For and Against Machines: Beyond the New Jetsonism

It is with Peter Frase’s “techno-skeptic vs. techno-utopian dichotomy” in mind that I want to revisit the futurist current that has recently resurfaced on the “new new left” and which was the subject of the debate I excerpted in my initial blog post. We might see one ostentatious example of this tendency in Aaron Bastani’s “fully automated luxury communism” (FALC). Faced with the threat of a jobless future, Bastani proposes the automation of everything plus “Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses and Chloe for all." As an admittedly utopian critic notes, one problem (among many) with this proposal is that Bastani puts “too much faith in capitalist technology overcoming scarcity and the need for labour,” while he “fails to imagine a more general transformation of social relations." I labeled this tendency, and its putative opposite, the Jetsons vs. the Flintstones.

The Jetsons (like the Flintstones, their Stone Age counterparts) were products of a cold war United States very much invested in the possibility of capitalist technology, or the ideological promise of consumerist abundance for all. Although the Jetsons have flying cars and mechanical servants, 1960s-era children still saw in this family of the future the same social relations with which they were familiar: paterfamilias George, pampered housewife Jane, children Judy and Elroy, and their robot maid, Rosie. Apparently 2062 is 1962 with pills for food. The Jetsons were indistinguishable from the Flintstones save for the costumes and the gadgetry, reinforcing the idea that while technical progress is potentially limitless, capitalist social relations are immutable. The new futurism—which differs from a more theoretically-inflected and often defiantly antihumanist accelerationism, despite sharing many of its goals—could in many respects be described as Jetsonism: a Fordist idyll.

We can see this tendency in Rachel Laudan’s plea for “culinary modernism.” Laudan juxtaposes modern industrial food with the artisanal and organic “Luddism” supposedly exemplified by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who, despite their status as modern (if romantic) critics of the American food system, are taken to task for their historical inaccuracies. Invented traditions aside, Laudan lets us know that the past and its benighted eating habits were in fact a terrible thing.

More to the point is Miya Tokumitsu’s “defense of machines.” In “Why We Should Listen to Frank Lloyd Wright,” Tokumitsu takes up the cudgel for industrial production against the “‘artisanal,’ ‘small batch,’ ‘heirloom,’ and ‘bespoke.’” As the title indicates, the article pivots on architect Wright’s criticism of William Morris, the nineteenth-century utopian socialist, who championed a revived artisanal work ethos in opposition to the degrading and degraded condition of labor under the factory system in late Victorian England. She reminds us how “according to Wright, artists understandably saw the Machine as a threat, an assault on the 'handicraft ideal.' But Wright argued that this ideal had outlived its usefulness. Rather than lament the obsolescence of the handicraft ideal, we should embrace the fact that there is no longer a need for fussy joining and tinkering. Indeed, the Machine could be instrumental in "saving the most precious thing in the world—human effort.”

Tokumitsu in this way argues that machines—and, by extension, industrial production techniques—have liberated us from “needless toil,” while the obsession with “the artisanal production of yesteryear” ignores “the widespread racial, gender, and class oppression that it entailed.” Tokumitsu builds on Laudan’s analysis of present-day “culinary Luddites”—who are blinded by a combination of class privilege and a backward-looking romanticism—to extol the labor-saving wonders of modern technology. That these same labor-saving machines have also enabled employers to exploit, discipline, and monitor their workers in ways unimaginable to the nineteenth-century capitalist, while intensifying the “widespread racial, gender, and class oppression” supposedly ignored by the urban gardener in the act of growing her tomatoes, goes unremarked.

To her credit, toward the close of her article, Tokumitsu acknowledges as much: “And still, the Machine’s liberatory potential remains untapped. It persists as a tool of enslavement, increasing rather than decreasing our workloads by facilitating speedups and allowing professional communication to infiltrate our domestic space.”

In other words, Tokumitsu relies on the productivist reading of Marx alluded to in a previous post, as she waits for the day when forces will be unfettered from relations of production. Yet, with her telling caveat, we learn that Tokumitsu’s version of technological modernity is as selective in its treatment of “the Machine” as her artisanal opponents' alleged mis-appropriation of the past and its traditions. Although we might see in the artisanal phenomenon a deliberate repurposing of the past for decidedly modern ends, much like Laudan and our other Jetsons, Tokumitsu can only discern in these aesthetic engagements with tradition a dangerous “nostalgia” that threatens to undermine the present. At the same time, the “liberatory potential of the Machine remains untapped” under current, capitalist, conditions. It is only from the vantage point of a hypothetical technosocialist future—like news from nowhere—that today’s capitalist machines (or rather their potentials) are redeemed retroactively. What we have here is indeed a futurist aesthetic posture, and a nostalgic one at that.

Rather than reduce every romantic recreation of tradition to some atavistic longing in need of factual correction, we might instead keep William Morris’s words in defense of his own medievalism in mind: “To those who have the hearts to understand, this tale of the past is a parable of the days to come” (Morris, "Art and Socialism," quoted in Kristen Ross, Communal Luxury, 75). For Kristen Ross, a parable, in Morris’s sense, “is not about going backwards or reversing time but about opening it up,” in order to “recruit past hopes to serve present needs” while providing “clues to the free forms of a whole new economic life in the future” (Ross, 75).

And what is this artisanal movement that Tokumitsu bashes throughout her article? If her adjectives (e.g., “heirloom,” “small batch") are too oblique, the subsequent references to Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table, Portlandia, and “contemporary markets for mustache wax and obscure herbaceous liquors” should clue you in. Tokumitsu’s tongue-in-cheek hipster bashing highlights the extent to which present day evocations of the artisanal aren’t expressions of a movement—much less a concerted effort to undo industrial civilization—but a set of niche-branding strategies for luxury goods. She makes her initially tacit critique explicit at several points throughout the article. These include references to one luxury condo developer’s handicraft-oriented advertising copy, the unaffordability of high-priced fair trade goods, and the ostensibly “neoliberal values of individualism and social atomization” that Tokumitsu counterintuitively aligns with “the handicraft ideal,” exemplified in the work of Morris.

For Tokumitsu, while the existence of this artisanal capitalism undercuts our artisans' claims to countercultural status or utopian possibility, we are also told to embrace the emancipatory potential of the Machine, despite its currently being a specifically capitalist “tool of enslavement.”

As Tokumitsu admits at one point in her essay, to the extent that the “artisanal” is a thing outside of advertising, it is a DIY hobby. Tokumitsu’s description of this subculture is a mélange of present-day cultural stereotypes whose only common denominator is sucking. Our new artisans are Portlandia-style eco-hippies and haute bourgeois consumers who seek to allay their liberal guilt through ethical consumption habits. Yet we are also told that the “DIY culture of craft is strong on the libertarian right, taking form in home-butchered meat and the construction of bunkers and local militias.” While this sounds more like survivalism than libertarianism, on closer inspection we might find that techno-utopianism is the preferred flavor of the libertarian right.

Like the “hipster," the figure of the “artisanal” yokes disparate social and cultural phenomena into an all-purpose bogeyman that serves to displace any analysis of the structural dynamics—such as gentrication or increasingly precarious and, yes, alienated labor conditions—at play beneath the surface of these cultural and social conflicts.

Embedded within the parable of this artisanal hobby is a dream of emancipated work freely undertaken in a space beyond the compulsions of the market; in this dream, the worker controls every aspect of an aestheticized production process from start to finish. In a de-industrialized and increasingly de-professionalized U.S. labor market, the downwardly-mobile children of a fast-disappearing “middle class” more and more find themselves in contingent positions in which they perform what resembles piecemeal work, only in digital form. Above and beyond this particular group, most of our waking lives are spent in front of screens, on privately-owned social media platforms. Although a certain sort of accelerationist sees in this process the coming cyborg marriage of human and machine, our condition is better described as the Taylorization of everyday life. It is against this background that we should consider the sensuously material allure of craft work. And to the extent that our 24/7 regime of compulsive work-play-performance represents yet another neoliberal seizure of utopian desire—for the fusion of work and play, meaningful self-directed activity and leisure—the artisanal dream seeks to snatch them back by again imagining labor as art. Yet our present-day artisans are certainly no primitivists, combining as they often do a passion for craft beer and heirloom tomatoes with a compulsive desire to display what they’ve grown, brewed, and built on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.

We need only look to Morris’s own formulations to see that there is nothing innately individualist or “neoliberal” about the craft ethos. Morris was a late nineteenth-century example of the utopian romanticism inaugurated by William Godwin and his romantic interlocutors during the 1790s, although Morris's romanticism was arguably transformed by reports of the Paris Commune and his own experiences with communards in exile. Morris wanted “to extend the word art beyond those matters which are conscious works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colors of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to all the aspect of all externals of our life” (Morris, “Art Under Plutocracy,” quoted in Ross, 63).

In this way, Morris resembles the young Marx of the German Ideology, who notably describes his communist society of the future as one that “regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." Utopia, in this case, is decidedly artisanal or even Thoreauvian. Yet, we should note that Marx’s idyll relies on a “regulation of general production” that encompasses rational and technological means and methods that, in isolation, could be mistaken for a futurism. The artisanal freedom of Marx's communist dilettante depends on the "machine" of a centralized and advanced production process.

Tokumitsu borrows the “machine” synecdoche from Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright makes for an odd futurist. With his philosophy of “organic architecture,” Wright developed the modernist functionalism promoted by his teacher Louis Sullivan—who coined the phrase “form follows function”—in a decidedly romantic direction. For Wright, form and function are one, as they are in the natural world: “So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no ‘traditions’ essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but—instead—exalting the simple laws of common sense—or of super-sense if you prefer—determining form by way of the nature of materials” (Frank Lloyd Wright, An Organic Architecture, 1939).

In his effort to craft an alternative modernity, Wright is a forerunner of the present-day devotees of the artisanal and the organic. In a recognizably romantic fashion, Wright sought to overcome the division between “nature’ and “culture,” “the organic,” and the “artificial.” Rather than directly imitating natural forms, Wright proposed that architects incorporate “nature’s principles” in their use of materials and their overall design. Wright’s architecture fuses natural and industrial material, while his structures are integrated within the natural environments that this anti-urbanist preferred (consider Wright’s “Falling Water"). For Wright, the point was to showcase materials such as wood in their unvarnished or “natural” state.

We can see a prefiguration of the architect’s more mature philosophy in the early plea for "the Machine" that Tokumitsu uses to buttress her argument, when Wright argues, “William Morris pleaded well for simplicity as the basis of all true art. Let us understand the significance to art of that word—SIMPLICITY—for it is vital to the Art of the Machine.” The Machine is not an end in itself but a means to achieve that simplicity—defined here as fidelity to the nature of building materials—also advocated by Morris. Wright is an heir to the Arts and Crafts movement, even as he argues that the artisanal vision can only be achieved in the twentieth century with the industrial methods, materials, and techniques that were unavailable in the nineteenth; both Wright's organic modernism and Morris's Arts and Crafts movement are better described as later instances of what historian John Tresch calls "mechanical romanticism." Tresch excavates an alternative, and decidedly romantic, view of techne among certain European scientists, philosophers, and writers of the early to mid-nineteenth-century who combined rationalist futurism with a visionary ecology, as he writes: "usually studied as opposites, these exactly contemporary cultural formations—a return to a mythical past and faith in a rational future—intersected in the figure of the romantic machine: a concrete, rational, often utilitarian object that was nevertheless endowed with supernatural, charismatic powers" (Tresch, The Romantic Machine, 14). Wright, in this way, argues for exactly the kind of synthesis that is excluded by a dichotomy that pits those who are for machines against those who are against them.

How can we make sense of these seeming contradictions? In spite of the Jetsons’ insistence that theirs is a positivist outlook, despite their insistence that they traffic in the facts and just the facts, perhaps this line of argument is less about argument and more about signaling? In other words, what we have here is a branding exercise—against the backward looking and the incorrigibly crunchy—which is also an exercise in nostalgia for an earlier twentieth century modernism. According to the Jetsons' own implicit criteria, any selective engagement with the past is nostalgic mystification. The Jetsons' accelerationist fellow travellers are more forthright on this point when they announce at the very start of their manifesto that to "generate a new left global hegemony entails a recovery of lost possible futures, and indeed the recovery of the future as such" (Williams and Srniceck, The Accelerationist Reader, 351). As David Cunningham notes, "it is hard not to sense a 'mood' of nostalgia in contemporary acceleration for a moment when, for example, having put the first man in space and apparently achieved extraordinary rates of industrial growth, the 'alternative modernity' of the Soviet Union could appear as more modern than its capitalist foe."

If revolutionary programs are also, in Walter Benjamin's words, "a tiger's leap ino the past" the Jetsons should reconsider their dismissive characterizations of so-called "Luddites" and "artisanalists"—Flintstones all—in terms of a backward looking nostalgia, especially if these dismissals are made in the service of a nostalgic modernism. We on the left might instead recall Morris's parables and the value of usable traditions and alternative pasts in the construction of an alternative future.

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