A Spurious Result

Thomas Ruff, jpeg kj01

The working definition of artifact I’ve been comfortable with lately is an object embedded in a tradition or social structure that gives it meaning. Walter Benjamin argued that one of the things being altered about artifacts in the age of reproducibility is that they are loosing the aura that surrounds them because of the irrelevance of authenticity. There are no originals, only copies that have surrendered their claim to uniqueness in pursuit of universality. They lose their fetish cult value, but still participate in social structures in new ways.

Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work demonstrates this. Immaterial objects that exist only as clusters of electrons on a screen provide new social effects brought about through increased connectivity. The drive for universality continues.

I find it interesting that Ruff’s series arises, in a sense, from a group of failures (disasters, both natural and unnatural) juxtaposed with idyls (his word), or natural and man made landscapes depicted in the same digitally disintegrated form. He suggests that the focus on disaster is autobiographical, arising from an attempt to make sense of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11/2001. He was in NYC at the time, and his camera failure  (or x-ray damage at the airport) left him searching the internet for images to make sense of the disaster.

His career-long focus on the structure of photographic images as they change with technology lead him to consider the pixel, rather than silver grains, as a fundamental constituent of images. Further, the internet has altered the image through compression. The artifacted image, then, is a product of both a reduced “sampling rate” of reality, related as “painterly squares” but further altered by losses when compressed images are reintegrated as viewable artifacts. This presents artifact in different light.

Research into the term in the OED has brought some new perspective. Artifact is of relatively recent pedigree, defined in the 17th century as “An object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes.” The Latin etymology from ars factum (object made with skill) is amazingly direct and similar in meaning and spelling across several languages. However, in the 19th century there was a reversal of this meaning:

A spurious result, effect, or finding in a scientific experiment or investigation, esp. one created by the experimental technique or procedure itself. Also as a mass noun: such effects collectively.

The alteration of usage shifts, perhaps with the trends in shifting technologies and techniques. Artifacts have been wrenched from human hands and rendered procedural. But the human touch lingers, in its third sense, an ideological manifestation: “A non-material human construct.” The citation of this usage from Toynbee’s Study of History from 1934 is particularly telling:

It is a mere accident that the material tools which Man has made for himself should have a greater capacity to survive than Man’s psychic artifacts.

Toynbee’s psychic artifacts like the concept of an internal and external proletariat have completely faded, including his suggestion that civilizations disappear through disintegration. Recall that disintegration is ultimately what Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work places firmly in the field of view. Ruff suggests that with adequate distance these artifact filled JPEG images integrate themselves into natural images. Viewed up close, their disintegration can be beautiful.

What procedural tool, then, creates the appearance of these images? The short answer is “lossy compression,” but the longer answer has some important clues. From Wikipedia:

JPEG uses a lossy form of compression based on the discrete cosine transform (DCT). This mathematical operation converts each frame/field of the video source from the spatial (2D) domain into the frequency domain (a.k.a. transform domain). A perceptual model based loosely on the human psychovisual system discards high-frequency information, i.e. sharp transitions in intensity, and color hue. In the transform domain, the process of reducing information is called quantization.

The images are transformed using an algorithm created from a perceptual model. The information discarded in the compression is forever lost. In short, we trust a machine (computer) to shape our images, using a model based on our perception. The information we view has a diminishing relationship with any sort of material object, rather, it comes from our artificially created intelligence of our own visual system. This takes artifice to an entirely new level.

The “skill” introduced into the ars factum— the artifact— is that of a machine. We are in effect, creating human/machine hybrid perceptions that are becoming the cornerstones of our epistemological universe. These new truths are not completely man made. It’s not just AI and robots that will alter the future, it’s a thousand choices along the way based on spurious information untouched by human hands.

It remains startling to me how relevant Walter Benjamin remains in all this.

Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate. They neutralize a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery— which, used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism. (252)

Benjamin goes on to argue that his “politics of art” would be useless for fascism. I think he’s wrong. Machine manipulation is nothing if not the new mystery. Reproducibility through algorithms has reinforced what is worst in us in the last decade or more.


Hancock Shaker Village © 2013 Jeff Ward

I make it a point to visit historical sites whenever possible. Being in a place, for me at least, often gives a feeling for others that have been there before me. Few places have felt as right to me as Hancock Shaker Village.

The place feels happy somehow, in contrast to other utopian sites like Oneida Community Mansion House. It’s not that Oneida feels bad, it simply feels strange in comparison. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to terms like “spirit” or “essence”. It’s as if the objects, commissioned or made by previous inhabitants, hold something of the character of their creators long after the possessor has turned to history.

It’s a common sentiment. Tool collectors are particularly prone to it; the concept of heirloom tools is based on the idea that these useful objects are more than simple artifacts, they somehow retain a connection with the users and objects that they have interacted with. The worst fate for an old handsaw is to get painted and hung on a wall as a mere decoration.

Reconstructions of old objects, though they don’t have the same aura, still provide a sort of genetic connection to previous modes of thought and being. The feeling of there being something else there, often hazy and receding into the distance even when you’re holding the object in your hand, persists at a guttural level even when to connection is only conceptual. Artifacts, at the root level, are concepts that have been made into facts.

The idea that Shaker objects feel right is hardly unique to me. When you’re working at a lathe or using a spokeshave to shape a curve on a Shaker reconstruction, you just know when the curve is right or wrong. There’s a correctness to the object when done right, as if there’s an essence you’re aiming at.

What deserves consideration is the origin of this feeling: does it strike a chord in the craftsperson or consumer, or is it the communication of some sort of deep historical feeling? I suspect it’s both. There is a paragraph in Marx’s notes on Mill that I quoted earlier that bears revisiting:

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt.

As a craftsperson, making an object objectifies individuality in that there is a specific character to the choices and selections that I have made which reflect my tastes and appetites, not to mention my level of skill and attention to detail. There’s an imperfection to human work, but that isn’t the center, really. It’s a question of what imperfections are tolerated or embraced— a matter of taste. That a craft object reflects a “power beyond all doubt” takes on layers of meaning when it is considered that craft is always embedded in tradition, reflecting not only individuality but tacit social agreements about what is desirable in an object.

Traditional objects reflect power as a social phenomenon, as Arendt has proposed, rather than simply a reflection of personal expression. What is clear here is that it isn’t about individual strength through expression, but rather participation in a social exchange, a participation in “another man’s essential nature” which typifies true power.

2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.

Craftwork, i.e. the production of objects, can affirm common needs making them visible in the form products we surround ourselves with. Recognition of these needs is central, and Marx places the craftsperson in the role of mediator between individual and species.

3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognized and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love.

The basic thrust of this form of direct exchange (as opposed to exchanges mediated by money or the complexities of other intermediaries) is a solidly grounded polis. “Production as human beings” as contrasted with “production as productive instruments” has the character of a gift rather than a social transaction. Bondareff’s argument for the necessary character of individual bread labor was also married to a social commitment to provide bread for others who were unable to produce their own, as a gift commanded by Christian charity. Charity should also be factored into craft labor.

4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realized my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. (Marx)

Certain objects seem to feel right, I think, because we see not only ourselves but rather a plausible way of life in them. It is a form of sociality that is tied to participants that are no longer present, except perhaps in spirit. But spirit is too weak a word for the sort of genetic connection that is possible within craft traditions.

These are objects I can use to feel a part of something larger than myself. These are artifacts that will shape me into the sort of person I want to be, simply by association. The material circumstances of my environment are not chance— they are a choice— driven by a desire to belong.

The acceptance of traditional artifacts is subject to the properties of memory. We hold the objects close, overcoming their uniqueness, using them as tokens where the face of the craftsman has long since worn away. We cannot know the true source, conflated from so many identities, lost with the distance of time.

Artifacts collect scars, they fade, they are repaired and repurposed. Only pedants insist on “authenticity” in artifacts. Most interpolate data as best they can, integrating the personal with artifacts as they become living material history.

Division of Labor


Outlet Mall Mural, South Carolina © 2011 Jeff Ward

Theories regarding the division of labor are most often deployed to justify oppressive, condescending behavior towards one another. It’s the “essential nature” argument, suggesting that laborers gotta labor, thinkers gotta think, and money men (the new royalty) deserve their position in life. From Plato onwards, it has been argued that division of labor increases productivity and allows people to live up to their potential, and, eyes on the prize– enjoy the benefits of leisure. Lowly “toil” is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, unless of course you are one of the  subjugated classes.

The years from 1880-1910 marked the rise and fall of an alternative view based in Christian theology emanating from Leo Tolstoy, the major mouthpiece of Christian Anarchism. It’s a sweat of the brow doctrine completely unrelated to intellectual property. Legal use of the term, originating from Genesis 3:19, is metaphoric. For Timothy Bondareff it was actual: he called it the “primary law” of being human. Man has been commanded to “knead his own bread” and no one can do that for you. Bread, for Bondareff, was not an exchange commodity. If you use money to purchase bread, or enslave anyone else to make your bread, it is not your bread.

The biblical logic is that man was commanded to toil and woman was commanded to birth children in pain and suffering. No matter how rich a woman you are, no one can birth your children for you because they will never be your children. It is the same with bread, according to Bondareff. This was, according to Tolstoy, one of the realizations that altered his course in life as he renounced the social cache he had gained as famous author, becoming instead a political activist.

The influence of Tolstoy should not be underestimated. A young Mohandas Gandhi wrote Tolstoy a letter for permission to publish his A Letter to a Hindu while living in South Africa, and he went on to form a 1,000 acre Tolstoyan colony near Johannesburg in 1910. His influence even traveled even further into the 20th century through Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the time of trust-busting under Teddy Roosevelt, as capitalism sought to address its excesses, a variety of political and utopian thinkers had thoughts of their own. In What Then Must We Do?, Tolstoy developed a division of labor a bit more sophisticated than the peasant Bondareff that was based in a curious metaphor: man is an eating machine.

Man divides his day into four periods: before breakfast, breakfast till dinner, dinner until evening meal, and evening after the meal. So too, then, labor should be divided into four types. Tolstoy’s essentialism was mapped as this:

Man’s natural activity is also divided into four kinds: (1) muscular activity— work of the hands, feet, shoulders and back— heavy work which makes one sweat; (2) the activity of the fingers and wrists– that of craftsmanship; (3) the activity of the mind and imagination; (4) and the activity of social intercourse.

The Nearings collapsed the distinction between (1) and (2), excluding craft as a separate function. They also didn’t really necessarily offer much discussion of the products of work, except to eschew excess production of “bread,” a sort of opting out of exchange through asceticism which Tolstoy may or may not have endorsed. Bondareff, in his theology, noted that a Christian was bound to freely give bread to those who were not able to make their own. Tolstoy offers a more fine grained discussion of the products and their relation to the essential nature of man:

And the blessings men can make use of can also be divided into four classes. First, the products of heavy labor– grain, cattle, buildings, wells, etc.; secondly, the products of craftsmanship–clothes, boots, utensils, and so forth; thirdly, the products of mental activity– the sciences and arts; and fourthly, the arrangements  for intercourse with people– acquaintanceships, etc. (207)

I like the choice of words here, either by the translator or Tolstoy: acquaintanceship seems to fall in a similar category to apprenticeship, a mutually beneficial transfer of skills. Placing the social in his taxonomy of toil seems to be spot on, and characterizing it as generating a product, a useful blessing, sets these activities outside simple exchange. Tolstoy suggests that the day should be divided into four periods, each one dedicated to one four labors he describes.

It seemed to me that only then would the false division of labor that exists in our society be abolished, and a just division established which would not infringe man’s happiness. (208)

To specialize by privileging one form of labor over the other may increase productivity in that area, but increased production should not be the goal of labor. Seeking to do this through the division of labor comes at a cost to the man removed from the other forms of useful work. As he pulled back from the mental work which had occupied his life and focused some time on the other three forms, he found “that the occupation with the physical work necessary for me as for every man, not only did not hinder my specialized activity but was a necessary condition of the utility, quality, and pleasurability of that activity” (208).

Tolstoy’s holistic approach to labor stands in stark contrast with centuries of writing on specialized production, largely because it is centered on use rather than exchange. However, it is important to note that what his argument is founded on is an essential view of human nature grounded, at least in small part, in a reading of Christian theology embracing the fallen condition of man, wherein man must toil, in pain, and women must labor through birth, in pain. To accept the pain of toil is to be human, a “joyous labor.”

A bird is made so that it is necessary for it to fly, walk, peck, and consider when it does all that it is satisfied and happy, in a word, it is then really a bird. Just so it is with man: when he walks, turns about. lifts, draws things along, works with his fingers, eyes, ears, tongue, and brain– then and only then is he satisfied and really a man.

. . .

The nature of work is such that the satisfaction of all man’s needs requires just the change to different kinds of work that makes it not burdensome, but gladsome. Only a false belief that work is a curse could bring people to such an emancipation of themselves from certain kinds of work— that is, to such a seizure of the work of others— as requires the compulsory engagement of others in special occupations, which is called ‘the division of labor.’ (209)

The increased productivity brought about by specialization, according to Tolstoy, harms man in his core being, not because he is transformed into an instrument (as in Marx) but because he is denied the performance of his true nature as one who works and eats.


Bread Labor

Memphis, TN ©2006 Jeff Ward

I first came across the concept of “bread labor” in Helen & Scott Nearing. It was part of a time management strategy. They divided their time by self labor, community labor, and bread labor. A person should budget time to read and reflect, to think and work on themselves, to interact with others and maintain social bonds, and to work satisfying the more mundane needs of life– bread labor.

Changing social conditions during the twenty years that began in 1910 cost us our professional status and deprived us of all our means of livelihood. Whether we liked it or not we were compelled to adjust to the new situation which war, revolution and depression had forced upon the western world. (12)

The Nearings were in their 50s when they purchased several farmed-out Vermont farms in the Green Mountains for small sums in an attempt to find self-sufficiency outside the money economy. Their first thought was collective living, but no viable communal options were available. Land was about $3 per acre at that time, and they reasoned that they might sell timber for a small living, but they ended up turning to maple sugaring instead. They survived, not because they were lucky enough to find a productive enterprise but because they so totally altered their expectations of what “livelihood” really was.

The Nearings confess that they had a problem with the “social” part of the equation. They ate primarily raw nuts and fruits, excluded all domestic animals from their economy (no dependent dogs or cats, no dairy or meat products), no tea or coffee (for political reasons), and no alcohol. They also weren’t fond of dancing. Theirs was not a very lively hood. It’s little wonder that they had a problem bonding with the local social groups, preferring instead productive work and solitary reading and writing.

Living outside the circulation of money came at a price. Sugaring provided enough revenue to pay their taxes, and they mostly tried to use materials found on their farm to build with while trading the produce of their garden with neighbors to get the other necessaries. They called it “The Good Life” and it certainly was a considered life, though it’s hard to imagine it being attractive to most: crude bread or handfuls of grain, no milk, beer or cigarettes. Eventually, the beer and cigarettes crowd showed up when a ski resort opened up adjacent to their farm and they had to relocate to Maine.

Still, I am drawn to their leisure driven idea of the good life. They sought to have four hours to read and write each day with four hours dedicated to bread labor. Bread labor included the household routine of meals, washing and cleaning; organized homestead activities including capital improvements and gardening, wood cutting, and repairs, etc.; and work on the cash crop or crops. All these things constitute productive work, and curiously they also had strong feelings about labor saving machines: they were against them.

The Nearings felt that human labor alone was adequate to sustain things once all the politically questionable activities (stimulants, animal slavery, cooked foods, etc.) were removed from the domestic economy.The soup of ideas that the Nearings drew their program for the good life from is a complex one, filled with references to communist, anarchist, and capitalist sources.

Bread labor is lifted from Tolstoy, and it also factors heavily in the writings of Gandhi, although the asceticism seems distinctly New England. A few of their new neighbors in Maine, including Bill Copperthwaite and Eliot Coleman, share the same intellectual DNA. All of them, to varying degrees, thought that adjustments to our theory of value were necessary in order to attain “the good life.”

Though the Nearings would be loathe to admit it, in contrast to Marx, their value system is anti-social. The emphasis is on moving as far away as possible from exchange value by deepening the care taken to access use value in all aspects of human production, which largely places the emphasis on individuals doing the using. Tolstoy’s great political awakening in Tsarist Russia was that his comfort was built on the slavery of others. That’s why the Nearings swore off many products, like coffee and tea, because the foundation of their production and exchange was built on slavery.

The implication in these communal and individual movements “back to the land” at the turn of the 20th century was that only by staying in touch with the skills and technologies necessary to stay alive would we ever abolish slavery through better understanding the relations between production and consumption.

The Nearings sought, to their credit, to make it possible to support themselves through better labor management, matching their effort to local conditions and history, both in terms of their productive capabilities and reducing consumption whenever possible. Obviously, it’s not scalable as a solution and is reliant on an ableist view of the social contract, where all members of society can contribute equally to the production of food and shelter.

The argument that humans are not created with equal abilities— even if they may have equal rights, a separate issue— is easily mounted to answer this sort of Yankee idealism. Some division  (and segregation) of labor has historically been necessary to increase efficiency. The capitalist mode, reliant as it is on surplus production, a thing studiously avoided by the Nearings, is central to the foundation of city-states. In the same time period as the Nearings, another movement for technological management emerged, and assumed surpluses would be bureaucratically distributed.

Genetically related to Edward Bellamy’s popular utopian vision, Technocracy was heavily reliant on “scientific management” to envision a future without money, a future where machines would satisfy our needs in an equitable fashion. Rather than money, the proposal was “an energy system of value” where the potential to do work was currency. Bellamy and the technocrats had a political bent more aligned with fascism with its egalitarian authoritarianism.

Obviously, there are problems with integrating humans into these proposals, perhaps making Technocracy the most anti-social idea of all. It persisted in thinkers like R. Buckminster Fuller. The societal emphasis on alternative (and conventional) energy sources continues, as well as the multiplication of automation, which never seems to consider where humans fit into all these utopian plans. Machines have no need for bread.



Fergus Falls, MN © 2007 Jeff Ward

I’m not sure I was aware that Fergus Falls was the childhood home of Mary MacLane when I passed through in 2007; I did know who she was, because I was teaching excerpts from The Story of Mary MacLane in classes in 2002. Her celebrity has faded these days.

She was a bit like a Phoebe Waller-Bridge for her day, with distinct similarities to Fleabag. Her movie performance has been lost to history. Both broke the fourth wall, speaking frankly to their audience. I remember that in the first decade I taught, I’d always try to find something that might connect with students. Mary MacLane had tremendous social value in her own time, with her scandalous books selling in large numbers; using it wasn’t that successful in the classroom.

I liked teaching best of all the jobs I’ve had because it was the least soul-destroying. If you’re doing it right, it makes you glad to be alive and appreciative of your students. I started out teaching an older population, primarily focused on getting jobs, when I started out in Arkansas. Teaching in Minnesota was different, because so many of my students were from an agriculture background and intended to return to farms and continue in the family business. Curiously, the class I taught most was writing for the workplace: the class I hated most as an undergraduate.

The stress of confronting a shrinking labor market wasn’t as much of a factor in the times before the big crash and recession of 2008. I must confess that I really didn’t care for working life, and when the opportunity came to shift to a more domestic role, I took it. Work was unsatisfying for me, for most of my life. I don’t think I fully realized that until I stopped doing it for money. I didn’t necessarily feel alienated as much as I felt that I had little value to the world at large.

One of the most controversial parts of Marxist theory is the law of value, or labor theory of value. The primary problem is that Marx (and other classical economists) placed human work as the determinant for the value of products. To be productive, according to Marx, involved the subject of labor (people) and the instruments of labor (capital), and the object of labor (raw material). Marx’s emphasis was on the social value of labor, where ultimately everyone loses.

The capitalist production of objects entails devaluing humans as instruments and overvaluing capital, which alienates those who possess capital as well. In his commentary on James Mill, he offers a succinct elaboration. We work to produce products in order to exchange them for other products, transforming ourselves into instruments.

Although in your eyes your product is an instrument, a means, for taking possession of my product and thus for satisfying your need; yet in my eyes it is the purpose of our exchange. For me, you are rather the means and instrument for producing this object that is my aim, just as conversely you stand in the same relationship to my object. But 1) each of us actually behaves in the way he is regarded by the other. You have actually made yourself the means, the instrument, the producer of your own object in order to gain possession of mine; 2) your own object is for you only the sensuously perceptible covering, the hidden shape, of my object; for its production signifies and seeks to express the acquisition of my object. In fact, therefore, you have become for yourself a means, an instrument of your object, of which your desire is the servant, and you have performed menial services in order that the object shall never again do a favour to your desire. If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship.

Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual objects. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value. (Marx)

Wage slavery, however, is only one aspect of labor. In the case of Mary MacLane, she created her own social value as a rebel, and sold her words and image to create a different sort of relationship, that of celebrity. But as that, she created a persona to be objectified, an object of exchange. The attempt to typify humans as productive instruments often presents a bleak view of human exchange, but Marx offers an alternative.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. (Marx)

This, I think, describes the craft dream of labour. The labor theory of value is also central to Anarchism, so this makes sense, given the faction of contemporary workers interested in it. But,  it also describes the dream of celebrity, wherein we are loved for an essentially constructed nature. The problem with celebrity is one of scale; only so many people can be famous, even in this age of being famous for being famous. Exchange value, however, is only one way of assigning value to labor.


Bakersfield, 1983 © Jeff Ward

Instrument has a variety of usages reaching back to the middle ages. I’ve been encountering it in Hannah Arendt and Frederick Engels as the compound “instruments of violence” and in Karl Marx as “instruments of production.” Other uses include “musical instruments” and “legal instruments” –the term has been around seemingly forever. Another somewhat unique usage was by Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s tale where he called the penis a “holy instrument” of generation. With a nod to John S. Hall, it seems to me that the overriding characteristic of most usages of instrument is that it is detachable from the human who employs it.

Musical instruments are of course one of the oldest types. The connotations are vast; these instruments are used to generate sounds, sounds that are within the grasp of human beings but always just outside of our control. There’s always the possibility of arbitrary accidents, slippages, wanted and unwanted resonances that simply can’t be completely predicted or controlled. When they work, whether in skilled or amateur hands, they produce sounds that can easily be identified as fundamentally productive, and yet through dissonance (intentional or unintentional) they provide a force that can disrupt and overthrow the status quo. The link between music and aggression is summoned at critical cultural moments, and besides its power to sooth and cajole, music also incites violence.

Frank Zappa once suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that in countries where beer consumption was high, nations were often warlike because they were susceptible to marching music.

I have a theory about beer: Consumption of it leads to pseudo-military behavior. Think about it — winos don’t march. Whiskey guys don’t march, either (sometimes they write poetry, which is often more horrible, though). . . .

Maybe there’s a chemical in beer that stimulates the [male] brain to do violence while moving in the same direction as other guys who smell like them [marching]“We, as a group of MEN, will drink this refreshing liquid, after which we will get together and beat the snot out of that guy over there.”

(Real Frank Zappa Book)

Wine drinking countries are more associated with love songs. It’s not really a stretch to say that popular music is almost always tied to, as Chaucer might put it, “the holy instruments of generation.”

The detachable nature of instruments is perhaps best illustrated by the usage of legal instruments, which  are just as old as musical ones. A writ, or a warrant carries with it the force of authority granted by law, codes which have been separated from individual human judgement. It amounts to an order, and can be directed by nobody, as evident in a building code. Laws, of course, can be arbitrary and have unintended as well as intended consequences. They can promote productivity, of course, but they can also incite violence. It’s worth noting that the production of the instruments of violence (guns, bombs, etc) is referred to manufacturing ordinance. Ordinance, of course, shares its root with ordain, that is, to issue a ruling.

The point I’m getting at is that all instruments have the potential for generative or destructive usage, and all instruments have an arbitrary and uncontrollable quality which always seem just outside of human control. That may be because they are by definition detachable from humans, and as John S. Hall, referenced earlier, suggests– they can be lost.

But there is one usage of the term “instrument” which doesn’t fit the detachable thesis. Also in use since the Middle Ages: a person may be described as an instrument of destruction; initially, this appears when writing about a murder or killing, but in contemporary usage this usage is probably best labeled as metaphorical rather than actual. People, knowingly or unknowingly, enter into causal chains (generally involving other, detachable instruments) that bring about destruction.

In What Are People For Wendell Berry writes forcefully in an essay called “Damage” of his attempt to put a pond on his property. He sought advice, and hired a bulldozer to dig one in a plateau nestled in a hillside. Everything went well at first, but then after an extremely wet fall and winter a slice of the forest above his pond broke free and slid into it. He had destabilized the hillside, despite the best advice and intentions, and was now forced to live with the scar on the land he had created. He invokes the proverbs of hell from William Blake:

“You can never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation can permanently destroy the route.

The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.

Blake gives the just proportion in another proverb: “No man soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.

No thought or word called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect– and so to describe the limits of what can be done without damage.

The use only of our bodies for work or for love or pleasure or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture— such as I was when I made my pond— is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.

Berry is in line with Engels in thinking that in order to do violence, man requires detachable instruments. There’s another discussion of pond construction that bears mentioning here, which involves instruments of a different category.

In a chapter of Cræft: an Inquiry into the Origins and Meanings of Traditional Crafts Alexander Langlands describes pond construction, both his own attempts and the archeological evidence regarding a particular pond the Oxna Mere. It is situated within a series neolithic clay ponds in Wessex, along well worn migratory routes. the consensus is that these ponds were human made, using livestock. It’s short sighted to think that all extensions of human strength are recent developments in the construction of mechanisms, or that instruments began in the industrial age.

Langlands attempted to work backward from the ethnography of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century pond practices to determine how these ponds were built and maintained. Clay is a porous material, and in order to make them hold water it was longstanding practice to drive herds of animals across the area to compact the clay to make it hold water. Obviously, there’s a lot of technique/craft involved. Why does this matter? As Langlands argues:

The implications of using puddled chalk were important to me in the context of the Oxna Mere. Ultimately, its significance lay in the simple revelation that if you had the knowledge and the skill to puddle chalk, you could create a watering hole using materials sourced entirely from the hilltop. In turn, this facility would make an important contribution to the methods of husbandry used by valley community in that it enabled them to exploit valuable resources of summer grazing in a more effective manner. This is the kind of thing I get excited about: resourcefulness on a level almost inconceivable to the post-industrial pond maker whose favored materials were concrete and asphalt. (250)

What seems to be at work here is the use of animals as instruments in a way inconceivable to us now; we think of them solely as raw material.  They fit the parameters I was looking at earlier. They are arbitrary and frequently outside human control, capable of both generative and destructive aspects. And yet they have been successfully operating in concert with human beings assuring our mutual survival; without herd animals we wouldn’t survive, and with our coordination in the construction of ponds in the neolithic period, they also thrived and multiplied.

If we admit the possibility of a living instrument, there’s another aspect consider. Marx offers another paradigm for instruments. His class theory (and theory of alienation) presumes that man himself can be transformed into an instrument.

Savage Aesthetics

One passage in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) has haunted me since I read it. The protagonist is navigating the Thames river and passes through an old style pound lock and wonders why the centuries old technology is still in use. In this pastoral vision of the future, the answer he’s given is this:

‘You see, guest, this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us, and we are now content to use such of its inventions that we find handy, and leaving those alone which we don’t want. I believe, as a matter of fact, that some time ago (I can give you a date) some elaborate machinery was used for the locks, though people did not go so far as to try to make the water run uphill. However, it was troublesome, I suppose, and the simple hatches, and the gates, with a big counterpoising beam, were found to answer every purpose, and were easily mended when wanted with materials always at hand, so here they are, as you see.’

‘Besides, said Dick, ‘this kind of lock is pretty, as you can see; and I can’t help thinking that your machine-lock, winding up like a watch, would have been ugly and would have spoiled the look of the river: and that is surely reason enough for keeping such locks as these. (192, Penguin Classic ed. 1993)

Today, our aesthetic choices might be different. I remember a story not long ago about some of the locks on the Erie Canal still using electrical equipment well over a hundred years old. It looks quite pretty to modern eyes. What makes one technology good and another not worth using? For Morris, it seems, it was a question of looks.


Trying to figure out the clearest take away from Typee (1846), Melville’s narrative about his time among the “savages” of the Marquesa Islands, it’s hard to shake the closing anxiety Melville faced at the prospect of having his face tattooed. This was long before Adolph Loos proclaimed ornament is a crime using tattooing as his benchmark for savagery; indeed, Melville seems to show great admiration of the natives and their technologies (especially food technologies) through the book. But having his face tattooed? That was a bridge too far— he could never return to polite society if he allowed this. His choice to leave centered on aesthetics.

While he lived with the Typee, Melville was frequently in awe of their way of life; in fact, the book represents to me a powerful allegorical (and direct) questioning of the nature and bounds of civilization:

As I extend my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the advantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Terra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom so many of the ills and pains of life— what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may “cultivate his mind,”—may “elevate his thoughts,”—these, I believe are the established phrases—but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer that question. (149, Library of America ed.)

The facile answer regarding civilization and technology (as alluded to here) is that technology frequently can better our lot in life by alleviating our pains and wants; if there’s no need of this, then what other benefits does civilization accrue? Not many, when it comes to the islands of Hawaii, as Melville rightly states. The population was decimated, and was still being decimated at the time that he composed this. In the United States, the same thing was happening to the Native Americans, particularly in California. The “voluptuous natives” of the Pacific Coast were among the most devastated by the encroachment of so-called civilization. Those who needed it least, suffered the most at its hands.

This passage is not an isolated reflection, but to be balanced in discussing the book it is not entirely a political diatribe (one of the only books of Melville’s to be censored and  modified for the US audience), but also a titillating exercise in voyeurism, “a peep” at Polynesian life as the title states:

I happened to pop in on Mehevi three or four times when he was romping—in a most undignified manner for a warrior king—with one of the prettiest little witches in the valley. She lived with an old woman and a young man, in a house near Marheyo’s; and though appearance a mere child herself, had a noble boy about a year old, who bore a marvelous resemblance to Mehevi, whom I should certainly have believed to be the father, where it not that the little fellow had no triangle on his face—but on second thoughts, tattooing is not hereditary. Mehevi, however, was not the only person upon whom the damsel Monotony smiled—the young fellow of fifteen, who permanently resided in the house with her, was decidedly in her good graces. I sometimes beheld both him and the chief making love at the same time. (224)

The explanation that Melville unfolds is that this is a polygamous society where women are allowed to take several husbands. Women’s issues frequently surface in the book, particularly taboos for women. They apparently weren’t allowed to ride in canoes, which Tommo (Melville’s alter ego in the book) fights and manages to overturn for his paramour, Faraway. Note however, the little joke about tattoos not being hereditary. Society, though inherited, doesn’t mark us quite that directly.

The sexual overtones of the book tend, in many critical accounts, overshadow several discussions of technology. For example, Melville’s description of his valet Kory Kory’s efforts to start a fire with a spinning stick is frequently summoned:

At first, Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their sockets with the violence of his exertions. This is the critical stage of the operation; all his previous labors are in vain if he cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant spark is produced. Suddenly he stops, becomes perfectly motionless. His hands still retain their hold of the smaller stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had just pierced through and through some little viper that was wriggling and wriggling to escape from his clutches. The next moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air, the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory almost breathless dismounts form his steed. (135)

I would to defy anyone to watch, for instance, a Massai tribesman perform this procedure and sexualize it the way that Melville, ever the bawdy sailor, has:

This, I think, is primarily Melville the showman doing his best to earn a living as a writer. The real meat of the scene occurs after the lascivious passage:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who  through the instrumentality of a lucifer, performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wits end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without ever troubling their parent, pluck from the branches of every tree around them. (136)

Note the description of Western fire starting as “the instrumentality of a lucifer” rather than a gift from Prometheus, which would apply to both indigenous and Western fire starting. What makes a good technology? A technology that solves our needs, I suspect, would be Melville’s answer. I find it interesting that with the proceeds from Typee, Melville bought a farm of sorts, perhaps so he could pick food from every tree around him.

His cautions against the incursions of imperialism and conversion, particularly conversion:

How little do some of these poor islanders comprehend when they look around them, that no inconsiderable part of their disasters originate in certain tea-party excitements, under the influence of benevolent looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit alms, and old ladies in spectacles, and young ladies in sober russet low gowns, contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, the object of which is to ameliorate the spiritual condition of the Polynesians, but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish their temporal destruction!

Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time shrinking the forms of its unhappy worshipers. (230)

Melville’s resistance to the “tea-party excitements” that surrounded polite western society chafed against Melville (see his reaction to Hungarian fund raisers a few years after), but he was not immune to the potential benefits of “civilization” as he knew it, particularly the benefits of technology. Given his later narratives regarding the whale oil trade, I found it interesting the way he painstakingly described the Polynesian technology for lighting the night:

At this supper we were listed by several of the native tapers, held in the hands of young girls. These tapers are most ingeniously made. There is a nut abounding in the valley, called by the Typees “armor,” closely resembling our common horse-chestnut. The shell is broken, and the contents are extracted whole. Any number of these are strung at pleasure upon the long elastic fibre that traverses the branches of the cocoa-nut tree. Some of these tapers are eight to ten feet in length; but being perfectly flexible, one end is held in a coil while the other is lighted. The nut burns with a fitful bluish flame, and the oil that it contains is exhausted in about ten minutes. As one burns down, the next becomes ignited, and the ashes of the former are knocked into a cocoa-nut shell kept for the purpose. This primitive candle requires continual attention, and must be constantly held in the hand. The person so employed marks the lapse of time by the number of nuts consumed, which is easily learned by counting the bits of tap distributed at regular intervals along the string. (244)

Besides providing light, the apparatus, as designed is also a clock. There’s an obsessiveness about his technological descriptions which is fitting what Morris labeled as “the age of invention.”

Melville’s excitement about technology in Typee is closely matched by his interest in food and tattoos. In the next paragraph, he rails against sushi: “Raw fish! shall I ever forget my sensations when I first saw my island beauty devour one?” But, his aesthetic sense was not offended because she didn’t eat “vulgar-looking fishes: oh no; with her beautiful small hand she would clasp a delicate, little, golden-hued love of a fish, and eat it as elegantly as innocently as though it were a Naples biscuit” (245).  If things are pretty, then they are okay. This jibes with Morris’s attitudes towards technology perfectly: only beautiful technologies— or foods— should be celebrated.

There is of course a lot more to say about the book, but I must press on to its sequel Omoo.

Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.


The_Plumbers_Trade_Journal-88It would be quite easy to imagine our century without carpenters; we would simply use iron furniture. We could just as well without the stonemason; the cement worker would take over his work. But there would be no nineteenth century without the plumber. He has left his mark and become indispensable to us.

We think that we have to give him a French name. We call him the installateur. This is wrong. For this man is the pillar of the Germanic idea of culture. The English were the keepers and protectors of this culture and therefore deserve to take precedence when we are looking for a name for this man. Besides, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin—plumbum means “lead”—and thus for the English as well as for us not a foreign word, but a borrowed word.

For a century and a half now we have been receiving our culture secondhand from the French. We have never rebelled against against the leadership of the French. Now that we realize that we have been duped by the French, now that we realize that the English have been leading the French around by the nose for a long time, we are setting up a front of German culture against the English. We do not mind being guided by the French; it was very pleasant. But the thought that the English are really the leaders—that makes us nervous. (Neue Freie Presse July 17, 1898 p.45)

There are two major themes in most of the writing of the gilded age that never cease to astonish me: a belief in the transformative power of technology (for both good and ill), and fervent concerns about nationalism. That is one of the reasons that I have re-checked Spoken into the Void by Adolf Loos about four times now. The architectural library keeps it on a short leash. But I press on, attempting to extract as much as I can without simply copying the essays. There’s a lot of cultural context that is complicated to unpack.

The current cultural obsession with foreign manners, e.g. Downton Abbey, is nothing new. Adolf Loos was on it:

. . .The Englishman is unacquainted with the fear of getting dirty. He goes into the stable, strokes his horse, mounts it, and takes off across the wide heath. The Englishman does everything himself; he hunts, he climbs mountains, and he saws up trees. He gets no pleasure out of being a spectator. . . .Charles VI would never have been allowed to climb to the top of mountains like a simple hunter! He would have had to be carried up in a sedan chair—if, that is, he had ever expressed what would have been a strange desire for the times. (45-46)


It’s hard, as a modern American, to realize that sorting things out into national identities was a way to make sense of the complex web of customs of diverse ethnic groups. Stereotyping is the gateway to classification.

It’s not necessarily prejudice, but rather a strategy of sorting by habitus, as Bourdieu would say—habits of consumption are culturally, economically, and temporally situated.

In such times the plumbers had nothing to do and lost their name. Of course there were water supply systems, water for fountains, water for looking at. But baths, showers, and water closets were not provided. Water for washing was very sparingly rationed. In German villages that preserve the Roman culture, you can still today find washbasins that we Anglicized city dwellers wouldn’t know how to begin to use. It was not always like this. Germany was famous for its water use in the Middle Ages. The great public baths (of which the so-called bader, the barber, is the sole vestige of today) were always crowded, and everyone took at least one bath a day.

Jakob Fugger and Sibylle Artzt (Hans Burgkmair the Elder - 1498)
Jakob Fugger and Sibylle Artzt (Hans Burgkmair the Elder – 1498)

Although they are generally no baths to be found in the later royal palaces, in the house of the German burgher the bathroom was the most splendid and sumptuous room. Who has not heard of the famous bathrooms of the Fugger house in Augsburg, that crowning jewel of the German Renaissance! When the German view of the world was standard, it wasn’t only Germans who indulged in sport, amusement, and hunting. (46)

This is the first time I’ve met the Fuggers. It’s was a big surprise that they, beyond being bathers, were also the developers of the first public housing projects in the Renaissance, the Fuggerei.

View into the Herrengasse of the Fuggerei.
View into the Herrengasse of the Fuggerei.

By 1523, Jakob Fugger built 52 houses for laborers, charging them only one symbolic guilder per year (about 88 cents) and three prayers a day. It still, apparently provides exactly the same sort of deal, though the rent has gone up to $1.20 per year. But, back to the Fuggerhäus bathroom. After much deep digging, I located an engraving from the 1880s:

Fuggerhäus Badezimmer

As I previously explored,  English royalty beginning with Eleanor of Castile had baths in their residences. Though Germans royalty apparently lacked this innovation, German burghers did not—and of course, they were grand. The mass of the German people however, were missing out according to Loos:

We have remained backward. Some time ago I asked an American lady what seemed to her to be the most noticeable difference between Austria and America. Her answer: the plumbing! The sanitary installations, heating, lighting, and water supply systems. Our taps, sinks, water closets, washstands, and other things are still far inferior to English and American fittings. What must seem most remarkable to an American is that in order to wash our hands, we must first go down the hall for a jug of water since there are toilets that do not have washing facilities. In this respect, America is to Austria as Austria is to China. It will be objected that we too already have such accommodations. Certainly, but not everywhere. Even in China there is English plumbing, for the wealthy and for foreigners. But the majority of people haven’t heard of it. (46)

There is much evidence that most of the reformation in design apparent as we turned from the nineteenth to the twentieth century revolves around improving the conditions for everyone. The Swedish propaganda from the 1939 World’s fair continues that trend. What to do about the great unwashed? Of course, for Loos, we must look to America:

A home without a room for bathing? Impossible in America. The thought that at the end of the nineteenth century there is still a nation with a population of millions whose inhabitants cannot bathe daily seems atrocious to an American. Thus even in the poorest sections of New York it is impossible to find dormitory accommodations for ten cents which are cleaner and more pleasant than our village inns. This is why there is only a single waiting room for all classes in America, since even in the largest crowd the slightest odor is not noticeable. (46)

Note that the English bath device is named for an American location.

. . .The state does have a certain interest in increasing the desire for cleanliness in its people. For only that people which approaches the English in water use can keep step with them economically; only that people which surpasses the English in water use is destined to wrest from them the sovereignty of the world. (49)

The Germans just called it a wave bath—advertisement from Neue Freie Presse, August 29. 1898

But the plumber is the pioneer of cleanliness. He is the state’s chief craftsman, the quartermaster of culture, that is, of today’s prevailing culture. Every English washbasin with a spigot and drain is a marvel of progress. Every stove with its fittings for frying and roasting meat over an open flame is a new victory of the German spirit. Such a revolution is also apparent on Viennese menus. The consumption of roast beef, grilled steaks, and cutlets increases constantly, while that of weiner schnitzel and roast chicken (those Italian dishes), as well as of stewed, boiled, and steamed French specialties constantly decreases.

When I first started exploring Loos, I noted that the Germans, Hermann Muthesius specifically, of the late nineteenth century were strangely obsessed with roast meats. Now it seems that this drive is also partly technological. Being able to cook meat indoors altered menus. Despite the improvement in palates, the plumber was falling prey to the bad taste so common among the masses: these new indoor fittings were being decorated in ways that offended Loos’s functional sensibilities:

Even those good folk who still see things from the Indian point of view (as everyone knows, the Indian decorated everything he could lay his hands on) are well provided for. There are Rococo flush valves, Rococo taps, even Rococo washstands. It is truly lucky that a few firms also undertake to provide for the non-Indians. Thus, at M. Steiner’s we see excellent American style overhead showers, a new invention, all smooth and thus very elegant. H. Esders produces fixtures that are efficient and correct in both form and color. It is worth mentioning from a purely technical point of view that the continued use of the crank valve in plumbing can no longer be justified. It is old hat, an old hat that ought to be thrown away. . . .(49)

Ever the master of the clever transition, the next article Loos published was on hats. But I’ve got a few more thought-beads that I need to string together before I get to that.

Home bathing (1900s), by Kusakabe Kimbei
Home bathing (1900s), by Kusakabe Kimbei

An increase in the use of water is one of our most critical tasks. May our Viennese plumbers fulfill their task and bring us closer to that most important goal, the attainment of a cultural level equal to the rest of the civilized Western world. For otherwise, something very unpleasant, very shameful could happen to us. Otherwise, if both nations continue to progress at their present rate, the Japanese could attain Germanic culture before the Austrians do. (49)


As a sidebar, I was very much taken by this English campaign shower. You need to keep it clean while you’re out conquering the world.80482-1

Domestic Sanitary Regulation, John Leech 1851. In this scene, the shower is installed in the kitchen. The children are wearing the conical caps to protect their hair as they wait their turn wearing blankets, jackets or robes.
Domestic Sanitary Regulation, John Leech (Punch, 1851). In this scene, the shower is installed in the kitchen. The children are wearing the conical caps to protect their hair as they wait their turn wearing blankets, jackets or robes.

The Luxury Vehicle

H. T. Alken – 1831 caricature

Adolf Loos’s article “The Luxury Vehicle” from Neue Freie Presse, July 3, 1898 begins with an excursus on the joys of driving: “Of course, just driving itself is enough to delight the English. In their hearts and souls, they still have the poetry of the country road” (Spoken into the Void, p. 39)Of course, he’s speaking of a horse drawn carriage, but all the same has interesting thoughts on technology, craft, and of course, ornament.

As is typical, he uses the English and the Americans to point out deficiencies in the Austrian character:

In the last century we believed that the plains were beautiful and the mountains abhorrent. Has it hurt us that we have left behind this childish fear of the mountains and taken over from the English the love for the high ranges? But the English meant not just to have a platonic relationship with the mountains. They did not remain down in the valley staring up at the soaring pinnacles, but climbed up them, in spite of the headshaking of the Germans, who were astounded at the “crazy” English. And today? Have we not all become English?

If we have convinced ourselves of the poetry of the mountains, we will probably soon enjoy the beauty of the country road as well. Our carriage industry is ready. It has been on par with the English for quite a time now. There is no need for our manufacturers to  do themselves even the slightest violence. What they find beautiful is considered beautiful by the English coachbuilder as well, so it is difficult to to discover any significant differences between the English and the Viennese coaches. The Englishmen and the man from Vienna have only one ambition: to build elegant coaches. And both come up with the same results.

He who is a true German arts and crafts worker will take issue strongly with these results. “One again sees here,” the man will figure, “that the English have no taste. And the Viennese do not have any either.” He will think melancholy thoughts about elegant coaches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their glistening splendor, their rich decoration, and their shiny gilding. Yes, if only some manufacturer would call on him. But no, even the most tasteless junk pleases these people and their customers. This is how the old-timer thinks. But the young craftsman, with his head full of ornaments on paper (he calls the paper his “studio”), would most dearly like to give the coach a “modern” decor and set ornament loose on the unfortunate vehicle.

But the coachbuilder says to both of them, “Just what is the matter with you? The coach is fine as it is.” “But it has no ornament.” Both show him their designs, the coachbuilder laughs and replies, “I really like my own coach better.” Well, tell us why!” “Because it has no ornament.” (ibid, 40)

Loos turns quickly to make the same argument found in “Ornament and Crime” that ornament is a sign of primitivism, and further: “To seek beauty only in form and not in ornament is the goal toward which all humanity is striving,” footnoted as being “the first battle cry against ornament” (1931).  Though Loos is quick to criticise the historicism emerging from the Austrian Museum and arts and crafts associations, he does seek to promote the importance of establishing schools dedicated to utilitarian pursuits:

. . .For in all the professional schools the crafts are reduced to the level of the Indians. But in fact one branch of the coach industry had great need, and still has, of a professional school. The architect could not have spoiled anything here, because they would have no use for him. I am speaking of the heavy vehicle industry.

Crown Carriage Works, 1903
Crown Carriage Works, 1903

The heavy vehicle industry in other countries has reached a level to which our own has not even approached. Unfortunately our contractors were not required to be concerned about improvements. All improvements and modifications were dictated by one desire only: to reduce the number of workers necessary to load and unload. But in Austria the cost of human labor is still so low that there is no cause for concern about such things. If a stone of four cubic meters has to be picked up, there are at least twenty men involved in the task. The same maneuver is carried out in unloading it. The cost is “not worth mentioning.”

But it is different in America. There the driver pulls up, makes a slight movement with his hand that does not tax him in the least and which lasts at most for three minutes, and then drives away. And the stone? It is already in the cart. It is unloaded in exactly the same way. The whole secret of the procedure lies in the ingenious construction of the cart. It is transported not in the cart, but underneath it, suspended approximately thirty centimeters above the ground. The driver pulls up over the stone that is to be loaded, raises it a bit to slip chains under it, and then turns a crank, which lifts the stone. And thus for everything, or coal and for plate glass used in large display windows, a special cart is built. Here a school might help us break with the old, worn-out methods. We need such a school the way one needs a morsel of bread—therefore we shall probably have to wait a pretty long time for it. (42)

Loos goes on in the remainder of the article reviewing luxury coach designs, describing the necessity for modifications due to the introduction of the leaf (“C”) spring. Technology—rather than any historical sense of ornament— should guide coach design. He closes with a dig against the Americans, and a bit of a racial slur:

The Nesseldorfer Society has represented itself especially well with its charabanc hunting coach of light wood and pigskin. A charming effect. J. Weigel exhibits an American buggy that is done so well that one would be hard put to find as perfect a one even in its own native land. But in general I would like to caution against the most recent “advances” of the American carriage-building industry. Technically, they are certainly unrivaled. But there are often mistakes in the form. For example, they are now beginning over there to adorn their carriages with unfortunate acanthus leaves. That’s the Indian in them. (43)

Interestingly, the only reference to acanthus leaves  in American cars (obviously a different matter from carriages, but Loos is writing on the cusp of the changeover) that turned up immediately was on the Franklin Brougham:


The body is built with slanting V-front, which removes all obstruction from straight-ahead vision and reduces wind resistance in fast driving.

Interior appointments consist of Perfection window regulators, grab handles and double pull levers on doors, hat and luggage rack, coat hooks, dome and corner reading lights in tinted glass, step lights, robe cords, silk shades and draped curtains, ladies’ companion, men’s smoking set with cigar lighter, flower holder, mahogany tray with ash receivers. The rear hamper accommodates suit cases.

Upholstering material is neutral green, low-napped Edredon, applied in English straight plaits. Interior metal parts have dull platinum finish, with acanthus leaf etching. (1918)

The amusing thing to me is both that Franklin was headquartered in Syracuse, NY. Years ago, just out of high school, I photographed a Franklin repair shop in downtown Bakersfield, CA. Who knew I’d end up here. Those Syracuse barbarians with their acanthus leaves on carriages!

But even more intriguing to me was the description  of the lifting truck in the prior passage. It sent me scrambling to try to locate any sort of vehicle of this description available in late 19th century America, in vain. Along the way I found out that Autocar, the oldest functioning manufacturer of trucks in North America built its first truck near Philadelphia in 1899, just a year after this article. It makes sense that Loos would know about transportation in America, given his visits with his brother there in the 1890s.

BrockwayContinuing to dig, I found that just to the south of me in Homer and Cortland, New York, Brockway trucks grew out of a carriage works that had been functioning down there since 1851.This was incredibly familiar. I had driven past, and photographed, the “future site of the Brockway truck museum” several times in the past few years. It’s in Homer, just down the street from one of my favorite places from this area, the “unroom.”



In 1873 Brockway rented a small shop in Homer’s Mechanics’ Hall, a communal structure located at the corner of Cayuga and Main streets where individuals pursued their hobbies and vocations. William learned the nuts and bolts of vehicle construction, which culminated in his 1874 purchase of the Sticker, Hobert & Jones carriage works whose 2-story wooden manufactory at 121 South Main St. was  located across the street from the village foundry.

Brockway’s initial interest in acquiring the recently defunct carriage works was to acquire its woodworking equipment but several months later he began the manufacture of platform spring wagons, constructing a reported 50 spring wagons and 50 buggies during 1875, its first full year of operation. (Coincidentally John Sticker later served as Brockway’s southern sale representative until his death in 1911). Although none of Brockway’s subsequent warerooms, manufactories or factory buildings remain standing, his original 121 South Main Street manufactory still stands – albeit in a rather unflattering condition (the building with the UNROOM sign). [source]

You never know, when you start researching odd topics, where you’ll end up driving to in the end. Like the English, I find driving to be delightful.

Flashing cow
Belmont Travel Center, Belmont WI, 2010