The Really Precious Things


in The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey (ed.), 1999, pp. 246-248.

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was not only England’s greatest art critic, he was also a radical social thinker, vastly learned and fearlessly outspoken, who played a major part in shaping Victorian culture, and, consequently, in inaugurating the modern world. He championed Christian social values and bitterly denounced greed, self-interest and reductive scientism. The following extract is from the third volume of Modern Painters (1856).

The great mechanical impulses of the age, of which most of us are so proud, are a mere passing fever, half-speculative, half-childish. People will discover at last that royal roads to anything can no more be laid in iron than they can in dust; that there are, in fact, no royal roads to anywhere worth going to; that if there were, it would that instant cease to be worth going to — I mean, so far as the things to be obtained are in any way estimable in terms of price. For there are two classes of precious things in the world: those that God gives us for nothing — sun, air, and life (both mortal life and immortal); and the secondarily precious things which He gives us for a price: these secondarily precious things, worldly wine and milk, can only be bought for definite money; they never can be cheapened. No cheating nor bargaining will ever get a single thing out of nature’s ‘establishment’ at half-price. Do we want to be strong? — we must work. To be hungry? — we must starve. To be happy? — we must be kind. To be wise? — we must look and think. No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour, nor making of stuffs a thousand yards a minute, will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. And they will at last, and soon too, find out that their grand inventions for conquering (as they think) space and time, do, in reality, conquer nothing; for space and time are, in their own essence, unconquerable, and besides did not want any sort of conquering; they wanted using. A fool always wants to shorten space and time: a wise man wants to lengthen both. A fool wants to kill space and kill time: a wise man, first to gain them, then to animate them. Your railroad, when you come to understand it, is only a device for making the world smaller: and as for being able to talk from place to place, that is, indeed, well and convenient; but suppose you have, originally, nothing to say. We shall be obliged at last to confess, what we should long ago have known, that the really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he truly be a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

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Plastic wood paradise

On to one of my favorite subjects: robots. I read an article in The Atlantic the other day, “The Robots Are Coming, but Are They Really Taking Our Jobs?” and it made me think of something I read in the Faber Book of Utopias a while ago. File this under One Man’s Utopia is Kate’s Personal Hell:

Plastic-Wood Paradise (pp. 228-230)

In 1833 a German living in Pittsburg, John Adolphus Etzler, published A Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labor, By Powers of Nature and Machinery. Printed in the same volume were letters addressed to congress and to President Jackson, urging them to adopt his plan which would, he prophesied, transform the then wild and sparsely populated United States into a heaven-on-earth, attract millions of immigrants from Europe, and ensure America’s ‘unparalleled glory and dominion over the world.’

I promise to show the means for creating a paradise within ten years, where everything desirable for human life may be had for every man in superabundance, without labor, without pay; where the whole face of nature is changed into the most beautiful form of which it is capable; where man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinement of luxury, in the most delightful gardens; where he may accomplish, without his labour, in one year, more than hitherto could be done in thousands of years; he may level mountains, sink valley, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, intersect everywhere the land with beautiful canals, with roads for transporting heavy loads of many thousand tons and and travelling 1,000 miles in 24 hours; he may cover the ocean with floating islands moveable in any desired direction with immense power and celerity, in perfect security and in all comfort and luxury, bearing gardens, palaces, with thousands of families, provided with rivulets of sweet water; he may explore the interior of the globe, travel from pole to pole in a fortnight; he may provide himself with means, unheard of yet, for increasing his knowledge of the world, and so his intelligence; he may lead a life of continual happiness, of enjoyments unknown yet; he may free himself from almost all the evils that afflict mankind, except death, and even put death far beyond the common period of human life, and finally render it less afflicting; mankind may thus live in and enjoy a new world, far superior to our present, and raise themselves to a far higher scale of beings.

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Precarious work

What question(s) exactly am I trying to answer with my research? That should be a pretty obvious answer to know, but I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. I can tell you what my research is about, but not what questions it’s trying to answer. So I’m starting to ask myself. This week we’re in the third of six pre-doctoral seminars, this time with three guest professors from the CCW Graduate School at the University of the Arts London, and one of them during his opening presentation posed this question to us. So what am I asking?

One question I’m trying to answer is about precarity. The International Labor Office identifies some common characteristics of precarious work (but does not give an all-encompassing definition, since definitions vary across cultures and countries):

In the most general sense, precarious work is a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities on to workers. It is work performed in the formal and informal economy and is characterized by variable levels and degrees of objective (legal status) and subjective (feeling) characteristics of uncertainty and insecurity. Although a precarious job can have many faces, it is usually defined by uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively.

Workers on temporary contracts of various durations, be they directly employed or hired through an agency, may benefit from a job in the short term, but live with uncertainty as to whether their contract will be extended. Temporary contracts often also provide a lower wage, and do not always confer the same benefits, which often accrue with time and are directly linked to the length and status of the employment relationship. The result is a condition in which workers cannot plan for their future, and lack the security of certain forms of social protection.

Another core aspect of precarious work is the lack of clarity as to the identity of the employer. Recent decades have seen the fragmentation of what was once the vertically-integrated enterprise into more horizontal arrangements involving other entities such as subcontractors, franchisers and agencies. Legislation in general has not kept pace with these organizational changes, failing to differentiate between these complex multilateral relationships and the traditional simple bilateral relationship between a worker and an employer. Workers who are hired by an agency or subcontractor but who perform their duties in or for a separate user enterprise are in a precarious situation when it is unclear who of the two parties should be held responsible and accountable for the rights and benefits of a worker. Weak legislative frameworks and impotent enforcement mechanisms create a situation in which workers in triangular or disguised employment relationships have virtually no means of protecting their rights.

(Interesting to note that many employees of the ILO itself, the ones at a lower level, are in situations of precarious employment, being given short-term contracts of a few months or a year with no idea of whether that’s going to be extended.)

In my opinion there is precarity in all work. I remember having a small crisis of conscience back when I worked as a freelance book editor. I was working in-house at the time for a school book publisher, and had gotten interviews at two other publishers for a full-time staff position. Both interviews went well and I wound up getting offers from both (which I eventually turned down, for various reasons), but prior to getting the responses I was telling one of my co-workers at the freelance job that I felt a bit guilty even thinking about leaving for another job because we were in the middle of a project. She raised her eyebrows and said, “Kate, they can fire you whenever they want. And you can fire them. It goes both ways.” Then she told me a story about how she once had been hired as a graphic designer for another publisher and they agreed that she would start after she got back from her honeymoon, in mid September 2001. When she got back from her vacation she was told that her position, which she hadn’t even started, had been cut. So it really does go both ways.

Except, it kind of doesn’t. I could quit my job in an epic way and post the video on YouTube, and maybe that will feel marvelous, but then what? Will I find another job? Maybe, but capitalism relies on a certain amount of unemployment in order to continue functioning; otherwise, competition for work is reduced. So quitting one’s job without another one lined up is inherently risky. What safety net do we have?

On the other hand, becoming a homesteader — growing your own food, making your life’s necessities and comforts — is precarious in other ways. But is that any more precarious than relying on a paycheck and hopes for a strong economy?

One of our seminar’s guest speakers was Chris Wainwright, and when talking to him about my research he rightly pointed out that homesteading was more precarious in the sense that in the current context all odds are stacked against its long-term sustainability. Political opposition, economic opposition, social opposition. This is sadly true. I get excited reading about new generations of people taking an interest in organic farming, canning, traditional craft skills, etc., but for every person like that there are who knows how many more looking to flee the family farm. Chris talked about his visit to the Isle of Eigg, a Scottish island owned by its residents, where all power is from locally produced renewables and people grow their own food. My idea of utopia, but then he said the island has the same problem that so many other rural places have: flight of the youth. They see images of other ways of living on TV or online, and they want that. Why they want that is a whole other research project.

In the end, Chris’s input was that these sorts of experiments need to avoid the binary, avoid moving wholesale from World A to World B. If that happens, World A is always going to continue to be degenerate, and World B is always going to be the start-up utopian commune existing in isolation. There needs to be some kind of permeability between A and B (and C, D, E for that matter).

But can experiments in more sustainable, ecologically sound ways of living coexist with a toxic consumer culture? They must for the time being but at some point the balance needs to tip out of the favor of the track this world is on, or else what? That’s not an answer I want to think about right now. Which brings me to my discussion with one of the other guests, Neil Cummings, on why we’re more comfortable with doing historical research and thinking about the past than we are with thinking about the future. Yet more to ponder.

This was not one of my more optimistic days, but a helpful one anyway.

Nothing new under the sun

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Last night’s Plantopic screening of Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 is, in a word, depressing. It’s post-May ’68 and everyone is officially off the high that comes from the explosive hope abundant during times of progressive social movements. There’s no real linear plot or Hollywoodian driving force behind the action. The plot is instead structured more like a collage showing the interactions among four couples living in the Geneva area.

Two of the major conflicts presented in the storyline are 1) the issues faced by people who work in Geneva but live just over the border in France because there’s no work in France and no affordable housing in Geneva, and 2) the rampant land speculation/urban housing shortages in the Geneva area that play into the fact that it gets harder and harder to find and be able to afford decent housing. Luckily, we’ve moved on since the 1970s.

Ha! I kid! It’s worse.

Jonah, as they say, could have been filmed today. Change May ’68 to Occupy Wall Street and swap out some of the superfly turtlenecks and platforms and you’re good.

The conversations the Jonah characters had, the long and meandering debates, philosophizing, ranting — all of it pretty much sounded like the sorts of conversations my friends and I have on a regular basis. I am well aware that there’s nothing new about discussing the means of production, wealth inequality, environmental degradation, wage slavery, etc, but the situations and conversations in the film nevertheless had a pin in the balloon effect on me. The bad guys were doing the exact same thing they are doing today, and the little guys had the exact same anger and frustration, the same discussions, the same desperate searches for alternatives, and the same disillusionment and sense of hopelessness that so many utopian minds have today.

Les sentiers de l’utopie

Sharing a film here done by the art-activism collective Laboratory for Insurrectionary Imagination, a project of Isa Fremeaux and John Jordan. I did a weeklong cartography workshop with them last week that was occasionally surreal, hippie-fying, a profound learning experience, and the start of a beautiful continuation of collaboration with the other people in the group. Isa and John are lovely human beings. I’d like to go crash their farm-laboratory in Bretagne … and possibly never leave …………….

For non-French speakers, some of this is in English, as well as French and Spanish, but even if you can’t understand the words you can understand the images. Description of the film can be found here.

And here’s the film:

Part I

Part II