Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An ossifiant theory of progress - John Ruskin and a classroom failure

I introduced John Ruskin into my class in the role of a non-Marxist critic of capitalism.  We read about Utopian Socialists like Owen and Fourier, but I wanted to give the students a taste of another tradition, the British medievalism of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and William Morris.  A key consideration: these men were good writers.  I have my doubts about those Utopian Socialists.

A brief look at Past and Present (1842), Carlyle's essential Condition-of-England fantasy, left me looking for alternatives.  It was all so Carlylean.  Too dense, too weird, too distracting.  An essential caveat here is that I don't know what I'm doing.  I needed something easier to swallow. 

So I assigned the first chapter or essay of Unto This Last (1860), one of Ruskin's assaults on the notion of economic man.  There's Ruskin, to the left, as painted by Millais.  My students found Ruskin frustrating, as they should have.  Unlike Marx, Ruskin had no system.  His insights come in sudden leaps.  He argues poetically, or by metaphor, or, most irritating to me, by etymology.  He knew how things ought to be.  For example, everything, including, especially, labor, should be priced at its moral value.  Ruskin is sure he knows what that means.  I am sure I do not.

I also do not know how Ruskin, or Marx, or other enthusiasts of the idea, was so sure that the medieval stone-carvers of Venice were not alienated from their labor.  I have no doubt that many led deeply fulfilled, creative lives.  Ruskin is sure that they all did, and that you would, too.  I'm afraid, though, that I think of restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction as human rather than capitalist problems, and have trouble pinning all of the blame on the division of labor.  Perhaps this is why I taught Ruskin so badly.

I did get a rise out of the students by briefly pushing on to William Morris and then linking the whole tradition to Tolkien and his hobbits.  That's what they'll take away - Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris are old English men who want us all to live in the Shire.  Well done, Herr Professor Doktor.

Ruskin is such a good writer.  The skeleton metaphor, for example in Essay I.  Ruskin imagines a "science of gymnastics" that assumes that humans do not have skeletons:

It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables;* and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability.  Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis.

He could have stopped there, but, no, he advances a step:

Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death's-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.

I love that sarcastic dig at the end, and the whole structre of mock-pompous Latinisms.  But if I ever teach the subject again, I'll going to switch toWilliam Morris, "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" (1886), which I have not read, so it will hardly solve the incompetence inexperience problem, but will at least allow me to fail in a new and productive way.

*  It would be advantageous to roll the students into pellets, sometimes.


  1. I have a friend who shares Ruskin's absolute and unbending assurance that the medieval European artisans were not alienated from their labor, but found universal fulfillment in their lives. One simply cannot reason with the man. Makes me practically break out in hives every time similar concepts come up. (I should add, he's delightful & intelligent about almost everything else, but good grief.)

  2. This sounds fascinating. I wish I was in your class


  3. Hannah - I know some people who would trade with you. But thanks!

    I'm with you, Emily, I'm with you.

  4. Carlyle was a Scot not an "old English [man]".

  5. No kidding, thanks a lot, I had no idea, how very helpful, and more sarcasm.