Monday, 9 May 2011


An essay I wrote (in imitation of certain art historians whose style I was at the time in love with) on Scholasticism and Aesthetics in the development and legacy of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Tutors were Irénée Scalbert and Dr Timothy Brittain Catlin.


Friday, 6 May 2011


^Glassblowing Workshop, Portland, Oregon (source)

“The substance of the routine may change, metamorphose, improve, but the emotional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm.”
-Richard Sennet, The Craftsman

Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman is a call to appreciate and value the kind of creative labor that once dominated in the craft trades, and which he points out is still alive and well in disciplines as varied as Linux code-writing and mobile-phone development.

Sennett does not advocate a return to an economy of pre-industrial manual work, instead he analyzes and explains how certain core elements, which were involved in these professions, made them intrinsically fulfilling and meaningful to those working within them. He explains that the distinction between conceptual inspiration and the act of making is an artificial, and recent one. It is a workplace separation that tends to generate an unhelpful stratification between ‘unskilled’ inflexible production lines, and ‘creative’ but unengaged researchers and developers.

Alternatively, Sennett suggests treating the act of making as a creative endeavor, where research, design and development can occur at the same time as developing the manufacturing process. This not only motivates the designer/maker to have a deep personal connection with the work, but opens up the possibility for mistakes, dead-ends, and tangential explorations within the framework of the process. These mistakes and dead-ends are positive inefficiencies which are necessary for the process to throw up unexpected opportunities and breakthroughs. And for these positive inefficiencies to occur, be understood, overcome and harnessed, there needs to be the space and time for the maker to repeat their process again and again, developing their own personal rhythm. In the same manner that pianists practice repeatedly, until the core skill of playing becomes instinctive, allowing them instead to focus on variations, emphasis and mood within each repetition, so the maker engages initially through repetition with the core skills of his process until they are second nature, by which time the act of repetition is thrown open to become an active field of experimentation, a generative rhythm—adaptive and evolving—of exploration and innovation.

It is when the repetition of work becomes the rhythm of craft that any form of labor can become creative, meaningful and fulfilling.

NB, this post was initially published in The BiBlog

Monday, 2 May 2011


^George Best with Miss World Mary Stavin. source

"Below is an extract from Chapter5 -Truth, Virtue and Objectivity- of Terry Eagleton's After Theory (I highly recommend it). Via the case of the footballer George Best, Eagleton puts forward an argument against judging the personal ethics and morality of one's trajectory in life through the lens of any form of goal-oriented, utility-driven set of values. As humans, we are not means to an end, unless death is our sole purpose in life, and, like Sennett in The Craftsman, he asks that we not only look ahead to results and achievements, but inwards to the process of life & living, crafting our actions and social relations to best fulfill and embody our values, and not just our desires.


"Take the well-known story about George Best, perhaps the finest footballer in history until alcoholism brought him low. Best the ex-footballer was lounging in a five-star hotel room surrounded by caviar and champagne, with a former Miss World lounging amorously beside him, when a member of the hotel staff entered, weighed down with yet more luxury goods. Gazing down at the supine star, he shook his head sadly and murmured: ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’

The joke, of course, is that one would hardly claim that life had gone wrong for a man with such a lavish lifestyle. This is how Best tells the story himself. Yet the hotel worker was right: Best’s life had gone wrong. He was not doing what it was in him to do. He was certainly enjoying himself, and might even in some sense have been happy; but he was not flourishing. He had failed at what he was supremely equipped to excel at. It is true that his life was probably more pleasurable than it had been in his footballing days, when he was constrained to break off nightclubbing from time to time in order to train. It is not that he had been happier as a footballer in the sense of enjoying himself more, though he managed to enjoy himself enough for a whole league of players even then. Nor is the point that his post-footballing lifestyle actually brought him a great amount of suffering, apparently confirming the evangelical view that the dissolute always get their comeuppance. It is rather that he had ceased to prosper. His life might have been happy in the sense of being opulent, contented and enjoyable, but it was not going anywhere. The casual greeting ‘How’s it going?’ suggests something morally significant. Best had come unstuck as a human being. Indeed, one suspects that he used to tell the story so gleefully partly as a way of disavowing the fact.

But where are human lives supposed to be going? They aren’t, after all, like buses or bicycle races; and the idea that life is a series of hurdles which you must leap in order to attain a goal is just the punitive puritan fantasy of scout masters, major-generals and corporation executives. What had come unstuck in Best’s life was not that he was no longer achieving, but that he was not fulfilling himself. It was not that he was no longer piling up goals, silver trophies and salary cheques, but that he was not living, if the pun may be excused, at his best. He was not being the kind of person he was able best to be. Indeed, he was actively out to destroy it. The post-footballing dissipation, as the sniffier commentators tended to call it, was perhaps a substitute way of trying to achieve. Best was now desperately scrambling from one starlet or bottle to another, in a grotesque parody of winning more and more matches.

Throwing up his football career, even if it was getting difficult to carry it on, could be seen in one sense as a courageous rejection of the success ethic. It was a recognition, however bleary-eyed, that life was not a matter of goals, in every sense of the word. Best was now free to enjoy himself, not live as some kind of self-entrepreneur. In another sense, the frenetic high living was a shadow of exactly that. The emptiness of desire replaced the hollowness of achievement. For both ways of life, the present is fairly valueless. It is just a bridge to the future, which will turn out to be just the same. How Best might genuinely have enjoyed himself would have been by carrying on playing football. It would not have been pleasant all the time, and there would no doubt have been times when he felt discontent; but it would have been how he could best thrive. Playing football would have been the moral thing to do.

Perhaps what helped to bring Best down was the fact that he was not able to play football just for its own sake. No footballer can, in a sports industry which is about shareholders rather than players, artistry or spectators. It would be like a hard-pressed commercial designer imagining that he could live like Michelangelo. To live a really fulfilling life, we have to be allowed to do what we do just for the sake of it. Best was no longer able to play just for the delight of it, and turned instead from delight to pleasure. His hedonism was just the other side of the instrumentalism he chafed at.

The point about human nature is that it does not have a goal. In this, it is no different from any other animal nature. There is no point to being a Badger. Being a Giraffe does not get you anywhere. It is just a matter of doing you Giraffe-like things for the sake of it. Because, however, human beings are by nature historical creatures, we look as though we are going somewhere –so that it is easy to misread this movement in teleological terms and forget that it is all for its own sake. Nature is a bottom-line concept: you cannot ask why a Giraffe should do the things it does. To say ‘It belongs to its nature’ is answer enough. You cannot cut deeper than that. In the same way, you cannot ask why people should want to feel happy and fulfilled. It would be like asking what someone hoped to achieve by falling in love. Happiness is not a means to an end.

If someone asks you why you do not want to die, you might reply that you have a trilogy of novels to finish, or grandchildren to watch growing up, or that a shroud would clash horribly with the colour of your fingernails. But it would surely be answer enough to say that you wanted to live. There is no need to specify particular goals. Living is enough reason itself. There are certainly some people who would be better off dead; but those that would not do not need a reason for carrying on. It is as superfluous to explain why you want to live as it is to explain why you don’t enjoy being nuzzled all over by buzzards. The only problem is that something which is or should be valuable in itself, like living, does not seem to need to end. Since it is not instrumental for something else, there is no point at which we can say its function is fulfilled and its purpose over. This is one reason why death is always bound to appear arbitrary. Only a life which has realised itself completely could seem undamaged by it. And as long as we are alive, there is always more self-realisation where that came from.

The idea of fulfilling you nature is inimical to the capitalist success ethic. Everything in capitalist society must have its point and purpose. If you act well, then you expect a reward. For Aristotle,  by contrast, acting well was a reward in itself. You no more expect a reward for it than you did for enjoying a delectable meal or taking an early morning swim. It is not as though the reward for virtue is happiness; being virtuous is to be happy. It is to enjoy the deep sort of happiness which comes from fulfilling your nature."


From After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Penguin (26 Aug 2004)
  • ISBN-10: 0141015071
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141015071