Thursday, April 13, 2006

Week 11, Mill, Ruskin, and Arnold

Notes on John Stuart Mill


1166. “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” In the beginning, Mill pursued a vague, general object -- reform, the happiness of others. I like the following passage: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And of course the answer is no. The negation here is similar to the effect of Carlyle’s steam-engine universe rolling over a person’s inner being. Mill says that he had nothing left to live for when he heard this “Everlasting No,” and he must have felt that he had lived as an automaton. His foundation for personal happiness was only an abstraction, what Francis Bacon would call a philosophical cobweb. It was a utopian vision based on a mechanical view of human nature.

1167. “My course of study had led me to believe that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another... through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience.” James Mill had taught his son that the goal of education was “to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it.” James Mill followed a scientific model of the individual, and utilitarian education presupposes that character develops along the lines of mechanical association. If you identify your personal happiness with the general good, the idea goes, so long as you are working towards the general good you will be happy. But this is no better than middle-class conformity. It is not the way lasting human connections are made; it requires a shallow, flattened notion of human happiness and individuality.

1168. “Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling.” It was not so much what Mill read but how he was taught to read it. The word analysis can mean “freeing up” the object of study, but that is not usually how we understand the term. The ordinary understanding is closer to the one Wordsworth condemns -- “We murder to dissect.” Bring up the famous definition of a horse in Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times: “graminiverous quadruped.” The young John Stuart Mill seems to have been a victim of “dissociation of sensibility.” Helping other people is not a bad object, but you must first determine the grounds of human connection -- they are organic, not mechanical. You cannot superimpose upon the passions a scientific utopian scheme.

1169. “I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Memoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them....” Spontaneous emotion proves to be the key to his recovery. Mill describes a Wordsworthian moment in the form of an accidental encounter with a literary text, an autobiographical text written by Marmontel. This accidental encounter escapes Bentham’s and James Mill’s scheme concerning the formation of salutary associations. So the example is a rebuke of straightforward Benthamite utilitarianism-- the young Marmontel made a key emotional bond with others, forgetting himself for the moment. What we find described is not a mechanical “I ought” but a genuine outpouring of sympathy. Mill says that after reading this passage, he never again reached the depths of depression he formerly experienced.

1170. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it...” happiness is still the goal here, but it is not to be directly pursued. The point is to stop analyzing happiness and start working on something you find meaningful for its own sake. It is best not to think of everything you say and do in light of ultimate purposes or end-states of consciousness. Mill has learned to ask Walter Pater’s question -- “what is this activity or thing or person to me?” It is not good enough to pursue some abstract notion of the general good and to claim that you are achieving an equally abstract kind of happiness by doing so; the activity must be meaningful to you personally prior to the attachment of any such abstract notion. Mill has not rejected the idea that happiness flows from activity, but it makes all the difference in the world whether that activity is do-gooding or intrinsically and intimately valuable to the person pursuing it. For example, if I have an inclination to tinker with computers, building them from scratch and solving whatever problems come up as I do so, I may by such means become happy, at least for a while. The same goes for things like reading a Jane Austen novel -- you don’t sit down to read thinking, “my goal in reading this book is to be happy.” If you did, you would become morbidly prone to checking your emotional state every other sentence to register your level of happiness or unhappiness. This kind of obsession resembles both heavy Puritan examination of the state of one’s soul and the associational theory of happiness promoted by Mill’s father and his tutor Jeremy Bentham. It is best to allow your consciousness to be directed towards an object other than your own interior states.

This is profoundly good advice, but if we want to criticize it, we might say that it is an evasion of romantic troubles concerning the problem of desire. It is this problem that caused Carlyle to reject happiness altogether in favor of self-annihilation leading to meaningfulness, awe, and collective belonging. Don’t we invariably reflect back upon our states of consciousness, whether we mean to or not? And if we cannot avoid doing so, the kind of happiness Mill describes will not satisfy us for long -- human beings even get tired of being happy after a while.

In any case, on the same page Mill emphasizes the need for balancing the sway of our faculties -- feelings and intellection are both important: “I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities... The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to me of primary importance.” A many-sided personality needs many-sided experiences to develop and be free. Feeling is not mechanical, not associational. The self is not an isolated atom but rather an organic construct. Happiness comes from pursuing intrinsically meaningful activities and from allowing “passive susceptibilities” to operate freely. By this term, I believe Mill means self-culture, the patient development of our individual potential until we achieve a balanced, harmonious self.

1171. Mill reiterates the point he made earlier about basic utilitarianism’s unbalanced, mechanical view of human nature -- simply rendering people “free and in a state of physical comfort” and removing all hardships from life really would not make a community happy. Then he goes on to discuss Wordsworth’s significance for him: “This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life.”

1172. “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind.” Wordsworth teaches John Stuart Mill the true sources of happiness, and shows him the value of contemplation, of “wise passiveness” as a corrective for the analytic habit, which in modern times has reached the level of an obsession.

My Lecture Notes on Mill

Mill is criticizing some of the flaws in utilitarianism to save that philosophy from itself. Utilitarianism is the corollary of C19 market economics, so that’s the first thing to discuss. We know the basics: the philosophers of capitalism, going back to Adam Smith and beyond, say something like the following: Rather than try to centralize a nation’s economy, the rulers should allow ordinary people to exercise their own initiative in producing, selling, and buying the material things that improve their standard of living. The less interference there is—consonant with preventing monopoly—the faster the people’s standard of living will improve. Supply and demand regulate the social order—people will buy what they want, and there will be someone to sell it to them at the right price, thanks to competition.

Let’s give the theory its due. In Smith’s formulation, capitalism is an Enlightenment-based, optimistic way of viewing human affairs: the market will harness otherwise selfish desires for gain and pleasure, and, as by an Invisible Hand, arrange human affairs in the best and fairest possible way. You don’t need the King to do it for you—your own desires and choices will bring order from chaos. Maybe we can’t change our nature and become angels, but that need not keep us from producing and consuming our way to a free and equitable society. And we will have done it by our own efforts, not like immature dependents on the will of some god or monarch. Kant said that Enlightenment consisted in humanity’s growing up and taking responsibility for its affairs; that’s what Smith wants us to do.

In addition to helping us achieve the age-old dream of “the good life” in material terms, capitalism is admirable in creating a space where all the ancient prejudices no longer tyrannize over us, or cause us to tyrannize over others. Consider how apt a given society is to mistreat the few or the disadvantaged, to discriminate against people because they don’t look like the majority, behave like the majority in certain matters, share the same religion or even quite the same strand of a religion, and so forth. Capitalism doesn’t care about anything like that—if you walk into a big department store, the merchant only wants to serve you, deliver a product, and get some of your green money in return. It doesn’t matter what color you are, whether you’re straight or gay, whether you’re a Christian, Jew, Moslem, Hindu, or Buddhist. Everybody’s money looks and talks the same. At least in theory, a capitalist system should be absolutely amoral. (That is, so long as fanatics and ignoramuses don’t import their extra-system values into the market and use the market to enforce those values, as in “we don’t serve ‘coloreds’ in this here diner.” Inherited wealth is another possible problem—it promotes something like the principle of aristocracy by birth.) Money flattens out a lot other “values” to a single quantitative standard—it liberates us from belief systems long used to treat others unjustly and strip them of their freedom. In this way, capitalism is as dynamic and revolutionary in the moral sphere as it is in the material realm of production.

Utilitarianism, which Ruskin despises and Carlyle disdainfully calls “Benthamee Radicalism,” is the corollary of market economics. Utilitarianism agrees with Adam Smith’s capitalists that individual choice-making and pursuit of happiness leads to social harmony, which Benthamees call “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” It’s a philosophy for a society of individuals who produce and consume commodities for one another, gaining their happiness in large part through the satisfaction of desires for comfort, sensory stimulation, and so forth.

Further, in its promotion of self-gratification, utilitarian philosophy further legitimizes capitalism’s deep indebtedness to the realm of desire as the source of social order and progress. Why? Well, we can probably agree with Carlyle that even the humblest nobody—the shoeblack, for instance—in the social order just keeps on conceiving one desire after another right up to his dying breath. The brilliant thing about market economics is that it generates not only objects to satisfy basic desires, it generates or “manufactures” new desires at a really stunning pace. We in our so-called post-industrial, service-based, new-age, information-superhighway (use your own phrase) society and economy know this even better than Marx. It’s evident in the realm of fashion, which recycles old desires in new and exciting packages, or even comes up with altogether new desires, which we either indulge as “wants” knowingly, or mistake for absolute needs. Capitalism thrives upon turning what we want into what we need, or think we need. The whole system is based upon desire for gratification of one sort or another—if we all became ascetics and decided to avoid everything not directly related to our survival and lcd comfort, capitalism would collapse instantly. People made fun of Bush 41 as “King George” when he said people should fix the recession by “just buying something,” but in a sense his majesty had it about right. “O reason not the need!” as another famous king said….Or if you don’t like 41 or King Lear, how about Oscar Wilde? “It’s only the superficial things in life that matter—man’s deeper nature is soon found out.” In this view, life is all about how many ever-so-slightly different shades of peach lipstick you currently own, how many unnecessary creature comforts, what the tail fins on your car look like, what color your hair is this week, and so forth.

No wonder we worship Hollywood actors and sports stars. And no wonder sex (that multifarious set of practices that we decadent westerners especially engage in mostly for fun) is the vehicle that drives advertising—it’s only slightly glib to say that advertisers sell sex even more than they sell particular products. Convince someone that he or she will “get more” by using a certain toothpaste or buying a certain car or cell phone, and profits flow.

Well, Utilitarianism is the philosophical handmaid of capitalism’s egalitarianism and choice-maximizing. People make fun of Bentham for being a one-dimensional man and for saying that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” But that’s his genius: he refuses to go beyond mechanistic formulae and paeans to quantitative pleasure because he’s convinced that it’s none of his business what you’re up to so long as you don’t harm anyone else. Pleasure is pleasure. Some people like opera; others like world wrestling federation matches. Some like both. So what? Who is to judge “quality” here, without either an elite few tyrannizing over the majority of lowbrow pleasure-seekers, or the lowbrows tyrannizing over the high-cultures? The best society, for the utilitarian, can be arrived at by the operation of the market: lots of happy people possessing and doing things that make them as happy as possible, and not trying to prevent others from achieving the same goals.

As for politics, capitalism and democracy are said to go well together: the “rational consumer” model of subjectivity, with its utilitarian imperative of pleasure, posits exactly the kind of bourgeois, self-interested individual who demands the democratic right to have a say in the way the country is governed. A society based upon the production and consumption of gratifying objects requires maximum freedom to make choices about which objects gratify one. Coercion is, simply put, bad for business! Also, markets need the kind of “stable dynamism” that comes with long faith in the democratic process: you can’t fulfill your needs consistently under a Stalin or Hitler, even if they provide “order” of a static sort. Authoritarians tend to deemphasize the pursuit of pleasure and push the idea instead that we must work like slaves towards some allegedly higher goal, generally an abstraction like “the people’s good,” which sometimes, though not always, translates into a vile particular like “the ruler’s bank account.” (Generally, authoritarians preach self-annihilation, or rather they channel the individual’s unconscious and “libidinal” desires to belong to something larger than themselves—the Reich, Pol Pot’s agrarian utopia, whatever.)

Briefly, Marx’s critique of all this optimism about the market is as follows:

The human relation to commodities is “fetishism”—we produce material objects and invest the objects themselves with value, eliding the fact that human labor makes them valuable. When you make a fetish or totem object, you worship it and let it determine what you do and think because it somehow contains the power of dead ancestors, etc. So the commodity becomes the determining power in human life, and humanity is reduced to a bunch of little cogs in the great machine that produces commodities. The capitalist sees humanity in abstract and mechanical terms—we are merely production-units, and the things produced come “alive.” In this way, any pleasure we get from objects is purely incidental: the system exists to perpetuate and augment itself; it really doesn’t serve humanity’s needs in any but the most superficial way.

Marx’s view follows Hegel: we produce our humanity and our world through the labor we perform. As Carlyle and Ruskin would say, work is what binds us together into a community, and what gives us our sense of dignity as human beings. But under capitalism, work is not even something we want to do—the circulation of commodities is all that matters, and ordinary people remain profoundly alienated from the labor they perform and from the results of it. It is meaningless or worse, and keeps them from becoming fully human. Further, the system by no means creates equality: those who own the means of production have all the capital, and they hire the workers’ labor on very unfair terms, paying them about as much as it takes just to stay alive and bury their troubles in drunkenness. Indeed, the vision of utopia is cruel in that the ordinary man and woman see the great wealth they’ve helped to produce all around them, but they can’t share in the benefits. The coal miner heats the rich man’s home, but shivers in his own hovel when the winter comes. Immoral! Unfair! Class inequity in its most unsustainable and vicious form. And capitalist “free-market” ideology sanctions it all with pious hypocrisy, declaring that the losers deserve exactly what they’re getting, while the self-righteous winners enjoy the fruits of others’ labor.

Well, Mill offers his own criticism of Utilitarianism—he focuses on what he perceives as the inadequacy of the assumptions made by Bentham and his father James Mill concerning human nature. He demonstrates the effects of his semi-mechanical, if benignly administered, education. The result is a nervous breakdown and deep reexamination of the basis of human happiness. Happiness is still the aim of life, but the issue of quality now becomes vital. And along with it, of course, comes the whole issue of who gets to decide on quality. Who will tell us when we’re attaining the right kind of happiness by the right means? Evidently Bentham and James Mill were not setting forth a tenable path for their protégé. But Mill doesn’t have easy answers about how progress is to be made—certainly, as he points out in On Liberty, we don’t want the vulgar middle class to become absolute in their opinions, as they’re threatening to do. Neither do we want political authoritarianism. The best Mill can offer is the notion that “those who stand on the higher eminences of thought” might prove to be the agents of improvement and change. This is still a deep problem for us today—to what extent are we right to be dissatisfied with our culture and expressions of unenlightened political will? Who decides value? Is there any authority principle higher than “the people and their desires and tastes”? Does a society need to have a sense of direction, or is that actually a mistaken demand? But doesn’t a society tend to ratify its majoritarian values as the only possible ones, and insist that its directionality flows from such values? So then we would need critics to break up what Mill calls “the hostile and dreaded censorship” imposed by the middle-class bourgeois majority. He’s responding to the fact that just as monopoly is a dangerous tendency in capitalist economics, so is cultural monopoly a threat when one group begins to dominate the production and consumption of culture.

Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, “The Nature of Gothic.”

The Renaissance in Venice should serve as a warning to the British Empire: just as that sea empire fell because of its debased pursuit of wealth and soulless perfection, so will England if it continues on its current path.

Ruskin is a prophetic Sage-writer who alternately threatens damnation and promises redemption.

Gothic architecture expresses the workers’ mental tendencies. “Fallen” but humble laborers built cathedrals. The products of their labor served as expressive offerings to god and dwelling places for him as well as gathering places for the faithful who are the invisible Church, spiritual community. So this is labor directed towards the achievement of spiritual community.

Renaissance authors and critics such as Vasari condemned the Gothic as naïve and crude, stern and contemptible. But wildness is to be honored if it expresses spiritual striving. The fool sees not the same Church as the wise man sees, we might say after the manner of Blake. The Renaissance critics couldn’t see spiritual ramifications of labor; they gave in to the lust and over-refinement of the eye, which is to become blind.

Renaissance pride in perfection, then, is selfish—their buildings are not offerings to god but monuments to the architects’ and patrons’ egos. The Renaissance amounts to a Second Fall that tries to overcome by science and technological perfection the effects of the First Fall. Venice the sea-empire fell because of its pridefulness and greedy commercialism. England, too is promoting sensualism, mechanism, false individualism cut off from relation to God. It puts its hopes not in the New Jerusalem but in a false Capitalist Utopia.

Servile Ornament: worker is slave performing to low standards.

Constitutional Ornament: medieval worker free; imperfect striving in labor honors God.

Revolutionary Ornament: Pride reigns in Renaissance art: workers must all be experts in minor tasks. Modern version of this is industrial division of labor—bead-makers, etc. The English seek Greek perfection by means of machinery; this necessarily tends towards Renaissance revolutionary debasement. Important to say tends because there’s still time to repent.

Christianity values the individual soul; imperfect labor is an admission of one’s fallen condition, and valuing it shows right-minded criticism and a pure eye for expressions of spiritual striving. It shows that one’s priorities are straight: spirit before material perfection.

Perfect work is limited, and it indicates complacency. The flaws in a fine, imperfect thing link it to infinity. This is similar to romanticism and Christian theology: a fragment is greater than the limited, finite whole because fragment indicates striving and progress upward. Man is a fragment of the Divine. Ruskin as a Christian emphasizes not Byronic attempt at self-transcendence but humility. Acknowledge your imperfections and express yourself through the medium of that imperfection. This is humility towards God.

The body and the works of the body are finite; art/architecture are of value only insofar as they express the soul’s striving to break free, while still accepting that it cannot entirely do so. Mention Hegelian hierarchy of art, with music highest because most free of matter.

Clouds: reference to Turner. Clouds at once veil and bear the sun’s divine radiance. The worker’s failure, his limits (clouds), show his spiritual value. Clouds of any sort must be read, understood as semi-translucent markers of boundary between finite and infinite.

Class and hierarchy are not, for R, the cause of chaos and Mammonism. Neither even is distribution of wealth. The problem is lack of satisfaction in grossly material work in the service of a grossly materialistic society. Similar to Marx on alienation, dehumanization.

R says division of labor is division of human beings. R is not interested in accumulation or scientific progress; he largely rejects the whole Baconian empirical view of science as a handmaiden to humble amelioration of the human condition.

Social solution is to encourage invention, not finish or imitation. Our attitude towards consumption must change; supply will adapt itself to more spiritualized demands on the part of consumers. Example: glass bead manufacture is slavery / opposed to imperfect Venetian glass.

Work is the main human activity and source of value. Work must acknowledge imperfection; allow for expression of worker’s spirit, striving to please God. Work is an offering, a sacrifice, the law of fallen life.

It took a healthier society to make Venetian glass. The way glass is made shows how a society is functioning, what its priorities are. Venetian artisan infused his work with imagination; the modern worker is one tool among others. Thought and labor should not be separated, or else unhealthy class divisions become entrenched, antagonism rather than communal spirit animating noble hierarchy. Refer to Adam Smith on division of labor applying even to intellection.

Foxglove / Human Nature: Always passing from one state to another. Read typologically: law of fallen life is change, imperfection, striving. Christian teleology of the figure: decay > bud > bloom. Humans are always oriented towards the spiritual future. One’s works are “blooms,” indicators of healthy spiritual progress. The foxglove is an imperfect-seeming, rude plant that nevertheless is prized for its beauty.

No human work is perfect to god’s eyes. The effort, the attitude of the offering, elicits mercy. Recall the Cain/Abel story. Work must be imperfect to acknowledge that the human condition is imperfect.

Ruskin’s stress on imperfection / incompleteness is a critique of capitalist utopia and Marxist utopia alike. He favors REDUNDANCY (a law of his style, too) against philosophies of production and material abundance. Not accumulation of money but accumulation of detail (organized or not) is the goal. “There is no wealth but life.”

Architecture is a romantic expressive poem for an entire people. The Gothic is the product of “the average power of man.” Gothic’s changefulness expresses one truth about humankind: desire of change; it’s what supposedly sets us beyond animal nature. Imperfection is the other truth. Humans are spiritual, restless, incomplete.

Ruskin’s tradition is romantic expressivism—see Shelley’s “To a Skylark” and theory of poetic creation, which itself traces its notions back to biblical expressivism: work as expressive of spirit, an offering to god. R is almost utilitarian, oddly, in his emphasis on an economy of redundancy and richness: at least, the aim is pleasure.


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