Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Gothic Critique of Modernity

I’m lecturing on Ruskin, Turner, and the Preraphaelites, along with Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement this week, and it seems time for a defense of what I have come to call the “Gothic critique of modernity.” This was actually dreamed up as a subtitle for my never-to-be dissertation, “Medievalism, Art, and Technology”—although I’d have also added “William Morris and” to it once I began to focus on his work and how it influenced later writers like Henry Adams and Lewis Mumford.

Instead of writing a book, however, I now devote a segment of my History of Art and Design II class to a discussion of the implications of medievalism for the development of modern art in Europe, and later in America. I begin with a reprise of the problem of Turner (whom I’ve already discussed in the previous class as a bridge between Romanticism and Impressionism), using his paintings of the burning of the Houses of Parliament to introduce the Gothic Revival, and Ruskin’s defense of Turner to connect the similar defense of the Preraphaelites. Into the mix go Carlyle and Pugin, and everyone always wonders why these guys were so fascinated by an era that produced the Black Death and immutable social hierarchies (they seem to forget about illuminated manuscripts and Gothic cathedrals momentarily; that was last quarter, after all). They’ve also apparently never heard of Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” either, being much to young to have seen Chariots of Fire and thus not remembering the lovely rendition of “Jerusalem” used in the film.

This attitude seems to support my “veils of technology” theory (significant portions of which I probably stole from Gerald Holton, physicist, historian of science, and flat-out prophet). Almost every week in every class I encounter evidence that imagination today is wholly mediated by technological devices that increase the distance between human beings and the natural world. The thicker the veils, the greater the distance; they not only limit vision, but seem to extend from top to toe, insulating people from any immediate contact with anything that isn’t (in Wilhelm Dilthey’s words) “mind affected.” Just yesterday I watched a colleague slather on “hand sanitizer,” instead of running of to the Ladies to use water (made available through plumbing) and soap (machine-delivered). Much of this is further reinforced by the necessity of efficiency (it would be much less efficient to have bars of soap available next to faucets) and “the bottom line” (the porters would have to be paid more if it took longer to tidy up the loos). Having a bottle of hand-sanitizer handy probably also means that workers visit the facilities less often, and only for more urgent matters. Time on task, etc.

When I was younger, discussions of “labor-saving” devices were the staples of suburban cocktail party chatter. Or at least frequent feature articles in “Home” sections of newspapers made it sound as if this were the hot topic of the moment. Does a vacuum cleaner really make a housewife’s life easier? Does a steam iron lessen the onus of ironing day? Does an automatic washing machine and dryer leave time for a romance novel? These same feature sections now happily picture the latest versions of the same equipment, which prompt new questions: Does Martha Stewart really do her own house-cleaning, ironing, and washing using her state-of-the-art European vacuum cleaner (or is it Whole House vac?) in the beautifully-designed laundry facilities in each of her houses?

Picture this: A group of women gather up the week’s laundry (which doesn’t actually seem like a week’s because people actually wear clothes for more than one day, unless they fall while feeding the pigs) and collectively carry it to a communal trough, or down to the local river. They use washboards, brushes, and soap (made from fireplace ash and leftover animal fat) to scrub out stains and dirt, rinse it in the troughs (carrying dirty water over to garden plots) or in the river, and either hang the wash or lay it in the grass to dry. Their daughters and very young sons are with them, doing some of the work, listening to gossip, learning about laundry, being told stories, fishing in the river, being around adults. They’re out in the world, smelling, seeing, feeling, hearing, and none of this experience is masked by complex chemical concoctions, artificial perfumes, iPods, or camera phones.

I don’t mean to make this sound idyllic, but to me it almost does. I have lived in places where this scenario (or one close to it) was played out on a weekly basis (in rural Japan, in the post-war fifties, and in suburban Taipei in the sixties). Stateside, one grandmother owned the only washing machine in the neighborhood (an old Westinghouse wringer-job that was almost more trouble than it was worth), and three families did their washing on her back porch. My other grandmother owned a Laundromat in coastal Oregon, where the neighborhood did its wash, since nobody had room for a washing machine. In both of these cases, laundry was still a communal affair. Women would gather in the kitchen to talk, have coffee, sometimes bottle up the summer’s blackberries, and either hang the wash together, or take it home to hang. The café next to the Laundromat was the next best thing to a pub, and women would gather for coffee while the sheets and knickers spun in the machines, then carry home the wet wash to hang in the yard.

Nowadays, of course, we have our own private laundries in our homes, and we do it by ourselves. Women are no longer the sole practitioners of the science; in my house, my husband does a significant portion of the work—which is particularly welcome since he plays and coaches tennis in addition to teaching, and thus generates far more laundry than I do. I’m not sure how many men participate in this activity, but I suspect that they still lag behind women, so that it still falls within the traditional realm of women’s work.

For a long time I had no dryer, and one grandmother never did. To this day I still enjoy hanging out the wash whenever possible. The other grandmother's Laundromat eventually put in drying machines, and the clientèle gradually became more coeducational. Later, that grandmother sold the store and moved into a trailer park in Southern California, were they still did their laundry communally. But the rituals have since become more and more isolating and self-contained, and the wealthier one is, the further removed from the old scenario one becomes. I’m pretty sure that Martha’s maids and laundresses appreciate her fine facilities, and perhaps they get together for coffee during the breaks. But the community of women who once gathered by the stream has disappeared in the technologized West. And I’m not sure what we’ve gained except time—to spend on other technologically-imposed tasks.

Neither Carlyle nor Pugin, from what I can gather, gave a rat’s ass about how women did their laundry. Ruskin and Morris were actually concerned with all manner of work (although mostly men’s), and Morris even did some that was considered “women’s”—such as embroidery. And they all had servants to do the nasty bits. But all of these men saw in the Middle Ages some potential for a life richer than what was developing as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps only those who have lived on the shores of Love Canal, or along the Cuyahoga, or next to big nuclear facilities or industrial parks can really understand how the plague-ridden centuries before the Renaissance began to look good even to those who lived relatively well in the decades before the fin de siècle. It takes more effort than I care to admit to lift the veils, even for someone who didn’t live with a television set until 1962. And we’re now so blind to the consequences of unfettered technological acquisition that we can’t imagine life without it unless somebody writes an alternative into a science fiction novel.

My first thought experiment concerning technology started out with a question: What could we do without? In future posts, I’ll ruminate on the answers I came up with. But for now, I think it’s useful to consider the Gothic critique of modernity as just such a thought experiment. What if, mused Carlyle and Pugin and Ruskin and Morris, we had the will to resist the onslaught of technological innovation (steam engines, railroads, electricity), or at least to consider the consequences? What if we modeled possible results (they didn’t have computers, but they did have pubs, and that’s were the real philosophy had been done since the Enlightenment) and came up with alternatives? What if we examined the historical problems (disease, inequality, oppression) and used what we’ve learned to frame a different future that would incorporate what worked well (community, low environmental impact, artistic achievement)?

If we were to attempt what these men did, it would require a much greater effort, precisely because we are now so dependent on our technologies that the very idea of “losing” them throws us into paroxysms of post-apocalyptic angst. If all this went away, the new scenario goes, we would revert to mud-soaked, aristocracy-dominated, dreary, sunless, plague-ridden misery, just like those poor sods who succumbed to the Black Death and lived solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. Never mind that these same folk gave us illuminated manuscripts, Gothic cathedrals, Gregorian chant, guilds, and the longest period of religious cooperation in history during what Richard Rubenstein calls the Aristotelian Revolution (in his recent book, Aristotle’s Children). I don't think it takes too much foresight to suggest that we might now be standing on a precipice similar to that on which Morris and his ilk teetered, or upon which late Medieval scholars found themselves poised. However, if we choose to look forward without remembering what our intellectual ancestors faced, perhaps the doom-sayers will have got it right after all. The old saw about forgetting the past and repeating its mistakes always seems to prove itself true, and without becoming more mindful about our technological choices we only seem to be laying a path toward yet another collapse.

If it's any comfort, Morris seemed to remain optimistic about the future, and in his post-apocalyptic vision England had become, once again, a green and pleasant land.

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