Monday, February 25, 2008

Ruskin, Work, and 'The Nature of the Gothic'

One of the courses I'm teaching here in York is a delightful but admittedly idiosyncratic one entitled 'Victorian Britain and Postmodern Culture: Contemporary Medievalisms.' (The unofficial title is 'everything Jamie loves about 19th-century England.') One of the key figures who keeps confronting us is John Ruskin, whose own Fors Clavigera is the namesake for this little blog venture.

Today we're engaging Ruskin's classic essay, 'The Nature of the Gothic,' embedded in volume 2 of The Stones of Venice. One of the great pieces of 19th-century prose, it is also a powerful indictment of the mercantilism unleashed by the alchemy of Adam Smith's economics coupled with the Industrial Revolution. Here I provide just a few snippets to get a feel for Ruskin's still timely (more timely?) critique.

Ruskin emphasized that what distinguished Gothic architecture from earlier classical architecture, as well as later “industrial” building, was the freedom of the craftsman. Greek temples were built by slaves. The laborers were not properly craftsmen but rather human tools and machines. Thus classical architecture has a kind of pristine perfection about it that is artificial and mechanistic; it shows no stamp of individual artists. And this desire for a pristine perfection and uniformity is, in fact, a suppression of nature and individuality.
For Ruskin, the “modern” laborer was not qualitatively different. While not a “slave” in the traditional sense, he was still reduced to an unthinking machine. He put it this way:

“It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the national everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature themselves. Their universal outcry against wealth, against nobility, is not forced from them either by the pressure of famine, or the sting of mortified pride. These do much, and have done much in all ages; but the foundations of society were never yet shaken as they are at this day. It is not that mean are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure. It is not that mean are pained by the scorne of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men. Never had the upper classes so much sympathy with the lower, or charity for them, as they have at this day, and yet never were they so much hated by them: for, of old, the separation between the noble and the poor was merely a wall built by law; now it is a veritable difference in level of standing, a precipice between upper and lower grounds in the field of humanity, and there is pestilential air at the bottom of it.” (p. 161)

He continues with a rant on the so-called division of labor which was taken to be that great blessing to the British economy:

“We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men:--Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin[1] or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished,--sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is—we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,--that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages. And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads can be met only in one way: not by teaching or preaching, for to teach them is but to show them their misery, and to preach to them, if we do nothing more than preach, is to mock at it. It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.” (pp. 162-163).

So the “modern” pre-occupation for pristine perfection and exquisite finish is bought with a price: viz., the effective enslavement of the ‘divided’ labourer. But the Gothic—which is a distinctly Christian architectural grammar—rejects such slavery:

“But in the mediaeval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. […] Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her serve, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools or architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.” (pp. 157-158)

So to the so-called perfection of classical and modern architecture, Ruskin contrasts the beautiful imperfection of the Gothic:

“And on the other hand, go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in the scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.” (pp. 160-161)

These are just snippets, but they give you a sense of Ruskin’s trenchant critique of the shape of work in industrialized England. But this was not in the name of leisure, but rather in the name of “ennobling” work, rooting in a basic affirmation of labor. In fact, Ruskin instituted at Oxford what we would today describe as a service-learning program, where Oxford undergraduates would join him on work teams that built roads, etc. (In fact, Oscar Wilde would be a member of one of these work teams!)

[1] A shot at the oft-repeated example in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rowan Williams is Not a "Liberal"

One often finds the talking heads on the BBC and op-eds in various papers referring to the "sharia row" as another indication of Rowan Williams' "liberal" tendencies (surely one of the slipperiest and equivocal epithets we have in religious circles). But if one actually attends to his argument--and his corpus--I think one finds that Williams' is, in fact, a critic of liberalism. Indeed, the kernel of his argument at the Royal Courts of Justice was calling into question the liberal monopoly of identity that characterizes the (supposedly) "secular" state. One of the hallmarks of liberalism (fostered here in England, as well as the States, by John Locke) is a secularization of the "public" sphere of politics, economics, and the common good, along with a corresponding privatization of religious identity as an affair of the heart--a private and interior matter of one's "personal relationship" to God. In other words, religion is fine for the weekends, "if you're into that." But don't bring it to work. Don't let it affect how you function "in public." In short, you're welcome to let religion be one of your private pursuits, a kind of hobby. It's fine to let religion be "part" of who you are, but that religious faith can't shape or influence you in such a way that it would make a difference in how you pursue life in public.

But for any integral confession (whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim), such a liberal directive would amount to idolatry. God's election of a people in Abraham and the liberation of his people in the Exodus were not undertaken with the goal of creating a late modern hobby. It was divine action meant to constitute a people who pursue the kingdom of God as their highest and most fundamental vision of human flourishing. The Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection were not just the means for securing a weekend hobby for good liberal citizens; they called into being a cruciform people whose very identity is constituted by their calling to be image bearers of this humiliated God.

I hear in Williams' argument a refusal of these two aspects of liberalism: a "secular" democratic monopoly on identity along with its corresponding privatization (and therefore triviliazation) of religious faith. In short, the Archbishop is no "liberal."

Of course rejecting such liberalism does not thereby make him a "conservative" either (recall John Ruskin's rejection of such binary alternatives). In fact, many "conservatives" are all too happy to accommodate their faith to the shape of the secular state, retreating to some kind of a-political "Jesus-in-my-heart" privatism (which the state is all too happy to permit) and letting their identity as "British" (or "American," or whatever the case may be) trump their calling as Christians. In this respect, liberal and conservative Anglicans often exhibit the same patterns. [And for the record, I think Tariq Ramadan might just be a good "liberal" Muslim--but I'm suspending judgment on that until I can read more of his work, and have an opportunity to hear him here in York.]

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams, Sharia Law, and the End of the Liberal State: Take 2

The furor over Archbiship Rowan William's lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice has been fanned to the point of hysteria by a reactionary media and government. Some have even called for him to resign. Williams clearly underestimated what sort of beast "public perception" can be.

A few follow-up reflections:

1. The Archbishop has offered a concise clarification of just what he did and did not say; whether the talking heads have read this is another question.

2. It is interesting to note the vehemence of the reaction to the Archbishop's suggestion, particularly from Downing Street. The zealous opposition to anything that would compromise the supremacy of "British" law, along with an alarmist sense that this would be a threat to "Britishness," exhibits its own kind of religious fervor which confirms a working hypothesis: viz., that in the late-modern liberal state, it is the state which is religion. Indeed, having spent this past week considering the shape of the Roman empire in early England, one finds an interesting parallel: the Emperor was happy to allow for all kinds of religious plurality so long as it didn't interfere or compromise worship of Caesar. In an analogous way, the liberal state is happy to let many religions bloom so long as the state religion of the state is in no way challenged or compromised.

3. The core of Williams' argument was not about Islam or sharia law. His concern was much broader: namely, the shape, place, and priority of confessional identities in the late modern nation-state. While Islam and sharia was an extended example, the argument he was making applied to all sorts of confessional communities. Indeed, in the lecture he also mentioned the example of Catholic adoption agencies being able to opt out of the state's decision that same-sex couples could adopt. The sharia case obviously attracted the most attention, but then people end up focusing on the case or example rather than the argument.

4. What Williams' is grappling with is hardly unique to him, or England. In fact, I am very eager to see the fruit of a fascinating project commissioned by the government of Quebec: the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired by philosopher Charles Taylor. (Some might recall that a landmark book, Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition was a "Report on Knowledge" that was also commissioned by the Quebec Government). The mandate of the commission is precisely to explore what sorts of practices of "accommodation" can be made in order to create a culture that is both pluralist and cohesive. The driving question is whether secularism (as a feigned a-religiosity) is the only way to secure cohesion (witness recent tensions about the place of the Muslim headscarf in Turkish universities). Given Taylor's work, I suspect that the commission will look to creatively challenge such secularism. Rowan Williams lecture was hinting in the same direction, striking fear into the hearts of secularists and liberals everywhere.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Archbishop's Regensburg?

Things can get ugly when high-powered academic distinctions spill out from the faculty common room onto the pavement—or more particularly, when nuanced, complex, and erudite theological treatises are trimmed to bits and soundbites digestible by the frantic pace of the 24-hour news cycle.

Pope Benedict XVI learned this lesson the hard way last year in the infamous “Regensburg” incident regarding claims about Islam. It seems that Archbishop Williams may have met his own Regensburg-loo, so to speak, when he suggested the “inevitable” and even desirable role of sharia law in the British legal system.

Response—both official and public—was swift and strident, suggesting that the Archbishop was opening a Pandora’s box that would unleash all sorts of decidedly un-British spectacles, from polygamous harems to public floggings and beheadings. And that was just the BBC coverage!

The blame for the “sharia row” cuts both ways, I think. Like the Pope’s Regensburg experience, I suspect that the Archbishop, like so many of us academics, failed to gauge public reception of his claim—and also failed to realize that the details of his argument would never make it to the telly or tabloids. While scholars will lament the lack of attention to the context of the claim and details of the argument, the news media and proverbial “man on the street” will retort that he doesn’t enjoy the sort of leisure that scholars have to wallow in such details. Fair enough.

On the other hand, we can’t expect to conduct public debate about such complex issues with the limited lexicon of soundbites and slogans. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves and our common good to at least give the argument a hearing—to slow down just long enough to attend to the context, nuance, and complexity of the claim, rather than contenting ourselves with the inflammatory headline splashed alongside the teaser photo of the page 3 girl of the day.

In this specific case, the Archbishop is grappling with some of the most intractable issues in contemporary politics, reconsidering nothing less than the very shape of citizenship in our age of globalization and pluralism. These are also perennial issues, with a tradition of reflection going back to St. Augustine’s classic treatise, The City of God.

The challenge is simply this: what are we to do when individuals, and whole communities, find their identity in an allegiance that in some significant way exceeds their allegiance to a particular nation-state? Or what are we to do when the nation-state demands that it trump all other allegiances?

The Archbishop recognizes the complexity of our identity-formation. As he put it, “our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging.” That’s just to say that for many, our identity and even our citizenship is hybrid. For many—and certainly not just Muslims--our sense of who we are and what really matters is not something that can be dictated by Westminster. This is particularly true for religious believers such as Jews, Christians, and Muslims who all hold a kind of dual citizenship. (Other cases include the situation of Mormons in the United States or Sikhs in Canada.) For instance, as St. Augustine put it, the Christian is simultaneously a citizen of the earthly city and a citizen of the City of God.

This becomes an issue, the Archbishop rightly notes, “when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” It is this monopoly on the identity market that concerns the Archbishop. Such a monopoly trades variously under the banner of secularism and liberalism. In this respect (and to perhaps run a little too far with the metaphor), Williams’ argument calls for a kind of anti-trust law with respect to the state’s monopoly on our fundamental allegiances. He rightly appreciates that when the liberal state demands that it should trump all other allegiances, then it is demanding its own sort of religious devotion. But to the religious believer, to acquiesce to such demands—no matter how “secular” they claim to be—is nothing short of idolatry.

In contrast, I hear the Archbishop gesturing toward a post-liberal and post-secular account of the state which resists both monolithic hegemony and isolating tribalism. He is certainly not saying what the tabloids would lead us to believe. Perhaps he owes us a clearer, still digestible account; but we also owe it to ourselves to carefully consider his proposal. So be one of the few and read the entire speech here.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The (European) Empire Strikes Back

Despite all the talk of the United States as the latest stand-in for "empire," a fascinating article by Parag Khanna in this weekend's Guardian suggests that in fact it is Europe which has been slyly, quietly building an empire that is not only economic but territorial. In "The Empire Strikes Back," a snippet from his forthcoming book, The Second World: Empires and Influences in the New Global Order (due out March 4 in the States), Khanna suggests that "The EU is easily the most popular and successful empire in history, for it does not dominate, it disciplines." As he puts it,

For over half a century, European nations have been pooling their power, eventually giving small and shattered post-second world war countries a new lease on life. Though EU members remain distinct nations, their greater meaning now comes from being part of the world's only superstate. War between any two countries within the EU's dense institutional nexus has become impossible, and the promise of greater security and wealth has largely succeeded in aligning the foreign policies of its members. "Our biggest logistical exercise since the second world war was not military," an official in one of the EU's shiny, postmodern edifices boasted, "but the circulation of the euro currency in 2002."

Europe has its own vision of what world order should look like, which it increasingly pursues whether America likes it or not. The EU is now the most confident economic power in the world, regularly punishing the United States in trade disputes, while its superior commercial and environmental standards have assumed global leadership. Many Europeans view America's way of life as deeply corrupt, built on borrowed money, risky and heartless in its lack of social protections, and ecologically catastrophic. The EU is a far larger humanitarian aid donor than the US, while South America, east Asia and other regions prefer to emulate the "European Dream" than the American variant.

[Read the whole article.] Perhaps this explains why Tony Blair is angling to be the President of Europe.