After all the excitement... a pit stop on the superhighway

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One of the characteristics of the modern world is the feeling that all roads lead to the place where we are now standing. Ours is the most correct science, the most efficient technology and the most user-friendly form of government. But this picture is limited to the high road of civilised progress: it tells of great minds whose inspirations transcend their own circumstances to eventually influence the lives of future generations. Think of our own time and the peculiar magic associated with the figures of Marx, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. We take for granted that a power such as theirs rests purely in the mind, not the hand. But why are there no names among them which are famous for their physical dexterity, craftsmanship, and mastery of the materials at hand?

There's a simple answer to this question: no matter how lauded at the time, craftsmanship is a concrete virtue demonstrated through material objects that occupy a single location at any one time. Theoretical arguments, on the other hand, circulate readily through abstract media such as books, telephone and now internet. The audience for a museum cabinet seems tiny compared to the reach of a superhighway. This Xanadu of the information age promises to contain a world that flows constantly with image, sound and text -- but not things. As with most Faustian enterprises, we are left to wonder what might be the `long term implications' of this occlusion of the material world.

The following sample of quotes (from the high road) is offered as a space for thinking about this relationship between information and material objects as an opposition between knowledge and practical action. This is neither a definitive list, nor a substitute for the texts themselves, but a sample of ideas to kickstart a train of thought.


`wisdom must be the most precise and perfect form of knowledge'

Aristotle distinguishes wisdom (sophia) from its less noble partner, practical knowledge (phronesis).
Nichomachean Ethics 1141a, fourth century BC

`The letter kills, but the spirit gives life'

The early Christian writers break with the Hebraic authority of the written text and identify belief with the expression of inner feeling.
Corinthians II Bk6, first century AD

`to lift clay into the heavens is against nature'

The Neoplatonist writer Plotinus draws a link between the pure celestial world above and the inner self which must leave this world behind.
The Enneads Bk 2.3, 270 AD

`The being of spirit is a bone'

Neoplatonism is challenged by Hegel, who denounces the `beautiful soul' which `lives in dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action and an existence'.
Phenomenology of Spirit #658, 1807

`The worker feels most himself outside his work'

Karl Marx focuses on alienation as a condition of the capitalist system.
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts , 1844

`Labour is still, and ever will be, the inevitable price set upon everything which is valuable.'

Samuel Smiles' enormously popular life manuals celebrate British virtues of doing the job, not pondering the big questions.
Self-Help, 1859

`everything made by man's hands has a form'

William Morris heralds a reaction against the loss of craft skills brought about by industrialisation
On the Lesser Arts, 1878

`What can be shown, cannot be said.'

Ludwig Wittgenstein claims limits of philosophical knowledge in understanding the practical forms at its heart.
Tractatus Logicus 4.1212, 1921

`Everything became conceptual'

Marcel Duchamp declaims the dumb craft of painting.
The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, 1923

jewel

`Perhaps thinking too is just something like building a cabinet'

Martin Heidegger identifies with craft as a means of opening a space which is not wholly determined by a single essential meaning.
What is Called Thinking, 1952

`World-alienation is the hallmark of the modern era'

Hannah Arendt identifies philosophical problems with consumerism, including its lack of material substance and dissatisfaction with life.
The Human Condition, 1958

`There is nothing outside of the text'

Jacques Derrida reverses the secondary nature of writing (the letter) and orients it as prior to spoken meaning (the spirit).
Of Grammatology, 1967

`Scientific activity is not "about nature", it is a fierce fight to construct reality.'

Bruno Latour turns anthropology onto science and demonstrates the realpolitik of scientific illumination.
Laboratory Life with Steve Woolgar, 1979

`all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.'

Julia Kristeva takes psychoanalysis into the corporeal world and traces the Other to a lack within.
Powers of Horror, 1980

`matter as such has been demoted from its central role, to be replaced by concepts such as organisation, complexity and information.'

New Physics assimilates the communication age into an understanding of the universe.
Davies & Gribbon The Matter Myth, 1991

`Socratic illnesses'

Louis A. Sass uses schizophrenia as a means of analysing one of the features of modernism, i.e., its inability to think the limits of thought.
Madness and Modernism, 1992


What's particularly striking about this line of argument, threading its way through Aristotle's Lyceum to the laboratories of thought in our own time, is the gradual merger of the spiritual and material worlds. The metaphysical disdain towards this world by early Greek and Christian thinkers has been overcome today by a revelation of the limits of thought. Yet while meaning can be now seen as a material practice (of writing, pointing, manoeuvring, etc.), those practices themselves are abstracted from their immediate physical circumstances and represented in purely informational terms. This sleight of hand might seem obscure at first, but an issue close to home should make it clearer.

What has happened in our world such that craft is now taught in universities rather than workshops? Either craft has become more theoretical or universities have become more practical -- or perhaps a bit of both. This convergence of the low and the high road is a victory of technology over tradition: it is a victory of the modern way which aims to place everything on the same network rather than the way of the past which decrees a fundamental separation between sacred and profane, male and female, legislative and executive, master and servant.

One question for our own time is whether there has been something important lost in the merger of knowledge and action. This question applies not so much to the visual arts where the dominance of installation practice is in tune with an immaterial world. Craft practice, however, is still largely a matter of making objects. Unlike the visual arts (where successful practice is mostly a matter of `being informed'), to learn a craft today requires some mastery of elemental physical acts, such as turning, threading, cutting.

Prior to the modern age, these acts of craftsmanship were so common as to be unremarkable; today they are as rare as handwritten letters. Their challenge lies not as nostalgic gestures of a more human-centred world. They offer themselves today as renovated symbols for the poetics of making. It is not the divine knowledge of light that they enunciate -- of lightning flashes of divine revelation or internal light bulbs blinking with invention. They speak for the craftwork of living -- the rituals represented in everyday language as practical metaphors such as `building bridges', `cutting ties' and `cooking something up'.

Although most visitors will leave the Symmetry exhibition via the highway or main street, it might be worthwhile letting the mind wander along the back routes and think about where the crafts will situate themselves in an information age. As the trades professionalise and the professions computerise, is there a place for their kindred crafts? Will the virtual world maintain a material echo?


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Copyright 1995 Kevin Murray

Last modified 30 September 1995