rowdy; they still are. It takes long periods of concentration to build a house of cards, and the availability of time signals the growing isolation and introspection of children’s play. Not surprisingly, this was the period when many indoor toys made their appearance: lead soldiers, clockwork toys, jigsaw puzzles, and dolls’ houses.  (30)

Rybczynski goes on to discuss the rise of card games, and picture cards that were illustrated with parts of houses from the early 1800s. But the really significant development was kindergarten, invented and developed by Friedrich Froebel.

Doug Stowe has read/written about Froebel extensively for years on his blog. Poking through his blog turned up some really interesting stuff.  In 2007, he quoted this bit from Froebel and Education through Self-Activity, H. Courtright Bowen, M.A. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1897:

“…to the young child, as to primitive man, all knowledge does, as a matter of fact, come as one whole …the subdivisions into subjects and departments is a very gradually evolved plan, for the most part wholly artificial and only adopted for the sake of convenience…the very nature of knowledge itself teaches the necessity of connectedness. Facts in isolation, and unrelated to one another do not form knowledge. Facts have to be compared, classified, organized, connected, before they become what we call knowledge…since education has largely to do with inducing the right acquirement of knowledge and the right use of knowledge, the task of the educator must largely consist in making clear and maintaining the connectedness of facts and things.”

Eitel, who I was exploring yesterday, compared the Chinese to primitive children in their view of nature. He found it admirable, for the same sort of connected quality. In an entry from 2014, while discussing Bill Coperthwaite, Stowe again reached out to critical scholarship on Froebel to reflect on holistic philosophy. Citing William Heard Kilpatrick’s  Froebel’s Kindergarten Principles, Critically Examined he offered this quote:

Was Froebel a pantheist? — At the risk of violating the plan just laid down, it may to some prove interesting — if not otherwise valuable — to consider Froebel’s conception of the relation of the universe to God. His statements will not appeal equally to all. Some will feel that the more personal aspect of Deity is lost in an all too pantheistic scheme. Others will doubt whether satisfactory scientific explanation can be read into the more or less vague and mystical relationships described in the Education of Man. This latter group will ask what scientific relationship is meant by the statement that “the divine [element] acting in each thing is the essence of each thing”. An essence, these will say, as here used, is a medieval conception foreign to the modern mind. Still a third group will object that the author has too much to say concerning ultimates, conceptions which in the opinion of this group belong to bygone stages of thought.

The issue of pantheism is not invoked by Rybczynski, and I must say I’m a bit surprised because it’s a very neat way of tying together his first two chapters. The idea of a spirit in things seems to me to be a common thread in most discussions of craft. Visiting Wisdom of the Hands over the last few years has really helped me appreciate why craft theory is important across a broad variety of applications, from education to philosophies of living. I own more than a few of Doug Stowe’s box-making books, but I really wish he’d write something more theoretical someday. Such things are hard to publish, though. To offer just a small sample of Stowe’s theoretical thought though, I want to insert this quote from him, rather than his sources:

Moral behavior has its roots in empathy derived from seeing how closely interconnected we are with each other, and understanding that what we do has real effect either to hurt or to harm each other. There is no better arena for this than a wood shop in which children or adults are brought together with the shared goal of creating useful beauty. And yet, most educators, after they’d removed most manual arts from schools, would be reluctant to admit that we might ever have actually learned anything from them.

But back to The Most Beautiful House in the World. Rybczynski offers some discussion of Froebel’s nine gifts, a series of toys to aid in the education of children. The fourth gift, “building bricks” is credited by Rybczynski as the first “building toy” he was able to locate. Froebel composed a song to go along with this toy:

A house, a house, a house!
A house belongs to me.
A house, a house, a house!
Come here, come here, and see! (32)

The idea of enacting life through miniaturized symbols seems to be the most recent turn in play since the 19th century; Rybczynski rightfully comments that it’s impossible to build a house of cards outdoors. The search for play has become literally interiorized. My recent reading in Sennett arrives at the same place through a completely different point of departure.

But there’s a final thought from this chapter that I’d like to close on:

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once described children’s play as an activity “characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activity itself.” This is a very good description of the designer at his drafting table.

. . .

Bettelheim quotes a four-year-old who asks, “is this a fun game or a winning game?” The solitary building game is definitely a fun game—there is no opponent. The concept of fun is elusive and resists easy definition, but it is an undisputed element—perhaps the element—of play. In the present context, it is enough to note that fun does not imply folly, or any lack of seriousness—quite the opposite. To say that design is fun goes a long way towards explaining the continued attraction of a profession that is characterized by low pay and far from secure employment. (38-39)

What discourages me the most about public depictions of craft are the superstar mentality that points at as if making things involved winners and losers. It doesn’t, except in the rarified atmosphere of superstar celebrities of design. Fun designs belongs only to the person doing them, not an imagined audience.

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The Most Beautiful House in the World

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI don’t remember much about Rybczynski’s book Home, though it’s only been a month or so since I read it. I suppose that’s one of the main reasons why I started creating reading notes again. I don’t want to lose the many thoughts that I have while doing the sort of reading I’ve been doing lately.

I’m about halfway through The Most Beautiful House in the World now, and there’s a lot to say about it and the way it connects with other reading I’ve done in the last few years.

The book bears a striking resemblance to Michael Pollan’s A Place of My OwnPollan’s book was perhaps what started this whole vein of inquiry for me, and I read it just after moving to Upstate New York. This was the first “home” that I’ve ever owned, and though Pollan’s book is really about building more of a “tiny house” (a shed/office space for writing), it has much to recommend it.

Pollan’s book is from 1997. Rybczynski’s book is from 1989, so it might be considered to be an ancestor. The premise is almost the same. Rybczynski is building a shed to build a boat in, and along the way discussing broader issues of making and architecture (exactly like Pollan’s book).  They aren’t copies of each other, nor are they focused on the same issues. I’d like to return to Pollan, but I really can’t read everything at once even if I sometimes try.

Rybczynski’s first chapter, “Wind and Water,” begins with the issue of histories, both personal and of buildings, and ends with feng-shui.  He tells the story of his education and how he came to be an architect. He also touches on the beginnings of architecture, with a caution from Daniel J. Boorstein about historical narratives. Retellings of the past always involve bias, “the historical record is all too frequently not only incomplete but skewed: not exactly survival of the fittest but survival of the richest— of the immovable, the valuable, the durable, the collected and protected, and the academically classified” (6). Architecture, as a category, is first an evaluative judgment that a structure qualifies to fit into the category of “designed” buildings. We know little of the homes that the builders of the great buildings or homes of the ages lived in because the simply don’t fit our preconceived ideas of architecture:

Architecture has been described as the art of building, but this is a judgment of effect rather than cause. If we call buildings that move us “architecture,” then we leave open the question of whether they are grand or small, known or unknown, sheds or cathedrals. And we leave open the question of who designed them. What finally distinguishes members of the winner’s circle from the uncouth mob of “mere” buildings is not their architectural quality but their social standing, the sanction of the critic and the art historian, and the effect of Boorstin’s Law of Historical Survival, not any intrinsic attribute. (12)

One could easily substitute “furniture” for buildings in this construction. I like his definition of architecture as “buildings that move us.” That also makes a good definition for “furniture” over commonplace crates and boxes: good furniture moves those who live in its presence, or even those who pass by in proximity. Saying that buildings or other objects “move” us invests in them a certain sort of emotional content; it’s not purely a mystification of “art,” but instead the addition of a human motive to these pursuits. Design of these objects is not simply engineering; designs that move broader audiences imply social functions, not simply individual eccentric aesthetic responses.

Extrapolating from that makes it easy to speak of objects as embodying (or containing) care. It’s not necessarily about precision in execution or virtuosity of talent (“art”), but rather focusing on social objects—utilitarian structures or utilitarian objects— as repositories of the concerns of social groups.

Though Rybczynski doesn’t extrapolate from his definition in this way, he does move toward an exploration of the relationship between the physical world and social function in his discussion of feng-shui. Though it’s obviously not out of place (after all, it’s about placement, and he’s discussing the location of his boat building shed) it was a bit of a surprise to me. I found myself wanting to read more about it.

Unfortunately, feng shui has the status of astrology and other sorts of new-age claptrap. A search of the local library turned up over 100 books and videos. I decided to poke around the academic databases instead. I found a lovely definition of feng shui in a text from 1873:

What is Feng-shui? Sinologues looked through the Chinese Classics for an answer to this question, searched through their dictionaries and found none. Merchants asked their compradores and house-boys, What is Feng-shui? but the replies they got were rather obscure and confused, and at best they were told that Feng-shui means “wind and water” and is so called “because it’s a thing like the wind, which you cannot comprehend, and like the water, which you cannot grasp.”

I found many academic articles in business journals, as well as historical explorations of the deployment of feng shui in its Korean form (pongsu) that all point to its penetration deep into asian cultures. Most for arguments for taking it seriously, not as pseudo-science, but rather as a valuable form of folk wisdom. All the best articles were written by non-westerners, unlike the popular press books that are filling up the local library. Ernest John Eitel*, a 19th century missionary, highlighted the cognitive dissonance of considering it:

Well, if Feng-shui were no more than what our common sense and natural instincts teach us, Chinese Feng-shui would be no such puzzle to us. But the fact is, the Chinese have made Feng-shui a black art, and those that are proficient in this art and derive their livelihood from it, find it to their advantage to make the same mystery of it, with which the European alchemists and astrologers used to surround  their vagaries. Every resident of China, however, requires by a few years practical intercourse with the Chinese a tolerable idea of what Feng-shui is, and most of my readers no doubt know, that practically speaking it is simply a system of superstition, supposed to teach people where and how to build a tomb or erect a house so as to insure those concerned everlasting prosperity and happiness.

Since my arrival in China I have had a great many practical collisions with Feng-shui, and having for many years collected notes on the subject and studied its literature in all its branches, I now propose to lay out the result of my studies before the public. Feng-shui is however, as I take it, but another name for natural science; and I must as therefore the indulgence of my readers for introducing a general outline of Chinese physical science in order to make the system of Feng-shui intelligible. (Feng-shui: Or, The Rudiments of Natural Science in China by Ernest John Eitel)

Eitel wants to treat it as a folk-science rather than superstition; for Rybczynski, the importance of feng-shui is not its validity or relationship to Chinese science, but rather its democratic nature. It applies to all forms of architectural practice in China:

Feng-shui continues to be used widely in Hong Kong and surreptitiously in mainland China, although the regime there has declared it illegal, at least for local consumption. That is curious, since feng-shui has always ignored wealth and social rank; it has determined orientation and placement and identified the particular spiritual characteristics of a site, both for the grave of a simple peasant and for the tombs of the emperor’s family and retinue. The same spirit walls I observed in simple farmhouses I also saw in the Forbidden City in Beijing, shielding the entrance in the living quarters of the last empress and protecting her from sha-ch’i—the death spirit—a spirit that apparently drew no distinction between palaces and sheds. (19-20)

While the consideration of protecting residents from “spirits” through architectural features may be quaint and not particularly unique (Pennsylvania Dutch barn stars, for example), what seems more interesting to me is the implication of something more deeply rooted in pre-industrial science. Eitel describes it better:

They see a golden chain of spiritual life running through every form of existence binding together, as in one living body, everything that subsists in heaven above or in earth below. What has so often been admired in the natural philosophy of the Greeks—that the made nature live; that they saw in every stone, every tree, a living spirit; that they people the sea with naiads, the forest with satyrs,—this poetical, emotional and reverential way of looking at natural objects, is equally so a characteristic of natural science in China.

The whole system of Feng-shui is based on this emotional conception of nature. (ibid.)

This opening chapter, by its emotional implications at least, connects strongly with my prior reading in Sennett. If architecture is a thing that not only houses humans but also moves them, then feng-shui might not be so crazy after all.

*Postscript: looking through the footnotes, it turns out that Rybczynski used Eitel as a primary source as well.

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The Fall of Public Man 4

The Fall of Public ManI finished The Fall of Public Man yesterday, and it has seriously unsettled me. I need to turn somewhere else after this, because I’m afraid it’s left me terribly depressed. Sennett, to his credit, hasn’t really had to reverse his somewhat dark estimation of the health of society in the intervening years since 1974.

If anything, the observations of the book seem even stronger now. The book is an indictment of individuality much more severe in form and expression than say, Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head. 

Sennett’s thesis cuts severely against the grain of traditional individualism much more deeply: “the effacement of the res publica by the belief that social meanings are generated by the feelings of individual human beings” has become our guiding social principle (339). This has caused an erosion of meaningful political engagement:

We understand that that power is a matter of national and international interests, the play of classes and ethnic groups, the conflict of regions and religions. But we do not act upon that understanding. To the extent that this culture of personality controls belief, we elect candidates that who are credible, have integrity, and show self-control. These personalities appeal, we say, to a wide variety of interests. . . . But a community of power can only be an illusion in a society like the industrial west, one in which a stability has been achieved by progressive extension into the international scale of structures of economic control. In sum, the belief in direct human relations on an intimate scale has seduced us from converting our understandings of the realities of power into guides for our own political behavior. The result is that the forces of domination and inequity remain unchallenged. (339)

Further, Sennett suggests that this transformation (with ample historical precedent) of understanding from societal interactions into personal ones has perverted the very idea of cities:

This belief that real human relations are disclosures of personality to personality has, secondly, distorted our understanding of the purposes of the city. The city is the instrument of impersonal life, the mold in which diversity and complexity of persons, interests, and tastes become available as social experience. The fear of impersonality is breaking that mold. In their nice neat gardens, people speak of the horrors of London or New York; here in Highgate or Scarsdale one knows one’s neighbors; true, not much happens, but life is safe. It is retribalization. (339)

I’ve been reading and looking at a lot of material from the “tiny house” movement in the last year or so. Not because I would ever consider living in one, but because I’m interested in the design of interior spaces right now. It seems to me, that stripping things down to the essential can tell you a lot about what we need to live. Reading the Sennett, it becomes clear that this withdrawal into the most intimate of spaces  affirms the belief that the personal is taken to be the arbiter of all things in our modern consciousness. Can’t afford a big manor house? Perhaps a small hut in the woods away from others would be just the ticket to cure your social ills.

The problem is that this is entirely a bourgeois phenomenon. Only people of means can really consider running away from social relations and regulations like building codes. I recently watched a little documentary about some of the experiments currently active in the southwest, A spaghetti western on lean urbanism. While some of the quirky young people were interesting, I’m past the age where I would consider crapping in a bucket. Indoor plumbing is nice, and if you build away from the city you are forced to confront the problem of infrastructure, and regulations. There was an interesting arc to the conclusion of that film though, which suggested in the end that a dynamic urban center was vital to creativity and creative expression. That is ultimately Sennett’s point. There’s a problem with our attitudes towards cities that goes beyond the expensive nature of living spaces (the film ended with an examination of tiny apartments, the urban equivalent of tiny houses).

To their credit, many of the “tiny” people are attempting, in their own way, to improve things. A recent development in downtown Syracuse of tiny apartments is attempting to replicate the college dorm experience of their residents. By engineering in common spaces such as a full kitchen and rec rooms adjoining the tiny spaces, they hope that young adults will want to live there. But this sort of locally generated “community” is still a type of ghettoization of like types which enervates, rather than energizes social anxieties, complete with resident social engineer. It creates just another echo chamber where people can see themselves in their immediate neighbors and avoid being challenged by confronting “strangers,” the original form of the city— a collection of strangers.

The problem is the way our attitude toward others has evolved. We look outside ourselves to find— not the “real” world— but instead a mirror. We feel uncomfortable if we can’t “identify” ourselves in others. We retreat into more and more intimate spaces. The outside collapses inward.

Worldly asceticism and narcissism have much in common. In both, “What am I feeling?” becomes an obsession. In both, showing to others the checks and impulses of oneself feeling is a way of showing that one does have a worthy self. In both, there is a projection of the self onto the world rather than an engagement in worldly experience beyond one’s control.

If we ask why Weber constructed this idea of the Protestant Ethic, one answer is that it was his way of showing the combined results of secularism and capitalism on the psyche; it is no accident he should have chosen these two forces. They lead to the erosion of belief in experience external to the self. Together they have eroded the self as an aggressive, confident force, and instead made its worthiness the object of obsessive anxiety. Together, they have eroded public life. (334)

Controlling the external manifestation of feeling is the core focus of Sennett’s historical exegesis in The Fall of Public Man. We show that we’re civilized by not “playing” when we’re dealing with others; we establish our authenticity through polite restraint in our dealings with others. There’s a cul-de-sac I’ve not written out regarding the elocutionary movement yet, but I think I’ll wrap writing about Sennett here. The stifling influence of decorum is well explored a bit earlier in the book, and these are the words that shook me the most while reading it:

To lose the ability to play is to lose the sense that worldly conditions are plastic. The ability to play with social life depends on the existence of a dimension in society which stands apart from, at a distance from, intimate desire, need, and identity. For modern man to have become an actor deprived of an art is thus a more serious matter than the fact that people prefer listening to records rather than playing chamber music at home. The ability to be expressive is at a fundamental level cut, because one tries to make one’s appearance represent who one is, to join the question of effective expression to the issue of authenticity of expression. Under these conditions, everything returns to motive: Is this what I really feel? Do I really mean it? Am I being genuine? The self of motivations intervenes in an intimate society to block people from feeling free to play with the presentation of feelings as objective, formed signs. Expression is made contingent on authentic feeling, but one is always plunged into the narcissistic problem of never being able to crystalize what is authentic in one’s feelings. (267)

The cul-de-sac I feel compelled to traverse next involves the concept of emotions as “objective, formed signs.” It’s not really a main feature of Sennett’s book and to explore it fully I need to look into melodrama a bit more extensively.

I’ve just started on Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World, which is due back at the library in about a week, so I can’t dally too much.

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Eichten's Cheese and Bison, Center City MN

Eichten’s Cheese and Bison, Center City MN

Someone favorited one of my pictures on flickr this morning. It was a nondescript photo of a package of rohu fish taken at Dragonstar market in St. Paul in 2009. I have no idea why the photo was of interest to them, but I paged through a bit to remember that I photographed a wide variety of fish packages there, during the few months before I left the Twin Cities and moved to Syracuse. I wanted to save a few reminders about the things I loved most about the the place I spent around five years in. I felt more at home there than I’ve ever felt anywhere.

Paging backwards, I found a photograph of a banner on an apartment complex on Dale street advertising an “automatic fish scaler” not far from Dragonstar. Venturing further still down memory lane, I found this photo taken looking back at the highway from Eichten’s Cheese and Bison. The fish photos were well viewed in the seven years or so they’ve been online; rohu fish apparently have been searched for over 350 times. But this lonely bison by the side of the road, just a ways down the road from the Franconia sculpture park outside of Forest Lake (where I used to drive to buy live fish all the time) had only been viewed five times in seven years.

There’s a sort of loneliness to public exposure. I haven’t been taking pictures for a long time, other than little household memories. I guess it’s because no one really seemed to want to look at them anyway. No audience for quirky observations in the real world. People search for what they need rather than having much concern about what other people find interesting.

So much for the “interactivity” of electronic communication platforms. It’s not a platform for self-expression, really. It’s just a place to file things, with the random hope that some stranger might stumble upon them.

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The Fall of Public Man (3)

The Fall of Public ManI realize now that my previous post lept over an important part in its discussion of acting. Acting, as explored by Sennett, was a dominant metaphor for the role of people in public environments prior to the eighteenth century.

Prior to his discussion of Diderot’s Paradox, he discusses theatrum mundi as the operating image for man in the world. Citing the opening of Book Seven of Fielding’s Tom Jones, Sennett points out that the cliched nature of “all the world’s a stage” was taken for granted for so long that 18th century sophisticates no longer need to be reminded that the drama of ordinary life is indeed real, and not just a fancy metaphor:

“The world as a stage” was indeed and old cliche dressed up in new ways by the mid-18th Century. We have observed that one of the classic functions of theatrum mundi imagery was to detach the human nature from social action, by separating actor from act. In the common-sense view of man as an actor, personally you were no longer indictable as a bad man for committing a bad act you just needed to change your behavior. Man as an actor bears a lighter moral yoke than either Puritan or devout Catholic: he is not born into sin, he enters into it if he happens to play an evil part. (109)

The weight carried by private grows heavier because the private is saddled with the burden of being the sole province of the “genuine.” Floating free and atomised from or relations with others, the arbiter of our moral selves becomes narcissism. We look inside to figure out what is “right.”

Sennett’s exploration focuses on the suppression of public displays of emotion through clothing and the rise of judging things by appearances rather than actions as it moves into the 19th Century. Just as action carries less moral importance on stage, how a person acts (as a way of evaluating them) becomes less important than how they look.

The argument is complex and interrelated with the rise of “personality” as a way of defining a person over “nature” in the 18th century. It’s possible, in the 18th century, to explain an action by saying it was somehow a component of their “nature,” but in the 19th this explanation no longer holds: they might be forced into action because of the role they play. That role, to a certain extent, can be predicted by the way they look (be careful of that dark-skinned kid in the hoodie, or that women in a birka, even today). What you “do” matters far less than how you look.

How you look marks what “group” you belong to; there are no strangers, only people to sort into previously evaluated communities that you already have notions for the predilections they might have. A rather sick notion of community, or deploying the social science term used by Sennett, gemeinschaft. Groups are frequently formed around people, who like charismatic actors, suspend the critical factor of evaluating behavior through action and substituted the evaluation of people by “personality.” Sennett’s example is the mid 19th century poet/politician Lamartine:

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville of Paris, on February 25, 1848, by Félix Philippoteaux.

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville of Paris, on February 25, 1848, by Félix Philippoteaux.

The hidden power of a speaker like Lamartine is that he harnesses mystification. He has no text, and so escapes by being measured by any outside standard of truth or reality. He can make the quality of his intentions or sentiments a self-sufficient basis of his legitimacy to rule, and thus, if he is a Goebbels, make large numbers of normally intelligent people believe that Jews are both Communists and international bankers. Whether this is more or less mystical than convincing large numbers of people of a virgin birth is an open question.

The age of proletarian revolutions is over; so is the age of the Romantic performer. Without the color, the passion, the bombast, what has survived is the cognitive structure: a believable public event is created by a believable public person rather than a believable action. The genuine aesthetic qualities of the meeting of politics and the arts having disappeared, what remains is only the obscurantist, paralyzing effect of a “politics of personality.” (237)

The current political situation really seems to support Sennett’s 1974 thesis. The current administration that has brought the nation back from the brink of collapse and extended health care to more people than ever before is judged, not by its actions but by what it might do, according to the pundits: “they’re trying to take our guns away!” Hello gridlock, goodbye civility. But what concerns me most is the transformation in evaluative criteria, and the lack of any real public venue to express genuine (rather than stereotypical) emotions about it.

In short, what we have lost is a meaningful public domain. Not public domain in the sense of a cultural copia, as hashed out by an army of intellectual property specialists, but rather a public domain for meaningful emotional expression. This isn’t a recent development, but rather something that’s been a long time coming through careful, calculated choices.

Another example invoked by Sennett is the gradual shift away from public discourse to a kind of polite silence. It began with the suppression of labor dissent and organizing in public houses. It was frowned upon to speak of grievances, it’s better to sit and drink your pint in peace toward the end of the eighteenth century. Groups of people vocalizing in public become suspect. The house lights on the theater are turned out by then, and by the mid-19th, audience is discouraged from reacting to what is said on the stage: applaud only at the end of the act, or the piece of music. The performer (personality) is given precedence over the audience. By the end of the 19th century, the performer not only does not have to answer to the text he’s performing, but also remains immune from the vagaries of the audience.

The secular public domain has essentially become mystified while the workings of the planet have (supposedly) been demystified by science and mathematics. And we retire to our private chambers with a simultaneously improved and crippled, ineffectual, role to play in the audience of this mystery play.

There’s at least one more post before I turn loose of this book. I can’t believe I avoided reading it all these years.

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The Fall of Public Man (2)

The Fall of Public ManMy previous post was oddly prescient. As I’ve progressed further into the book, I’ve stopped today at a section which discusses the relationship between text and performance.

To get there, Sennett has passed through fascinating discussions of fashion and done a comparative section about the emergence of “personality” in the 19th century, as opposed to “nature” in the 18th. This will take some time to examine in detail. There’s a lot of foregrounding to the changes in texts and performances across the the centuries to be established.

The bare bones of it start with Diderot’s “paradox of acting.” The relationship between the theater and the theater of the street are a lot closer than I’d really thought about before encountering this book. Sennett proposes that as cities grew, urban life forced a more restrained approach to the emotions. One had to do his crying/celebrating/emoting in private to a greater degree so as to avoid being vulnerable to the increasingly wide-ranging population that surrounded them. Popular theater began parallel development. Theatrical performance diverged from religious spectacle and ritual performances in important ways.

Most 16th and 17th Century French theories of acting correlated how an actor performed with the contents of what he or she performed. The truth of the lines spoken had some relationship to how well the actor could speak. Thus it was possible to subsume the idea of acting under the rubric of rhetoric, and to talk of rhetoric in relation to morals and religion. In this formula the priest became the greatest possible rhetorician because the lines he spoke were absolute truth. No good Christian would dream, of course, of directly comparing priest and actor, but the reason lay precisely in the fact that the priest’s rhetoric was innately superior to anything possible on the stage because he was speaking divine truth.

Diderot broke this connection between acting, rhetoric and the substance of the text. In his Paradox he created a theory of drama divorced from ritual: he was the first to conceive of performing as an art form in and of itself, without what was to be performed. The “signs” of the performance were not the “signs” of the text. I put this less clearly than Diderot. He writes:

If an actor were full, really full, of feeling, how could he play the same part twice running with the same spirit and success? Full of fire at the first performance, he would be worn out and cold as marble by the third. (110-111)

The complexity of Sennett’s argument is higher than it might seem at first glance. An actor’s emotions are not real human emotions- how could they be with any degree of repeatability? Underneath this though, is the contention that the emotions contained in the text are not the same as the emotions conveyed by the performance. Though Sennett doesn’t spend a great deal of time talking about what was happening in rhetoric around this time, I did a bit of a refresher on the side that I might discuss at greater length later.

The gist of it is this: the elocutionary movement in rhetoric had two competing factions. On one side, emotions were treated like a public, standardised language that could be simplified (to reach the broadest possible audience). Like all languages, this public display of emotion was a bit arbitrary, and separated (and cartoonish) when compared to the personal experience of emotion. A second faction that emotion (as a communicated language) needed to be more like the private version, only restrained and polite. Elocutionary manuals were frequently written by actors, as a matter of fact. They didn’t agree on the proper approach either. Rhetorical scholarship in this area isn’t particularly helpful, since most scholars tend to collapse this distinction as meaningless. I can see several reasons for this, but I don’t want to stray too far from my short point today.

Returning to Diderot’s Paradox, Sennett continues to explain the distinction between emotions and enacted emotions is that “the tears of real life are immediate and direct, while the tears brought on by art must be produced consciously, by degrees” … “At best, in the world where sympathy and natural feeling govern, if there is an exact representation of an emotion it can happen only once” (111, 112). I think that the disjunction in locating the emotion “in the text” is arises when you think of the emotion as manifest primarily in the “sympathy and natural feeling” of an audience; in reading, yes, you might locate an emotion in the text. But in a performance, the emotion exists as conveyed by a physical manifestation of the text (the actor), which must take precedence.

Diderot contended that the actor could not feel the emotion of the text and be a successful actor. Other  critics did not agree, Sennett characterizes the debate as one “the argument between sentiment and calculation” (114). Actors, it was thought, could as rational actors calculate the correct means of conveying the emotion as felt. The emotions of theater were debated as if they were a secular “truth” to be conveyed in a genuine (calculated to be genuine, at least) way or as a generic display of more easily communicated “sentiment,” in short, rational sense vs. sensibility.

The core of this argument though, was accepted by both sides: the performance was a thing separate (and to 20th century critical eyes, inferior) to the text.  Who decides what emotion is expresssed, the actor or the playwright? Sennett later explores the attempts to make performances more answerable to texts in the 19th century. He uses music as a gateway. Is  a musical score a prompt or a bible?

There’s much more to think through from here.

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The Fall of Public Man

The Fall of Public ManRichard Sennett’s thesis in The Fall of Public Man revolves around a central presumption: a fundamental part of how humans express themselves is through play-acting. This rings so many bells with some of my prior research into visual rhetoric, especially with regard to how we interpret artifacts.

Watching a movie on PBS Independent Lens a few days ago, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, it was interesting how Romanians interpreted the western films smuggled behind the iron curtain in the 1980s as fuel for liberatory fantasies. Films that seemed downright silly to most westerners were taken up as evidence for the possibility of a better life. If Chuck Norris can do it, anyone can. Right?

It’s easy for a cultural critic to dissect every flaw and horrid notion of sexism and bourgeois suppression of the subaltern in trash media, but to see these mainstream films invoked as valuable “props” in a game of make believe made me remember John Willats.

In Art and Representation, Willats argues that pictures are most useful when they provoke those who view them to use them as “props” to trigger thought. This places them, not as symbols or “representations” that resemble their ostensible subjects, but rather more like toys that we arrange to convey our fantasies. He begins with children’s drawings, and the systems used to create them (which bear no resemblance to classical single point perspective, for example) are an integral part of the way that we interface with the world. Drawings (or photographs for that matter) do not  represent the world as much as they give us a chance to express thoughts about the world in a playful way.

Yesterday, I cited a bit of Sennett’s contention that self-absorption is a dangerous block to expression. That passage continues:

There is a relation between the question of method and the question of aborted expression. The artfulness which is squandered in self-absorption is that of playacting; playacting requires an audience of strangers to succeed, but is meaningless or even destructive among intimates. Playacting in the form of manners, conventions, and ritual gestures is the very stuff out of which public relations are formed, and from which public relations derive their emotional meaning. The more social conditions erode the public forum, the more people are routinely inhibited from exercising the ability to playact. The members of an intimate society become artists deprived of an art. These modes of playacting are “roles.” Thus, one method of making sense of the shift between public and private in modern culture would be to investigate the historical changes in these public “roles.” That is the method of this book. (28-29)

There are many potential blocks to expression. In Chuck Norris vs. Communism, the communist-controlled media feared that exposure to western films would corrupt the masses and erode the public forum, so they provided what they thought were better “role models” for the people. Government and police agencies allowed the films to circulate to a limited extent, bribed with western films for the use of themselves and their friends, because they thought the phenomenon was isolated and impacted only a few. They could still be good communists and watch the films; the films wouldn’t corrupt a “good” communist; only the masses needed to be protected. However, tens of thousands of people viewed the contraband films— everyone wants to play.

The popularity of entertainment media is one of the core points of departure in Sennett’s book. Theater in the 18th century was vastly different than today, or even from the 19th century. Chairs were placed on stage with the actors, for example, all the way up to 1762. Raucous crowds, massive in size, watched the same plays over and over (bit like people watching old VHS tapes) and interacted with the actors when they thought things weren’t quite right. Theater was a public space, not an intimate dark space filled with isolated strangers. Sennett adopts what he labels a “posthole” method, looking at narrow spans of time to be able to more easily isolate the changes across time. It isn’t comprehensive, and it doesn’t need to be.

What seems apparent, and easily verified, is that between the 18th century and now the focus has shifted between spectacle-prone performances by an emergent class of actors with varying ideas about how to communicate with the masses, and what we now look at as “texts” (Shakespeare’s plays for example), which are interpreted within circumscribed boundaries. The 18th century audience was not the passive recipient of the packaged emotions of the performer (on screen in the dark, mostly, these days) but rather participants in a public game of sorts. When the chairs came off the stage, a lot changed. The actor became the center of attention.

The social importance of the theater, particularly in the latter half of the 18th century, comes at the expense of its literary propriety though. I found this lovely snippet in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature from the early 20th century:

Though the last forty years of the eighteenth century produced few English plays of primary importance, the period is among the most interesting in the history of the national theatre. Its study shows how complex and perishable are the conditions of dramatic excellence, and explains why one of the chief glories of the English muse sank, for at least a century, beneath the level of literature.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the decay of the drama was partly due to the advance of the actor. In the days of Betterton and Barton Booth, the best player was, in a sense, an intermediary, and the attention of spectators could be held only if characters and situations appealed directly to their understanding. With the coming of Havard, Macklin, Garrick, Mrs. Clive, Spranger Barry, Foote, Yates, Mrs. Abington and King, success no longer depended on the excellence of a play. The stage began to offer a new and non-literary attraction. It was enough for the dramatist to give a “cue for passion”; he need only serve as a collaborator, as one whose work was half finished till presented by a trained performer.

The sinking of the literary muse is tied to the ascent of the sort of celebrity culture that we now find ourselves held hostage by. Looking back to the 1980s, I don’t think I’d care to celebrate Chuck Norris either. Note that in this critique 18th century plays are simply “cues for passion.” This sounds eerily like Willat’s “props for games of make believe.”

The really intriguing thing about Sennett’s thesis (thus far) for me, is that expression is the presentation of emotion. This dovetails in one particular discussion of craft from Jogge Sundqvist I transcribed a while back, which includes this bit: “the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and  art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.” The objects we make, just as much as the face we present to the public, carries with it a particular presentation of emotion. Not as sentiment, per se, but in our attention to a shared sort of decorum. Sennett frames it thusly:

Suppose one person tells another about his father’s dying days in the hospital. Today the sheer recounting of the details would be enough to arouse the other person’s pity. Strong impressions minutely described are for us identical with expression. But imagine a situation or society in which the sheer reporting of the details of suffering would not signify to another person. The man recounting these moments could not merely relive them, but had to mold them, selecting some details to emphasize, suppressing others, even falsifying his report in order to fit a form or pattern which his listener understood to be what dying was all about. Under these conditions, the speaker wants to present to his hearer the death so organized in its details that it fits the picture of an event which arouses pity.  Similarly, pity is not different depending on what death we hear about; pity exists and an independent emotion, rather than varying with and, therefore, depending on each experience of it. (107-108)

The 18th century approach to sentiment, to the emotions, is profoundly different from the way that we express them now. This is evident in the elocutionary movement in rhetoric. I was shocked, as I researched it a bit, just how little rhetoricians have dealt with this intriguing cultural moment. Sennett’s book is driving me to remember a lot of things that I studied long ago, to make better sense of how emotional expression might be found both in appearances and objects. Taking care, or more precisely, communicating care, is of paramount importance in negotiating the world.

Play-acting, then, becomes a central rather than peripheral issue. Not just in the 18th century, but now.

In an interview I watched recently, Laurie Anderson described the telling of stories as our public face. They become embellished and altered, modified and simplified, until they have little resemblance to the events that invoked them. Stories, which are in a sense short “plays,” become our way of expressing ourselves through play. And we are still guilty of distorting them to conform to cultural standards.

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